Galilee Diary: Fitting in II

September 8, 2009

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in
Galilee Diary and Ten Minutes of Torah)

Since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain. Changes must be thoughtful, of course, and must be rooted in the history and traditions of our people. But we assert Judaism's innovative character, and we assert, too, that a stubborn failure to change will make Judaism an irrelevance.
-Rabbi Eric Yoffie

When we first moved to Israel, our 10th grade son came back from an overnight at a new friend's home - a family who explicitly defined themselves as "secular," and reported incredulously that the friend's father put on tefillin every morning. Over the years I've learned not to be surprised by such inconsistencies - our neighbor who never attends synagogue but will not cook on Saturday, the vast majority of the "secular" population who fast on Yom Kippur, light Chanukah candles, and attend a Passover seder, the thousands of Israelis who, over the past 15 years, have joined non-denominational Torah study groups, or who attend neo-chassidic and/or new-agey Kabbalat Shabbat services in community centers, private homes - even on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. There are many families who light candles and recite Kiddush on Friday nights but see no inconsistency in going to the mall or a soccer game on Saturday morning. There are a thousand variations - but one thing most of these people have in common is that if you asked them if they were Reform Jews they would emphatically deny it.

I have the impression that for many Diaspora Jews, the image of Israel that I grew up with still holds: a militantly secular, atheistic majority who see Judaism as a purely secular national identity, held hostage by an Orthodox minority who insist on enforcing their narrow view of Judaism on everybody else at all costs. And in this polarized environment it seems that liberal Judaism is rejected by all parties, which makes us liberal Jews feel unwanted in - and perhaps alienated from - Israel.

However, I don't think that this picture was ever accurate. There was always a wide range of views of the place of the tradition in the state, from the secular socialist "religion is the opiate of the masses," to the dominant view of Judaism as a culture as expounded by Ahad Ha'am, to a cacophony of different voices within the Orthodox world. There were liberal, western-educated Jews like Henrietta Szold (founder of Hadassah) who believed that the return to Israel would lead to a renewal and revitalization of the Jewish religion - and there were Orthodox leaders like the first minister of religion, Rabbi Judah Maimon, who believed that the rise of a Jewish state would lead to the re-establishment of a universally accepted Sanhedrin - and a reunification and renewal of Judaism world-wide. And since the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin this conversation has only gotten richer and more interesting.

When I was an assistant rabbi in Port Washington, New York, the senior rabbi, Martin Rozenberg, tried to upgrade the religious school from four hours a week to six. Parents responded, "if we'd wanted six hours, we would have joined the Conservative synagogue!" But here in Israel, everyone goes to Jewish public school all day, speaks Hebrew, and takes off for the Jewish holidays. And many "secular" Israelis see it as a Jewish obligation to fight for civil rights and social justice here. Thus, many of the defining characteristics of Reform Jews in North America are irrelevant here. It seems that the fuzzy lines between culture and religion in the Jewish state make defining who is a Reform Jew into an interesting challenge. If you act and think like a Reform Jew - choosing from the variegated palette of the Jewish tradition those customs and commandments that uplift your spirit and strengthen your roots and give meaning to your life, while rejecting those that don't - are you a Reform Jew even if you deny it? Can only card-carrying members of the Reform movement be classified as Reform Jews? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I am pretty sure that the future of the Judaism in the state lies somewhere in the interface of tradition and autonomy that seems to me to define Reform Judaism.

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