Progressive Jewish communities are not universally ‘scorned and despised in Israel’ as Rabbi Eric Yoffie has written, but the belittling and degrading description of Reform Judaism offered by Daniel Gordis demonstrates precisely why the lack of religious pluralism in Israel is a real problem.
Daniel Gordis’ response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu published in Ha’aretz reminds me of the old story of the rabbi who was approached by a husband and wife complaining about each other. After listening to their respective tales, he told each one in turn that they were right and they went home beaming. Following their departure, the rebbetzin came in and exclaimed to her husband: “But they can’t both be right” to which he responded: “You’re right!”
Rabbi Yoffie, who writes as the past president of the Reform Movement in North America, is perfectly justified in criticizing the lack of religious pluralism in Israel and calling it “nothing less than a disgrace.”
If I have one reservation about his remarks, it would be that his observation that “Reform and Conservative rabbis are scorned and despised in Israel” is misleading. Of course, what he writes is true of how Rabbi Moshe Gafni MK of the United Torah Judaism party and those of his ilk view us. However, Rabbi Yoffie’s impression is far removed from my own experience as a Reform rabbi working in the field in Israel.
Indeed, the contrary is true. Our congregations are full of secular Israelis looking for ways to connect with their Jewish roots. That is not only true when it comes to the High Holydays, Tu B’Shevat celebrations and the reading of the Megilla at Purim. We are overwhelmed by requests for Bar and Bat Mitzva ceremonies. Large numbers of young couples turn to our rabbis when they want to marry and, when it comes to study, our synagogues are packed with those wishing to learn more about their Jewish heritage.
Local schools look to us for educational programs for their 7th graders while, in Hod Hasharon, our local municipality voted earlier this year by an overwhelming majority to grant our congregation, Kehilat Yonatan, public land on which to build a synagogue and community centre. A strong supporter of our congregation, Yifat Kariv, who was just voted into the Knesset on the Yesh Atid list, joined us last Erev Shabbat to celebrate with us.
We are, therefore, clearly not “scorned and despised”. Yet nothing that I have written in any way contradicts Rabbi Yoffie’s criticism of the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, which is a disgrace to a country that purports to be a Western-styled democracy. However, Israelis are voting with their feet and, in spite of our lack of public funding and denial of full rights and equal status under the law, ours is a success story.
More problematic is Daniel Gordis’ assertion that “Israelis are far from convinced that the vision of Jewish life that Reform Judaism offers can survive.” I have a great deal of respect for Daniel Gordis and generally share his views. However, on this occasion I must beg to differ.
Firstly, he would appear to base his remarks upon what he has observed in North America. He asserts that “Reform Judaism is in danger of being unable to sustain the level of Jewish commitment that any serious Jewish future requires.” He talks of “epidemic levels of intermarriage.” In his degrading and belittling description of the Reform Movement he fails to note the immense contribution played by this major religious stream in maintaining Jewish commitment in the Diaspora and saving Jews from assimilation. Even many orthodox Jewish leaders in North America acknowledge that, even if he does not.
I would suggest that he take a look at what is happening in France today, where Orthodoxy reigns supreme, where liberal Judaism has hardly taken a foothold and yet where, according to a recent survey of French Jewry, intermarriage among those under the age of 30 is now running at 40 per cent.
It is time that this old canard was finally laid to rest. Intermarriage is a bi-product of social integration and assimilation. Reform Judaism is not responsible for it.
Gordis writes that we “must engender a serious conversation among American Jews about whether or not the varieties of Judaism that they so desperately want validated in Israel can actually sustain a Jewish future.” However, as a committed Jew and an Israeli, I would say the same about Orthodoxy’s contribution to the level of Jewish identity and commitment in my own country.
On the assumption that Haredi-style Judaism is not the religious model that Gordis would adopt, a 2010 Israel Bureau of Statistics study showed that only 12 per cent of Israelis had opted for the kind of Judaism – the Orthodox kind – that he believes would “sustain a Jewish future”.
Indeed, only 20 per cent of Israelis over the age of 18 defined themselves as ultra-orthodox or religious (dati), while no less than 43 per cent considered themselves secular – and that in a country where orthodox Judaism has enjoyed coercive religious power enforced by law ever since the early days of the State!
As a rabbi who has prepared thousands of children for Bar and Bat Mitzva, I am frequently appalled by the ignorance of many young Israelis when it comes to anything to do with their Jewish heritage. Many of them cannot even complete the sentence that starts “Shema Yisrael” – and this, just seventy years after Jews went to their death in the concentration camps of Europe with those words on their lips.
Their parents don’t know the difference between a parasha and a haftara and if we were not there to offer them a Jewish alternative in which the mother would not be stuck behind a screen, they would simply celebrate their sons’ reaching the age of majority by a trip to Disneyworld or by watching Manchester United play at home.
Instead of addressing his remarks to Rabbi Yoffie, Gordis should be addressing them to me and my Reform and Conservative colleagues in Israel, who suffer religious discrimination in our own country on a daily basis.
He needs to tell us why the local Orthodox rabbi and his community should receive public funds while we do not. He needs to tell us why the marriages at which we officiate should not be recognized by the state while those of the orthodox rabbinate are. He needs to tell us why we cannot conduct the funerals of our own members at the municipal cemetery. He needs to tell us by what right families should be divided when they go to pray at the Kotel. He needs to tell us why the Hebrew Union College, the Schechter Institute and their respective student bodies don’t enjoy the same level of state funding and stipends received by the yeshivot and their students. And we serve in the army!
Much of what Gordis writes about Jewry in North America may, for all I know, be true, but what on earth has any of that to do with my rights as a Reform Jew in Israel?
Rabbi Michael (Micky) Boyden was the founding rabbi of the Reform congregations in Ra’anana and Hod Hasharon and is past Director of the Beit Din of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis. Before making aliyah in 1985 he served as the rabbi of the Cheshire Reform congregation in the UK.
* This article was first published in the Ha’aretz English edition