In an article published by Tikkun Magazine this week, David Gordis shared his sadness about the vision he once held for Israel. Gordis, who served as vice-president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, the Conservative movement’s two seminaries, as well as being President Emeritus of Hebrew College, writes, “The Israel of today is very far from anything I dreamed of and worked for throughout my career. I can clearly remember the day in 1948 when the State of Israel was established. I was in the fourth grade at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn. The entire school was summoned to the schoolyard in celebration of the momentous occasion. It was announced that from that day on the school would adopt the Sephardic (Israeli) Hebrew pronunciation and abandon the older European Ashkenazic. I well remember driving out with my parents to [Idlewild] Airport, now JFK, to see the first airliner with the Israeli flag adorning its tail. This was a transformative moment. Jews had returned to the stage of history after the devastation of the Holocaust. Israel was to be the great laboratory for the rebirth of an ancient tradition in a new land and in a country committed to being a model of democracy and freedom for the world. What happened?”
Gordis points to three places where Israel has gone wrong in the past half-century of its existence. Looking at the scope of Jewish history, Gordis indicates that Judaism has long been skilled and talented at balancing contradictory values, especially in three sets: the rational and the affective, particularism and universalism, and roots in the past and vision for the future. Gordis asserts that, “present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary.”
Tikkun Magazine itself, and David Gordis, at least in this article, definitely take a leftist approach to Judaism and to Israel, to say the least, and Gordis laments the Israel that he sees that has been reduced to, as he puts it, “a cruel and oppressive occupation, an emphatic materialism, severe inequalities rivaling the worst in the western world and distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best.” But the Israel that Gordis sees is not the Israel I see, even in spite of my own leftists views and concern for the future of Israel’s tenure as both a Jewish state and as a democracy.
I would be oblivious if I were not to acknowledge that the politics of Israel’s leadership over the past two decades, especially since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, have made the possibility of a two-state solution harder and harder. I believe that Israel can do two of the three following things: It can inhabit the entire Biblical Land of Israel. It can be a democracy. It can be a Jewish State. It cannot, however, do all three of these. If it inhabits the entire Land of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean and remains a Jewish State, it will no longer be a democracy. If it remains a democracy and inhabits the land from the Jordan to the Sea, it will no longer remain Jewish. Because of this, I support a two-state solution, one that creates a viable Palestinian state so that the Israel that remains can remain both Jewish and democratic.
Notwithstanding the politics of Israel that continue to make a two-state solution harder and harder, not ignoring the real threat of Hamas, Iran, and other neighboring people of Israel, not turning a blind eye to the stranglehold that the ultra-Orthodoxy sometimes seems to have on Israeli politics, I do not lament the Israel that exists today as David Gordis does. Soon, I’ll invite participants from last week’s congregational trip to Israel to this bimah to share their own stories of their pilgrimage to that land, but now, I want to tell you about the Israel that I love.
Israel is, of course, a land of tremendous innovation: in technology, in medicine, in military defense, and more. We visited Kibbutz Sde Boker and David ben Gurion’s burial place. To be surrounded by desert and all of a sudden stumble upon an oasis in the desert because the early chalutzim (pioneers) literally made the desert bloom, is astounding. In the early days, Israel piped water from the Galilee and the Jordan River to the desert to irrigate the communities and cities there. Today, with an awareness of how Israel’s largest freshwater supply has been so greatly diminished, Israel has become a world leader in desalination and reuses nearly 90% of its water. We past solar farms. It is because of this innovation that ben Gurion decided he and his wife Paula would retire to the desert.
But the Israel that I love is more than its incredible resourcefulness and innovation. Just this month, incredible progress has been made in the fight for religious freedom for non-Orthodox Israelis with the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall. There’s currently a small platform there, not far from Robinson’s Arch, which will be expanded to provide a space where men and women can pray together, where women can read from the Torah, and where even Orthodox families can choose to pray together. This week, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, America’s Reform rabbinical organization, is holding its conference in Israel and my colleague and classmate, Rabbi Nicki Greninger, read Torah there. Soon, the plaza will be expanded and, hopefully, it will be a first step in a more egalitarian practice even at the main plaza of the Kotel. While this new space meets the needs for Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, it does not help women who want a separate section, but also want to be able to lead worship and read Torah. This new egalitarian section is an important step, but just a first step. This week, as well, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that all mikva’ot (ritual baths) must be accessible to non-Orthodox Jewish communities for immersion and conversion. The case that actually came before the court asked that one mikvah in each jurisdiction be made available, but Israel’s high court decided that that was not sufficient. In spite of the ultra-Orthodox’s best efforts, progressive Judaism is making strides in Israel.
There are countless organizations within Israel that are working to make the vision that David Gordis thinks has been lost a reality, from Leket, which rescues food from across Israel and feeds Jews and non-Jews alike, to the Israel Religious Action Center which fights for the rights of progressive Judaism, to agencies welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from Africa. While the struggle for the Israel that I would like to see has become more challenging in the past two decades, a vision that I think may line up pretty closely with Gordis’s vision, I don’t see the situation as bleakly as he does. I do, however, agree, that things have changed.
One of the significant changes, in my opinion, has been the Jewish community’s willingness to speak out against the acts and actions of Israel when they are exclusive, unethical, or dangerous. Two or three decades ago or more, to support Israel meant never to publicly criticize her actions. Fortunately, that has changed. I actively support Israel even as I criticize its expansion of settlements in the West Bank. I applaud Israel’s welcoming of refugees and asylum seekers, even as I condemn the treatment of many of these people and their inability to obtain Israeli citizenship. To love Israel no longer means to accept blindly everything that Israel does. To love Israel means to fight for its existence, even as we speak out against what Israel ought not to do.
In the eight days that I was in Israel last week, I didn’t see a country and a society that was failing, a place without the rational, the universal, or the visionary that Gordis describes. Quite the opposite. I saw a place that seeks to bridge the gap between the haves and the have nots. I know Israel to be a country that responds to world crises – like the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Southeast Asia – with a commitment to the universal. I saw a place that has a vision for its future where there is more than one way to be Jewish. Here’s to the next 68 years, and the 68 that follow, and the 68 after that, and so on. Ken y’hi ratzon, May it be God’s will. Shabbat Shalom.