Response to Rabbis Gordis and Perlo and David Breakstone

by Rabbi Daniel R. Allen

Activism not faith is what built Israel. Creating facts on the ground, hityashvut, and the audacity to believe in the ability to change history is why there is today the modern state of Israel. Belief in the messiah, any messiah, though he or she tarry will not bring peace and certainly was not the Zionist answer that created a home that is now the largest community of Jews in the world.

Rabbi Gordis’s fear of younger colleagues is based on his historical perspective. He, like many of us, lived through periods of time when the majority of our people had been alive prior to the existence of Israel as a state. Those fears were real. The rhetoric today, the campaign against the legitimacy of Israel which is now socially acceptable in Europe, brings those fears to the surface. We hope that the Arab Spring produces democracies but not at the cost of our democratic Israel.

Rabbi Perlow describes a different reality. His generation wants to bring peace with the unstated supposition that even with threats Israel’s existence is not in question. We all want to believe in that reality. We all want to be part of bringing peace whether we serve our people with smicha or as baalabatim. While our political perspectives may differ, we all want to be in the generation that brings peace.

David Breakstone expresses the view that Rabbis, young and old, are disillusioned with Israel more because of the religious establishment than the Israel-Palestinian conflict. If he is correct, and I am not sure, then bringing 30 rabbis to Israel to learn together while a nice effort is not a solution. Indeed, it is not even a band aid since I suspect that none of the thirty are decision makers within their own establishments.

I appreciate the Rabbis and Mr. Breakstones’ passion and Zionism. However, I think they all miss the boat. We do not have to wait and we do not have to be satisfied with small steps. Bringing peace and the kind of society we want is at our fingertips if only we seize the moment and build the state in our own image. Our task is not about winning a debate but about building the relationships among Jews that makes a better future for Israel and all of our people.

We must work to expand liberal Jewish religion. We can build an ever more inclusive democratic Israeli society if we marshal the human and financial resources. Israelis physically built a country, with significant assistance from world Jewry, that most of us believe is here to stay. It was done through times of war while bringing in our exiles in massive numbers. Israel was built by people many of whom had broken lives before they arrived on its shores. Israel was assisted in physically building the state by a Jewish community that was not as affluent and capable of participating in building the soul of the society as it is today.

Where is the serious funding from the Reform and Conservative movements to have not 85 congregations between them but 850? Where is the funding to have a constant flow of public information to the Israeli society about the varieties of Jewish religious values and practices?

Where are the multiple summer camps and ganin to serve the needs of the masses not just the growing but still relatively small liberal community? Where are the budgets from the ministry of education for Tali schools that teach a non-threatening, non orthodox approach to Judaism in the Jewish state?

What if there were 1,000,000 now secular Jews in Israel who had come to understand the available options for Jewish observance? What if there were 1,000,000 Israelis who did not kowtow to the foreign British born “gift” of the chief rabbinate? What if there were 1,000,000 Israeli who agreed that there are many legitimate paths in the observance of Judaism? What if 1,000,000 Israelis voted for a government that insisted that every child in the state learn to read and write Hebrew, serve in the IDF, celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and learn math and science? Liberal Jews in Israel and the world need only join hands in the holy work of creating these facts on the ground. If we do so we do not have to wait for peace. We will be the peace makers at least with our fellow Jews if not our Arab neighbors.

Rabbi Daniel R. Allen is Executive Director Association of Reform Zionists of America.

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  1. says

    Response to Rabbi Daniel R. Allen
    “Activism not faith is what built Israel.”
    Your first line (above) of your article is incorrect as is your article.
    Without faith- the Jew would have forgotten Israel over the close to 2,000 year exile..and many of those who first returned to Israel- including many in Zionist waves of Aliyah were religious- even though the Israeli textbooks didn’t mention them as they had their own agenda when writing those textbooks.
    Secondly, did you know according to a sociological study of American Jewry- if you affiliated as a Reform Jew you were LESS likely to have made aliyah then if you were an Unaffiliated Jew?! This is consistent with the early Reform movement which was adamantly anti-Zionist.
    Third, the reason why 1,000,000 Israeli Jews don’t identify with Reform is they either never heard of Reform or if they did their correct image of Reform Rabbis are ones who officiate at weddings together with Christian Clergy when Jews marry Christians in America. The Orthodox shul is the synagogue that they secular Jews don’t go to – except when they want to say Kaddish.
    People love to say that of all ancient religions one miraculously survived- Judaism.
    Yet what they forget is that there have always been groups which broke away with Judaism and didn’t survive- namely those who broke with “Rabbinic or Orthodox Judaism”. The Sadducees were at one time more numerous than the Pharisees. The Karites that also broke with the Oral traditions were at one time in history a huge group. Today there are no Saducees and less than 2,000 Karites. Only the Orthodox form of Judaism is the one that survives “miraculously” and it is obvious from today’s demographic trends Reform and Conservative are also dying out. Steven Cohen cites that for every 100 Jews in their 60s who are not Orthodox there are only 55 Jewish children while for every 100 Orthodox Jews in their 60s there are close to 200 Jewish children. I don’t write this in the spirit of a “triumphalism” as an Orthodox Jew. On the contrary, I and my fellow religious Jews are as a group more upset about the spiritual Holocaust happening in the U.S. than the Reform Jews who think a lot less of this- or even see it as a major problem.
    If you want to understand why religious Jews do not accept Reform as Judaism see this link- it has everything to do with having standards regarding what Judaism is and not because Orthodox Jews are “intolerant”.

  2. Aaron Michaelson says

    To Mr Allen,

    As a liberal Rabbi in Israel, I agree with a lot of what you write but I got lost towards the end when it came to practical suggestions? I agree with the eventual vision – I just think that a part of your method is faulty.
    You seem to suggest that better relationships between Israel and Diaspora (but you really mean American) Jews will result in both working together to build a better more enlightened society in which Jews can live peaceably with one another and eventually make peace with our neighbours. But what you actually seem to be saying is that if we convince Israelis to be more like American Jews (more big L Liberal)then Israel will be better off.

    The change Israeli society needs will not come by convincing Secular Israelis to be Reform (we have after all been trying that for years and years), but rather by recognising the shared values of Israeli Secular Jews and Liberal American Jews and understanding that Liberal Jews are really secular (rather than the other way round). Only then, can Israelis and Liberal American Jews talk sensibly with one another, and be on the same page. And then Secular Israel might listen to the majority of American Liberal Jews who are telling them that peace will be worth the risks, and that the world will not collapse if they stand up to the orthodox stranglehold on Jewish life in this country.

    All the best,

    A big fan.

  3. Larry Kaufman says

    What Dave Neil neglects to point out is that the once-more numerous Sadducees fell away because they were the preservers of the status quo, while the Pharisees moved with the times and circumstances of their lives. Today Orthodox is the sect that chooses to freeze itself in time, while the non-Orthodox outnumber them ten to one. The jury is still out on whether the the current Orthodox numbers, swollen by a birthrate leading to families larger than many can support — see the story on Kiryas Joel in the April 21 New York Times, identifying it as the poorest community in the U.S.– will remain so strong when those enormous broods are old enough to think for themselves about what century they want to live in.

    Rabbi Allen challenges Mr. Breakstone’s assertion that the sway of the Orthodox establishment is more of a turn-off than the Israeli-Palestine conflict. From my perspective as a long-time Reform Zionist, younger rabbis may have been dismayed by the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox, but are disgusted by the occupation and the settlements.

    It’s an interesting parlor game to speculate what would have happened if only…. Could both turn-off situations have been avoided if the Labor Party, now a shambles, had asserted leadership in avoiding unholy coalitions which precluded letting Israel develop as a Jewish but not Orthodox state, fostering the values that have created the long-standing affinity with the prophetic social justice ideals of the Reform movement?

    Meanwhile, three cheers for Rabbi Allen’s suggestion that we seize the moment and build the state in our image. It will be good for Israel, good for world Jewry, and, in fact, good for the world.

  4. Aaron Michaelson says

    To Dave Neil,

    Your post would be insulting if it were not so ignorant.

    1) You clearly haven’t read any Israeli textbooks – I assume this is because you do not live in Israel (but maybe you do) and don’t send your kids to Israeli schools – so let me assure that you are completely wrong in suggesting that the evil secular zionist conspiracy, you seem to believe in, tries to pretend that the first Aliyah was secular. Actually they rely on historical fact and rightly point out that most of the first aliyah ended up leaving, but did wonderful work to lay the foundations for the second and third (mostly secular) Aliyot who were the builders of the country.

    2) Do you know that according to an anthropological study, I can say what I like on the internet as long as I don’t give sources and no-one can contradict me?

    3) Most Israelis today have heard of Reform Judaism (once again according to a study – but this one you can actually get the details of, probably from Danny Allen, who can ask for it from Gilad Kariv, the head of the Israeli Reform movement and those Secular Israelis who have actually been at a reform ceremony or ritual of any kind overwhelmingly state that they would like to use the reform movement for their own simha/commemoration).

    4) The Reform Movement in Israel does not allow intermarriage in their shuls or by their rabbis. (While I happen to disagree with this position personally – it kind of blows to pieces your theory of what Israelis think of Reform, or at least it means that it is more due to Orthodox scaremongering such as your own rather than to facts on the ground).

    5)You seem to put together “Rabbinic or Orthodox Judaism” – as if these are one and the same thing. Orthodox Judaism is a modern invention – it is a reaction to Reform. It was invented by the Hatam Sofer in the 19th century. Long after zealots such as yourself (and the RaMBaM) had done for the Karaites. There are far more than 2000 Karaites in the world, and they are far more Zionist than us Rabbinic Jews, and their heroism includes spying in Cairo for the Israeli state which now treats them as pariahs.

    6) The reason why the saducees were more numerous than the Pharisees is because they were around before the Pharisees – the Pharisees (Rabbis) were the Reform movement of their time, bringing in radical ideas that had previously never been heard of (even if you belive in the concept of Oral Torah). There is absolutely no evidence, literary or historic to suggest that the Sadducees split from a previously homogenous group who believed in Oral torah.

    And this brings us to our main point:

    7) Authentic Judaism has always been plural. In every generation there have been different understandings of how Judaism should be practiced and what Jewish identity is at its core. What is inauthentic is the belief in one Judaism which is infallibly correct or rather that believing something else puts you outside of the fold. Judaism is not about belief. The Jews are a people, and we have always had within us many different beliefs which the majority have tolerated at different levels throughout history.

    Finally as well as showing yourself ignorant of history, you also show yourself to have no sense of morality by using the term “spiritual holocaust”. Holocaust is not a word Jews “play” with. It has a terrible meaning for us, and for you to compare your opinion of Liberal Judaism to slaughter of Jews in Europe shows callousness, stupidity, insensitivity and a level of hubris that is most definitely not “authentically Jewish”.

  5. I Eidus says

    Rabbi Allen,

    One of the issues you don’t address in your letter is why it is that so many of our Reform Rabbis are, shall we say, sympathetic with the Palestinians.

    A Reform Rabbi I know talks of his experiences meeting Palestinians while at HUC in Jerusalem, listening to them tell of their plight while enjoying their gracious hospitality in modest dwellings. He does not seem to give any thought to the idea that what he was told might not be altogether true, or that what he learned from his Palestinian friends may be less driven by fact than by a desire to see Israel destroyed. Nor does he speak of experiences traveling around Israel to meet different types of Jews. Or of experiences meeting people who have lived through terror or rockets in their cities. Or of lessons about the hatred promulgated in Palestinian and Arab schools. Or of Israeli offers of peace being spurned again and again by Palestinian leaders.

    It’s all about the nice Palestinian people whose land was stolen by those awful terrible Jewish settlers from Europe.

    What Gordis wrote about is a result of one-sided training and experiences in Israel, an often negative stance among Reform leadership towards Israel, and a frequent reluctance to speak out and stand up for Israel. I think everyone in our movement would like to know what the Union does to teach its students about Israel, about our history, about the UN and double-standards, etc. etc. etc. It is often said that our young people are not engaged with Israel, but what is not said is that the reason they feel this way is because of what WE have taught them and not taught them. Our movement has succumbed to the same disease that afflicts much of academia when it comes to the subject of Israel.

    Hence, we have Rabbi Rick Jacobs ready to take the helm of the URJ from an already weak Reform leadership that struggles to muster statements supportive of Israel.

    As our movement takes a closer look at itself and the value of a central Union authority, how we stand on Israel will become another point of division.

  6. Larry Kaufman says

    @ I Eidus

    Perhaps those Reform rabbis who are, as you put it, sympathetic with the Palestinians read some subversive book that told them v’ahavta l’rei-echa kamocha. But they probably did not find anything in that book that told them that two wrongs make a right.

    Your suggestion that Reform leadership has been weak in mustering statements in support of Israel is, of course, absurd. But unconditional love does not entail unconditional approval, and your failure to make that distinction weakens whatever other credibility your above comment might contain.

    You also fail to understand that Rabbi Jacobs is being elevated only to the presidency of the Union for Reform Judaism, not to the papacy. He will head a support system for 900 autonomous congregations and a million and a half autonomous Jews. I foresee no division on how we stand on Israel — we all want it to have peace and security, and to be a light unto the nations — even as we differ on the best way to achieve those goals.

  7. I Eidus says

    @ Larry Kaufman

    Ah yes, bible quotes. Which shall we choose? Love your neighbor or eye for an eye?

    Perhaps we can find a new one. Maybe it could be: Love your neighbor as yourself and do unto him as he would do unto you.

    My statement about Reform leadership having been weak in mustering statements in support of Israel is, of course, NOT absurd. I have seen it and experienced it first hand with the leadership.

    I said nothing about unconditional love or unconditional approval, and putting words in my mouth only weakens your own credibility, not mine.

    Nor did I say anything about the Papacy. The congregations may be autonomous, but I know Rabbis who are loath to take a position on Israel that is not in line with that of the Union. It is their cover for not having to show too much support, because, after all, the Union is not very strong when it comes to support of Israel so why should they be? This is just one of the ways in which our movement has begun to reek from its own kind of orthodoxy.

    Regarding your statement “we all want it to have peace and security”, I would say it is generally true for _us_, however I don’t think we can say the same of the people who have gone to war with us time and again, who have launched their children as suicide bombers, who have turned down peace offers so many times, who educate their children from the youngest ages to hate Jews and to live to kill them. Despite what you may believe, I really do wish they wanted peace, not only with us but with each other. But until we see Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and where ever else Palestinians live in UNRWA managed refugee camps, treat them with dignity and recognize their rights as human beings, I will not believe that those nations or their Palestinian victims want peace with Israel or Jews.

    I pray for the day when Jews who so quickly criticize Israel finally end their own double standard and their silence by marching to put an end to the denial of rights of Palestinians, Christians, women, homosexuals, Jews and other minorities living in the nations that neighbor Israel, so that they can be granted the same rights that those minorities have _in_ Israel!