Archive for April, 2010

Reflections on Israel at 62

April 24, 2010

I have been asked many times, “What does it mean to be a Reform Zionist?”  For me, the short answer is this:  To be a Reform Zionist is to engage in one of the grandest experiments in human history, namely can there be a modern state that bases everything it does on the principles of Judaism.  This is an experiment that involves every Jew, no matter where he or she may choose to live.  This is an experiment that is yet in progress, which means that we and our children and grandchildren must continue to be involved.

Where this grand experiment has yet to be successful is in what we would call the separation of church and state.  The role of religion in the United States surprised and intrigued a young French diplomat who travelled here in 1830 and 1832 and wrote one of the finest books ever written about us. The traveler was, of course, Alexis de Tocqueville and the book he wrote, Democracy in America, remains a classic.  In it he described one of the major differences between America and France.  In the latter, religion had power but not influence.  In America, religion had no power at all.  The First Amendment enshrined the separation of church and state, though not in those words. But its influence was immense. Tocqueville discovered to his surprise that though in France religion and liberty were opposed to one another, in America they walked hand in hand.

At first he could not understand why, and he spent considerable time talking to religious leaders to understand what it was about them that made them different.  What he discovered, again to his surprise, was that as a matter of principle they did not get involved in politics.  Politics by its nature is divisive. The religious leaders of our new nation understood that if they became involved in politics, they too would become a divisive force in American life, which is not what they wanted at all. So, they concentrated on the moral and social aspects of life. They built communities.  They created charities.  They built schools.  Above all, they strengthened the institutions of marriage and the family.  These had nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with the culture in which politics takes place.  Tocqueville understood, more than most, that if you want to sustain a democracy, you have to build a society of responsible, public-spirited individuals.  That is what religion did, and for that reason he called it “the first of America’s political institutions.”

Religion in Israel does not function in this way. The result is precisely what Tocqueville foresaw.  If religion enters politics, it becomes a divisive, not a uniting force.  If it seeks power, it will forfeit influence.  If it is priestly, it will fail to be prophetic.  If it fails to speak on behalf of the nation as a whole, it will fracture into a hundred sects instead of being the animating spirit of the nation. Judaism must be depoliticized and put back where it belongs, in civil society, far removed from all structures of power.

This is the challenge of Judaism in the state of Israel in our time. If religion is not seen by Israelis as a unifying force in society, if religious Jews are not admired for their work with the poor, the lonely and the vulnerable, if Judaism is not the voice of justice and compassion, then something is wrong in the soul of Israel.  Judaism in Israel today has lost the prophetic instinct when it needs it most.

What does it mean to be a Reform Zionist? It means using our voices, both as individuals and as Progressive institutions, in a prophetic way.  I admire our Movement for refusing to become a political party. We must allow ourselves to speak truth to power, to advocate on behalf of the lonely, the poor, the most vulnerable. We must do all we can to be the voice of justice and compassion in a nation that needs both.  Our Movement has the ability to be the prophetic voice in Israel, and we in North America have the ability to support that effort.

My friends, societies need hope.  Covenental societies need high moral aspiration.  Israel faces a long and difficult struggle to find peace.  There is a real and present danger of national despair. Peace is not something one side can achieve alone: it is always a duet, never a solo.  There is nothing Israel can do to guarantee peace, but there is something it can do to recapture the moral energy that went into the building of the land.  It can renew the social covenant.  It can create a new civic Judaism, one that embraces religious and secular, Jew and Palestinian alike.  Zionism Phase 1 gave back to Jewry what it lacked in the Diaspora: sovereignty and a state.  Zionism Phase 2 must reappropriate what Jewry had even when it lacked a state, namely a profound sense of responsibility to the weak, the poor, the socially marginalized, the neglected and unheard.  That is the challenge for the religious Zionism of which we are a part: to help build a society worthy of being a home for the divine presence by honoring the divine image in all its citizens.

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What We Jews Have Always Been About

April 11, 2010

Qeiyafa is a relatively new archeological excavation (directed by the Hebrew University’s Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor) of an imposing Israelite fort on the border with Philistia dating to the late 11th–early tenth century B.C.E., the time of David and Solomon. The wall around the hilltop fort required more than 200,000 tons of bolders. Its presence is a powerful refutation of the claims of certain contemporary scholars who believe that Judah never existed as a state in the tenth century and that the “kingdom” of David and Solomon was a tribal chiefdom at most. This is hardly the case. A mere tribal chieftain would not have been able to build something like this.
But that’s nothing. As archeologists have rejoiced to discover, the “real” find in this excavation is a five-line, 6-by-6-inch ostracon, an inscription on a broken piece of pottery the equivalent of ancient notepaper. It dates to the early tenth century B.C.E. It is the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered.

But what does this ancient text reveal? While it has been damaged by the ravages of time, one thing is clear. There is a word that means “to exploit or abuse,” immediately preceded by the phrase lo ta’as – “do not do.” Therefore, analysts of the text are quick to point out that the oldest Hebrew inscription that we have is nothing less than an ancient prohibition against (most likely economic) abuse and exploitation.

Some might have expected that the oldest Hebrew text would have been about ritual matters. Others might have suspected that it would be about some arcane legal matter. No, the most ancient Hebrew text is simultaneously the most modern. It testifies to who we are as a people and what our message has always been – and must continue to be.