Reform Judaism in Israel: Why It Matters

Sermon given May 30, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

You’ve all heard the one about the Jew, discovered after years all alone, stranded on a deserted island. He proudly shows off all that he has built in his years of solitude. His rescuers are amazed to find not one but two synagogues. The man explains: “This one is my shul. The other is the one where I would never set foot.”

Imagine, instead, a different scenario. Our lonely castaway has built only one synagogue. Rescued by old friends, he is asked: “Why in the world did you build a Temple? You’re not religious.” He responded: “Right. I had to build a synagogue so I could refuse to go there.”

This story illustrates an oft-repeated adage about the State of Israel: The overwhelming majority of Israelis do not go to synagogue, but the synagogue they don’t attend is Orthodox. Like most stereotypes, some truth may be found in this caricature of the Jewish State. Most Israeli Jews describe themselves as hiloni, “secular.” At the same time, the only Jews they recognize as dati, or religious, are Orthodox.

The truth, though, is somewhat more complicated, and more subtle, than the stereotype. Even the most non-observant Israeli Jews study Torah and Talmud in school. They look forward to Shabbat, and they live by the cycle of the Jewish year. They eat apples and honey for a sweet new year on Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur, only emergency vehicles are on the road; everyone respects that holiest day of the year. They are likely to take at least one meal in a Sukkah, to refrain from leaven during Passover and to eat blintzes on Shavuot. They kindle Hanukkah lights and their children dress in costume on Purim, not Halloween. For people who call themselves “secular,” these Israelis are really quite Jewish.

And yet, as I said, they do not go to the synagogue. In fact, large numbers of Israelis express disdain for religious Judaism, which they consider to be out of date, intolerant and even oppressive. They resent the huge sums of their tax dollars that flow to ultra-Orthodox religious institutions. They have contempt for those yeshivah students who do not serve in Israel’s armed forces, but who expect to be defended by secular and more moderate Orthodox citizens in uniform. They are angry that the only way for two Jews to be married in the Jewish State is by an Orthodox Rabbi. As a result, most Israelis’ wedding ceremonies mean little to them, officiated by a Rabbi they do not know in a ritual that lacks connection to their real lives, and certainly is not egalitarian. They are appalled that some immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were oppressed with the Jewish Community in their native land, now are not regarded as Jews in Israel.

These frustrations with Orthodox authority have come to a head in recent years. Most notable was the big story of Israel’s last national election, just a few months ago. A once tiny party called Shinui, whose platform is to abolish the prerogatives of Orthodoxy, received an unprecedented mandate.

Most Israelis are not familiar with any Judaism other than Orthodox Judaism. Sadly, then, when they rebel against Orthodox authority, Israelis seem to be rejecting religion in general, thumbing their noses at Judaism itself. Now, though, more than ever, Israelis need Judaism. How lonely, to face the horror of suicide bombings and the constant threat of terrorism, without a synagogue to turn to for solace. At a time of national crisis, people need to hear words of comfort, emanating from their sacred scripture and the prayers of three millennia. Faced with grave national decisions, Israelis would benefit from hearing the words of the ancient prophets, brought alive in their own time. Now, more than ever, most Israelis won’t set foot in the synagogue. Now, more than ever, Israelis need Judaism.

Blessedly, Israelis are beginning to learn of a Judaism that is true to tradition and also cognizant of the modern world. They are being introduced to a Judaism that stresses adherence to ancient rituals, while insisting upon fidelity to a divine moral code. If you will, Israelis are building that second synagogue on their deserted island, the one they will attend, where Torah is embraced by women and men, where compassion and tolerance are paramount, where love is taught with law.

Rabbi David Hartman and his disciples are spreading the word that is already well known to us in San Antonio: Orthodox Judaism can be modern and meaningful, even in Israel. Israelis are now offered a few Orthodox synagogues that do not fit their negative views of religion.

At the same time, the fledging Conservative and Reform movements in Israel are garnering increased attention and growing membership.

Two months ago, in Washington, D.C., Rabbi Janet Marder was installed as President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, our international Reform rabbinical organization. In her inaugural sermon, Rabbi Marder urged her colleagues, indeed all Reform Jews, to do our part to nurture progressive Judaism in Israel. I share with you the eloquent passion of Rabbi Marder: “There on the soil of Eretz Yisrael, a new kind of Judaism struggles to be born: one that is firmly anchored in Torah, but meets the modern world with an open mind; one that cherishes a distinctive identity, but greets its neighbors with an open hand. This is the antidote to narrowness and bigotry, to rigid and intolerant fundamentalism, to the religious coercion that has cast the Torah into disrepute and led so many Israelis to turn away from our faith. This is the Judaism we affirm for ourselves, and long to share with our brothers and sisters in Israel.”

Let us heed Rabbi Marder’s call. May each and every one of us respond favorably the next time we are called to join ARZA/World Union, the Reform Zionist collective that supports our movement in Israel and throughout the world. May our fellow Reform Jews in Israel ever remain in our prayers, for their sacred task is vital to the welfare of the Jewish State, critical to the future of the Jewish people.

Indeed, we pray for all the people of Israel at this hour. Even as we express concern about the Orthodox hierarchy, and especially during these years of Israel’s greatest difficulty, may we never forget that the very existence of the Jewish State is nothing short of a miracle. In Rabbi Marder’s words: “We are a generation privileged to live in a time when the Jewish people has come back to life. . . The pain and sadness of Israel’s present struggles — and they are great – must never obscure the drama of this extraordinary historical moment. What [the prophet] envisioned in a dream, we are alive to see: the shattered House of Israel standing on its feet. We are witnesses to resurrection and rebirth.”

Tonight, we read from the Torah of another time in our history, when our people experienced rebirth after Egyptian bondage and prepared to enter the promised land. Specifically, this week, we read of this numbering of our ancestors in the desert and of the special role of the Levites. These keepers of God’s sacred worship were not to be counted in the census of those who would take up arms on behalf of the Jewish people. And yet, the Levites were key to Israel’s life, for no nation can survive on military might alone. Nations die when the people’s souls are not nourished.

Reform Jews in Israel do take up arms to defend their country. At the same time, they are waging a spiritual war for the future of the Jewish State. Their partners are Conservative Jews as well as those Orthodox Jews who embrace tolerance and compassion. May God bless them with victory and peace.

We, too, must do our part to rejoice in the blessing of Israel, becoming the partners of each and every Israeli who seeks to build a meaningful Jewish future in the Jewish State. I conclude, then, with Rabbi Marder’s challenging charge: “One who goes out in [springtime] and see the flowering trees must not fail to say a blessing, must not fail to recognize the spring, must not fail to cultivate and nourish emerging life. We who are alive this day to witness the miracle of Israel have an awesome task: to labor until the harvest comes in.”