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Liberal Judaism in Israel

03/03/2021 11:36:59 AM


Rabbi Brent Spodek

Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press
Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

One of the strange peculiarities of contemporary Jewish life is that while in America, I am a rabbi and I teach Judaism, in Israel, I am not a rabbi and what I teach is heresy, at least in the eyes of the government. 

Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, Judaism in Israel has been defined by the Orthodox Rabbinate, which disregards and denigrates liberal Judaism, despite the fact that the vast majority of Jews in both America and Israel are not Orthodox. The hostility of the Orthodox establishment towards liberal Judaism is manifested in a range of ways, from yeshiva students throwing full diapers at egalitarian davveners at the Western Wall to the inability of Israelis to have weddings performed by anyone other than Orthodox rabbis.

So it was a major victory when earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the state had to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions to Judaism. (more on that in Ha’aretz and the New York Times.)

This is a largely symbolic victory, since the particulars only affect a few dozen people in a given year. Nevertheless, the symbolism matters. 

“It’s a tremendous sense of relief and gratitude and gratification,” said Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center. “This verdict really opens the gates for Israel to have more than one way to be Jewish.”

Sadly, the backlash against this from political and religious leaders has been predictably hostile. 

Some ultra-Orthodox allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - who asserts that he is the leader of all Jews - immediately released an ad comparing liberal Jews to dogs, saying that only their party could guarantee Judaism for the future, while other allies warned of African “infiltrators” becoming Jews under liberal conversion.  Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef described the conversion process in Reform and Conservative Judaism as a “forgery” which brings “thousands of gentiles” into the Jewish people. 

In this latest skirmish between the liberal and illiberal aspects of Judaism, there is cause for disappointment, and cause for hope as well. 

For me, as a liberal Jew and a Zionist, it is painfully disappointing to recognize the ways in which I and so many others - the Palestinians chief among them - are excluded from the official narrative, often at the expense of their dignity, their possessions and often, their lives. 

Yet Israel is not fully defined by the worst of Israel any more than America is defined by the worst of America. Any sophisticated understanding of America must contend with White Supremacy as part of the American story and also Martin Luther King as part of the American story. 

So too, Israel has its theocrats and racists in positions of power. But they do not define the fullness of Israel any more than the KKK defines the fullness of America. 

In moments like these, I turn again to the words of my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, who wrote, “The model of Sinai awakens the Jewish people to the awesome responsibility of becoming a holy people. At Sinai, we discover the absolute demand of God; we discover who we are by what we do... Sinai does not tell us about the moral purity of the Jewish nation, but about the significance of aspiring to live by the commandments.”

In Israel, as in America, as in most of our personal lives, there is the painful gap between the values we espouse and the values we actually live. As the poet Amanda Gorman recently reminded us, we are not broken, simply unfinished.

This ruling from the Israeli Supreme Court does not finish the work of perfecting Israel, of building a state that lives up to the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence, let alone the aspirations of Sinai.

That perfection, however, is an illusion. All that is ever possible is better, and by recognizing the Judaism of this community and thousands of liberal Jewish communities in America and Israel, the Supreme Court has made Israel a better place. 

That alone is grounds to celebrate. 

Thu, April 15 2021 3 Iyyar 5781