In our Liberal Judaism month of focus on Israel, my first two sermons were somewhat overtaken by the events in Egypt. Now that things have quietened down, at least on Israel’s immediate doorstep, there is time to think more deeply about Israeli society. One question that sprung to mind is a discussion usually associated with the ultra-orthodox in Israel: understanding God’s Will, a compliment to our Torah portion of Ki Tissa and our theme, Quest for God.
Thus far, the debate in Israel has been dominated by the extremes, ultra-orthodox and ardent secularists who reject any notion of Judaism in relation to the State. On many occasions I have spoken for the separation of Synagogue and State in Israeli politics but I realised that I was allowing my thoughts to be funnelled through the definitions of the dichotomy of ultra-orthodox and secular. I was not considering a continuum between the two.
This Tuesday, the Knesset demonstrated the possibility of a different approach. It was sponsored by the Tzohar rabbinic organisation, religious Zionists whose “hope it is to fashion a Jewish identity of the State of Israel, through dialogue and the search for common elements of identity, as opposed to the differences that threaten to polarise Israeli society.”
Opening the session Jackie Levy stated, “After spending decades debating and legislating the matter of ‘Who is a Jew,’ it is time the Knesset attempts to understand and define what Judaism really is.”
Whilst they are driven by halakhah, Jewish Law, the first ever Jewish Identity Day, provided the opportunity to propel pluralism into the open and to provide a new way of thinking. Indeed, in everything that I have read, the day was focussed not on the way Jews pray or what rituals they focus their private lives on. It was a day focussed on the values of Judaism that might impact positively on the lives of Israeli society and the role of Judaism and Jewish values in the lawmaking process.
One of the principles of Liberal Judaism, informed choice, was clearly evident in the announcement that an expert on halakhah would be added to the Knesset's advisory staff. I must admit that it was probably more inspired by a famous statement by Second Aliya ideologue and educator Berl Katzenelson (1887-1944), who lamented the fact that the secular Zionist movement had raised a generation of knowledgeable heretics, but instead produced a generation of ignoramuses.
Whilst on other occasions one might be alarmed at the introduction of more Torah learning to the Knesset thinking, there was a clear focus on plurality with the hope that a new law would widen the criteria of state funding to Torah institutions, enabling non-haredi groups to receive money like ultra-Orthodox yeshivot do. Just this week we received an appeal from the Leo Baeck Centre in Haifa for our Congregation to provide the funding for an Ethiopian child to attend their school. The school was not recognized as a State School when it was founded 4 years ago, due to the lack of egalitarianism towards Progressive Judaism in Israel. Rabbi Ofek wrote to me saying, “Nothing has changed, and I as a Progressive Jewish educator cannot accept that underprivileged children will be denied a Progressive education.” Let us hope that something will now change but also support this appeal when we launch it in a few weeks time.
This and other absurdities, such as individuals recognised as Jewish by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate but not by the Interior Ministry highlight that there was much progress to be made. The case of Hungarian- born Judith Weitzman was heard, whose great-grandmother converted to Christianity in Europe under duress. Like the rest of her siblings, Weitzman maintains a Jewish lifestyle, and when she wished to marry an Israeli, both the Chief Rabbinate and the Tiberias Rabbinical Court decreed her to be Jewish, and the regional rabbi of the Golan Heights conducted the wedding ceremony. Yet the Interior Ministry refuses to recognize her as a Jew, and therefore refuses to grant her citizenship.
It will be fascinating to hear the views next Shabbat of Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC). She and the Progressive Movement in Israel were well represented in the Knesset and their influence strongly felt. Nino Abesadze of Kadima pointed out that 63% of Israelis recognize Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism. “A Conservative or Reform Jewish grandmother in the US is a Jew just like me,” she said. Daniel Ben-Simon of Labor declared that “Israel's big challenge is to get Judaism into our state--without one rigid formula.”
Naturally there were dissenters, mainly those with Rabbis in their political ranks. Perhaps therein lies the true dichotomy: whether Israel is run by Rabbis or by Jewish values. In our Torah portion of Ki Tissa, we are reminded that if our quest for God becomes reliance, we might fall into the idolatry of worshipping a molten calf. It was Aaron the religious leader who allowed it to happen. It was Moses who, having received both ritual and ethical law alike, focused attention back on the One true God. Aaron as the religious leader has his place and it was separate from the political leadership of Moses. God’s will if ever conceived to apply to a nation State, seems to favour checks and balances, separation of power call it what you will.
A State of Israel “based on the principles of liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel,” will, “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex,” as the Declaration of Independence states.
A State of Israel learning about, inspired by and applying Jewish values. I can buy that: Jewish values and State. Synagogues, Rabbis and State, I think we are best served without.