In the early 19th century, philanthropist, educator, and Hebrew scholar, Israel Jacobson introduced certain liturgical reforms in the services at his school in Seesen, and thus founded what later was to be known as Reform Judaism. And when he was appointed head of the Jewish consistory of the Kingdom of Westphalia by his friend Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, Mr. Jacobson attempted to use his position to impose those same reforms in all the area synagogues under his authority.
What do we learn from this? For me, it is simply a reminder – one of thousands history gives us – of how, when religion is accorded the power of the state, power can and will be used to limit the religious freedom of those not having the power. When societies combine religion with political power, it is good neither for religion nor for society.
We see that evident in our own Jewish state of Israel, in which, because of circumstances historic, economic, and political, Orthodox Judaism has been granted a monopoly over other forms of Judaism, at least when it comes to state recognition and funding. Although the majority of Israelis polled believe that the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism should be recognized, the legislative process is too mired in party politics, the maintenance of jobs, and an entrenched bureaucracy to change the status quo. Thus, it has been left up to the Israeli Supreme Court to issue those rulings that more and more have confirmed and expanded the rights of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews and forms of Judaism. Since Israel does not (yet) have a constitution, the Court relies on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which explicates the historic, legal, and moral cornerstone upon which the State of Israel was to be built. It seems that the judges have consistently taken seriously the Declaration’s commitment to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”
On May 14, the Supreme Court issued a ground-breaking ruling. In response to a case presented by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of Progressive Judaism, the Court ordered that conversion programs sponsored by the non-Orthodox streams be funded by the state, just as are the Orthodox programs. In the words of the IRAC director, Anat Hoffman, “The verdict was amazing, going well beyond the issue of funding for conversion classes, and addressing the core issue of religious freedom in Israel. The three judge panel, including Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, found the State’s practice of favoring only one Jewish stream discriminatory and contradictory to their responsibility to ensure freedom of religion, ruling ‘The duty of the State to pluralism is not only a passive duty, but an active one as well.’ They also cited their previous ruling that ‘Jews in Israel cannot be seen as only one religious sect.’” Ultimately, it is not about the funding, it is about the recognition that, indeed, “there is more than one way to be Jewish.”
I can’t help but think that our own UJC MetroWest had something to do with laying the groundwork for this historic decision through the work of our Pluralism Committee. While we have not engaged in legislative or judicial advocacy, our support for Jewish pluralism in the Jewish state through congregational subsidies and educational programming has certainly gone a long way to foster the normalization of the Progressive (Reform and Reconstructionist) and Masorti (Conservative) streams in the minds and hearts of more and more Israelis. Our community has funded b’tei midrash — ongoing adult Jewish education classes in local congregations, Jewish educational programs for special needs children, the education of teachers in the secular schools, and so much more. Near to my own heart was the recent “National Pluralistic Beit Midrash,” part of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Annual Convention in Israel. MetroWest strongly supported this event, both financially and with active involvement, as one of its many areas of support for religious pluralism in Israel. Under the leadership of Rabbi Mike Weinberg of our Convention Committee and Roni Yavin from Elul (an adult Beit Midrash in Israel) our Beit Midrash brought together around 300 American and Israeli Reform Rabbis with an equal number of Israelis, for a morning of study and fellowship. Many of the Israelis had never met a non-Orthodox rabbi before, let alone study with one, and it not only opened their eyes but opened many doors for their future engagement with an expression of Judaism they were not aware was available to them. And of course, there are programs like “G’vanim” and “Rishonim,” which have had a tremendous impact as well, as they have enabled so many young Israelis to see and experience the creativity, spirituality, and richness of Jewish life that pluralism can foster in a free and unimpeded environment.
Clearly, what happens there affects what happens here, just as how we conduct our Jewish lives has a tremendous impact on how Jewish life in Israel is conducted. I firmly believe that if Jewish religious pluralism fails to flourish in the Jewish state, it will not be because of the intransigence of those who oppose it but because of the unwillingness of those who would support it to provide the resources needed to seize this historic moment.