Zionism: a state of Renewal*
Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum
*Parts of this sermon are translations of an article of mine responding to Rabbi Michael Graetz , to be published in "Conservative Judaism Journal", editor Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, translation Rabbi Steven A. Schwarzman.
On Thursday night, after coming back home from our class on Contemporary Israeli culture, I entered the house and burst into tears, sobbing for half an hour. I had just shown the group the documentary movie of Anat Zuria, Mekudeshet, about Messoravot Get, Jewish women in Israel who are stuck in unwanted marriages, waiting years for their husbands to grant them a divorce, a Get, as Jewish tradition requires.
Whoever saw the movie that night, I am sure, can still hear the shrieks of those three women yelling and crying in the hallways of the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. Those three women, whose battle for receiving a Get is documented in the movie, are three totally different stories. One of them is secular, another Hozeret Bitshuva, the third Haredit, but all of them go through the same battle, the battle for their freedom.
According to Jewish tradition it is the man that divorces his wife by willingly granting her a Get, which she accepts willingly. Since the power to divorce is in the man's hand, and since the monopoly over issues of marital status are exclusively in the hands of Haredi Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi judges who are many times bios favoring the men's side, a woman who wants a divorce while her husband does not want to grant one, can find herself imprisoned in her marriage for years. It could be 4, 6, 12 years, easily. In the meantime, many times, the men can start over their own lives, dating; find themselves new girlfriends, sometimes even remarrying and having new children. But the women wait for the Get, if they don't do so and start a new relationship, the children from that new relationship will be perceived as Mamzerim, bastards, listed in the list of the chief rabbinate as such.
So women wait for years, entering and exiting the rabbinic courts which do very little to help them. Many times, these women are so desperate that they simply ransom themselves from the men, giving them big sums of money in order to receive their freedom, their Get. Those three women, too, were documented coming out of another sitting at the rabbinic court, after the Rabbi Judges once again did nothing to release them from the marriage, although the Hallachik tools are in the Rabbis hands waiting to be used. Each one of them, in a different moment in the movie, bursts in agony crying or screaming in the halls of the rabbinic court: "What is this religion? Who are these people calling themselves Rabbis? Leave this place; flee from it, save your lives".
There are many such women in Israel. As I told the group I have three friends who were in those corridors, too. Two of them gave all of their money to extorting husband in order to receive the Get and get out of a bad marriage as soon as possible. One of them described to me in detail how the chief Rabbi Judge in the sitting made a fool of her husband, who at the beginning had no intention of asking for nothing for the Get, until the husband was persuaded by the Rabbi Judge to grant the Get in condition that he receives all of her savings.
By now you have heard of 6 women. According to the rabbinic court there are "only" between 200 to 400 such imprisoned women in Israel. But, according to the Rackman center in Bar-Ilan University, there are 100 thousand such women in Israel.
I remember the day in which my friend who is like a little sister to me, received her Get. That day, she swore that she will never set foot in a Jewish synagogue in her life again. On the day of receiving her Get, she received her freedom, but lost her tradition. The rabbis she had met in the rabbinic court disgusted her, they had nothing to do with her life. They were extremist religious men, who had made her crawl on her knees for two years and give everything she had to husband who had been a pathological liar and had nearly ruined her life.
And indeed, she never set foot in a synagogue again. Years later, one Shabbat, she came to the Masorti community in Omer where I was Rabbi at the time, and entered. She was very quiet during the prayers. Finally, after they ended, she asked me how come her own Jewish state had deprived her from meeting her tradition from such a different angle. What could I tell her?
I could tell her the historical facts, nothing more. That when Ben-Gurion founded the state of Israel he left the Jewish religious authority in the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox. He had his reasons, and at the time, the Ultra-Orthodox leadership was more moderate. But within the years, they became a small and belligerent organized Non-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox movement, holding a whole nation that lives in light of different values, in their hand.
I'm sure you know it, but just in case, some facts: A Jewish wedding in Israel will be recognized only if it was done according to the Ultra-Orthodox establishment, Masorti-conservative and Reform weddings are not recognized by the state; Orthodox Conversions of the last 10 years were annulled retroactively by the Ultra-Orthodox Establishment a few months ago, an act that is Hallachikly and morally inconceivable; Jewish couples who decide to divorce must go through the Ultra-Orthodox establishment who gives shameless preferability to men, as some of you saw in the movie on Thursday; In the Israeli waiting list for adoption, Orthodox couples are regularly advanced in line because it's easier for them to fulfill the Ultra-Orthodox conversion conditions; Mikves, ritual baths, that are built and funded by tax payers money are in total control of the Ultra-Orthodox establishment, to the point that a woman married by a non-Orthodox Rabbi or a convert converted by a non-Orthodox Rabbi will not be allowed to enter and use the Mikveh. I can give you dozens of other examples, but this is the essence of it all.
I call what happens today in Israel "Religious Harassment" and I try to use this term anywhere I speak. In Hebrew the term Hatrada Datit (religious harassment), echoes to the term Hatrada Minit (sexual harassment), and I use it deliberately in order to frame what is going on in Israel in strong words. It shocks me every time to say it, I am afraid to say it because it is so far off from my days in the Jewish agency speaking about beautiful Israel. It's a violent, disturbing term. But what happens in Israel is violent, and is disturbing. The State of Israel is one of the only places in the democratic world where Jews have to fight over the right of religious freedom.
And so, on Thursday night I cried because suddenly I understood how frightened I am to speak with American Jews about Israel the way I really see Israel. We in Israel have been trained to speak about the dirty laundry of this miraculous state amongst ourselves; we have been trained to be very cautious when speaking with American Jews because we can't afford ourselves to lose your love for Israel.
But Israel is no longer a myth. It's better than a myth, it is a reality. And you, you my friends; you became a close family to me. I owe it to you, to myself, and mainly, to the future of Israel, that our last Shabbatot together will be Shabbatot of direct words. Simple and straightforward words, words of care and concern, words that you can say only to people you trust.
For this is the simple truth: When I speak of Israel here, I feel as if I were a child afraid to speak about his difficult family. And since I believe a child in such cases should speak, so must I speak too. If I don't, תדבק לשוני לחכי, Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, for it means that I have forgotten the Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem that we are commanded to remember at all times and then, to create.
This has everything to do with Rabbi Gordon Tucker's crucial Drasha from last week. Not only American Jews, but many Israeli Jews as well, are afraid of criticizing Israel, especially in a time like this, when Israel is subject to criticism all around the globe. In such times, say some political leaders, we are all expected to overcome our opinions and stand together for Israel, backing Israel with all of our might, protecting it from arguments we could have argued ourselves had it been another state, another context. Israel needs our deep love and support, especially now, but especially now, it needs our deep care.
How long – using Beinart's metaphor – how long can we all keep leaving our Jewish values when we stand at the doorstep of Israel? Is such a behavior really the biggest expression of our devotion to Israel? What kind of a relationship does it create between us? If I am afraid to tell you about the flaws of my country, and you are afraid of telling me that you actually see them? Did the very existence of the state of Israel annul the fundamental religious yearning in our tradition to Zion? When has this become a condition for Zionism?
We come from a tradition that seeks to speak truth in courage, we cannot afford ourselves to teach our children a religious language and then ask them to give it up. Relationships are tested in times like this, and they will come out stronger only if we are able to speak: truthfully; with complexity; and with complete hope and faith about Israel. About how all of us are going to make sure that our children would be connected and would be proud of the state of Israel.
So yes, definitely, this week was a very difficult week for Israel. The security issues that Israel faces are real and disturbing, just mentioning them makes the room darker. The struggle of Israel to implement Jewish values, while facing these security issues, is no less disturbing. Both are real, serious and completely tremendous tasks. But we will probably be dealing with these issues throughout our whole life time, because we are Jews trying to make our way to sovereignty after thousands of years of exile.
So I am fed up with allowing Israeli diplomats, army commanders and politicians to lay the burden of Israel's existence upon my shoulders saying that talking about the internal problems of Israel weakens the standing of Israel in the world.
Since I have come here, and Rabbi Tucker knows this, I have had many nightmares regarding the existence of the state of Israel. Behind all of them stands one fear, the fear that Israel is weak from the inside.
And THAT, was, is and will always be the greatest threat on the existence of Israel. When I read the prophets, or our sages in the Talmud, warning future generations from repeating their mistakes, I take them very seriously. They documented their realizations on the forces destructing their standing, and gave us the best they could, ancient advice that I appreciate. And so my role as an Israeli Rabbi is to stay attuned to the situation of the Israelite soul and moral quality, because a solid nation in a withstanding country, is made of the hearts of its people, not only of the length of its borders.
In order to overcome this inner weakness we have to be able to identify it by name. I think, that the lack of religious freedom is really the core issue. But I feel that we have to understand why; otherwise we will not be able to recruit ourselves to this goal as we need to. In order to understand this I would like to focus on one place which is a symbol, the Kotel.
When Nofrat Frenkel was arrested a few months ago for being wrapped in her Talit and for holding a Seffer Torah at the Kotel, it raised fury in the Jewish liberal world. It gave us all the feeling that the struggle is over religious pluralism. But we should zoom out and take a broader look at the last several years at the Kotel. In these years the five flags of Israel in the Kotel plaza had been taken off by the Rabbi of the Kotel (Rabinovitz, they were put up again a few months ago); The Jewish Agency was forced to annul the traditional ceremony welcoming new immigrants at the Kotel (this too was fixed in the past months); Even the paratroopers – the unit that had liberated the Kotel – had to insist to continue the tradition of taking their oath there, after the leader of Shas (a political party in Israel) stood up against it. I made sure to check these facts again with my good friend Anat Mufakdi-Altshul in Israel, a modern-Orthodox woman who is leading the battle over the Kotel alongside Racheli Azaria, a Modern Orthodox leader, member of the city council of Jerusalem. The Kotel, a symbol of Zionism, had become a non-Zionist zone, became a private Ultra-Orthodox synagogue. And here we are, Conservative, Modern-Orthodox, secular and reform Jews, fighting together this year to liberate the Kotel again, this time, from the hands of a Non-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox establishment.
If by now we would think that this is a battle between Orthodox Jews and Liberal ones, we would be mistaken. Because in the past years I've sat in dozens of meetings (private, sometimes secret) with modern-orthodox leaders and worked alongside them on these issues. The borderline in Israel today isn't Orthodoxy, the borderline is Zionism.
That is why you heard this word quite a few times up to now, and that is why it's mentioned in almost every ideological discussion in the Israeli public sphere today. The real debate in Israel today is over Zionism. Is Zionism at all relevant once the goal of establishing a Jewish state has been accomplished? Is Zionism merely making sure that the physical existence of this state endures? What is Zionism?
And this is what Theodor Hertzl wrote: "It is an elusive, perhaps even unattainable, ideal. I do think that Zionism will always constitute a kind of permanent challenge, and that this will be so after we establish our state in the Land of Israel. Zionism, as I understand it, is not solely about the desire to acquire a legally secure piece of real estate for our downtrodden people, after all, but also about the desire to grow towards moral and spiritual perfection".
Zionism, predicted Hertzl, is an ideal without end. Sixty two years after the founding of the State of Israel, it seems to me that the general sense within Israeli society and many Jews around the world is, that Zionism has finished its job, since it has attained the goal it came into existence to accomplish, there is a state called Israel. In Israeli schools, hardly anybody still studies Zionist writers. The great institutions of the Zionist movement are undergoing drastic reductions. The word "Zionism" is, in the best case, taken as an obstacle to regional peace, and in the worst case, is utterly irrelevant.
I put many hours in my work today to call for the renewal of Zionism in our people's minds; in my view, Zionism has not finished its job – in fact, it has only begun.
It is hard to imagine that since political Zionism won out over the ideas of Ahad Ha'am, and since it succeeded in the enterprise of establishing a state, the state's very existence has been taken to signify the fulfillment of the Zionist prophesy. But the demand of the Zionist idea on the Jewish people is far greater in significance than that, and even a reading of the ideas of the visionary of the Jewish state leads necessarily to a recognition that it was not only about creating a political refuge; rather, it aspires to an all-inclusive renewal of Jewish existence.
Therefore, I need to say something that I'm afraid to say. But it means, that, though all of us, Jews of every movement and belief are needed in Israel and do have a place and a role in its growth; yet the Ultra-Orthodox paradigm, which inscribed on its banner the motto of not refreshing Jewish tradition and law, is holding back Zionism, and undermining the Zionist project, as long as it is the only official religious establishment in Israel. Because Zionism does not end with establishing a state, it is a fundamental Jewish value, calling us to renew our covenant with God through the challenge of Jewish sovereignty, and to reframe our role in History.
We must reinforce the Zionist project today, by allowing Jews, by inviting Jews, to explore their Jewish identity, to connect to it and to refresh it. This is the very essence of a Jewish state, the raison d'etre. It is crucial also so Israelis find answers to question like: why should I stay here? Why should I send my children to serve in the IDF? More and more Israelis are debating these questions in their minds, and it's amazing that although the state of Israel imposed an Ultra-Orthodox establishment on the Israelis, thousands of Israelis today are learning their tradition, rediscovering their heritage; seeking for new paths to a tradition they thought they had lost forever, in order to answer these questions. Some of them come from orthodox backgrounds, others come from secular kibbutzim, some are traditional Sephardic Jews, and others are young families looking for a community. All of them are thriving to revive Jewish life in Israel, and to take a more and more active part in the Jewish revolution happening today in Israel.
But this cannot and should not be done by Israelis alone. If the state of Israel is what I described, then it must include the voices of Jews from all over the globe. It does not belong only to Israelis, it belongs to Jews, though, it also belongs to many Non-Jews as well, and we must remember this.
We, conservative Jews, have a crucial role in this stage. Many ask me, why would Israelis allow me to get involved regarding this if I live here? Many also ask why would you Rabbis in Israel want to bring the American conservative movement to Israel?
The answers are: You don't need permission to be involved regarding Israel; it is your duty as Jews to take part in this venture and bring your voices into this discourse. And the answer to the second question is that we need the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel because it deeply believes in religious freedom, and because it is an organized Zionist movement that has the ability to fight for religious freedom in Israel and open serious and creative gateways to Israelis all over Israel lead by Masorti Rabbis and communities, alongside others.
If you ask me, the Conservative-Masorti movement is needed today in Israel more than ever, insisting on the refreshing of Jewish tradition, insisting on the importance of communities, insisting on Zionism, and serving as a center movement with the ability to form a coalition between secular, reform and modern-Orthodox Jews around the issue of Zionism. And so you, Conservative Jews of America, you have a central role in the next stage of Zionism.
Accepting this role seriously will mean changing some of the paradigm: Not only speaking klal Israel but speaking for the future of Zionism. Not only leading in donating to charity but donating to religious freedom and justice. Not only talking political concerns but talking the religious one.
The founding of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel are part of a historic process. This ideal, which has no end, rests on our shoulders in a historic moment of strength with windows in time. In the past sixty years, our parents have built a wonder-state, but it is currently on the brink of disaster. Most Jews in the State of Israel feel a deep longing for their heritage, and it is the responsibility of this generation's leaders to restore this lost treasure to their people and to humanity, and to make it largely relevant.
Restoration of the Loss, מצוות השבת אבדה, in my view, is among the most wonderful Mitzvot in the Torah. In their existential view of the world, our sages understood that things in the world constantly get lost, and that one must constantly seek their rightful place. It is for this reason that the sages emphasized that there is no limit to returning a lost item.
And so the sages describe the work of returning the loss (B. Metzia 28b): "There was a stone called the even to'an (stone of claims) in Jerusalem. Anyone who lost an article would go there, and anyone who found a lost article would go there. This one stands and announces, and this one stands and gives identifying marks and takes it." At the even hato'an, the stone of claiming otherwise known as the stone of those who err – even hato'im – losers and finders stand side by side. These announce what they have found, and those provide identifying signs by which they may claim their lost objects if found. On the one hand, it is your responsibility to announce that you have found something that is not yours. On the other, it is your responsibility to describe the precise details of what was once yours so that it may be returned to you. Both meet at the stone; from this mountain go forth so very great personal, national, and spiritual finds and losses for many religions and peoples.
As I look at the State of Israel, I see a country turning to the even to'im – the stone of those who err. At the global even hato'im that is in Zion, many seekers gather who give signs of the state and heritage that were exiled and returned and, as always, continue to be lost. One day, on the even hato'an will stand those who have the courage to declare that the Shechinah itself has gone astray and has not yet returned here.
The establishment of the State of Israel demands of our generation that we give signs of what our people has lost in order to bring about their return. Our first national loss is the Torah of Israel, which has wandered among the peoples and must find its way back as a whole, with all of its depth, complexity, flexibility and wisdom. Our second loss is our sovereignty, with all that this implies, and we must learn to return this as well. Our third loss is the Shechinah, which will return to Zion only after the return of the first two. The work of providing signs will require the participation of Jews from all around the entire world who will gather from east and west the unique characteristics of the wisdom of Israel.
Zionism in the broadest sense – as the potential to renew our heritage, as the potential to enlist the wisdom of our exiles, as the potential to decode the foundation of peace, as the potential to traverse the road between exile and redemption – this Zionism is the ideal without end that Herzl spoke of, that Zechariah and the other prophets spoke of to their people and to humanity as a whole.
May it be God's will that we take part in the building and in the leadership of this land, for we have returned to our country in order to build the global even hato'im, to look for signs in Israeli sovereignty for a place for the God of all spirits, to restore what was lost to its owner and return the Shechinah to Zion.
On this Shabbat of Parashat Shlach Lecha, we were scouts to Zion, too. Allow me to conclude with the words of Caleb: "Let us, by all means, go up…. for we shall surely overcome it".
A Prayer for Israel in Troubled Times: http://shefanetwork.org/prayerforisrael.pdf
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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