Time for a Jewish Reformation
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For those of you unfamiliar with the conversation, by way of background, you should know that unlike the church-state divisions we have here in America, in Israel religious life is not only centralized in a Chief Rabbinate – in Hebrew, the rabbanut – but also sustained politically and financially by the state. While such a system may seem sensible to the extent that Israel is the singular Jewish state and should thus be governmentally supportive of nurturing Jewish life, the situation on the ground, as I will explain, has turned altogether toxic.
The story begins in 1947 before the state was even born, when in order to win ultra-Orthodox support, David Ben-Gurion entered into what is referred to as the “Status Quo Agreement,” in which he guaranteed that the Jewish state would take religious law into account on matters related to the Sabbath, dietary laws, marriage and personal status, and religious education. When the state was founded the following year, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion also agreed to defer military service to about 400 young men enrolled in yeshivot. Remember, this was right after the horrors of the Holocaust. It is not difficult to understand why Ben-Gurion was prompted to create limited exemptions for those whose profession was Torah – in Hebrew, torah omanuto.
As anyone who follows these questions knows, what has happened in the seventy years since is beyond what Ben-Gurion could have ever imagined. The status quo agreement has expanded to include a variety of de jure and de facto arrangements, including the question of “Who is a Jew?,” conversion to Judaism, military conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, the funding of religious education and religious life, oversight over kashrut, the observance of Shabbat in public space, marriage, divorce, burial, mikveh, gender separation in the public sphere, and the creation of a blacklist of rabbis that includes many of my colleagues (and probably, after this sermon is posted, me). To give one grating example affecting our community, I was informed last week that when we go on our December 2018 congregational trip to Israel, we cannot use the hotel ballroom for services. Why? Because the kashrut of the hotels is under the rabbanut, and men and women praying together there as we do here is strictly verboten. As American Jews, our focus is often directed at the Kotel, the Western Wall, and our efforts toward making this holiest site of our people accessible to the entire Jewish people, not just the ultra-Orthodox. But that battle, important as it is, is really just the canary in the coal mine. There are a multitude of causes and expressions of the growing divide between American Jewry and Israel. It is a divide that if not tended to will assuredly weaken the identity and security of both communities.
How did we get here? It is a complicated story. Coalition politics in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, is a tricky business. You need sixty to form a government, and because no major party is even close to that threshold, every government, left or right, is forced to make all sorts of concessions to the religious parties, as Ben-Gurion did, in order to maintain a ruling government. The secular parties are held hostage by the religious ones, who are granted the authority to run the table on all religious matters. The result is, as in the days of Luther, a corrupt, state-funded body that would arrogate to itself the authority to determine who is and isn’t a Jew and what is and isn’t Judaism. I actually have no idea what Netanyahu believes in his heart about mixed prayer at the Kotel or conversions to Judaism, though I am willing to guess that he doesn’t care very much. What he does care about is what all politicians care about: political survival. His betrayal of the Kotel agreement and his betrayal of the conversion deal are pragmatic political decisions resulting from his being beholden to an ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbi. (The previous one, incidentally, is currently sitting in jail on charges of fraud and corruption.)
At this point, you may be expecting that I will, Luther-like, call for the immediate dismantling of the rabbanut. The parallels are eerie, the sins so similar. The feelings of an American Jewry alienated by an arrogant and unseemly institution bringing shame upon all those bearing the name “Jew” would certainly justify dramatic calls for reform. In fact, there are some in our community who have taken me to task for not speaking up more often and more forcefully to express the rage of non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish community against a corrupt rabbanut. But before I do, which I promise I will, there are a few things that need to be said.
First and foremost, when picking battles, it is important to know that you are fighting the right fight. Dramatic as it may be for American Jewry to call the rabbanut to task, I am not entirely sure that it is the right, or only, target. The power of the rabbanut is made possible because Netanyahu is beholden to it, which is made possible by a dysfunctional Knesset system. Historically, there has only been one would-be Israeli Prime Minister who sacrificed her own political career so as not to give in to the extortionist demands of the ultra-Orthodox; that was Tzipi Livni in 2009. The power of the rabbanut is a symptom, not a cause; the systemic issue in need of being addressed is Knesset politics, or if you really want to get to the heart of the matter, an Israeli electorate that has enabled the status quo to persist.
Second, in this fight, as in any fight, confrontation is but one of many tactics. Those of us who really want change in Israel should not just fight the rabbanut, but also invest in those measures that nurture the sort of Jewish life that we would like to see flourish. We should plant seeds for non-Orthodox/Masorti communities, youth groups, summer camps, and gap-year programs to take hold. We should fund those organizations fighting for pluralistic expressions of Israeli Jewish life. When it comes to Israel, all our funding decisions should be preceded by the question of whether this or that organization supports a Jewish expression we practice and believe in. We should help actualize collaborations that introduce Israelis and American Jews to each other, in Israel, in America, and elsewhere. Calling for the dismantling of the chief rabbinate has drama, but there is a long game to be played here. There are seeds to be planted, and we in this community have a critical role to play in shaping that future. The stranglehold of the rabbanut will end when and only when Israelis themselves are fed up with it. As American Jews, we can, if we so choose, be key partners in bringing about that outcome.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am not so quick to call for the dismantling of the rabbanut because tempting as it is do so, I know, in my heart of hearts, that such a pronouncement does not serve to strengthen my Judaism of the Judaism of my community. You want to know why the rabbanut and, for that matter, many secular Israelis run roughshod over diaspora Jewry? Because they see us as a dying breed. They read the Pew reports, they hear the stories, they listen to our debates on intermarriage, and they believe that the writing is on the wall for us. If American Jewry wants to be taken seriously by Israel, we need to take ourselves seriously. As Vince Lombardi said, “The best defense is a good offense.” We can choose to spend our time and money fighting the rabbanut. We can also do what we and only we can do: invest in our own Judaism, build up our own community, and live lives as loving, literate, passion-filled Jews. American Jewry must not make the mistake of letting our skirmish with the rabbanut serve as a compensatory act for a paper-thin Jewish identity. You want to fight for the Jewish future? You want to build a bridge between the Jewish state and American Jewry? Then light Shabbat candles, invite friends over for Shabbat dinner, observe kashrut, sign up for a class, bring your children to shul every week, build our community! Do all these things, and then I promise that as an emboldened American Jewry, we will give the rabbanut a run for its money; we will give it something to worry about.
Do I want the chief rabbinate dismantled? Yes. Absolutely. No different than Luther’s time, there are institutions in need of reform, and the rabbanut is one of them. But when it comes to mending the relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israel, the tactics of confrontation must be employed judiciously and even then, be used in tandem with the tactics of collaboration. Ultimately, our future will be found in our ground game as day-to-day Jews, not in vociferous criticism of a corrupt institution thousands of miles away.
This week marks not just the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, but also the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the historic document envisioning the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people.” Neither in that moment, nor as the state was established in ’48, nor when Jerusalem was liberated in ’67, nor, for that matter, when the initial promise of the land was made to Abraham in this week’s Torah reading, was Israel intended to be a Jewish home for only a small slice of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. To live in a time in which the Jewish homeland is one of the only countries denying the right of all Jews to express their faith as they see fit is a bitterly ironic turn of events that none of our predecessors could have imagined. It is a state of affairs that as loving Jews and ardent Zionists we should not conscience. May we fight the good fight, the smart fight, and work together to bring about the shared future that we all so desperately deserve and desire.