On the eve of Shavuot 2018, Jewish life in Israel is thriving. To mark the holiday of liberation, the New Sanhedrin has just met in Jerusalem. Delivering the customary Shavuot benediction is the Sanhedrin’s most recently appointed member, Rabbi Ruth Goldstein, who joined the council of 70 religious representatives from across the State of Israel this summer. As is customary when a new representative joins the council, Ruth was invited by the president of Israel, who also serves as the formal nasi, to say a few words. This speech is broadcast in a special event across the networks and live-streamed on Facebook:
“Marranan, rabbanan v’rabotai, I am humbled to join you in this great body, and humbled to speak before you today in the land of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of our great mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Rachel.
“I know that it is not an easy thing for some of you to sit here as a woman speaks, let alone a woman whose community has decided she would represent them as their rabbi on this council. Don’t worry, unlike Miriam the Prophet, I promise I won’t sing.”
(Nervous titter breaks the silence of the crowd.)
“Shavuot, more than any other holiday, marks our commitment to Torah, and the importance of unity among our people. Just as Moses could not have received the Torah without the unity of the people down the mountain below, so, too, we cannot fulfill our destiny without celebrating the diversity of our people. So, with your permission, I want to take this historic opportunity to remember with you how we got to this moment, and why I believe the personal example shown by you, my many Orthodox friends, is so very important to the unity of the Jewish people and the strengthening of our Eternal People, our Am Olam.
“It is hard to believe we have come this far. All of us remember the climate of tension and conflict that existed only a few years ago, in 2012, when the reaction to the Sicarii spitting on Naama Margolis and the gender segregated public spaces in Israel led to a wave of provocations and retaliations, creating a climate of baseless hatred of Jew versus Jew, and Jew verses Judaism, that we have not seen since the last days of the Second Temple. As secular fought the Orthodox, and the Jewish denominations abroad distanced themselves from the State of Israel, many of us believed the Zionist dream of being a reborn nation in our historic land was over.
“But it was in our darkest hour that the then-president of Israel, Shimon Peres, the then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the then-chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, decided to come together with leaders of the Jewish movements around the world to strike a historic compromise to save Judaism from the infighting of the Jewish people. I was not present at that meeting, but I understand it was a heroic effort, akin to the fateful meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive when they decided to declare independence.
“Like many of you, I watched the press conference the morning after that historic agreement and believed a new day had begun. Peres spoke first, taking responsibility for the mistakes of his generation in the creation of a hierarchy for Judaism in the Chief Rabbinate, and said that what his friend and mentor David Ben-Gurion failed to do, he hoped the current generation would accomplish. Then rose Natan Sharansky and spoke to the importance of the whole Jewish people, of our historic responsibility as a people to recognize the state as the heart of our collective life, asserting that institutions that distance the Jewish people from the state should be remade to fit their time.
“And finally Benjamin Netanyahu rose to speak. Those of you who know me will know that my politics are deeply opposed to those of the Likud. But when he spoke, I truly felt he was the leader our people needed most at that time. With sensitivity to the historic nature of his remarks, Netanyahu spoke about the creation of this body, the New Sanhedrin, one that would be bottom-up, representing the Jewish people as they are, recognizing that at our strongest we are a unified twelve tribes.
“Like many of you, I was inspired when he explained that the State of Israel will recognize that there is no one Temple yet built, no one authority, and so the state will work to strengthen and celebrate the diversity of approaches toward Jewish identity and God. No longer would the state transfer money to one rabbinate, which, through the power of the purse, would determine who can marry and who can divorce, or who has a kosher heksher or who is a community’s rabbi. Instead, every community who wants to appoint itself a rabbi is empowered to do so, and we rabbis formed the New Sanhedrin to ensure the conversation never ceases. Even more revolutionary was the inclusion of permanent slots for the heads of the large denominational movements in the Diaspora, to ensure that the voice of the entire Jewish people is heard.
“Once each community was able to appoint its own rabbi to manage its own affairs of marriage and divorce, birth and death, conversion and study, the movement for a new, Israeli Judaism flowered across the land. Sure, it took a few years, but who would have believed in 2012 what we saw in 2016! Shavuot learning in every major city across the country, community Shabbatot of all shapes and sizes that became a way for Israel’s cities to connect between their residents. And the effects on the relations between our communities has been inspiring. Last year, I had the privilege to join a group of the Israeli Reform community in visiting the Orthodox Rabbinic Court of Bnei Barak for a conversation about theology and identity. We didn’t agree on much, that’s for sure. But as opposed to the tenor of visits of years past, our conversation focused more on trying to convince each other that our ideas were valid, than on trying to prove the other’s ideas wrong.
“For me and my community, that is what makes this body so unique: with the creation of the New Sanhedrin, and with your participation, we have been able to serve as a model for the Jewish people. We’ve shown that we have more in common than some may think, and can agree on more than we disagree. We have shown that there are 70 faces to the Torah, and that these and these are the words of the Living God. By accepting me to this historic place, you have affirmed that when God created humans, man and women he created them, and both have the ability and the opportunity to share in the spiritual and national life of Israel.
“I would like to end by quoting my namesake, the grandmother of our greatest king, David, in affirming before you: Your People are my People, your God, my God. We may disagree on where to place our feet on the path toward righteousness, but we agree that in order for us to arrive at the Promised Land there is no other way forward than to link our hands and march together through the unknown ahead.”