On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Encountering History in Jerusalem

I write on the flight home from a four-day trip to Israel, trying to process from 32,000 feet the jumble of events I witnessed on the ground during these few days—all of them developments that may well impact Jewish history for many decades to come. The past is impossible to escape on the streets of Jerusalem; the future is seemingly up for grabs on a daily basis. The bustle of crowds and the screaming headlines are not just street noise but history hurtling forward.

Consider the decision at the beginning of the week to set aside a portion of the Western Wall for mixed prayer by men and women, as well as the congregation known as Women of the Wall. For the very first time, official and explicit government recognition has been afforded to Reform and Conservative Jews. The immediate outcry by Orthodox leaders and politicians provided eloquent testimony to the immensity of what non-Orthodox Jews had just achieved. So did the protests of Jews who were unhappy with the compromise because it left the part of the Wall known to Jews everywhere as “the Kotel” in the hands of Orthodox authorities who have denied women the right to pray there wearing tallit and tefillin, and prohibited any kind of public prayer that did not meet with their approval. I cannot but cheer the compromise, one that I did not believe could possibly happen during the present government, which holds only a one-vote majority in the Knesset that depends on ultra-Orthodox support. But it did happen. Many details still need to be worked out, and the process of implementation might yet be derailed, but the symbolism of what occurred, to my mind, could not be more profound.

What it means is that Jews who live abroad as well as who live in Israel, no matter their belief and practice, have a full share in the Land and State of Israel. The wall is universally held to be “the holiest site in the world” for Jews. If one can only approach that holy site on Orthodox terms; can only pray according to Orthodox rules; cannot open a Torah scroll without Orthodox permission; cannot as a woman wrap oneself in prayer shawl and phylacteries or lead prayer for a mixed congregation or raise one’s voice in petition to the Creator of the Universe—and if all these rules are enforced by Israeli police officers—then the message is loud and clear: this site belongs to us and not to you, as does the authentic form of Jewish tradition, and even—in a very real sense—that State.

Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin put the matter with stunning directness when he said that there was no reason to accommodate Reform and Conservative Jews—who were not only a tiny minority in Israel, but would not exist in two or three generations because of assimilation and intermarriage. The Prime Minister immediately dissociated himself from those comments, but Levin refused to retract them—knowing full well that he had centuries of Orthodox disdain for non-Orthodox Jews, and decades of Zionist confidence that the Diaspora would soon disappear.

Conservative Judaism, for its part—our part—has always invoked the authority of history in countering such claims maintained: there has never been only one interpretation of Judaism, never only one way to be Jewish, and—in our brand of Judaism at least—there has always been an emphasis on obligation to the entire Jewish people (even Haredim who won’t give us respect) and strong attachment to the Land and State of Israel. The realities of Israeli society and coalition politics have long denied non-Orthodox Jews an equal playing field in the contest for the minds and hearts of Israeli Jews, just as they have long denied Israelis the right to be converted, married, divorced or buried except by agreement of the (ultra Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate. That changed this week, in one crucial aspect, at one crucial intersection of your life and mine with history.

“It does not give us what we need,” one thoughtful Israeli said to me, “The Kotel, the place where Jews have prayed for centuries, remains in the hands of the Haredim.” “Yes,” I replied, “but centuries from now Jews will regard the place set aside by this week’s decision for non-Orthodox prayer as just as much a part of the Kotel as the other because Jews will have sanctified it by praying there. The stones have stood silent for a very long time, untouched by tears or petitions inserted in their cracks. That will soon change. Israel will change with it.”

Just how much such change is required, from the point of view of the Torah that Jews like me have learned and taught, was underlined by two other events of the week, fitting brackets for the decision about the wall. My arrival coincided with reverberations from the verbal attack by the right-wing Im Tirtzu group on prominent Israeli artists and writers such as Amos Oz and A. B. Yehosha as “plants” (or moles) and “traitors.” Minister of Culture Miri Regev demanded that any artist or arts organization receiving or applying for a government subsidy swear an oath of loyalty to the State and not impugn Israel or its symbols. The move was widely seen as part of a growing campaign by the right to silence its critics—a secular parallel to action by the rabbis with whom the right is politically allied.

That partnership was evident again at week’s end when the chief rabbis along with politicians of the right sought to overturn an army decision that weakened the power of the chief rabbinate’s educational arm in the Israeli Defense Forces. A friend of mine who has one son in the officer corps and another about to be drafted expressed concern – apparently growing inside the army as well as outside it – that rabbis in the military are abusing their special access to the minds and hearts of soldiers. By some accounts, more than half of the officers in the IDF are now Orthodox – a direct result, some say, of the pre-induction yeshivot that, under army auspices, promote the confluence of right-wing politics, Orthodox belief and observance, and military prowess.

I thought, as I reflected on this battle, of the new book by political philosopher Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation. In Israel, as in India and Algeria, Walzer argues, nationalist movements that had achieved independence in part through the use of religious symbols, myths, and longings, have been overtaken several decades afterward by religious parties that deny legitimacy to secular authorities and have gained positions of power in the state. Will Israeli soldiers who pledge loyalty to their rabbis as well as their commanders follow the orders of the latter when the two come into conflict—as they surely will as some point? Or will they follow the rabbis, who not only wear an army uniform but speak in the name of God and Torah?

If only Israel were a peaceful place, these battles for the definition of a Jewish state could be fought through competing teachings, divergent rituals and prayer services, and multiple school systems. Instead they take place against a background that forces one to ask, every week and sometimes every day, not only how but whether Israel will someday come to live at peace with its neighbors. On my way from the airport to Jerusalem, my cab driver told me about the soldier who had been shot by terrorists earlier that day; my cousin Leo told me, as we drove to Mount Scopus for a discussion comparing Latin American and North American Jews, that we would make a giant detour because terrorists had just killed one soldier (a recent female recruit) and wounded two others at the Damascus Gate. The site is a short walk through the Arab Quarter from the Western Wall. “I don’t see an end to this anytime soon,” my cousin said, echoing a sentence I heard many times this week.

Such sobriety and pessimism are widespread these days, along with recognition that Israel represents a truly incredible chapter of Jewish history and that its problems, which are many, are more than matched by its achievements. No one I know is regretting their decision to join their personal fate to Israel’s destiny. The highlight of the week for me was a ceremony honoring four JTS alumni who moved to Israel many years ago and have made notable contributions to its character and its citizens. We conducted the evening in Hebrew, aware that the fact of Hebrew’s revival had transformed Jewish history and greatly altered all of us. Next year in Jerusalem, we hope to celebrate our alumni again.


  1. Elaine Moise says:

    I wish I could be happy about this so-called “compromise,” but I am not. The women who wish to pray with tallis and tefillin (and a Torah scroll) in the women’s section of the “real” Kotel will now once again be completely forbidden from doing so, and probably from “raising their voices” in prayer as well. Those women are interested neither in mixed-gender prayer nor in Robinson’s Arch. Further, it is my understanding that mixed prayer has always been possible at Robinson’s Arch, and that WOW used to go there to have their Torah readings in the past. So — maybe it’s a bigger space, or maybe they’ll clean it up, but that’s about it. Doesn’t seem like much of a compromise to me.

    Like I said, I wish I could be happy about this, but I don’t see it.

  2. Mel Scult says:

    Of course I am happy as all liberal Jews are
    with the new developments concerning the Wall. But I happen to be in a very special situation. The haredim are so often the enemies in situations like this. I am a card carrying Reconstructionist and a JTS graduate but my son is a haredi and my ten grand children are haredim as are my ten great grand children. I love
    them all and in some kind of way we do relate and value each other. I believe in clal yisrael as Solomon Schechter did and I want to include my family under the tent. It is often hard and there has been much struggle to achieve some kind of modus vivendi.

    And yet, I do see some movement among my grand children who are more tolerant than their father and I hope against all reality that some of my great grand children will turn out to be liberal Jews or perhaps even Reconstructionists. Hopefully before the messiah comes. But I do hope.

  3. I am a Masorti/Conservative Jew who lives seven or eight months a year in Jerusalem. I found this piece insightful. One comment regarding the fourth paragraph: I actually think there are a lot of Reform and Conservative Jews living in Israel. They just don’t know that that is what they are. They refer to themselves as “secular.” But they honor many traditions. They go to shul occasionally. They believe in God or some higher force or being. Some keep kosher or their version of it. Many light candles and say the hamotzi on Erev Shabbat. They want their children to value their Judaism and to know their Jewish history. They try to do mitzvot. They engage in acts of tzedekah and tikun olam. They want a rabbi to officiate at life cycle events. They are committed Zionists. Sound familiar?

    • Y. Ben-David says:

      Yes, many Israelis “go to shul” occasionally, but the shul they almost always go to is Orthodox. The fact is that there are only a few C congregations in Israel, there is only one in the city I live in which is a suburb of Tel Aviv. As Professor Shlomo Avineri, a committed secularist has famously stated “the synagogue I don’t attend is Orthodox”. Few of these “traditionalist” Jews you mentioned even know the C movement exists in Israel. Until the C’s get a motivated laity, on the ground, opening more and more congregations that have daily prayers and activities as do the thousands of O congregations, these “traditionalist” Jews are not going to end up identifying with the C movement, but instead looking at the Orthodox as “authentic Judaism”.

  4. My name is Rachel Diamond, I am a graduate of the Joint Program 1970. I have been living on a religious moshav in the Jordan Valley of Israel for the past 31 years.
    What is not mentioned in the article here, is that what upsets alot of religious people in Israel is that these women who want to dovin at the Kotel on Rosh Chosesh with talis and tefilin make a SPECTACLE of themselves.They want to STAND OUT-be noticed. Jews, Chrisitans, Moslem come to the Western Wall because it is a Holy place . There is no holy place in the USA -that’s why this is not understood by you and your colleauges.

  5. Laurel Gress says:

    I read recently that the Muslim authorities in charge of the mosques in the Temple Mount reportedly said that they “will not tolerate” the new egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel. I don’t understand why Muslims have any say about what goes on there. Israel doesn’t dictate what Muslims can do at their mosques on the Temple Mount. I hope Israel will not back down on their promise to create this new prayer space because of what the Palestinians do or do not want.

  6. Y. Ben-David says:

    First off, a correction. The kotel may be universally held to be the holiest place of the Jewish people, but that would be incorrect. The holiest place is the Har HaBayit (Temple Mount) where Jews are prohibited from praying because of threats of violence from the Muslims. Just as the Conservative movement raised its voice in demands that the prayer arrangements at the Kotel be liberalized and succeeded in this, it would be appropriate that they also make it clear that they also demand that Jewish prayer rights on the Har HaBayit also be recognized.

    Regarding the fact that the C movement is not recognized in Israel, it is important to realize that this is NOT because of “coalition politics”. or O control of the Chief Rabbinate. It is because the Orthodox have hundreds of thousands of followers who on a day-by-day basis maintain their thousands of synagogues on a volunteer basis, including ongoing personal financial contributions, the Conservatives, on the other hand, have failed to create a similar religious infrastructure ON THE GROUND in Israel. There are still fewer than 100 congregations in the entire country and the number has hardly changed in the last 40 years. In addition, the existing nucleus of C members does not show the same degree of day-by-day involvement as the O’s do. I live a few meters from the one and only C congregation in my town which is a suburb of Tel Aviv. They only have services on Shabbat…no daily minyan. Although some 40 years ago the C movement ruled that women count in a minyan, they are not breaking down the doors of their congregation in order to put on tallit and tefillin and read from the Torah. It is precisely this apparent apathy that has held the C movement back in Israel. Add to that the fact that you rightly mentioned that the C movement has always been pro-Zionist, unlike the other Jewish movements which were divided on the issue, but in spite of this, the movement has failed miserably to motivate its rank and file in the US to actually make aliyah. Zionism was always about building things, but the C movement has never gotten beyond the level of talking about Israel. Prime Minister Golda Meir was once asked by a delegation of R and C rabbis when they would get government recognition. Her answer was “when 1 million R and C American Jews
    make aliyah”.

    The new Robinsons’ Arch site will prove a test of the C movement’s true committment to change things on the ground in Israel. At the regular Kotel site, Jews are found there 24/7 in all weather, praying and studying Torah, in all weather and all security conditions. If the new egalitarian site simply becomes a place an occasional visitor from the US comes to get his or her photo taken, or a one-time event like a Bar or Bat-mitzvah ceremony is held, but then the site is then forgotten by these same people, then the C movement will continue to stagnate in Israel.

  7. Y. Ben-David says:

    I must say I am somewhat surprised that you, as an observant C Jew are distressed that the IDF officer corps is becoming “too Orthodox”.
    I would think that you would welcome having secular Jews exposed to Judaism, even if it isn’t the flavor that you associate yourself with. While it is true that the official IDF Rabbinate is Orthodox, a large contingent of young Conservative Jews among both the enlisted and officers would be able to influence the IDF and get “egalitarian” prayer facilites and Torah lectures in the spirit of the C movement. In reality, as I pointed out earlier, the small C community is not making its presence felt in the IDF and the rest of the country.
    Instead of condemning the Orthodox for having a high level of motivation among their young men and women which is bringing them to the officer corps. You also seem to utter the expression “military prowess” as some sort of negative phenomenon, but an army that isn’t willing or able to fight isn’t really worth very much. Israel doesn’t need a European-style army whose only role is to make colorful parades on the national day.
    Reading your blog I get the feeling that you pretty much align yourself and your movement with the Israeli secular Left and view the existing (O) religious community as some kind of rival. Wouldn’t it be better if all observant Jews from ALL movements worked together to bring the beauty of Judaism to the secular population, which now, more than ever, is searching for a moral anchor with which to brace ourselves for the ongoing struggle for Israel’s very survival which is constantly being threatened by Islamic radicalism. Aren’t all Jews committed to Judaism as a living faith basically all on the same side? You yourself said that there are many ways to be Jewish, and Orthodoxy is certainly one of them so it would seem cooperation and not ongoing confrontation would be the order of the day.

  8. Aaron Goldberg says:

    I’m confused. Which part of Yariv Levin’s quote is inaccurate?

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