In a recent column, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer penned a scathing and somewhat depressing view of the Reform movement’s achievements in the State of Israel and formidable and possibly insurmountable challenges that yet await our movement.
Pfeffer offered a case where optimists look at it and say “this is the best case scenario,” and pessimists say “you’re right.” I’d like to offer that the phenomena about which Pfeffer writes goes way beyond the Reform movement and is an endemic and serious issue facing Israeli society at large.
Yes, the Reform movement will undoubtedly face additional humiliation and further be challenged as it makes inroads in legal and political life in Israel. But this is about what Israelis want Israeli society to look like. In the famous 1952 exchange between David Ben Gurion and Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the Hazon Ish, the Rabbi is told to have quoted from the Talmud in Sannhedrin to explain in metaphor his view of secular Jews. Explaining to Ben Gurion that non-Orthodox Jews were equivalent to a camel carrying an empty cart, he essentially fortified the viewpoint that is held today. That Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Judaism is the only authentic form of Judaism today and that great lengths should go to preserve it, including perpetual exemptions from national service, and other significant tax breaks.
As more and more elections are decided on social and domestic issues, what we need now is a broad coalition of partners to stand up to Netanyahu and say that no longer can the ultra-Orthodox control Judaism in the Jewish State. No longer can the Rabbinate impose their corruption on an entire population in the name of halakha. This is about the majority of Jews in Israel, who according to many surveys are fed up with the current system and the hijacking of Judaism. So many Israelis have already come to the realization that the polarizing dichotomy between secular and Orthodox no longer answers the needs of the mainstream, and that there has to be something else.
That is one reason that for the growing success of liberal Judaism in Israel. Just this past week when the CCAR convention met in Israel, as it does every seven years, we marked a doubling in the number of congregations of the Israeli Reform movement. The desire to spend time in Tel Aviv did not come from a need for bliss or to retreat from the threatening Jerusalem environment, rather to celebrate the other monumental achievements of Reform Judaism in Israel. The landmark decision to officially recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel through an egalitarian section at the Kotel is indeed significant, and will of course be a continuous struggle until its implementation, but let’s not also miss the huge story of thriving communities from Rosh Pina to Beer Sheva. There is Judaism outside of Jerusalem, and our 350 rabbis spread out to the four corners of the country to rejoice, pray and familiarize themselves with Israelis in Gedera, Haifa, Zichron Yaakov and Ramat HaSharon (just to name a few) who have found interest and a home in our movement. It is Israelis who must realize that having a Jewish State doesn’t necessarily guarantee having a Jewish community and that we were able to build our nearly 50 congregations largely without State funding or support. This is a story of Israelis realizing that there is more than one way to be religious and that we are here to create an authentic and inclusive, yet non-threatening or coercive expression of Jewish life. This is a story that will combat the recent stringencies of the Haredi world on society that have little to do with Torah. The increasing demand for total gender separation, barring women from public appearances in state and army ceremonies, and the continual fight against all those offering alternatives are prevalent now more than ever.
I want to thank Pfeffer for exposing a future meeting which will exclude the liberal movements from further deliberations on the egalitarian section of the Kotel, and his article should inspire a public outcry that will prevent the PM and the Attorney General to backtrack or in anyway downplay what has already been achieved.
It seems that Pfeffer’s call is for us to take to the campaign trail and win seats in the Knesset. While that might be nice, what is needed is for mainstream Israelis to wake up and to stop acquiescing to Netanyahu and his fragile house-of-cards coalition which consistently appeases the demands of the Haredim in order to maintain power. The narrow sectoral needs of the few are doing much greater harm to the public and is essentially doing more to turn people off to Judaism then if the monopolies were broken and every Jew was allowed to live according to his and her will.
The Reform movement is leading the change in Israel, but let us now call on every Israeli to help break the mold and make change. I’m not suggesting another Shinui-style anti-religious campaign as we witnessed in the late 1990s but rather a ground swell of people who can frankly state that Judaism is important to us but, in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am, Lo Zu HaDerech – this is not the way. Mine is a simple call to Israelis to stop taking this Jewish monopolization lying down. It is time to rise and take Judaism back for the Jewish people in the Jewish State.