Reform Jews At Crossroads On Israel


In my 13 years as the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, I avoided criticizing Israel. This year is different.

The Israeli government’s decision to back out of its pledge to expand a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall and ongoing discrimination against the Reform and Conservative movements has brought to a head a crisis that has been brewing for decades. If not resolved, this crisis will destroy the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish people. It is a graver threat than all of Israel’s many security challenges. All who care about Israel are obligated now to speak out.

The ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel weakens Judaism. It distorts Jewish values, breeding arrogance — the opposite of what Judaism urges. One of the great Talmudic sages, Rabbi Chanina bar Idda, said: “Why is Torah compared to water? Just as water flows from a high place to a low place, so do the words of Torah remain only with one who is humble.”

Observing Israeli charedi political leaders, does anyone think of humility? They project an unwarranted self-assurance that repels even many Orthodox Jews, let alone many millions of secular Israelis and Jews worldwide. Israel is the only democracy in the world that discriminates against non-Orthodox rabbis and movements. Can we imagine what the reaction would be if Germany, Britain or France tried that?

Most charedi Jews are not even Zionists. Their parties in the Knesset oppose as a matter of principle the idea of a Jewish state. They see the Western Wall not as a national shrine, but as a big charedi synagogue.

I am in favor of such synagogues, for those who find solace there. I believe there is much we can learn from, and even admire in, those whose commitment to Jewish law — halacha — is so intense.

What I oppose is the awesome powers the state granted exclusively to the most intolerant forces that then impose their worldview on everyone else. This ultra-Orthodox monopoly distorts Judaism, Zionism, pluralism and democracy itself, causing enormous and intensifying friction within Israeli society, and fraying the fabric of fellowship and faithful friendship between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

Politics is about power; a fight for influence. But the essence of charedi opposition to Reform and Conservative Judaism is not political in the conventional sense. It is not a clash over who gets a larger slice of the national pie. It is an implacable conviction that non-Orthodox Jews are a mortal threat to the Jewish people: that what we represent is not even Judaism.

So what we are going to do about it?

To make a real difference we need to build a vital progressive Reform movement on the ground in Israel. We have never dedicated ourselves to this purpose with the kind of movement-like commitment, energy and discipline with which we are capable. We must build hundreds of vibrant synagogues, schools and community centers; train hundreds of rabbis, cantors and educators who have good full-time jobs. We must create a mass nationwide Reform movement on the ground in the Promised Land.

And we must pay for it. We need to demand more from each of the 300,000 families of our national movement, the Union for Reform Judaism.

“We need to build a vital progressive Reform movement on the ground in Israel.”

Accordingly, the president of our congregation and I will be leading a delegation from Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to launch discussions with the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism aimed at two principal objectives:

First, to discuss how the Jewish federations can help direct more support to those in Israel who share our worldview. If our federation friends see themselves as the umbrella philanthropy for American Jews, together we must launch a process that will reprioritize Israel investments to better advance our common values and counter the threat to all of us from the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel.

Second, we will explore how our national synagogue dues structure might be reoriented towards greater investment in Israel. If we expect this reorientation from federations, should we not also reform ourselves? How can more of the funds paid to the national movement by every member of a Reform synagogue be used for what we say is among our highest priorities?

In so many ways, Israel has lived up to the dreams of its founders in terms of its vigor and vitality, ingeniousness and ingenuity and robustness and resolve. Just the fact of Israel’s democracy, with 90 percent of its citizens having come from non-democratic countries, and defending itself, surviving and prospering surrounded by hostile neighbors — is, itself, a miracle.

But Israel has strayed from its founding vision. In envisioning the future Jewish state, Theodor Herzl wrote: “We shall … not permit any theocratic tendencies to emerge among our spiritual authorities. The rabbinate will be honored as highly as their valuable functions require and deserve. But they must not interfere in the administration of state.”

Herzl knew that religion and politics is a potent brew that, when mixed, can destroy both religion and politics. A former chief rabbi of Israel is in prison now. Among the crimes he confessed to was taking large bribes from foreigners who wished to convert to Judaism.

The stakes are very high. Israel needs progressive Judaism more than ever to counter the coercive worldview of charedi Judaism and the intensifying political extremism of right-wing religious Zionists.

Moreover, the American Reform movement needs a vital progressive counterpart in Israel more than ever for our own viability in North America. Already today, Israel, not America, has the majority of the world’s Jews. That majority will only grow in decades to come. In the absence of immutable bonds with the Jewish state, the Hebrew language and the people and land of Israel, non-Orthodox Jewish identity will disintegrate here in America. Progressive Judaism in Israel is our bridge to Jewish peoplehood.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.