Don’t wail about the Kotel … deserve it

Avinu she-ba-shamayim, Rock and Redeemer of the People Israel: Bless the State of Israel with its promise of redemption.”

My congregation offered these words of prayer and blessing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just as we do each and every Shabbat morning. We will continue offering these words of prayer, and we will mean them sincerely, regardless of specific policy decisions and political posturing by the leadership of the Jewish state. In fact, on those occasions when the State of Israel and its government conduct themselves in a manner which we — in our Conservative congregation nestled in the idyllic comfort and security of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey — find objectionable or offensive, our prayers and blessings and efforts on behalf of the Jewish State are all the more urgently required.

This principle was sorely tested in many Jewish communities in recent months. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had negotiated an agreement that would have created an area at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall — where men and women could worship together, as we do in my congregation and as the majority of the Jewish world is accustomed to doing. We do not separate ourselves by gender, as is the venerable practice of Orthodox Jews. The area abutting the Kotel now is divided into a men’s section and a women’s section, with no accommodation for mixed-gender prayer. There is an area farther south, adjacent to the Temple Mount, where egalitarian prayer is permitted, but there is not one at the Kotel, with all its history, sanctity, emotional impact, and immediate proximity to the site of the Holy of Holies.

In June, the prime minister reneged on his government’s agreement to provide for mixed-gender worship at Judaism’s holiest site, an agreement reached through protracted negotiation and campaigning over several years. The agreement was withdrawn due to demands by ultra-Orthodox political parties as a condition for remaining in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Netanyahu reneged on his agreement ostensibly in order to keep his fragile coalition from losing its hold on a parliamentary majority.

The establishment of a mixed-gender area for worship at the Kotel — in addition, of course, to the separate men’s and women’s sections — has been a cause celebre for the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as for advocacy groups like Women of the Wall, for many years. The goal of this campaign was not merely logistical. It is not simply to facilitate non-Orthodox worship at the Kotel. Nor was it merely a matter of civil rights in a democracy, though it certainly was that.

Much more central to the campaign was the desire to see the religious lives of millions of diaspora Jews legitimated, valued, and validated at our religious tradition’s most sacred site. The worship conducted in my Conservative congregation and in countless other non-Orthodox communities — men and women together — is authentic and principled and holy, notwithstanding the fact that our method of prayer is banned at our people’s most cherished and historically significant place of worship.

The reaction to this broken agreement in some quarters of diaspora Jewry was swift and harsh and hostile. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that reneging on the agreement places the unity of the Jewish people in a “very precarious place.” He said: “We are on the edge; on the edge of very real, very serious, and very harmful distancing of Israeli Jewry with diaspora Jewry.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, agreed: “This horse trading is going to affect the well-being, unity, and diversity of the Jewish people. You cannot delegitimize the majority of American Jews, then say, ‘Can you help us out here?’”

Invoking the biblical precedent of Jacob and Esau, Rabbi Jacobs described the Prime Minister’s reversal as selling world Jewry’s “birthright for a bowl of lentil soup” in the form of coalition votes.

Hundreds of emissaries of the Jewish Agency signed an online letter warning of “irrefutable damage to our collective future.”

An American supporter of Israel demanded a refund for $1 million dollars in State of Israel bonds he had just purchased, while others canceled meetings scheduled with the prime minister.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the Israeli president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, warned that the real danger in the policy reversal was not the loss of American donor dollars, but a diminution in American Jewish advocacy on behalf of the Jewish State in matters of American foreign policy and military assistance.

There have been calls by some American Jews to launch a measured boycott of Israel in response to this situation, adopting the methods of Israel’s most intractable detractors.

Sallai Meridor, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and former chairman of the Jewish Agency, said plainly: “Mr. Prime Minister, you know that the wholeness of the (Jewish) people is more important than the wholeness of the coalition.”

Charles Bronfman, the Canadian-American billionaire-mogul-philanthropist, wrote to the prime minister: “To my knowledge, no other country in the world denies any Jew based on denomination.”

The pain and vitriol evident in many of these responses was compounded by the decision — made at more or less the same time — to vest exclusive control over all matters of conversion to Judaism in the Jewish State in the ultra-Orthodox state-recognized chief rabbinate, which issued a blacklist barring specific diaspora rabbis from testifying as to the Jewish bona fides of converts. (See the story on page 6.) Such a policy denies not merely the legitimacy of countless rabbis, but the very Jewishness of countless converts to Judaism, as well as their children and their children’s children.

The anger and hurt so evident in the wake of these Israeli policy decisions is understandable and not entirely misplaced. In determining my own response to this historic turn of events, however, I want to be guided by something more worthy of Jewish tradition, more worthy of my role as a rabbi, and more worthy of my abiding commitment to the integrity of the Jewish people and to the well-being of the Jewish State. I may indeed find the prime minister’s actions painful. I may indeed be inclined to vitriol. I, too, want to see the campaign — the fight — for religious diversity at the Kotel attain its long-held goal. But the recently concluded season of repentance was not about acting on base instinct. Nor is the interminable process of repentance about venting our disappointments, nor about retaliating for perceived wrongs we have suffered or pain we have endured. Quite the contrary.

So, as I so often do when I search for a wise, worthy, and worldly approach to the intersection of religious diversity and modern statecraft, I turned to the American founding fathers for guidance and inspiration. I found that inspiration not in the Bill of Rights, not in Washington’s principled motto “To bigotry no sanction,” and not in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, though all of these documents do offer insight into the specific challenges confronting the Jewish people this year.

Rather, I took counsel from a deeply moving, deeply affecting line in a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail, whom he customarily addressed in their famous correspondence as “Dearest Friend.” Adams wrote to his beloved about the progress of the Revolution: “We can’t guarantee success, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.”

American historian David McCullough points out that Adams was not entirely original in his sentiment. Washington used exactly the same line in his writings. Neither was the father of our country entirely original. Both he and Adams were paraphrasing “Cato,” a 1712 play by the British writer Joseph Addison. Our founding fathers found deep personal meaning in this play, which was based on the life of a Roman stoic whose resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar made him an icon of republican government and liberty. “ ‘Tis not in mortals to command success,” Addison’s Cato declares. “But we’ll do more… We’ll deserve it.”

Addison did not originate this principle, which can be traced back to Aristotle. He wrote: “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.”

In response to these protracted controversies, I am convinced that the proper response for Conservative Jews in Israel and in the diaspora (together with our allies and supporters) is neither pain nor vitriol, and certainly not boycotts, nor political bully tactics.

In the continuing quest for legitimation and validation and recognition of diverse expressions of Judaism in Israel and at the Kotel — a quest that is entirely just and proper and sacred — our most important and worthy response is to deserve success, to deserve legitimation and validation and recognition.

If we truly want to be accorded dignity as an authentic religious expression of Jewish tradition, our most important response is to deserve that recognition by devoting ourselves to the authentic expression of our tradition. We can’t guarantee success in either the Kotel campaign or the conversion controversy, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.

As a response to these disappointing developments in the Jewish State, pain and vitriol are unproductive and unworthy choices.

How do we deserve success in these matters? Addison’s Cato counsels us: “Content thyself to be obscurely good. When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway, the post of honor is a private station.”

That is to say, for our purposes, that our honor and dignity as individual Jews, the honor and dignity of the Conservative movement, is not a function of Israeli public policy at the Kotel, or of where and with whom we may stand and worship while at the Jewish people’s holiest site. “The post of honor is a private station.” Our honor and dignity as Jews is a function of how we comport ourselves in our everyday private lives. “Content thyself to be obscurely good.”

The honor and dignity of Conservative Judaism is not a function of Israeli coalition politics and their consequences. The honor and dignity of Conservative Judaism is a function of whether individual Conservative Jews and Conservative congregations, along with the leadership and halachic decisors of the Conservative movement, are truly committed to authentic Jewish religious observance and expression when vice prevails and impious men bear sway.

If you want Jews to have the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying, do not boycott or cash in your State of Israel bonds or prophesy Jewish disunity. If you want Jews to have the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying, light Shabbos candles and then spend the following 24 hours reveling in the unique wisdom of the Sabbath day. If you want Jews to have the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying, study sacred texts and then embrace the moral insights and behavioral directives articulated by those texts. If you want Jews to have the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying, visit the sick with the principled consciousness that doing so fulfills God’s commandments. If you want Jews to have the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying, grapple seriously with the mitzvot and with the spiritual and the moral demands of Jewish tradition, whether or not you deem them in keeping with the American zeitgeist. If you want Jews to have the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying, devote yourself to the wellbeing of your congregational community; pray together, learn together, celebrate together. Share your joys and your sorrows with your congregation. Spend time with your congregation. If you want Jews to have the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying, deserve that right.

Will Jews ever be granted the right to pray at the Kotel as Conservative Jews are accustomed to praying? As my Conservative congregation and I are accustomed to praying? The campaign continues. “We can’t guarantee success, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.”

“Avinu she-ba-shamayim, Rock and Redeemer of the People Israel: Bless the State of Israel with its promise of redemption.”

The State of Israel has within it an incalculable potential for redemption. In the coming year, may the people Israel come ever closer to realizing that potential.

In the new year that has begun, may we as individual Jews, may we as Jewish families, and may we as a diverse religious community heed the timeless wisdom of Aristotle and Addison, of Washington and Adams. In our relationship to the Jewish state, in our relationship to Jewish tradition, in our relationships to each other, and in our quest for redemption — whether we achieve success or not, my dearest friends, may we deserve it.

About the Author
Joseph H. Prouser is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey (Franklin Lakes, NJ) and a practicing Mesader Gittin. A former member of the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, he currently serves as editor of Masorti: The New Journal of Conservative Judaism.
Related Topics
Related Posts