Dear President-elect Rivlin:
I join with the rest of the Jewish world in wishing you congratulations and offering thanks to you for taking on the important mantel of leadership that is symbolized in the Presidency of Israel.
As Diaspora Jews get to know you, I am sure that they will be moved – as I have been – to learn about your family’s auspicious history in Jerusalem, your impressive political career, and about the reputation for integrity that you have accumulated in Israel’s sometimes messy political system. They will also be encouraged by your role in preserving Israel’s democratic character by combating anti-democratic legislative efforts, which have been on the rise in recent years.
At the same time, however, they will inevitably come across two pieces of information that will make them cautious and concerned about your presidency.
The first pertains to your ideas about the integrity of the Land of Israel and your hope that it is not ultimately divided into two states. In the American Jewish community, this ideology is considered pernicious; and were it to be expressed by Jews on the left, it would be considered political heresy. Nevertheless, to your credit, in your opening remarks after your election you acknowledged that it is not your role to lead or dictate political realities in Israel but to provide broad support and leadership for the political system as a whole, and you expressed a desire to represent the Israeli political consensus, rather than your own particular ideology.
I am writing to ask that you consider extending this generosity of spirit to the second issue of concern that will arise for many American Jews as they learn about you — your comments of some years back in which you referred to Reform Judaism as avodah zarah – literally foreign worship, but more idiomatically translated as “idolatry.” Perhaps it seemed unlikely to you when you passed this judgment that it would one day be a condemnation associated directly with the titular leadership of the State of Israel; you called it as honestly as you saw it.
But there are three critical reasons – which I present in ascending order of importance – why it is essential today that you not only retract those words but also work to heal the rift between the Jewish people and Israel that it creates, and to alleviate the skepticism that many liberal Jews in America are already experiencing about your ability to lead the Jewish State.
First, it is in your own strategic interest. As foreign as its practice may seem to you, given your personal traditions and ancestry, Reform Judaism is the largest denominational movement in America and the broadest religious umbrella under which American Jews congregate. Reform Judaism has hallmarks of being a uniquely American phenomenon, which means that American Jews will invariably – perhaps unconsciously – interpret an attack on their Judaism as a slight to their Americanness.
This is not a moment for the Jewish people to create such deep dissent in our own ranks about the importance of the State of Israel for a meaningful Jewish identity. With dissatisfaction by American Jews about issues of religious pluralism in Israel growing, words that delegitimize the authenticity and integrity of this broad spectrum of American Jewry create distance, rather than narrowing the gaps between American Jews and Israel. Your own presidency, and the needs of the State of Israel, will suffer from this.
Second, there is no credible way for the State of Israel to pursue its stated aim of being the nation-state of the Jewish people while alienating and discrediting a significant portion of those very people. One of the moral obligations of your leadership will be tested in your willingness to understand, empathize with, and ultimately validate the needs and interests of your people – well before you can begin to pursue an agenda of steering your people on a course that you would consider to their betterment.
The Jewish people of today are, for better or worse, a complex and wildly diverse community. The conditions brought about by modernity, and the societies in which we live, have enabled the flourishing of Jewish eclecticism. And while it may seem paradoxical, pluralism and diversity are essential elements of what we think of as Jewish peoplehood. Though this idea is often lost on those who would use Jewish peoplehood as a blunt instrument against dissenters, a key part of the Jewish historical commitment to the idea of the Jewish people was rooted in the belief that this national identity transcended particular behaviors and practices: “An Israelite who sinned is nevertheless an Israelite.” (BT Sanhedrin 44a)
The novelty of this rabbinic move was meant precisely to preserve an ethnic whole – a people – in spite of massive ideological and behavioral differences. If you wish to preserve a presidency, which under Shimon Peres has sought to represent the Jewish people as a whole, and if you believe that the State of Israel is meant to be the political manifestation of the historical destiny of the Jewish people, it is counterproductive for you to maintain – much less to articulate – such a narrow-minded perspective on what that peoplehood actually entails.
But most importantly, it is critical that you engage with Reform Judaism, because there is what for you to learn. For all that may seem understandably foreign to you in Reform liturgy, there should be nothing foreign in the continued Reform Jewish commitment to the Jewish values of ethical living and social justice which serve as hallmarks of the movement, in the Reform Movement’s continued investment in a meaningful Zionism and commitment to the State of Israel, and the abiding Reform grand experiment of bringing Jewish tradition into dialogue – and even confrontation – with the equally authentic Jewish values of engagement with the world and with the tools of critical inquiry.
Israeli politicians before you such as Shimon Peres and Knesset Member Ruth Calderon have learned key Jewish lessons from the laboratory of Jewish practice that Diaspora uniquely makes possible, and which can and should be meaningfully absorbed into the texture of the State of Israel. My own institution, the Hartman Institute, was founded on the basis of and continues to be animated by Jewish values as they have been developed in the Diaspora. While no one expects you to forgo your own beliefs and commitments in pursuit of pluralism, I suspect you will be surprised to realize that your Jewishness and your public service will be strengthened by engaging with Jews whose different commitments and practices may animate your own deeper understanding of your tradition.
President-elect Rivlin, the Jewish people need your leadership. There is instability in the Israeli political system, with many protagonists felled by scandal, and anxiety in the American Jewish establishment about what the future of leadership will look like. You have a moment to cultivate here, but it requires of you the humility and the forward-looking ability to reconsider the narrative of the Jewish people that you will articulate in order to pave the way forward. A new narrative will be an asset to your work, more consistent with the aspirations of the State of Israel, and will strengthen your own understanding of the tradition. I implore you to take this step.