The Bumpy Road: Reform Jewry and Israel

There were some bright and shining moments for the Reform movement this past week in Israel. Here’s one: a few hundred Reform rabbis, men and women, went to the newly established area by the Western Wall for “mixed praying”; i.e., a spot that is officially designated for men and women to pray together. It’s hard to explain how it felt as we rabbis stood together with folks from Women of the Wall, the organization that has never given up on the belief that the Wall belongs to every Jew, not just the ultra-Orthodox.  These women have been spit on, pelted with rocks, insulted, and arrested for disorderly conduct, because they dared to come to the Wall to pray while they wore their talleisim and carried a Torah.

I imagined that there should have been a hundred shofars blasting out notes of liberation and celebration into the Jerusalem morning. To finally be recognized as an equal presence at the Wall is so meaningful. Of course, it’s not exactly there in the front area of the Wall, the place so famous in so many photos; it’s over to the side and back out of eyeshot from the large courtyard. But we’ve arrived.

Another moment: we were invited to the Israeli parliament, where 15 different Knesset members came and spoke to hundreds of Reform rabbis at a special session of a Knesset committee on immigrant absorption. And almost all of their speeches brought messages of cooperation and tolerance. What a feeling of recognition and respect!

Earlier in the week, a Reform delegation spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his cabinet to thank them for their support. The leaders told Netanyahu the Reform movement was globally committed to supporting Israel but expected the Israeli government to advance the values of pluralism, religious freedom, and equality.

But this newfound sense of connection and cooperation was short-lived. I suppose in my naivete I forgot just how important it is to the Israeli government that the Reform movement be treated with full parity – not.

Just today, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay refused to sign the new regulations that will officially establish that egalitarian prayer space I mentioned above. His remarks – which were published in media outlets, including the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabbat – confirmed his unwillingness to cooperate. “Our next generation will neither forgive nor forget if we do not tell the truth and that we can say, ‘My hands did not spill this blood,’” a reference to biblical laws governing murder.

You may ask, “What do laws of murder in the Torah have to do with Reform men and women praying together?” I have no idea, either. But his opposition could not be any more emphatic than this. Which means this wondrous moment when we prayed together at the Wall may not be soon repeated because the space will not be legally designated for that purpose.

But wait, there’s more.  Rabbi David Yosef, a prominent member of the Council of Sages’ decried giving Reform Jews an inch of space at the Wall. “Reform is a collaboration with idolatry. Reform are idolaters – simply and literally… I do not know why we ignore this today… The Reform are the biggest fighters against Zionism. They do not believe in the coming of the messiah. For generations they erased any mention of Zion and Jerusalem in their prayer books…. We will not rest and we will fight for it, and you will see that with God’s help we will win, they will not get the Kotel! The Kotel is a holy place, it is ours.”

Reform Jews still have so many opponents blocking our way to equal treatment in Israel. It is an ongoing struggle that we don’t seem to know how to win. As long as there are ultra-Orthodox Jews with political power at the highest levels of government, we will be beaten back every time. The Prime Minister, in the end, will give the Ultra-Orthodox what they want.

We will keep pushing for a pluralistic Israel even as we see the concept being pilloried and defamed. We will keep bringing groups to Israel, trying to explain the inequities that seem too easily embraced. Of course, we are still committed to Israel.  But this marriage between Israel and American Jewry has ended up not being so cozy or comfortable.

Shabbat Shalom




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