A Speech About Pluralism in Israel (August 2008)

This is a speech I delivered to our congregation in August, 2008,  following my first trip to Israel in June of this year. As many of my relatives and friends know, I have been very ambivalent about the state of Israel and had approached this trip with much anxiety. I realized that Israel posed many questions about my identity, and I was afraid of the answers: Either I wasn’t Jewish enough or I was so Jewish that I wouldn’t be able to live a full Jewish life anywhere but Jerusalem. I am, after all, a bit all-or-nothing in temperament. Instead, I came home feeling as if I had discovered a new land of kindred spirits and exotically familiar landscapes. Best of all, I saw ‘my tribe’ wrestling with profound issues in ways that made sense to me. Thus, my attachment to the fight for religious pluralism in Israel; I believe that it is a worthwhile fight that will lead to sanity and honor in other conflicts in that region. I hope you enjoy reading the speech, and feel free to respond. Also pass it on if you like.

Before I begin, I have to thank several folks who helped me with this speech. I had a great deal to learn and untangle and clarify, not to mention to compose into something I hope is intelligible. So, thank you to Rabbi John Friedman and Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, Matt Diamond (who runs Community Midrasha), Stacy Lubov (our Education Director), and my traveling buddies of great wisdom and compassion who reviewed my speech several times – Randy Meacham, Mark Hainline, and Lee and Bruce Vrana.

I learned so much putting this together. Like reading Torah and teaching Religious School, there’s nothing like having to do something in public to open your eyes and steady your feet.

With that said, do this for me: Open your eyes. Look around you. You see all these people sitting around you? Most of these people are Jewish. But what makes them Jewish? What makes you Jewish? Some of you have Jewish parents. Some of you don’t. Some of you learned the Sh’ma as children. Some of you learned the Apostle’s Creed. Are your spouses Jewish? Mine isn’t. Is your sweetheart the same gender as you? Mine isn’t. Do you keep kosher? I don’t. What’s your quota of enough Shabbat services each year?

We all got here on different paths, but we’re all here, tonight, to worship as Jews or with Jews – in spite of and because of and regardless of our histories and backgrounds.

We attach ourselves to the Jewish people  and align ourselves with the Jewish value of reverence for, and partnership with, something larger than ourselves, for the sake of the world.

Israel is populated with an equally varied collection of Jews – secular and religious; Ashkenazic and Sephardic; born Jewish or converted; hawk or dove; straight, narrow, and leaning every which way.

And about 80 percent of the population reports that they are comfortable with that diversity. So how does the State of Israel find itself approving and, at times, enforcing, such rigid laws as these:

  • Only conversions performed by Orthodox Rabbis, approved by the rabbinic courts in Israel, are acceptable conversions for the purpose of marriage and many other life-cycle observances.
  • To get married in Israel, Jews must apply to the Orthodox Rabbinate which can, and has, challenged Jews to to prove they are Jewish by providing documentation of ancestry or evidence of acceptable conversion to Judaism.
  • Women are prohibited, by law, to pray in groups, touch a Torah scroll, or wear religious garments at the Western Wall.
  • There are no provisions for Reform Jewish weddings in Israel, nor Reform Jewish burials, nor Reform Jewish conversions.
  • The same is true for the Conservative movement and other groups.

And it’s not just individual rights that are affected. Simple things like funding come into play. It was in May of this year (2008) that the FIRST government funded synagogue  of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism was opened in the State of Israel. Located in Modi’in, a city partway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Kehillah Yozma represents a victory for Israel’s equivalent of our Reform movement.

This may not sound like much to you, but Orthodox synagogues and religious institutions are routinely funded by the government. Government funding for Jewish institutions is part of what it means to be a Jewish state. The Yozma synagogue was built by virtue of an out-of-court settlement struck in 2005.  before the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party was able to garner its current power in the government. Now, it looks unlikely that future requests for similar government funding will end so well.

In short, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is the effective established religion in Israel, which means its officials measure your Jewishness by Ultra-Orthodox standards.

I know, I know, you thought Judaism, anything-but-plain and not-so-simple old Judaism,  was the established religion of the State of Israel; but life in Israel suggests otherwise.

As does life here because many of us would not qualify for the rights and privileges of religious Jews in Israel. Many of us would not be granted a Jewish wedding or burial. None of our rabbis in the Durham-Chapel Hill area are approved to perform a conversion that would qualify Jews-by-choice for those rights;
and many of us who were born Jews may not have valid documents to prove our heritage. (I’ve been looking for my Keeper of the Sabbath award certificate for attending 18 Shabbat’s in one year when I was 14 years old—I spent a lot of those Shabbats pining over my first love and sneaking out for French Fries at the Char Grill next door, but at least the certificate says I was part of a Jewish congregation.) Even if we do have the proper documents, we suffer the stinging suggestion that we are not practicing Judaism correctly  since we break all manner of halakhic ordinances every day.

I don’t know about you – she said, preparing for the understatement of the century – but this leaves me a little farmischt.

Especially because the Haredi movement, an ultra-orthodox wing of Judaism, has disproportionate influence in the Israeli government,and especially in the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Haredi population and other ultra-orthodox groups constitute fewer than 20 percent of Israel’s population, yet, somehow, its leaders are empowered to determine whether or not the other 80 percent qualify for a Jewish marriage, whether or not rabbis among the other 80 percent are authorized to perform conversions, and what constitutes valid Judaism – not to mention weighing in heavily on education and civil rights issues.

Once you know this, once you understand that a woman can be physically bullied by Haredi vigilantes or legally arrested by police — and sentenced to jail term just for wearing her tallit at the Western Wall; and once you know that none of the people who converted to Judaism in our congregation, alone, this year will be recognized as Jews by the religious authorities in the promised land, you must begin to wonder if the State of Israel as envisioned and shaped by the Ultra-Orthodox movements is the State of Israel the rest of us fought for and that we continue to support today.

In fact, while the Reform movement was not always an active, supportive partner in the early Zionist movement, we stand today, through the American Reform Zionist Association, as the largest faction in the world Zionist movement.

And while you’re wondering if this is the Israel where you thought you were planting trees on Tu B’Shevat
and where you are thinking of sending your child on a Birthright trip, I hope you are also wondering if there is anything you can do to support and cultivate a State of Israel that honors our Jewish lives, that welcomes our religious practice and affirms our cultural identity, that bestows on a person who has chosen to throw his or her lot in with us any of the benefits or advantages that should attend that act of faith and unity.

We wondered that, we 28 congregants who traveled to Israel this summer, most of us for our first visit ever. When we learned about these issues. Some of us were mystified, some provoked, some sad, some angry. Who knew that a country that enlists men AND women in the armed forces, a country that looks out for all the Jews of the world – even the ones who might not have known they were Jews – a country that was led by Golda Meier, could look so downright fundamentalist.

We met one night, sleepy and overwhelmed, but determined to act. And we began to plan, individual and group responses.

I, for one, was relieved to find that people in Israel had been fighting our fight all along. For example, the Israel Religious Action Center, an arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, brings to Israel’s courts questions of civil rights and equal access to resources for all citizens in Israel, representing a woman fighting for the right to be a combat pilot in the Israeli air force, providing free legal aid to new immigrants, and fighting for recognition and funding of non-orthodox Rabbis and institutions
in communities that choose that road.

Spurred to action by what I learned, the first thing I did was to buy a tallit  that honors of the Women of the Wall movement, an organization which gathers a women’s minyan  at the Western Wall on every Rosh Chodesh to offer prayers. While they cannot, legally, read Torah there, they maintain a presence and fight for more. Many women in our congregation  are wearing this tallit tonight and many women around the world wear this tallit to honor those women fighting for equal rights at what should be the holiest site accessible to Jews.

In the end it comes down to this question: Do you accept the premise that those of us who do not adhere to an Ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Halakha are somehow not Jewish enough to be part of the community of Israel? That we have less of a claim to the rights and privileges of a Jew?

If you do not accept this premise then you cannot accept the disproportionately powerful role of the Hareidim in Israeli government anymore because this is their premise, and it demeans the rest of us.

Consider supporting voices for pluralism in the state of Israel because building a tolerant, robust, Jewish State of Israelis hard work and, despite what the Hareidim may say, all hands are welcome.


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