September 11, 2017
There are certain heated and convoluted subjects I prefer to stay away from in my postings because writing about them seems to me not productive, especially when there is so much else to deal with.
But I am now witnessing a multi-pronged phenomenon that I have decided I must address, because it has become deplorable.
As I wade into this issue, I will seek to provide some context, and share some of my own thoughts. I advise my readers that if the response to this posting is extensive, I will not be able to respond to everyone.
We start with Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem (former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel) Shlomo Amar.
It made press last week that, in a class he was teaching, Rabbi Amar said that Reform Jews are “worse than Holocaust deniers.”
This was in the context of the battle over non-Orthodox rights at the Kotel. More extensively, his statement was:
“They don’t have Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but they want to pray [at the Western Wall]…They are trying to deceive and say that extremist haredim invented [separate prayer at the Western Wall].
“It’s like Holocaust deniers, it’s the same thing. They shout about Holocaust deniers in Iran, but they deny more than Holocaust deniers. In all of the Mishna and Gemara there was a women’s section and a section for men in the Temple. Did we invent this?”
Okay, he was making a point that has some validity. But he made it very badly; his tone leaves much to be desired.
To someone who believes passionately in the sanctity of Jewish tradition, perspectives that posit either that this tradition never existed, or no longer matters, are deeply offensive. There is no way he can say that every position on Jewish tradition is as good as every other one. Nor would I expect him to.
HOWEVER, insulting his fellow Jews is not a wise or constructive way to go about addressing the issue. We are bidden to draw together as a people and to embrace all Jews.
Had his approach been more temperate, he might have attempted to bring non-traditional Jews near in a positive way. Instead of demeaning—they don’t have Yom Kippur?—he might have encouraged Reform Jews to consider the traditions that have sustained us over the centuries. He also might have made it clear that he embraces all Jews even if he cannot accept every opinion.
Especially as Rosh Hashana approaches, it is important to strengthen our peoplehood. And so, while Rav Amar was defending tradition, he failed in this regard and—not for the first time, I note with regret—made divisions even greater.
What a large group of Conservative rabbis (close to 600) is now doing is, in my opinion, even more disturbing than Rav Amar’s intemperate words:
Their representatives have delivered a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, via New York Consul General of Israel Dani Dayan, on behalf of the Conservative Movement. The letter expresses “dismay, anger and a sense of betrayal,” in particular with regard to the Cabinet vote in June to table the Kotel decision.
And what the letter does is threaten:
“Mr. Prime Minister, you can influence the content of our Yamim Noraim [High Holy Days] messages. Will we speak of Israel’s reality in a language of betrayal or hope? Will we speak of struggle or achievement?”
In other words, if you don’t give us what we believe we are entitled to, we will speak ill of Israel during the High Holy Days, when we have a maximum of congregants listening to our messages.
Israel – whatever her manifold struggles and weaknesses – is a bastion of strength for the Jewish People in a world growing increasingly hostile and anti-Semitic. We are a place of refuge for Jews who need it; we assume responsibility for Jewish communities at risk. And we deal with threats of terrorism and attempts at delegitimization in international forums.
An incredibly vibrant Jewish life exists here, bolstered by a sense of ancient heritage. After 2,000 years, we are witnessing the ingathering of the exiles, who contribute to a rich cultural tapestry. Never before have so many Jews studied Torah as do now in Israel. Never have there been so many archeological discoveries, reminding us that it all happened here.
The Jewish State models the best of ethical behavior in reaching out to help others in crisis. We have provided medical care to thousands of wounded Syrian children, while much of the world stands by. Our cutting-edge scientific and medical discoveries enhance the well-being of many around the globe.
Our numbers are growing steadily, while Jewish population elsewhere is shrinking. Our Jewish birthrate is the highest in the Jewish world, because we look towards tomorrow with hope.
Israel is the only nation in the world that runs on Jewish time and provides an environment, however fractious and imperfect, in which Jewish practice is the norm. What a blessing. Recent studies show that young Jews who visit here and return to the States are less likely to intermarry because they have been imbued with a greater sense of who they are.
For these reasons and many more, Israel merits the support of every Jew.
Of course, it is painfully obvious that we don’t have the support of every Jew.
More and more, progressive Jews opt to take positions against Israel because that has become the politically correct thing to do. Leftists say that you cannot be a feminist unless you are also pro-Palestinian Arab, and many young Jews, disconnected from their heritage, nod in assent.
For rabbis in the Conservative Movement to suggest that they will speak ill of Israel from the pulpit—thereby further weakening the support of their congregants for Israel—strikes me as both shocking and unconscionable.
I say this recognizing that they believe that are defending themselves by doing this. The problem is that their perspective is very narrow.
Had these rabbis a broader perspective, they would have wanted to teach love of Israel from the pulpit, and to work diligently with young congregants who have lost their way in this regard.
They would have written a letter to our prime minister assuring him that, whatever disagreements and concerns arise (which are indeed very real for them), they support us always. And they would have said that, as they care deeply about Israel, and intend to continue to work for Israel—because they are genuinely invested in Israel and do not wish to separate themselves—they hope he will find ways to attend to their deep concerns regarding the Kotel.
They would have begun to encourage aliyah, so that Conservatives Jews might be more than one or two percent of the population of Israel, and thus have a stronger political voice here (as compared to the exceedingly negligible voice they have now). They would have urged their people to visit Israel (most non-Orthodox American Jews have never visited!), and, while visiting, to take the time to pray at the egalitarian section of the Kotel. (More about this below)
In short, they would have been determined to deal with their issues positively, taking a long term constructive approach toward ameliorating their discontents.
Imagine if they had said to their congregations, the situation is not yet what we hope it will be: we seek an enhanced egalitarian role at the Kotel. But we must celebrate, for only 50 years ago no Jew was able to approach the Kotel.
They might even have taught their people (gasp!) that the hand of God can be seen in the miracle that is Israel, which has blossomed beyond all expectations a mere 70 years after one-third of our people had been destroyed.
Instead, they are prepared to sharpen divisions and rend asunder. To weaken support for Israel. On the High Holy Days.
Let us be very clear about what disturbs these rabbis:
There was a plan in place to enlarge and embellish an egalitarian area near Robinson’s Arch at the Kotel; to merge the entrance to that area with the entrance to the traditional section of the Kotel; and to appoint a commission representing the various strands of Judaism to oversee all of this.
Again and again now, as before, I am reading that the rabbis are angry because they did not get the separate egalitarian section at the Kotel.
But this is simply not so. That section, as I’ve pointed out before, exists and is available for use.
What is more, Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised to enlarge and “significantly refurbish” it, regardless of the fact that other parts of the agreement have been put on hold.
So, it appears that what the rabbis are protesting is the cancellation of the plan to move the entrance to the egalitarian section, and appoint the commission to oversee its management. Seems breathtakingly inconsequential.
However, the bottom line is that, as a result of this decision, they believe that they have been deprived of a status in Israel, and official recognition.
This is a political issue; it is not primarily about spiritual experience or praying.
I know this because reports are that the egalitarian section stands empty most of the time.
And this is perhaps at the very heart of the matter.
I think we need to take a look at what moved the Cabinet’s decision to put the Kotel agreement on hold. Herb Keinon, in a piece written for the JPost in mid-July, explains it well:
To resolve a number of issues regarding prayer at the Kotel, in 2012, Prime Minister Netanyahu sought recommendations on a compromise solution from Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky.
Then, in 2013, the prime minister appointed the Mandelblit Committee, which interviewed a large number of people over the next two and a half years. They brought their recommendations, largely based on what Sharansky had proposed, to the Cabinet, which approved them in January 2016.
What was explicitly said in the Committee Recommendation is most relevant here (emphasis added throughout):
The Committee Recommendation read: “In order to avoid all doubt, it should be emphasized that the team limited its scope to these aspects [prayer at the Kotel] alone and avoided dealing with… issues related to the status of the non-Orthodox denominations in the State of Israel.”
That is, the recommendation regarding an egalitarian section of the Kotel should not be construed as conferring official Israeli recognition on progressive branches of Judaism.
However, what happened is that “both the pluralistic movements and the haredim, for completely opposite reasons, presented the recommendations as official recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements…
“One of the concerns that government officials articulated to the pluralistic movements when the Cabinet passed the resolution in January 2016, was that they should not ‘do a victory lap,’ or over-interpret the resolution as a sign of official recognition, because that would make implementation much more difficult.
“Those concerns were borne out. No sooner did the resolution pass than the movement trumpeted it as a historic victory for recognition…
“The only problem with that type of rhetoric was that it was also being heard by haredim and right wingers in the national religious camp, who did not like what they were hearing and swiftly swung into action.”
So, the Conservative Movement is angry because they claim that recognition of their status in Israel had been agreed upon and was then taken away.
But it turns out that they are in error. In fact, their leaders might perhaps want to consider their own role in prompting the cancellation.
If they seek further Israeli recognition of their movement in the future, it will have to be achieved in ways far different from what is being done now.
I will add one other thought here:
The Conservative Movement (as is the Reform Movement) is in very deep trouble. Numbers are dwindling as young people opt out and intermarriage increases. Even within the movement, observance of basic traditional practices diminishes. I would suggest that Conservative rabbis might best serve their movement if they focused intensively on how to strengthen their congregants’ devotion to traditional Judaism as their rabbis interpret it: to bring them home again.
This is the issue that should be addressed in their High Holiday sermons, and every day of the week.
A cancellation of certain parts of a Kotel agreement is the very least of their problems. Perhaps no more than a distraction.
Right now, my prayers go for the safety of the people of Florida.
Today is 9/11. Sixteen years on, there are still lessons to be learned. And so, I pray, as well, that they should be learned at long last.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.