I asked the following question of Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, during his whirlwind trip through the Bay Area two weeks ago: Given the mandate for Israel, from both a geopolitical and traditional Jewish framework, to ensure the physical survival (pikuach nefesh) of its people, when is the right time to fight for Israeli religious pluralism for Jews?
Oren respectfully suggested that the American Jewish community should tone down its rhetoric when criticizing Israel’s Jewish policies — in part because such criticism undermines Israel’s claim to be the sole country that can be trusted with protecting religious pluralism in the Middle East.
His suggestion affirms, however, the need to keep the conversation going. After all, if the Israeli ambassador to the United States knows about the conversation and has to respond to it, it clearly is beginning to make a difference.
In Israel, where different sects of Muslims, Christians, Druze and Baha’i receive funds from the government, only one form of Judaism gets government funding. And Modern Orthodox (Tzohar) rabbis who are part of an effort to increase flexibility within Jewish tradition are typically criticized for sharing their opinions publicly.
There is a Conservative (Masorti) movement in Israel, but its 56 communities receive no funding from the government, and its ideals no doubt would be better served by a diverse group of Jewish leaders.
Israel’s persona in the minds of many of North Americans is that it’s a land solely for the ultra-Orthodox, which in turn has distanced us from our richly textured heritage.
This point of view is even more prominent among young American Jews. According to a study released in January by two American professors, less than half of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States under the age of 35 believe that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy (compared to 78 percent of those over 65).
Worse than that, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni recently pointed to the measurable erosion of many young Israelis’ Jewish identity. During a meeting with the Masorti Foundation Leadership mission to Israel, in which I participated last month, Livni warned that if nothing changes, more and more Israelis will begin to think of themselves as Israeli and not Jewish.
David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, once quipped: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.”
Is this cynical vision of normalcy still our goal? Or has Israel — and we who love her — become “normal enough” to respond to a faltering national identity increasingly unaware of its own empty language?
The arrest of Nofrat Frenkel and the detainment and fingerprinting of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall in November demonstrate something worse than narrow governmental policy. Those actions represent the narrowing of the Israeli mindset.
Whereas once there were IDF induction ceremonies and coed school choirs at the Wall, today the enormously expanded Kotel plaza — and the small women’s side — is part of what has evolved from an Israel national site into a haredi synagogue.
So much has the Jewish awareness of most Israelis shifted that when Frenkel was arrested, Jerusalem police “forcefully push[ed]” her toward a nearby police station as she was holding a Torah, as she wrote in an essay for the Jewish Daily Forward. And when I met Frenkel last month, she said the police not only shoved her but also mocked her for wearing a tallit and holding a Torah.
We’ve been mocked before while holding the Torah. How can we be doing the mocking ourselves? Something has to change.
Last month I also met a winery owner in the Galilee who, in order to receive rabbinic kashrut certification, is forbidden from touching his own grapes, machinery and casks since he is not Shabbat observant in a traditional way.
He is a deeply spiritual Israeli Jewish man who, despite his established commitment not to work on Shabbat, is subject to excessive requirements born from politics and designed to employ untold numbers of haredi ritual certifiers.
These requirements come at the expense of both Jewish and human dignity for many, as well as alienation from Jewish tradition.
If a Jewish woman was arrested in some other country as she tried to carry out a mitzvah, we would all — all over the United States — protest outside of the embassy. We would not give their diplomats a moment’s rest.
We should do no less for and within our homeland.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, criticized the Women of the Wall, who recently came to demonstrate at the Kotel after the arrests. He was quoted as saying, “The Kotel is a place of Jewish unity and should not be used to divide people.”
Amen. Indeed, the Kotel is not a place for dividing people.
Judaism is more complicated than one form. May the place we all face become a welcoming meeting point for all forms of Judaism. May the distinction of holding Torah be a point of dignity and pride for Jewish women and men, at the Kotel and everywhere else.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.