Living in the Promised Land: Politics & Religion

September 8th: Ki Tavo
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

“When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it…”  (Deuteronomy 26.1) Thus begins Parshat Ki Tavo and the mitzvah of taking first fruits and sharing them with God, with the Priests and Levites, and with orphans and widows and strangers. God’s blessings are gifts which should be shared with others.

Of course, for almost 2000 years, this particular mitzvah was impossible. Very few Jews lived in “The Land,” and therefore most Jews had to celebrate this mitzvah theoretically and in a different context. Thank God that this is no longer the case, and Jews can now both enter the Land of Israel and live in it, bringing Judaism’s holiness to the Holy Land.

Among the many challenges facing the modern State of Israel is religious diversity. There are many different approaches to Judaism and Jewishness among the Jews of Israel, and there are often conflicts about who is in charge and how will Judaism officially be practiced.

A lot of news was generated this summer over the issue of access to the Kotel, the Western (retaining) Wall of the Temple Mount. When the Kotel was regained in 1967, it could have been assigned to the Ministry of Antiquities as a historical site. However, politics being what they are, it was assigned to the Ministry of the Interior (and Religious Affairs) and thus was classified as a “synagogue” and given to the Orthodox Rabbanut to manage. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women pray separately, and so the two sides—a men’s and a women’s—became the new arrangement. (Formerly, before the Kotel was seized and desecrated by the Jordanians in 1948, men and women had prayed there together.)

For the past several years, a group of courageous and determined feminists, The Women of the Wall, has gathered on the women’s side every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) and tried to lead a public service and read Torah. There has been a lot of resistance by the Orthodox, and, things have gotten pretty ugly on more than one occasion. It has been an example of the lack of religious freedom in Israel for non-Orthodox Jews. Then, a coalition of civil liberties activists, representatives of a range of Jewish “denominations,” and some high ranking governmental leaders worked on the problem and came up with a solution. Instead of two sections, the Kotel would have three: one for men, another for women, and a third for mixed groups and Liberal Jewish worship. The details were all hammered out, and everyone was on board, but, at the last minute in June, some Orthodox political parties threatened to withdraw their support from Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and the whole plan collapsed.

A lot of people had a lot to say, and the controversy reverberated around the Jewish world. Unfortunately, the Liberal branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—are too often marginalized in Israel, denied government funds, and thwarted by a wide range of Orthodox strategies. It is a continual struggle.

And yet, the story of Liberal Judaism is Israel is not a tale of woe or failure. There has been a lot of progress—a lot of success, and I want to share with you a recent statement of Rabbi Micky Boyden, one of the long-time leaders of Progressive Judaism in Israel. He writes:

 When one reads about the way in which Bibi backtracked on the Kotel agreement and the disgraceful manner in which the Women of the Wall are treated by the police and security personnel, one could be mistaken for believing that Reform Judaism is having a bad time of it in Israel.

If you add to that the dislike that many feel for Israel's right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many Reform Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holydays are approaching and it is time to put the record straight.

Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and HUC in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding.

 Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim. Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. The Reform Movement in Israel conducts over 200 conversions per annum. Those who have converted through us are recognized as Jews by the State of Israel and registered as such in the Interior Ministry's population register. We
are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called "secular" Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative.

Of course, many people don't like Bibi. (I know one or two people who aren't that happy with Donald Trump either!) However, that doesn't stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.