The future of Judaism is at stake

The current crisis is important not only because of what happens at the Western Wall and the relations between Israel and American Jewry, but because the very nature of Judaism is being undermined.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The current crisis in relations between Israel and American Jewry arose from the two-pronged attack on various streams of Judaism at last Sunday’s cabinet meeting, the first aimed at two non-Orthodox streams, Conservative and Reform, “freezing” the creation of the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall as a permanent space for prayer, the second the new Conversion Bill which is aimed at moderate Orthodoxy in Israel as well, placing all control in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. Taken together they reveal the true cause for concern. It is not every day that the Israeli government manages to alienate so many Jews all at once, but it is not the alienation of American Jews alone which is at stake, which would be bad enough, but the very future of the Jewish religion that is threatened.
In its recent editorial (“We are family,” June 28), The Jerusalem Post gave the impression that the only ones hurt by this issue are American Jews and that this is basically a conflict between American and Israeli values. That is not the case. Israelis are affected by these issues and should be concerned for the future of Judaism in Israel as well. The editorial also mistakenly gave the impression both that Reform and Conservative Judaism are “accommodations” to modernity which were “the product of Diaspora living,” as if other approaches to Judaism were authentic and not accommodations. It further contended that the nature of Israel as a Jewish state automatically resulted in making Orthodoxy the correct “default position” in Israel. Is that really so?
In the first place, Jewish historians make it very clear that all versions of Judaism that exist today represent responses and accommodations to Jewish emancipation in one way or another. That includes Zionism and Jewish nationalism, the very foundations of Israel’s existence and the most successful of the secular responses to living as Jews in the modern world. It also includes today’s Orthodoxy, which was created in order to differentiate itself from Reform, as was Conservative Judaism. Even haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Hassidic Judaism, including Chabad, are modern “accommodations,” taking an extreme position to defend Judaism against enlightenment, a position that did not exist in normative Judaism before the modern age.
It may be that since the majority of Jews in Israel consider themselves secular rather than religious, they are not overly concerned with such matters as egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Nevertheless, all surveys show that a majority are in favor of religious pluralism in Israel and of taking conversion and marriage out of the exclusive control of the Chief Rabbinate. The control that the Orthodox – really the ultra-Orthodox – have over many of these matters comes not from the will of the majority of Israelis but from the unfortunate political system that gives these extreme groups power well beyond their numbers. If our political leaders really cared and had some courage, they could resist, but unfortunately that is not the case.
Because of its position as the only Jewish state and the location of the largest Jewish community in the world, what happens in Israel is critical to the future of Judaism and Jewish life everywhere. By giving monopolistic power to a Chief Rabbinate that is more ultra-Orthodox than moderate, and by denying the legitimacy of more liberal streams, including those within Orthodoxy itself, Israel is influencing the development of the Jewish religion. By giving in to these groups it is encouraging the image of Judaism as a regressive religion, one that rejects humanistic values and that strives for a theocracy in which individual rights are not important. Is this to be the future of Judaism?
It is true, as the Post editorial stated, that the two communities are drifting apart largely because Israel has become a bastion of right-wing politics while American Jewry has a progressive political agenda, but it is not true that Jewish nationalism must always be accompanied by right-wing politics. Until the rise of right-wing governments in Israel in the 1970s Jewish nationalism was expressed through left-wing governments that were no less committed to Jewish existence. Indeed it was these liberal parties that created the State of Israel. The choice we face is not between Jewish existence and liberal democracy, but between a Jewish state devoted to humanistic values and one that rejects them in favor of greater controls over freedom of thought and expression. The current government continually strives to make us believe that anyone who does not agree with it is not devoted to Zionism and to Judaism. This is unacceptable and untrue.
The current crisis is important, then, not only because of what happens at the Western Wall and the relations between Israel and American Jewry, but because the very nature of Judaism is being undermined. Unless the government of Israel frees itself from the dictates of the most extreme religious groups and recognizes the legitimacy of a variety of approaches to Judaism the future of Judaism as a dynamic religion, relevant to the needs of today and capable of sustaining the Jewish People wherever it may be found, the Jewish future is in grave danger. That should be the concern of all of us, Americans and Israelis alike.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly. The views expressed are his own.