Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, speaking from Israel yesterday expressed deep concerns over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s backing away from an agreement for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall—and other “disturbing” developments also pushed by the ultra-Orthodox.
HUC-JIR, founded in 1875, is the academic, spiritual and professional leadership educational center of Reform Judaism, with campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York.
Rabbi Panken has lived in Israel and also visited the nation more than 30 times and “I love the state of Israel,” he said from Jerusalem where HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus has been since 1963.
Netanyahu’s freezing of the “well-thought-out and well-constructed” agreement, reached in January 2016, after five years of negotiation, providing for a space where men and women could pray together at the Kotel, is a huge mistake, said Rabbi Panken. “It is a terrible slap-in-the-face to Diaspora Jews and to Israeli Reform and Conservative Jews who now make up eight to 10 percent of the population of Israel.”
Rabbi Panken said he understands that “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, to remain standing, requires the support of the ultra-Orthodox” parties in it, but, still, this move by him to “nullify” what was “a compromise” reached after “a long conversation” hurts Israel and imperils the state’s relationship with Jews worldwide.
“The Reform and Conservative movements do not want to take anything away from our Orthodox friends,” said Rabbi Panken. And “the agreement was not a perfect solution for Reform and Conservative people. But compromise always involves loss on all sides”
Rabbi Panken said he hoped “cool heads” will somehow still prevail and that there can be “a place for respectful, appropriate mixed gender access to the Kotel.”
“The Kotel is important,” he continued, but there are other “disturbing” issues in Israel today.
Among these is the “nation state” bill now being discussed in the Knesset. It would alter the careful balance between Judaism and democracy in Israel by “privileging a certain kind” of Judaism. This, also pushed by ultra-Orthodox parties, would “force courts, schools and government institutions to favor Judaism over democracy” in “decision-making.” He sees the bill, if enacted, undermining “the democratic character of the state of Israel, with predictably deleterious results for Progressive Jews, Arabs, and many other minority groups.”
Then there is the bill being discussed in the Knesset which grants the Chief Rabbinate of Israel a total monopoly over Jewish conversions, now postponed for six months, yet still looming ahead. This accompanies the recently revealed “blacklist” of 160 rabbis put together by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, rabbis it does not trust to confirm Jewish identities. On the “blacklist” are, Reform and Conservative rabbis and “some modern Orthodox” rabbis, too,” he said, many of the rabbis from the U.S., whom the Chief Rabbinate will not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants. And there is the bill in the Knesset that would limit funding for certain Israeli organizations in Israel by banning their acceptance of international contributions from a person based on his or her positions regarding Israel.
“I’m deeply concerned about the character of the state of Israel and making sure free expression and democracy—the rights of all the people—are protected,” said Rabbi Panken.
Israel, he emphasized, is “not meant to be a theocracy” but a “free and democratic” state.
Meanwhile, although very worried about these developments, Rabbi Panken is heartened by other happenings in Israel including “amazing things” occurring at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus.
At the campus, there are a number of programs bringing people from diverse backgrounds together. He spoke of a Palestinian woman, from Bethlehem, who until interacting with Israelis in one program considered them “not human” but afterwards commented that she realized that Israelis “are human beings with dreams and hopes just like I have.” A “Teachers Room” program bringing together Jewish, Christian and Muslim elementary school teachers has expanded with a stress on teaching coexistence, so youngsters don’t end up “hating” those of different backgrounds.
“We just held an extraordinary a conference involving 170 people from around the globe working on Healing Hatred,” he related.
And yesterday, Rabbi Panken met with the new president-elect of Hebrew University, Asher Cohen, on the master’s degree in pluralistic education, a partnership between Hebrew University and HUC-JIR in which “community differences are embraced and respected. We’re creating models of pluralism that will continue to have significant and lasting impact upon the character of the society in Israel.”
Needed in Israel is “a state that makes sense—rather than being divided and angry.”
He added, “I do sometimes think that some of these rapid-fire bills in the Knesset which are so pernicious are the result of significant insecurity within the Netanyahu coalition.”
“It’s hard to say what is going to happen,” Rabbi Panken said, “but I think people in the end will figure out what values are vital and gravitate to them. I’m very hopeful for positive change in the long term.”
HUC-JIR has a close relationship with Israel. Every HUC-JIR rabbinical, cantorial and education student at its campuses in New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles spends a year in Israel. In recent years, with the generous support of John Golden, in an innovative program called the Golden-HaNasi Fellows, HUC-JIR has brought dozens of Israeli Reform rabbinical students to the United States to learn and teach in Reform congregations across the country, and to build the knowledge of and bond between Israel and North America. Students regularly acknowledge programs like these as absolutely key to the development of stronger linkages between Jews worldwide.
And this year will mark, said Rabbi Panken happily, the ordination of the one hundredth Israeli Reform rabbi at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Panken, who in addition to being HUC-JIR president has taught Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature at its campus in New York since 1995, notes that the Talmud “is full of multiple opinions of people who disagree with each other” and provides for “the opposing opinion to be preserved and accorded respect.” This is the “authentic Jewish spirit of pluralism” that needs to be “nourished in the state of Israel.”