Todd Berman

My Reform and Conservative brothers and sisters, please stop

What the Reform and Conservative movements are doing wrong (and what they could do right!) when it comes to Israel
The Robinson's Arch pluralistic prayer area is currently on several levels, with a small platform that touches the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
The Robinson's Arch pluralistic prayer area is currently on several levels, with a small platform that touches the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

This is a plea. I know you are hurting. I know that you are upset at my government. You are outraged that the government of Israel backed out of a deal with you to alter the area around the Kotel to accommodate your prayers. And you have every reason to feel marginalized and insulted by the Chief Rabbinate of my country and others who treat you with disdain. I understand. I really do. I’m with you and if you want to find your place in the Jewish state, you need to be with me. You want our homeland to change, but you are going about it the wrong way.

It’s been a very busy week or so:

  • Item: November 23. Reform leaders publicly issue an ultimatum to Prime Minister Netanyahu to fire deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely, claiming she insulted American Jews by responding on a talk show that American Jews lead essentially easy lives and do not send their children to serve in the Israeli or American army.
  • Item: November 29. After holding an unhindered prayer service at the mixed-gender area of the Kotel, Reform movement leaders attempted to bring a Torah through the security check into the Kotel Plaza forcing a confrontation with security officers.
  • Item: December 3. A group of top Reform and Conservative rabbis hosted a massively publicized wedding of three Israeli couples who could not or did not want to marry in Israel under Israeli law. The couples included two lesbians, two Russians, one of whose halachic status was questioned by the chief rabbinate. Under chuppahs with signs declaring “Freedom,” “Justice,” and “Love,” the weddings attempted to declare clearly what they think Israel is not about.

Each one of these was organized as publicity moves to highlight the lack of recognition and clout of the Reform and to a lesser extent Conservative Jewish movements. We are in a season of dramatics. It seems that not a week goes by without some rabbi donning a tallis and marching for human rights. But these events are not going to garner support in Israel.

First, you seem to be meddling in our democracy. Demanding that the democratically elected Israeli government follow the call of a foreign group doesn’t sit well. Democracy is a hallmark of the modern western states. I don’t blame you for being angry at the deputy foreign minister’s lack of tact. I understand and respect your frustration. But calling for our government to fire a minister because you are insulted over facts that most Israelis and I would bet most American Jews think is true, seems to be stretching too far. Governments change through popular vote. It could be that Hotovely is failing in her duty of bridging the gap between the Diaspora and Israel. For that alone, she deserves to be censured by the prime minister, but do you really want Israelis to think you are trying to call the shots for our government?

Second, the Kotel is complicated. I believe that our government should uphold its promises. However, let’s be honest, we know that few non-Orthodox prayer services are held and will be held at the Kotel and, as it is, more than sufficient space exists. The area is quieter and more relaxed than the main plaza which often feels more like a marketplace than a center of spiritual mediation. As the dean of the Conservative rabbinical school of the American Jewish University, Rabbi Bradley Artson, remarked, “The problem with the Western Wall and pluralism is it feels like a misguided issue. It’s just a wall…there are strong issues of Israeli pluralism we should be standing up for, but honest to God, the wall, I never daven at the Wall. I don’t find it inspiring at all. Part of me, as a Zionist, is that every part of Israel is holy, any house, roof, tree, vista, it’s all God’s gift to the Jewish people. I’ll pray at any of those places.”

In fact, until the past few years, when Women of the Wall made their prayer services into a political movement and reactionary religious fanatics attacked them, the Conservative and Reform movements seemed to have shared Rabbi Artson’s view. As Rabbi Einat Ramon, senior lecturer and former dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem explains, “The rabbis and leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary prayed separately until the 1980s, as also did most Reform Jews in Europe before the Holocaust.” And in fact, claims Ramon, “it was the head of the Conservative Movement — the present partner of the Reform Movement and the Women of Wall in their fight against the legitimacy of the mechitza at the Western Wall — who was at the head of the campaign for setting up prayer services with a partition.”

Forcing the hand of security personnel, after praying in a dignified and unhindered manner, as some did, doesn’t make for good video. But the provocateurs succeeded in putting the officers in an impossible and unfair situation. As Rabbi Artson says, “So the wall is about power, which doesn’t interest me.”

Despite some pointed and I would argue biased surveys the contrary, the overwhelming consensus in Israel seems to support the status quo. If you make this into an issue of power and not spiritual necessity, then you will further erode any support from mainstream Israelis.

Now about the publicity stunt in the form of three weddings: Look, we don’t agree on this topic. I follow the Orthodox understanding of Jewish marital law. You follow your ways. Don’t ask me to agree with your ways. I can’t. Don’t tell me “love conquers all.” It doesn’t. In a world where many don’t bother with marriage and of those that do, half end in divorce, love really doesn’t cut it as the be all and end all of relationships. Do what you feel you must, but don’t look to the tradition for approval. We can have this discussion, but we really don’t need to. While I disagree with you on this, I believe government shouldn’t interfere. And on this, we agree. So celebrate your understanding of love and tradition in your way.

But let’s be honest, you didn’t. Not really. You had to make it into a declaration against Israel. I can’t fathom why couples would want to make their weddings into symbols attacking the State of Israel. And as much as I support allowing other forms of expression beyond what is accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, if you push me, you will lose me and others like me. Don’t make your rituals into political publicity stunts. You cheapen Judaism and you make ritual into a “spade to dig with.” I realize that Rabbi Anat Hoffman has made name for herself abroad doing this type of thing; however, I don’t think it is winning her many friends in Israeli society. If that is what you think of your marriages, then you can count me out of support.

This leads me to the meta-issue which hovers behind everything else: how to criticize my country and my government. More and more Reform and Conservative spokespeople are joining the chorus of critics of the state. This is not primarily about issues of pluralism but of foreign and even domestic policy. I enjoy reading and listening to sermons by all kinds of rabbis. According to one national survey, as recently as 2006, the vast majority of American rabbis used the High Holidays to speak about supporting Israel. Just over a decade later more and more were using the opportunity to criticize Israel. With the Iran issue continually prominent and the danger from literally 100,000 missiles from Hezbollah pointed at our population centers, some sermons I read or listened to were shocking. To take one example, a rabbi in LA, one of the most powerful moral voices in the Conservative movement spent 60 percent of a 30-minute Yom Kippur sermon “lovingly” criticizing Israel, claiming that Israel is “irreconcilable with our Judaism and Our Zionism.” I must admit, it’s hard to hear the “love” coming through when you are told how “un-Jewish” the Jewish state is being broadcast to congregants whose connection to the Jewish state is already tenuous at best.

More and more, one hears this public criticism often in an un-nuanced version which presents the Palestinian narrative wholesale delivered by non-Orthodox rabbis to their congregants. What good could possibly come from such demagoguery? Yet it’s not surprising when groups like Truah partner with the recently discredited organization “Breaking the Silence” to bring “liberal” rabbis to see the truth of that version of the story. Publicly aligning yourselves with groups which are marginalized even among the left in Israel will win you no friends.

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Rabbi Artson’s playbook is in order. As the rabbi said, “I often get pushed to make comments critical of Israel. And there I have the Artson rule, which is; in private speaking to an Israeli official I will say anything I think. You will never ever ever hear me say something even vaguely critical of Israel in public. Ever!”

If you want to affect change, real change, and not just to stir the pot, then there are several things the liberal movements can do:

  1. It’s time to increase aliyah. An upsurge in modern thinking Americans could shake things up. Tzipi Hotovely meant it when she said, on Lior Schleien’s show, that she would risk being made politically obsolete by a million olim from the US. If you want a voice, then put your money where your mouth is and join us for the greatest experiment in Jewish history. Help us create the Jewish democratic state. But if you choose not to join us, you can’t really expect much of a voice in our democratic process. The United States’ founding fathers disdained “taxation without representation.” Yet the corollary is as true. You can’t expect “representation without taxation.” Without bearing the brunt of our lives, you can’t demand accommodation to yours. We Israelis aren’t building a vacation home for those who want to visit for the holidays. We are here to build a better future for the Jewish people.
  2. Increase visitation. You want to have the Kotel, then use it or lose it. This past year, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, close to 1 million people visited the central plaza, while the mixed section was mostly silent. Israelis would be more keen on spending wild sums of tax money, possibly hurting priceless, archaeological real estate, and risk annoying the Muslim authority of the Temple Mount (the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf), if we were convinced someone would actually pray there.
  3. As opposed to criticizing us in front of your congregants, engage us in the conversation here. Increase activities here including funding programs you believe in. Start writing in Hebrew and speaking and publishing in Israeli locations. Look, at present, the vast majority of Reform and Conservative Jews and their leaders have chosen to continue to live outside of the Jewish state. Yet, more and more, we hear critical and defensive voices coming from overseas. If you don’t want us to criticize your choices and your lives, perhaps humility would caution you criticizing ours.

I want to conclude by thanking you. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your financial support, thank you for sending your children to learn and serve in the army. Thank you for defending us against the blood libels which crop up from time to time, and for being on the front lines fighting against BDS.

This week’s Torah portion is filled with the hatred between brothers. The fight and jealousy of Jacob’s sons should give us pause. The quarrel between brothers condemned the Jewish people to leave our land and suffer hundreds of years of slavery. Not until the end of the book of Genesis is there a final reconciliation and really not until the exodus from Egypt are the wounds really healed. Let us pray that the Jewish people remain one and that we can find a common language and common future. Let us join together in building the future.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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