By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History
posted on October 2, 1997 / 1 Tishrei 5758
I have been asked often of late why I am spending so much time on the promotion of religious pluralism in Israel. Isn't it a diversion from the continuity crisis in America, which is, after all, my main concern? The fact is that the two are linked. Israel is a large component of American Jewish identity. Were Israel to become irrelevant or off-putting for American Jews, our ability to withstand the forces of assimilation would be gravely impaired. As an unconditional Zionist, I would support Israel even if it became a benighted shtetl. But such a constricted and coercive state would hold little meaning for our grandchildren.
The campaign for religious pluralism then is deeply existential. It is about transforming Israel into a country respectful of the religious diversity that has marked Jewish life since emancipation, attentive to the religious sensibilities of Diaspora Jews and supportive of a panoply of expressions of Judaism. It is about breaking the stranglehold of the Orthodox on the government and the silence of Israeli leadership in the face of their verbal and physical violence against other Jews. It is about strengthening an Israel that will continue to be a source of pride, values and learning for all Jews in the Diaspora.
After eight months of battle, we can point to solid results. For the first time ever, an Israeli government is negotiating with the Reform and Conservative movements in the framework of a committee headed by Finance Minister Yaakov Ne'eman. Although the negotiations are unduly protracted, the prospects for a proposal on conversion and perhaps other issues are good. Given the anger of American Jewry, the government is determined to avoid passage of any conversion bill in the Knesset.
Equally important, UJA-Federation leadership is responding favorably to the plea for earmarking more funds for religious pluralism in Israel. In 1998, the Jewish Agency will double its yearly grants to the movements to $5 million (the first increase in more than a decade) and national UJA has already begun to raise $10 million each for Reform and Conservative projects in a supplementary campaign, which hopefully will become annual. Likewise, local Federations are setting aside ever more funds for direct investing in Israel, much of which will surely go for religious pluralism.
These heartening steps augur well for increasing collaboration between the religious movements and the world. I salute the courage of UJA-Federation leadership for daring to reorder its philanthropic priorities once again and urge all Jews to contribute generously to their local federation.
My goal is to work within the system, not to jeopardize it. From the outset, I knew that in the 1970s, Federation had expanded its mission to include Jewish education and in the 1990s, to strengthen the synagogue. Both decisions represented a willingness to cross the religious-secular divide, and both succeeded because they were carried out with an exemplary measure of fairness, precisely the ethos missing in Israel. The agenda of religious pluralism in Israel is thus but another instance of responsiveness to the ever-changing challenge to bolster the forces for Jewish continuity in America.
Finally, we need to recognize the emergence of allies in Israel. The country is pulsating with a nationwide quest for religious renewal. More and more, Israelis are engaged in a serious, undogmatic study of their religious patrimony. Small groups of secular and religious adults poring over Talmud and Midrash proliferate across the country. We cannot open TALI schools quickly enough for their children. Our campaign for religious pluralism has captured the attention of the national media. If we could only cover the landscape with new venues for religious alternatives, staffing them and the institutions already in place with the young Israeli professionals graduating from our Beit Midrash, we would in time make of religious pluralism a root value of Israeli society.
The theme of worldwide unity is a dominant motif of our High Holy Day liturgy. The fourth berakha of every amida that we shall recite on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur intones a fervent prayer that God might help us achieve that which is beyond human reach. To underscore our inadequacy, the verb is even put in the passive voice: "that humankind might be refashioned [by God] to constitute a single community performing God's will with a perfect heart." A fractured Jewish people can scarcely lead humanity toward that elusive ideal. At loggerheads with each other, Jews detract from the grandeur of ethical monotheism.
Yet a Jewish unity built on contempt and coercion is counterfeit. Power always corrupt pretensions of piety. To accept the status quo in Israel is to settle for a caricature of Judaism. Unity must rest on equity for all and professions of love must be followed by extension of rights, or else Israel will lose the allegiance of its Diaspora constituency, to the detriment of both.
In the year to come, may God imbue us with the wisdom and compassion to understand that unity is more important than "truth."
Leshana tova tikatevu.
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Rosh Hashanah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.
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