Over a month ago in the Shabbat Handout at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, we noted how monumental it was that Israel had officially recognized the first non-orthodox rabbi in the state of Israel. On May 29th, the Israeli Attorney General decided that Rabbi Miri Gold, ordained as a Reform rabbi, will be compensated by the State of Israel for her rabbinic work. We mentioned this in our handout with joy and we wanted to share the news with the community.
Last week, one hundred Orthodox rabbis gathered in Israel for what they called an “emergency meeting.” What was the emergency? That the state of Israel, the Jewish state, recognized Reform and Conservative rabbis, and thus, recognized the ideologies of these movements and congregations as legitimate expressions of Judaism. The meeting, organized by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to prevent Israel from recognizing such forms of religious expression.
Rabbi Amar claimed that the Reform and Conservative rabbis are “battling all that is holy … they are trying to the uproot the foundation of Judaism.” He added: “this is an attempt to tear the Jewish people into two nations.” As a Conservative rabbi, I should be angry. As Conservative Jews we should be furious. However, I am sure that many of us, upon hearing this news, just sort of shrugged as we have come to expect such extremism from the right-wing Israeli Rabbinate. Yet, it is that shrug that is the problem — that “oh well” attitude that we have all too often; that chuckle which simultaneously suggests that we cannot believe the chief rabbi of Israel would say such obscenities, and that we totally expected this to come out of his mouth; that silence while someone in a position of power and authority publicly denigrates the ideology, beliefs, and practices of our community.
My colleague and friend, Arie Hasit, who is a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter, the Conservative Rabbinical Seminary in Israel, was tired of shrugging, chuckling, and staying silent. In an op-ed piece this past week in Israel’s daily newspaper Haaretz he said:
I believe in modernity, I believe in progress, and I believe that Judaism fits in with these values. I do not believe that the corrupt way of government-sponsored rabbinate in Israel is the true Torah. Amar has accused me of corrupting Judaism. Well, Rabbi Amar, I’d like to tell you something: According to the Midrash, Moses did not recognize the teachings of Rabbi Akiva as Judaism. In the same way, Moses, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, would not recognize my brand of Judaism, nor would they recognize yours. Your brand of Judaism is no more authentic than mine. My Judaism comes from the same Torah as yours, and I refuse to apologize for it.
So maybe I need to stop shrugging my shoulders, chuckling at absurd statements, and remaining silent as well. After all, we – and no one else – must decide what we want the State of Israel to be. For Israel to survive and thrive, and continue to be the Jewish state, then Israel must be a state for all Jews, a state that recognizes all forms of Jewish expression. Some wonder why younger generations seem apathetic towards Israel or lack the Zionistic spark inside of them that was so prevalent among previous generations of American Jews. When the chief rabbi of Israel, the supposed voice of Judaism in the Jewish state, condemns the way in which I – in which we – observe our faith, when a woman is arrested for praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall, with a Tallit on, when a hotel refuses to allow a Solomon Schechter Day School to use the hotel’s Torah scroll because it would be – God forbid – used at an egalitarian minyan, then it is easy to see why younger generations may be apathetic. After all, isn’t that shrug of the shoulders and silence apathy on our part?
In Parashat Balak, we read the famous blessing that Balaam offers to the Jewish people upon seeing the Israelite encampment. This blessing is so well-known that it has become a part of our liturgy:
Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents, people of Jacob, your sanctuaries people of Israel.
Our rabbis continue to debate the meaning of this blessing. What was so lovely about these tents? Some suggest they were symbols of modesty. Others believe that they showed how welcoming the People of Israel were to guests. I believe Balaam offered this blessing because he saw something far more important, something that we do not see any longer in the Jewish community. He saw civility. He saw acceptance. He saw respect. He saw a Jewish community where individuals appreciated each other, where individuals disagreed, but respected the opinion of the other. He saw an actual community, am echad im lev echad, the encampment of the people of Israel, the Jewish people still in its earliest stages of infancy, as one nation with one heart – maybe a variety of opinions, but one heart.
We offer these words of blessing upon entering a sanctuary, upon beginning our prayers, not as an acknowledgment or way of saying “yes, our sanctuaries are lovely,” but rather as a prayer. We hope that our community, that the Jewish community, will once again return to such a state of civility, respect, and acceptance. We pray that we can disagree but still set up our tents in the same camp. Civility cannot be one-sided. Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov – how lovely are your dwelling places, in which communities can live side by side out of mutual respect, rather than one being overly vocal and critical and us, on the other hand remaining silent in disappointment. I hope and pray that we can still set up our tents at the same campsite, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Lubavitch, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Secular Humanist, and so on… different tents, different movements, different beliefs, but still one people.
Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah begins with the familiar words:
Kol Od Baleivav Peninah, Nefesh Yehudi Homiyah. As long as the heart within us beats and the Jewish soul still yearns…
It seems that 64 years later, my Jewish soul is still yearning – yearning for a Jewish state in which that which we call Judaism in our synagogues, homes, institutions, and communities here will be recognized and welcomed as Judaism there. Then, we can truly look to Israel and say Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your sanctuaries, your synagogues, each and every one of them. How beautiful is the Jewish State which is filled with such a diverse spectrum of Jewish belief, practice, observance, and expression!
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
(Adapted from Shabbat Sermon delivered at the Jacksonville Jewish Center on July 7, 2012)