American Jews and Israel: A Pluralistic Proposal
During the summer months, Jews commemorate the destruction of the Temple. According to the Talmud, the Temple was destroyed because of sinnat hinnom, baseless hatred. Last week while in Israel I witnessed the same phenomenon at the same place.
The government of Israel reneged on an agreement to allow egalitarian prayer at a specially designated place adjacent to the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Temple. This was opposed by the right-wing Orthodox parties in a country where the parliamentary system gives them outsized influence. The wall has been the site of some ugly scenes over the last few years, including the forcible removal of women who wear tallit and tefillin (religious garb traditionally associated with men) or who carry a Torah themselves. Editorialists and activists have fulminated, and the push for a compromise was largely a product of such outrages. Yet, the reaction to such scenes was less widespread than one might suppose. Although the vast majority of Israelis are not themselves religiously observant, there is a perception that much of the agitation for religious equality comes from outside the country — specifically, from American Jews.
In fact, arousing American Jews has been a difficult task. Although the Reform and Conservative movements have grown in Israel, that growth has been slow and the support has been sporadic. Jews who contribute vast sums to Israeli charities and organizations including Friends of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), hospitals, and even some Orthodox yeshivot (Talmudic academies) have been reluctant to support egalitarian religious movements.
There are two things that may portend a significant change. First is the government’s blatant foreswearing of a promised compromise, hammered out for over a year by the single most respected figure in Israel, the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. The second is that hand in hand with this reversal is a bill proposing to further tighten the laws of conversion. This would deligitimate conversions not just by Reform and Conservaitve Rabbis, as is true now, but also conversions by some respected Orthodox Rabbis. A total monopoly on conversions would be given to the Chief Rabbinate who often views moderates as too inclusive.
After some frantic negotiations, the conversion bill has been postponed for six months. But these developments should be a clarion call to American Jewry. We who are blessed with the diversity and pluralism enshrined in the founding can help Israelis who want to build a bigger religious tent.
Some American Jewish leaders have called for economic pressure to be put on Israel, exerting sanctions on this or that industry or by cancelling visits. It is the wrong approach, in fact the exact opposite of what is needed. Don’t deprive Israel of charitable giving — redouble and redirect it.
Right now American Jews should be vigorously supporting those Israeli institutions that promote pluralism. Money should pour into the Reform and Masorti (the Israeli name for the Conservative movement) organizations, as well as those Orthodox Rabbis who seek to be more embracing. Economic power is not only in deprivation but in dispensation. Jewish Federations all over America should look to focus their Israel giving on pluralistic movements and charities.
Like most American Rabbis, I have often had the experience of seeing the wonder on the face of Israelis who visit my synagogue and comment that they did not know worship services could be so different from the often staid traditionalism they knew growing up. Only Israelis can determine Israel’s fate, of course. But we in America can be the economic lifeblood to enable a different model to flourish and grow. In an age when religious closed-mindedness and coercion are among the most dangerous threats we face, promoting religious openness is a sacred task.