In just a few days, I leave for Israel, ready to co-lead the AIEF/AIPAC Progressive Rabbinic Mission for the fourth time. These amazing trips have been defined in different and profound ways each summer: the Gaza war, the Iran Nuclear “deal,” and stabbing and ramming terrorist attacks. I have returned after each mission more committed to Israel’s security, more aware of the existential threats Israel faces, more appreciative of the inner dynamics of Israel’s society.
I had hoped this summer would be a calmer trip.
But, to my great dismay, this year, we rabbis head to Israel assaulted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, an arm of Israel’s government. As rabbis, we lead countless trips to Israel and lobby our elected American leaders on her behalf, opposing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a coordinated effort to undermine Israel’s very existence. The dynamic of we ourselves being delegitimized by the Israeli government will be more central than ever before in our meetings with thought-leaders, activists, and members of Knesset. This year we land as we are attacked from within.
I will never cease in my defense of the State of Israel. But I have been forced to acknowledge that my fundamentalist brothers and sisters believe I’ll sit quietly, locked in the attic of our precious home. I will not. I cannot. My outrage, as part of the vibrant global Jewish People, races in my blood these days as deeply as my fiery support of Israel. I am at war within my own soul, but I know that if the living soul of our People’s traditions is suffocated to death by the Israeli government, our body will soon follow.
Jewish martyrs have given so much - even their own lives - so that we could one day be a “free People in our own land.” After centuries of enduring displacement and exile, we have finally returned home, stronger than ever before, wiser by the wound. But that is only true on our geopolitical front lines. It is not true in the collective soul of our People as manifest in Israel’s Jewish leadership.
Jewish tradition has never been of only one variety, nor have Jews ever spoken with a uniform voice, not at Sinai nor since. I refuse to coronate Prime Minister Netanyahu as Emperor nor the Israeli Chief Rabbinate as the Jewish Vatican. We have no Pope. No Jewish leadership is infallible. Judaism has always rejected dogma, a cherished commitment that differentiates Judaism from many sister faiths. We must reclaim this approach on a political level as well.
We are finally “normal,” as many of the Jewish State’s founders could only dream. We have ambassadors around the globe, growing technological and military might, allies in our fight against global anti-Semitism, and we have rebuilt treasure houses of profound Jewish spirituality and scholarship. But, despite all this, Israel’s Jewish leadership still acts as if it is a tiny shtetl, unable and unwilling to accept the inner challenges born of her outer security.
Having spent enough time in bomb shelters (and more than my share of experiences as an outspoken Zionist in the fundamentalist-liberal bastion of Berkeley, California for the last 10 years) to keep real issues of Israel’s security fresh in my heart, I do not say these words lightly. But say them I must, though my heart aches at the need forced upon me. I write as an American Zionist, as a loving brother, as a grateful son, as a committed father to precious young Jewish souls, as a passionate Jew, and as a Rabbi. I write these words with rage and hurt, a wound inflicted by my own family that eats at me worse than missiles from our enemies.
It has become a global Jewish catastrophe to seat ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) rabbis at the table of national influence, as politically appointed religious leaders are far from immune to the poisonous seduction of power.
Israel’s leaders would do well to realize - very soon - that Jewish pluralism and dignity are, in fact, Israeli security concerns. How can my elected leaders, with whom I strive to build real and trusting relationships, not see the inner conflict in my eyes as I lobby in support of my homeland as it actively betrays my Jewish authenticity and slaps me and the beauties of Jewish tradition in the face?
We did not endure Inquisition and Pogrom, Expulsion and Massacre, to die of self-inflicted wounds. We’ve achieved tremendous success in our efforts to protect our physical home. And so, it is upon us to heal our family’s soul from the unchecked cancer of Jewish religious extremism.
Those who head the rabbinate have sinned through their attack on the Jewish People and must be removed from office, and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate should be permanently dismantled. Incremental changes, tactical delays, will only put off these consistent indignities. It is far past time for these structural changes to be pursued.
Israeli leaders who support Jewish religious extremism should not be empowered in the very communities they embarrass and undermine. We cannot allow ourselves to become reduced into submissive outposts of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The sacred treasures of diverse Jewish expression deserve better than this.
Let us be as loud in support of the Judaism we cherish as we are for the Land we call home.