Thursday, July 13, 2017

From Israel It's Getting Harder To Be Called a Jew

First and foremost I am a Jew. Not an America-Jew or a Jewish-American. Just a Jew.  

History, centuries and decades old, even into current times, has shown bigots and anti-Semites make no hyphenated distinction. So neither do I. I am just a Jew.

Not a particularly observant Jew, as regards devotional prayer, though I attend synagogue services most Saturdays and on most holidays. I fast on Yom Kippur and conduct family seders for Passover. 

It might appear I am observant, but I am not. Rather, I am a religious Jew based on values honed by my ancestors over 3,600 years, from the example of Abraham to be welcoming to strangers, to the promulgation of 10 basic commandments by which to live one’s life, to the precept of Hillel that the centrality of Judaism is, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

Judaism, of course, did not stop evolving from the time of Hillel (roughly the beginning of the Common Era, some 2,000 years ago). As with other religions, evolution meant division, whether it was the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes of Second Temple latter days, or the Reform, Conservative, Hasidic, Reconstruction and Haredi movements of the last hundreds of years that broke away from traditional Orthodoxy. 

Living as minorities in lands not their own, traditional Orthodox Jews could rail against what they considered unacceptable, even blasphemous, heretical alterations to their religion. But their anger and disapproval could not and did not result in physical persecutions, though spiritual punishments were meted out (google Baruch Spinoza to see how free thinkers could be treated by the Jewish establishment).  

No one, however, was burned at the stake. Unlike what transpired in Europe and the Middle East, no armies assembled and marched on heretics or infidels, no blood was shed among different sects in their ideological dispute about the ideal way to serve God, though, for the record, when Jews lived in what we now call Israel in the first century CE, fratricide did occur before the Second Temple fell. Indeed, some rabbis have taught that religious differences were the cause of the Temple’s destruction and Jerusalem’s defeat by the Romans.

Once Judaism evolved into a religion of rabbinic tradition, bloodletting was not part of its template.

Which brings us to contemporary times and a schism that threatens to do more harm to Jewish unity than any despot could have imagined. Israel’s multi-party political system has invested an ultra-Orthodox segment of the society (the Haredi) with power and influence that may well transform the country away from its pluralistic, multi-cultural, egalitarian roots into a repressive, religious regime that restricts freedoms and norms common to Western civilization. 

In addition, the schism has global ramifications as non Haredi Jews in the diaspora, despite their financial and political backing of Israel, feel marginalized by the Netanyahu government’s support for the Haredi chief rabbinate’s exclusionary dictums.  

The current fight is over two issues. The first is appropriate access to the Western Wall (the kotel), Judaism’s holiest site. The second is over recognition of religious conversions by non Haredi rabbis.

Assessing the merits or details of each dispute is not my intention here (you can research the issues on your own). Rather, my concern is the presumption of one sect to have the right to determine the religious validity of the remaining people who classify themselves as Jews along with their respective religious practices. (There’s no doubt they have the power to do so because of their leverage in keeping Bibi Netanyahu’s coalition government in office. But that power does not imbue moral authority.)

“The reason why Judaism is the only religion that survived throughout thousands of years and all the massacres and all the attempts to destroy it is that ours is the only religion that has always been the same, the way it was given to us on Mount Sinai,” Nachum Eisenstein, chief rabbi of eastern Jerusalem’s Haredi Maalot Dafna neighborhood, said in an interview with The Jewish Week. “Who gave you, the Conservative and the Reform, the authority to make up a new religion?” (

On the other hand, as Morris Allen, rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Mendota Heights, MN, wrote in the Forward newspaper, “The secret of our longevity during the generations of our statelessness was the vibrancy of open and competing views for Jewish meaning. It is evident in our exegesis, in our rabbinic texts and in our philosophical works. The imposition of an official doctrine is now sowing the seeds of our own destruction.”

Let’s put some of Rabbi Eisenstein’s claims in context: Jews do not practice their religion as given to us on Mount Sinai. We don’t indulge in ritual sacrifices. Prayer was not authorized on Mount Sinai. It is an invention of rabbis, a substitute for ritual sacrifices. Indeed, the position of rabbi was not part of the revelation. It is a construct centuries in the making. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Judaism evolved into a set of rules promulgated by rabbis in diverse regions, generally agreed to by a majority but not the totality of Jews. To this day there are rabbis who issue guidelines on what is acceptable Jewish practice given changes in society and technology. But they are not universally accepted as gospel by all denominations. 

So who’s to say Judaic law has to be rigidly set in stone, so to speak? 

Apparently, the Haredi, under the auspices of the chief rabbinate of Israel, do. Their followers have even gone so far as to assert Reform, Reconstruction and Conservative Jews are not really Jewish. Sounds like the Sunni-Shia battle without the bombings.

It is ironic to note that even as Israel is fighting a political battle around the world against forces that want to delegitimize its existence, its Haredi rabbinate, with a complicit Netanyahu government, is engaged in a process to delegitimize the authenticity and practices of a majority of Jews the world over. 

Regrettably, in Israel too many Jews, the vast majority of whom are secular, do not really care about egalitarian access to the Western Wall or control over conversion policies unless they are personally affected when a marriage inside Israel is proposed. But diaspora Jews do care and claim skin in the game because of their previously unflinching support for the state of Israel. 

I agree with Rabbi Allen: “The unhealthy and unwise intertwined relationship between a state and a particular stream of Judaism is destroying the contours of the Jewish people. There can be no possibility of restoring the glitter and joy of being Jewish when an official state religion dices and slices our people apart.” (

Here’s an example of that slicing and dicing. According to the Associated Press, “Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has compiled a blacklist of overseas rabbis whose authority they refuse to recognize when it comes to certifying the Jewishness of someone who wants to get married in Israel.” The list includes 160 rabbis from 24 countries.

Israel’s Jewish future, of course, involves more than just prayer at the kotel and conversion laws. How Israel deals with the Palestinians within the land captured in the Six Day War 50 years ago is a stress point separate and apart from the religious issues. 

I don’t have a solution for any of these trouble spots. But as a Jew I am conflicted by any attempt to minimize my Jewishness, regardless of its originator. 

So I read. Here are a few recent articles worth considering.: