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.