In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.
I recently read a lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, delivered at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in 1968 at the South Manchester Synagogue in Manchester, England. Rabbi Lamm was invited to speak about the contemporary rabbinate and in it he bemoans the diminishing and diminished role of the rabbi in American and English synagogues. He decries the relegating of the rabbi to a purely functionary position:
Unfortunately, in the eyes of our contemporaries and even, alas, our own eyes, we are no longer Rabbanim in the grand tradition, but professional generalists in charge of communal trivia, pious superficialities, and ritualistic irrelevancies. We have, under the impress of an all but inexorable sociological development, yielded one realm after another of special and significant rabbinic competence. We have surrendered our Halakhic positions to the Yeshivot and Rashei Yeshivah; mahshavah [Jewish thought] to the professors of religion and theology; and communal leadership to the professional fund-raisers and executives… What we are left with is enough to discourage any intelligent man — a required weekly sermon; ritualistic “prayers” dutifully pronounced at official occasions and listened to by no one, probably not even by the Deity; minor counseling; Hebrew school supervision; and the development of just enough dignity to stand on when our own spiritual “authority” is challenged… No committed and ambitious young man should ever aspire to become a functionary in an arid community; certainly not to become a parish butterfly.
The traditional American synagogue is sinking under the weight of apathy and disinterest. The very thing that used to bring American Jews in large numbers to synagogue life is now turning away the new generations: formality at the expense of spiritual feeling; procedure at the expense of passion and committee, sub-committee and task forces at the expense of mission. I firmly believe that declining membership numbers, fundraising woes and empty seats are symptoms of a much larger problem that once addressed will help alleviate those immediate issues.
A solution that would go a long way in addressing these systemic issues would be developing more mission driven synagogues and more rabbis articulating and living by their own personal mission. Neither mission driven synagogues nor mission driven rabbis are anything new. There are synagogues and rabbis throughout North America whose work and purpose is deeply inspiring and transformative. We just need to cultivate more of them.
What a mission driven synagogue is I will leave to another blog post in the future but for now I would like to focus in on a mission driven rabbi. A rabbi who lives and breathes his mission is a rabbi who does not see his or her job only to offer quality sermons or run a good staff meeting but sees his or her work as bringing forth a vision of Judaism in the place in which he/she works and in the lives of the people he/she leads. A mission driven rabbi can be inspiring at times, motivating at other times and sometimes frustrating to the people he/she leads because that rabbi will not compromise the mission even though adapting it to the particular place is desirable.
Mission driven rabbis are often accused of having an “agenda.” The word itself means nothing more than having a list of things to get done but has taken on a negative connotation. It has come to mean the rabbi wishes to hoist a particular platform unto their community. This is absolutely not what being mission driven is all about. To be mission driven is to articulate the vision and then be able to incorporate the feedback of the community to make it home grown and sustainable. It is to offer a compelling picture for the future and empower the entire community to actualize it.
A mission that answers the spiritual needs of the membership and that speaks loudly to the needs of the larger community is a mission that motivates people to support the institution, to join the institution and to want to simply be in the room.
Rabbi Lamm began his speech by declaring that: “I believe we have slipped into a rut, but we are not lost. We are in many ways stricken, but not irreversibly. I submit that we can still recapture our commanding role as spiritual leaders and effective guides if we bestir ourselves–before it is too late.” May this truly be so.
Political discourse finds expression everywhere it can. People discuss their convictions over dinner, at water coolers in the office, in the gym and nowadays through their Facebook profile picture. When the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on two cases related to same-sex marriage people began to change their profile picture to a symbol from the Human Rights Campaign to express their support for complete civil marriage equality. Facebook was painted red as the red logo with an equal sign in the middle became ubiquitous. Those who did not change their picture were almost making a political statement by doing nothing.
I chose not to modify my Facebook profile picture out of a sense of discomfort with politicizing the medium of a profile picture on Facebook. Yet, nonetheless, this is an issue that has great importance. How should a sensitive, politically aware and thinking Modern Orthodox individual approach the topic? There are a multitude of approaches, attitudes and perspectives and what is written here represents no one else other than myself but is one direction that I offer for contemplation.
Melissa on the blog Redefining Rebbetzin contributed her thoughts to the issue and I would highly recommend people to review what she has to say because it is a perspective sorely missing from the current discourse in the Modern Orthodox (or broad Orthodox) community. She essentially argues that there is a fundamental distinction between what we call “marriage” in civil language and what we call “marriage” in a religiously framed Jewish language and they are not the same thing. One can argue for equal rights and protections under civil law for all types of people without needing to compromise the internal theological language of a particular faith tradition.
I believe Melissa is correct in her assessment and that many religiously conservative Jews conflate the two types of marriage and imbue civil marriage with an aura of holiness and sacredness that it does not possess. Perhaps this is an area where many Jews have inadvertently adopted the dominant outlook of the religiously conservative Christian community endowing a mechanism of the state with religious significance.
In addition, I would offer another thought to further the discussion. The words of the German pastor Martin Niemoller are powerful in the sentiment they convey, which should be a guiding principle for all historically conscious Jews:
When the Nazis came for the Communists, I remained silent; I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I remained silent; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.
This famous poem by Pastor Niemoller represents the sentiments of all too many German citizens who did not protest the increasing restrictions of civil protections and liberties by the Nazi government. Each increasing restriction was targeted towards specific minority groups so that others could distance themselves from a sense of responsibility because they were not of that group. Additionally, many people in 1930s Germany (and other parts of Europe) did have significant political, philosophical or theological differences with many groups that were being targeted and of course many were just simply prejudiced towards some minority groups to begin with.
The lesson Niemoller conveys is that when the state begins restricting its protections and rights from one group, or in the case of Nazi Germany actively persecuting one group, it does not take long for other groups to become implicated. The path of civil restrictions with plenty of requisite rationalizations and justifications rarely ends at just one minority group.
Jews, of all minority faith communities, should be hyper-sensitive to the danger of restrictions of civil liberties, protections, rights and benefits against any one minority group. We know, perhaps more than any other faith community, what it means to be denied privileges, rights, benefits and protections because of a litany of justifications and rationalizations. Those justifications changed throughout the course of Jewish history dependent on time, place and culture (i.e. scientific, political, religious, cultural) but they all served the same goal: To deny the Jewish people the same place in the fabric of civil life that others had.
Therefore, it seems both possible and responsible, to both always be on the side of the increasing of civil liberties and protections while firmly holding true to the unique outlook and language of our religious worldview. To do both is to be simultaneously in tune with the imperatives drawn out from two millennia of victimhood and to be faithful to the halakha as understood through the ages.
A couple weeks ago news stations around the country featured the story of an 87-year old woman, a resident of a nursing home in Bakersfield, California, who was denied CPR by a nurse even while the 9-1-1 operator pleaded with her to administer the life saving intervention. The audio recording of that 9-1-1 conversation sends chills down our spine as we listen knowing that her refusal to offer treatment results in that elderly woman’s death. The nurse claimed to the 9-1-1 operator that it was against the policy of the nursing home to attempt life saving intervention by any of the employees and her sole job was to only call for help and wait with the patient. The facility later confirmed that this is indeed their policy.
The response to this incident was an overwhelming display of horror and disgust. How could anyone sit idly by while a person quite literally dies in front of them? This is even more pronounced when the person who refuses to help is a nurse, a member of the medical profession. This case and the wrong committed is so clear and unequivocal that it requires little commentary, if any.
The situations that are obvious are not where the struggle lies. We are defined not by doing the right thing when it was obvious but by the times we navigated uncertainty and chose to act properly and justly. Life is made up more of the gray than the black and white. How do we navigate the uncharted? How do we find direction when there is no immediate and visceral reaction of what we should or should not do?
This is what placing oneself into the fabric of a religious tradition is all about. It is embracing the limits of the “I” and finding strength in shared wisdom and collective insight. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the sooner one can accept the boundaries of what they, alone, can decide or figure out — that not all situations are as obvious in what one should do as the case of the nursing home in California — the sooner one discovers real strength and moral bravery.
Oftentimes, our society’s stark individualism is traced back to the experience of the rugged Western frontier of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. A man or woman who decided to venture out and settle the front range of the Colorado Rockies or attempt to make a go of it in Southwestern Utah by themselves was not only doomed to failure but risked their very lives. The Western frontier would not have been transformed and struggling farms and communities in their infancy would not have overcome all obstacles and survived if not for the total embrace of the power of the “we” and the inter-dependence of one person to the other.
There are times where the decision to make is obvious. Those times we can act alone, confident in our course. The majority of our lives are not composed of such moments. A community of ideas and a faith tradition connect us to wisdom that has been forged through the test of time and hammered in the fires of experience that transcends the lifetime of any one person. Let us not abandon the the power of community and the teachings it offers in the absolute pursuit of the “I”.
Rebecca Sirbu in a blog post a few days ago entitled “Why Rabbis Should Talk About Israel” made a compelling case for the necessity for rabbis to emulate civil, honest and respectful discourse on the topic of Israel. Israel can be such a divisive and explosive topic that it becomes all the more important for rabbis to demonstrate how one can engage in a dialogue about it without resorting to hurtful and destructive language. This idea, of course, makes a lot of sense. However, I have come to believe that talking about Israel, and for that matter, talking about politics in general is counter-productive for most congregational rabbis.
The members of our community who come to synagogue at all do so either only once a week or perhaps just a few times a year during high liturgical moments like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. These are people who for the most part live an existence that is dominated by discussions of current events, domestic and international politics. Many of them attend Federation or AIPAC luncheons, where the topic of conversation is almost always on Israel, more than they attend a Shabbat lunch.
Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. When I use the word “Torah” I mean the age-old wrestling with our tradition, striving for a connection to the Divine and the encounter with holiness. We, as rabbis, have a limited time with our community. We have the opportunity to engage many of them for a few hours a week and the great majority only a few times a year. As we grapple with the limited time we have to impact our community, one needs to truly determine what is the best use of that time. I have come to understand that for my rabbinate talking about Israel, that is to say talking about the political realities of Israel, as important as that is, is not the most productive use of my time with my congregation in the context of synagogue.
What do I talk about instead if I don’t talk about Israel? I speak about the Torah concepts and Jewish values and wisdom that must be the foundation of any conversation on matters of immense importance. Instead of addressing specific current events in Israel I address the underlying values. This is an area that I believe, as a rabbi, I am uniquely suited to address.
Rabbis can use their limited time with their congregants to model how Torah rests at the center of everything we do as Jews and how its lessons can inspire profoundly deep ways of examining our lives and the world around us. This, to me, is what being a rabbi is all about.
There is a real difference between counseling an individual who has experienced a traumatic moment and experiencing a traumatic moment personally. I dedicate a great deal of my professional time to shepherding people through some of life’s most difficult challenges. As a rabbi I often find myself in the role of comforter, active listener, prayer facilitator and mediator. After years of helping others it can almost become easy to forget that the very real world of fear, trauma and victimization can find me as well – that I too am a part of this grand drama we call life and life can be vicious sometimes.
This week my family and I became another statistic as an unknown person or persons damaged our house and attempted to burglarize us. I am thankful beyond words to God that no one was hurt and that the shrill sound of our alarm and the swift arrival of the uniformed heroes of the Denver Police Department sent them running. Yet, nonetheless, this act of intrusion has made me feel vulnerable in a palpable way.
We build for ourselves walls of protection that are in so many ways illusory. I buy a house in a nice neighborhood because theft will be less likely to occur. I try not to cross streets against the red light because I will be less likely to get hurt. I maintain a conservative retirement portfolio to minimize the risk of losing it all. I do all these things and more but all it takes is one chance occurrence, one unforeseen and unaccounted for incident to turn all of our self-assurance and planning on its head.
Vulnerability. The word itself does not even roll off the tongue easily. It is a state of being that we strive and yearn to avoid at all cost. It is a state of being that I have worked very hard my entire life to never enter. However, this week a random individual or individuals chose to target my house and by so doing exposed me to the bitter, harsh and naked truth of how utterly vulnerable we really truly are. It is not a good and pleasant feeling but it is real.
How to build from the perspective of vulnerability is the challenge. How to embrace the truth of our vulnerability while also embracing the equally powerful truth of the overall goodness of our fellow people is the work that lays ahead. May I and all of us truly meet the challenge.
Two weeks ago the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a statement formally distancing themselves from the organization known as JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. It was in 2004 that the RCA first suggested in an earlier statement that rabbis might consider referring Jews struggling with homosexuality to that organization.
In the time since 2004 numerous issues have arisen with the therapeutic practices conducted by JONAH and other similar organizations. Serious allegations have arisen about the abusive nature of the treatment and subsequent mental health issues that arise for the patients, including higher risk of suicide. These change therapy clinics are indeed facing tests in court in both New Jersey and California, including JONAH.
The RCA after consultations with experts in psychology and law as well as rabbinic guides publicly decided to distance themselves from JONAH. In so doing the RCA has made a not so subtle move towards recognizing that homosexuality might not be something that can be “repaired” or changed in an individual. While the RCA has just begun this process, two and a half years ago hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, educators and communal leaders declared publicly that homosexual Jews are deserving of dignity and respect.
It follows logically that if homosexuals are deserving of dignity and respect that would translate into equal protection and equal rights under civil law. Thus, a colleague of mine in Portland, Maine, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, recently published an opinion piece in the local paper celebrating the passage of same-sex marriage equality in Maine. Rabbi Herzfeld has received countless calls and emails thanking him for his thoughts and he has also received numerous concerns that what he advocates is a slippery slope. If he supports civil marriage equality for homosexuals then why not for polygamists, practitioners of bestiality, etc.
The slippery slope argument can be very persuasive and it can also be paralyzing. The fear of what might be next can inhibit any action at all. Indeed, one does need to carefully consider future implications of their actions but after careful consideration and the weighing of ethical, moral, legal and social responsibilities one must make a decision.
One also needs to remember that there is another slippery slope out there, one that is equally powerful. The slippery slope of denying privileges and rights to one group very easily leads to the denial of those same privileges and rights to the next group and the next group and so on. After all, it was this same slippery slope argument that played heavily in the polemic of individuals opposed to emancipation, civil rights and desegregation. We may look back at those arguments now and find them foolish but many, many Americans did not during the time.
While we carefully consider the slippery slope of increased rights and privileges to an ever expanding circle of groups and constituencies, let us also consider the slippery slope of decreased rights and privileges to an equally expanding circle of groups and constituencies. Which slippery slope would we fear more? Which possible outcome is more damaging to our national character: a never-ending increasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups or a never-ending decreasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups? This is the question we must carefully and honestly consider.
I do not have an easy answer for you to ponder on this question. My aim is to provide another frame by which to view the question and allow you to come to your own conclusions. The Jewish way is not always in readily packaged quick soundbites of an answer but rather with offering the questions to grapple and to wrestle with.
Jewish Outreach is a buzz term nowadays. Every organization seeks to do outreach in order to demonstrate relevancy to its board and donors. In addition, outreach is an effective way to increase participation in the organization and financial support in an era of struggling economic times and growing disaffection with organized Jewish life. Indeed, outreach is about taking one’s message public and sharing it with a larger disconnected audience. We should support genuine outreach in our communities.
As someone who has served both in a campus context and in synagogues I have seen numerous Jewish outreach organizations. In fact, during my time as a campus chaplain I developed close friendships with Christian outreach professionals as well. The one thread that united all the genuine outreach organizations was honesty and integrity.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being a Christian Evangelical outreach professional on campus. Do I need to make sure my students are educated about their own faith and confident in their own beliefs? Absolutely. Yet, I cannot rightfully condemn a open and honest Christian from spreading her or his beliefs. I can only do my best to teach and inspire my constituents.
However, as many times as I have encountered genuine outreach organizations I have encountered illegitimate ones as well. What makes an outreach organization not really genuine? These are some of the indicators that I have observed over the years:
- Where do the outreach professionals or rabbis spend most of their time? Do they linger in existing Jewish institutions like synagogues or the local Hillel where they will only encounter already affiliated people?
- Where does the outreach organization set up shop? In the heart of the affiliated Jewish neighborhood or in a place where many Jews live but few who are connected to Jewish life?
- Do the programs the organization run exist in consonance with the values of the people who lead the organization? For example, if the Jewish outreach organization is a black hat yeshiva do they do programming that violates their principles or core beliefs, like a non-gender segregated religious service?
- Who is a successful “graduate” of their outreach? Where do they end up in their Jewish journeys? Be careful to pay attention to the diversity in lifestyles among the graduates and not the newcomers.
It is very important to identify genuine Jewish outreach organizations from the others. Genuine Jewish outreach organizations spend their time not in the Jewish neighborhood and work with people who have no existing Jewish connection. Their programming reflects the values they hold important and they do not compromise their core values in order to attract new participants.
Oftentimes, groups or individuals seek to co-opt the term Jewish Outreach when what they really mean is Jewish Redirection. In other words, their aim is to disaffiliate people currently connected to Jewish life and re-affiliate them to other organizations they deem more “kosher.” They do not exist in a holistic relationship with the rest of communal Jewish life but rather are in a constant state of competition with it.
The more informed we are about the various Jewish organizations within our communities the better choices we can make about what to attend and participate in and who to support. Jewish outreach deserves our support, Jewish redirection does not.
It was after sustaining over 1,000 rockets fired into Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip since the beginning of 2012, more than 130 rockets fired just in the past 3 days alone that Israel finally responded militarily. The barrage of rockets landing in indiscriminate locations — preschools, shopping malls, bus stations and homes — was just becoming too unbearable for the one million Israelis in the range of the rocket fire. It is astounding that even one day of such an assault could be bearable let alone months and months of the same continuous fear of imminent death.
What country would tolerate approximately 1/6th of its population being assaulted by rockets on a daily basis? What country would sit back and do nothing while a sizable portion of its citizens left home everyday and kissed their children goodbye like it was the last time they would ever see them because it very well might? Would the United States find that an acceptable way of life? Did our President not order the intrusion into a sovereign state — Pakistan — and the elimination of Osama bin Laden? Did not most of the free world celebrate that action?
Yet, I could not help but notice the disparities in my Facebook feed these past few days. As a former campus rabbi I am connected to many people in their late teens and early twenties on Facebook. It was shocking to me to see words like “genocide” thrown around by people in this demographic in reference to Israel’s act of self defense. Why would Israel’s right to self-defense provoke exclamations by young American Jews about how horrible it is to be connected to the Jewish people during this moment; how embarrassed they were for the actions of fellow Jews and how they cry for the loss of Palestinian life?
Let me be clear. All people of good conscience cry for the loss of innocent Palestinian life. All life is infinitely sacred and of immeasurable worth regardless of religion, ethnicity, race or political affiliation. All people are created in the image of God. But where is the condemnation of Hamas? Where are the tears for the Israelis killed? Where is the heartbreak for children not knowing if they will live another day because they took the brave act of going to school?
I strongly believe that one can love Israel and be critical of Israel at the same time. I strongly believe that indeed to be a lover of Israel means to want to help Israel achieve a more just and more perfect country living in peace with its neighbors. Yet, this is not being critical of Israel. This is being ashamed of being associated with Israel.
Why the shame? Why the shame that a sovereign and free state chooses to exercise its absolute right to self-defense? The United States State Department, a government body that has often taken very critical positions of Israel, was unequivocal in its support for Israel to defend itself:
We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination.
The phenomenon we are facing on college campuses is not objective and rational criticism of Israel. The phenomenon we are facing goes way beyond that. We are facing the results of a sub-culture on the college campus that glorifies the demonization of Israel. I do not mean to exaggerate the bias against Israel on college campuses. Each college is different and in most university environments the mainstream campus culture does not vilify Israel. Yet, there is a clear and undeniable sub-culture that seeks to depict Israel as a genocidal, maniacal regime bent on the utter and total destruction of all Palestinian life. It sees every action Israel takes that expresses its self-determination as a state as evil.
This sub-culture has deeply affected many young American Jewish students. If one wants to be progressive, peace loving and liberal there is a tremendous pressure to disaffiliate with Israel and to condemn its very existence, because when one denies the right of a free state to protect itself one is doing nothing less than denying it a right to exist.
There is no easy answer on how to counter this dangerous and subversive sub-culture. How does one work against something so popular and so cool to many of our young people? At the very least it is imperative that we are aware of this sub-culture because perhaps the most effective way to combat this blind hatred is by cultivating one-to-one personal relationships with the next generation of American Jews who are being impacted by this phenomenon.
We must work towards developing a sustainable culture of Israel engagement where one can be a lover and defender of Israel and through that love offer critique and constructive criticism. The answer to this sub-culture is surely not to deny the right of people to express dissent with the policies of Israel but it is to direct those criticisms in a productive way and one that seeks to embrace the narrative of the Jewish people in its ancient-modern homeland. It is to be proud of Israel, with eyes wide open of its flaws and not to live in shame of being Jewish and being in the generation privileged to live in a world with a free, democratic State of Israel.
The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.