Balak and Unity Within All of Israel

Rabbi’s Note: Wih summer I will take some liberties; I delivered the comments below last Shabbat. Recent activities by the Knesset-in support of Israeli’s Chief Rabbinate-have created world wide concern in the Jewish community. It is my hope that the progress made toward religious pluralism in Israel will not be impeded by an Orthodox community, whose goal of monopolizing Israeli Judaism is more about politics than religion.
On another matter: This past week I was part of a private rabbinic delegation which met with the new UN Secretary General. I will share my observations next week…

Balak and Unity Within All of Israel

Seventeen months ago, after years of negotiation, an historic agreement was reached within the Israeli Knesset. Finally, a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall would be established; where Jews could prayer without the restrictive and oppressive hand of an Orthodox Rabbinate. No longer would men and women be arrested or assaulted for daring to read from a Torah on the woman’s side of the Wall plaza. No longer would men and women who wanted to pray together, be subject to taunts, to ridicule and to the intimidation of opponents who regularly blocked the path of ‘egalitarian’ worshippers coming to pray.

So it was an alarmingly sad day for much of world Jewry, when Prime Minister Netanyahu-just two weeks ago- reneged on that deal; succumbing to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox forces in his coalition. In the exhaustive and emotional struggle to achieve that agreement 17 months ago, no one sought to deny or restructure the practice at the Western Wall’s main plaza.

No one blocked the path of Orthodox Jews coming to the Wall plaza to pray in Orthodox fashion.

No one denied the legitimacy of Orthodox practice; despite the fact that most Israelis and most Jews throughout the world are not Orthodox Jews.

All that was created 17 months ago was an official space-at a separate part of the Kotel’s precinct-to recognize the legitimate rights of all Jews to share a Wall which belongs to every Jew throughout the world.

My teacher and colleague Rabbi Reuben Hammer published these words in the Jerusalem Post, in response to Netanyahu’s decision:

Because of its position as the only Jewish State and the location of the largest Jewish community in the world, what happens in Israel is critical to the future of Judaism and Jewish life everywhere. By giving monopolistic power to the Chief Rabbinate and to a Chief Rabbinate that is more ultra-Orthodox than moderate, and by denying the legitimacy of more liberal streams, Israel is influencing the development of the Jewish religion. By giving in to these groups, it is encouraging the image of Judaism as a regressive religion, one that rejects humanistic values and that strives for a theocracy in which individual rights are not important. Is this to be the future of Judaism?

In the global climate in which we live, I am generally reluctant to make any public criticism of Israel. Nevertheless, as a Conservative Rabbi, I cannot stand idly by and not take a stand.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote a provocative article this week; insisting that American Jews stop trying to affect Israeli policy on matters for which it has no skin in the game. He referred to protests over ‘occupation’ and over treatment of the Palestinian people. Many of the protesters, writes Gordis, have no clue about the issues; nor about the long history of Palestinian leaders refusing EVER to recognize a Jewish state. When it comes however, to issues regarding the Western Wall, Gordis argues that American Jews must get involved. We should not just shut up and write checks because the decisions about the Wall impact the entire Jewish people.

Before sharing Gordis’ arguments, let me share my own:
The controversy concerning the Wall is not a secondary issue. It addresses the nature of Jewish spiritual life and its raison d’etre at the core. Appropriating the Wall for a small segment of the population constitutes a form of spiritual thievery. A nation may be preoccupied with physical survival; but that country still needs a healthy domestic life, a conscience and a purpose. What good is fighting for one’s physical existence if the existence for which you are fighting will only lead to a different kind of destruction and national erosion?

In his thoughtful piece, Gordis reminds us that the Balfour Declaration called for a homeland for the entire Jewish people; and not only for one particular religious segment. Therefore, denying both Israelis and Jews throughout the world an equal opportunity to pray at a site dedicated to the entire Jewish people, is unconscionable and discriminatory.

So what can we do?

As Gordis argues, Israelis will not care about our righteous indignation; whether over the Kotel issue or anything else. They will care about our opinions, however, when they impact upon Israeli life. Here is an illustration of what we can do: The Israeli government is also considering a measure to place power over the Law of Return exclusively in the hands of Israel’s myopic Chief Rabbinate. In response to this alarming measure, the Jewish Federation of Chicago announced that no Israeli leader who supports such a decision will be welcomed into their community. Such leaders can no longer contemptuously delegitimize most of world Jewry and then expect a red carpet reception.

The Conservative Movement, to which I belong, issued a statement expressing the idea that because we love Israel and see the rising influence of an intolerant, religious establishment as an existential threat to its future and to the unity of the Jewish people, we will not relent until the rights of non Orthodox Jews will be recognized.

In the Torah portion, Balak wishes to curse the Jewish people; knowing little of our creed or purpose. As tragic as this may be, we Jews will probably have to endure such external hostility for the foreseeable future. It is incumbent upon us however, to make sure that such hostility does not rise from within our religion itself. By rejecting the right of non-Orthodox Jews to pray in a safe space, the Israeli leadership enables a select group of narrow minded bigots to hijack the Jewish people. About this matter, we certainly have stake in the game and it is time we do something about it.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Klayman