My phone started dinging with unusual frequency early in the morning of July 9th. Each text or email came with a strange question: ‘Is it you?’ After the 3rd or 4th text message and 5th or 6th email I decided I had better figure out what exactly was going on. With one quick google search I discovered that Israel’s chief rabbinate had released a blacklist of rabbis – 160 names of rabbis not to be trusted. And as my eyes scanned down that list, about half way through it, I saw my own name – Rabbi Steven Schwartz.
Most of the rabbis whose names appeared on the list are from the US. Many are Conservative rabbis, although there are Orthodox rabbis and Reform rabbis listed as well. We received no notification, no communication from the Chief Rabbinate, and no explanation. But best guess, after speaking with some of my colleagues, is that you made that list if you had people who had studied with you for conversion, and then after they became Jewish they made aliyah, they moved to Israel. And if you wrote supporting documents for their aliyah process, you made the blacklist.
Now please don’t feel bad for me, if you were inclined to do so. My feelings were not hurt, my ego, such as it is, not bruised. The timing was ironic, because when the list was released I had just returned from Israel, where for 10 days I had done my best to give a group of Beth El travelers a sense of pride in and love for the Jewish homeland. But even while we were there there were storms brewing and controversies swirling, all revolving around the question of how Israel, in a religious sense, Israel as a Jewish state, relates to the Jewish community outside of Israel, those of us who live in the Diaspora.
If you follow Jewish news you probably came across these issues during the summer. There have been two primary points of contention. The first has to do with access to Judaism’s most sacred site, the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. If you’ve ever been to the Kotel you know it is run like an Orthodox synagogue – there is a men’s section of the Wall, and a women’s section. The sections are divided by a mechitza. It is clear that if you are a Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Jew that your brand of Judaism is not looked upon kindly there. And some of you who have traveled with me and Dr. Bor to Israel may remember how uncomfortable we felt when trying to have a Beth El service, not even at the wall, but in the general vicinity, usually at the back of the plaza.
Almost two years ago a compromise was negotiated with the Netanyahu administration that was supposed to resolve this tension. The plan was to give Reform and Conservative Jews access to the wall’s southern section, where they would be able to have egalitarian services, with women and men participating fully and praying together. But the government never implemented the agreement, giving one excuse after another, finally announcing this summer that the agreement would be indefinitely shelved. And the message to the Diaspora community really was if you are a Conservative or Reform Jew your Judaism is not authentic, and you do not have the same Jewish rights in Israel, the Jewish homeland, as Orthodox Jews. Controversy #1.
Controversy number 2, which connects to my being black listed, revolves around the status of Jews by Choice, who have converted in the Diaspora. Since the establishment of the state 70 years ago in 1948, conversion status worked as follows – if someone converted under non-Orthodox auspices, they were considered to be Jewish by the state of Israel and they were allowed to make aliyah as a Jew under the Law of Return. But just over the last number of months there has been legislation introduced in the Knesset that would make only Orthodox conversions approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to be considered valid. It is another message sent – from the Israeli government – that non Orthodox Judaism, in their eyes, is not authentic.
This past summer the Conservative and Reform communities finally felt like they had had enough. You may or may not know but you should that our President Denise Franz and I signed on to a letter a few weeks ago that was sent from the Conservative Movement to PM Netanyahu. It was signed by 600 Conservative rabbis and the presidents of almost 400 conservative synagogues around the country. In the strongest possible terms the letter expressed the deep disappointment we feel communally with the Netanyahu administration’s positions on these issues. (the text of the letter is easy to find online if you want to read it)
To this point there has been no movement from the Netanyahu administration, and no response that I know of to the letter or the points it raises. And that lack of response, particularly at this time of year, when Judaism urges us to reach out to God and to each other, to admit oversights and promise to do better, is both hurtful and telling. It is a rejection of our Judaism, and our Jewish way of life.
I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a world today that feels both dark and dangerous. With violence, and terrorism, and mass migration, and a threat of nuclear war that we have not felt since I was in elementary school; with challenges of modernization, and the feeling that technology is taking over our lives, and the recent natural disasters, and the growing threat of climate change – the list could go on and on and on. To say the least, these are unsettled and troubled times.
And that is the general world! Think for a moment about the Jewish world. We have plenty of our own tzuras! In Israel the unresolved situation with the Palestinians and the continuing occupation divides the country internally between left and right. The left recognizes that the occupation cannot continue because A) it is morally compromising and B) it alienates the rest of the world. But the left has a problem because it doesn’t know if a full withdrawal from the West Bank will finally result in peace or if it will locate Hamas rockets 10 miles from Ben Gurion airport. The right in Israel also has its problems. It believes that the Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria is God given, even Messianic, and withdrawal is impossible. Yet it understands that something has to be done about the Palestinians, and also that making a single state will not preserve Israel’s Jewish identity in the long term. That is internally. And externally, Israel lives in one of the most challenging, unstable, and dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and has to share its backyard with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Israel can never seem to catch a break, and never seems to have an easy year.
But we Jews who live in the Diaspora haven’t had it much better this year. I imagine many of us are still deeply disturbed by the events that took place in Charlottesville this summer, when Nazis and white supremacists marched in the streets of an American city chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas. Our brothers and sisters in Europe have their own concerns, with the left in England revisiting classic anti-Semitic tropes, and the right in Germany electing neo-Nazis to sit in the German parliament. %13 in last week’s elections!
And in this kind of world, in this kind of year, do Jews have to spend their time telling other Jews they don’t practice Judaism the right way, that they aren’t authentically Jewish, they aren’t observant enough? Does the Chief Rabbinate have to release blacklists of rabbis? Does the government of Israel have to renege on its agreements with the liberal Jewish community, does it have to alienate Jews at a time when if anything Jews should becoming together? I understand that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on others. That is one of the reasons why YK exits! And in the Jewish community we seem to have a particular talent for judging others. But don’t we Jews have other things to worry about, aside from judging each other?
The message of Yom Kippur is to look inwards, and to judge oneself, and to leave the judging of others to God. In ancient times, when the High Priest went into the inner precincts of the Temple, to pray for a good year, he prayed for all Jews. He didn’t say, ‘I am going to pray for the Jews of Beth El, and not Chizuk Amuno.’ And if we wake up in the morning, and somehow the Temple has miraculously been rebuilt over night, and a High Priest found, his prayer in that Temple would also be for ALL Jews – in Israel, and in the Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist.
In its introduction to the Avoda service, our mahzor quotes the teaching of a Hasidic master. “Wherever a person stands to lift up eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Every human being created by God in God’s own image is a High Priest. Each day of a person’s life is the Day of Atonement. Each one of us can face God with the language of the heart. Each one of us can be forgiven. Each one of us can achieve atonement and be made pure in the eyes of God.”
That is a message that I hope and pray the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Netanyahu administration will take to heart. But the truth is it is a message all of us need to hear and take to heart, in Israel and in the Diaspora. It affirms every person and every place as part of God’s creation. That each of us despite our diversity, in age, in location, in language, in observance, in worldly goods can find God’s love and support as we journey through life.
We all pray in the same words on the HHDs, the pious and those less so. בספר חיים…וכל עמך בית ישראל. May we and the entire House of Israel be called to mind and inscribed for life, blessing, sustenance, and peace in the Book of Life.
May that be God’s wish, and the wish of all Jewish people, one for another, in this new year –