A Conservative Rabbi Caught In Middle On Israel

In what is just the latest in a sad string of similar stories about the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Rehovot, Rahamim Malul, forced the postponement of a long-anticipated bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for children with special needs — in this case, severe autism. This program, sponsored for the last 25 years by the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, was to have taken place in Adat Shalom-Emanuel, the Masorti congregation in Rehovot. But the mayor decided that it would be offensive to Orthodox sensitivities to hold it there, leaving the children and their families understandably distressed.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident in the context of an otherwise open and tolerant religious climate in Israel, but of course it is not. Radical inequities in government funding of synagogues and religious institutions have forced non-Orthodox movements in Israel to scrape and scratch for every shekel. The status of women in Israel’s charedi world is still largely pre-modern, and efforts to change that, from Women of the Wall to representation on local religious councils, have been met with derision, and sometimes with physical violence. In Rehovot, an alternative setting for the special needs bar/bat-mitzvah was proposed, but the celebrants would not be allowed to recite the morning blessing of “she’a’sani b’tzalmo,” who has created me in his image — a critical blessing for special needs families. Why? Because it would replace “shelo asani ishah” — the prayer men say thanking God for not having made them women, a staple of the Orthodox prayerbook.

So as a Conservative rabbi, and on behalf of all non-Orthodox rabbis, I am obliged to ask: how shall we express our love of Israel, and how shall we teach it to those whom we serve, and who look to us for guidance?

For me, Israel has always represented the miracle of renewed Jewish sovereignty after thousands of years of powerless homelessness. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, I see no way to overstate the importance of Jewish sovereignty. And it is equally clear to me that my over-arching responsibility as a rabbi is to preach and teach the kind of love of Israel that transcends the myriad insults of religious politics in Israel. Israel’s existence and security are of paramount importance to today’s Jews, and I want my congregants to understand that.

But at the same time, as someone who has been involved in the cause of Masorti Judaism and, more broadly, religious pluralism in Israel for more than 30 years, I also see it as my responsibility– yes, my responsibility – to preach and teach my congregants and others who look to me for guidance the preeminent importance of self-love and self-respect. When entrenched religious powers in Israel, be they within the Ministry of Religion, charedi hooligans at the Kotel who torment the Women of the Wall, or the small-minded mayor of Rehovot, use religion as a cudgel with which to demean and degrade us, I want my congregants to be outraged. They should be. And if they’re not, I view it as my job to explain to them why they should be.

Navigating the line between respecting the ultimate, transcendent importance of Israel on the one hand, and the need to fight indefensible discrimination on the other, is one of the hardest things I have to do as a Conservative rabbi, both in my own synagogue and also when I served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

I can’t pretend that religious matters are as they should be in Israel. It pains me no end that the Jewish state that I love so dearly denies me the respect that I have earned over my career as a rabbi and teacher of Torah, refuses to recognize my legitimacy, and denies equality of status to half of the Jewish people. But on the proverbial other hand, with ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and of course the threat of a nuclear Iran, I’m worried sick about Israel’s security, and I want my congregants to be as well.

There is no easy resolution to this conflict. Like all dialectics, it is a tension to be managed, not resolved. The only thing that is for sure is that, no matter where I or my colleagues find our place on the continuum between loving support of Israel and honest criticism of its religious policies, someone or some group will point out how we are lacking, or in error. If we mute our criticism for the sake of Jewish unity, whatever those words mean these days, there will always be those who take us to task for not speaking out more loudly. And if we do, indeed, speak more loudly, there will always be those who will chastise us for jeopardizing Israel’s security at such a dangerous time.

When push comes to shove and Israel is at war or in danger, concerns about pluralism will almost always be pushed aside. That is as it should be. But let no one interpret silence or muted expressions of discontent as indifference or acceptance, for that is surely not the case. Our love of Israel is true and deep … but so is our disappointment.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, and a featured online columnist for The Jewish Week.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.