Why Mail-Order “Ordination” is a Troubling Solution to a Real Problem


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I come across compelling articles frequently that I wish I had written myself. This is one such article that I recommend to those who are contemplating marriages or who have children, grandchildren and friends who are doing so:

“Why a Real Clergy Person Should Perform Your Wedding” – By Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

My colleague, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, reflects about a growing trend in the United States generally and among Jews in particular in which large numbers of non-clergy are acquiring instant mail-order “ordination” in order to be able to legally perform wedding ceremonies for their family and friends.

Wedding ceremonies conducted by these individuals, Rabbi Salkin rightly observes, are very different in kind and in intent from ceremonies in which authentically ordained clergy officiate.

He notes that whereas authentically ordained religious leaders have spent, in most cases, their lives building and nurturing religious community, counseling individuals, couples and families, adults and children through life-cycle events from birth to death, and studying their respective religious traditions, histories, rituals, customs, symbols, liturgies, ethics, and values, weddings conducted by those who receive instant mail-order “ordination,” though usually motivated by the desire that the officiant have an intimate personal relationship with the wedding couple, likely will reflect almost none, if anything at all, of what traditional religion and authentic clergy provide.

Ordained rabbis and cantors bring substantial knowledge, wisdom, insight, and authentic religious and spiritual experiences to the chuppah and can help couples about to marry establish the appropriate groundwork for their lives enriched by religious tradition, understanding and community.

Many authentically ordained rabbis and cantors also are trained in pre-marital counseling and can help couples navigate through potential problems before those problems become irreconcilable conflicts and the marriage fails.

Yes, there are undoubtedly wise and experienced people who may be qualified in some respects to officiate at non-religious wedding ceremonies, such as some judges and some older members of families and friends, but such ceremonies will necessarily be qualitatively different from that which authentically ordained clergy conduct.

This trend is a disturbing reflection of the increasing fragmentation of our community, a diminution of Jewish peoplehood into familial units, an over-emphasis on individual needs, a lack of real engagement with religious community, and an alienation from Jewish tradition and Jewish values.

Rabbi Salkin’s blog is an important read, and I am grateful that he wrote it.

Who Are You in this Fourth Stage of Life? D’var Torah Bemidbar


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Mi at – “Who are you?” (Ruth 3:9) – So asked Boaz. It’s a question that every human being asks from time to time. Especially on this weekend of Shavuot, of the great meeting between Israel and God on the mountain, we ask ourselves individually and as a community – “Who am I/Who are we?” in this time and place, at this stage of our lives, as individuals, as a people, and as a nation.

This Shabbat we begin the fourth book of the five books of Moses, Bemidbar (Numbers; lit. “In the wilderness”). If the Book of Genesis is about human and tribal origins and beginnings (mirroring infancy and childhood), and Exodus is about human freedom (representing the driving force amongst adolescents), and Leviticus is about the need to adjust to the rules and regulations imposed on society in order to live productively (characteristic of young adulthood), then Bemidbar is about the mid-life journey.

In this fourth book we see that the bloom is off the marriage between God and Israel. Doubt, disillusionment and struggle define our people’s lives. We rebel. Our faith is broken. We want to be somewhere else, anywhere else if it brings relief and renewal. We confront our limitations and mortality. We wonder if this is all there is. We’re caught in the unfettered and cruel desert, a vast wilderness of silence. Our hearts pound. The quiet thunders in our ears. We’re alone and afraid. We yearn for safety and solace.

The wilderness of Sinai is far more than a physical location. Bemidbar is a human wasteland, where everything falls apart. We wander, without a shared vision, without shared values, or shared words. Leaders of every kind attempt to lead; but no one is listening and each is marching to the sound of his/her own drummer. Driven by fear and jealousy, ego and greed, the people are moved by basic things; hunger, thirst and lust. God’s transcendence is elusive. The book is noisy, frustrating and painful.

Rabbi Eddie Feinstein has written (“The Wilderness Speaks”, The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, pages 202-203):

Bemidbar may be the world’s strongest counterrevolutionary tract. It is a rebuke to all those who believe in the one cataclysmic event that will forever free humans from their chains. It is a response to those who foresee that out of the apocalypse of political or economic revolution will emerge the New Man, or the New American, or the New Jew. Here is the very people who stood in the very presence of God at Sinai…who heard Truth from the mouth of God…and still, they are unchanged, unrepentant, chained to their fears. The dream is beyond them. God offers them freedom, and they clamor for meat…”

L’havdil – I am not Moses, nor has my experience been his remotely, yet as a congregational rabbi I understand our greatest leader’s burden of leadership. In the course of Bemidbar “everyone in [Moses’] life will betray him. Miriam and Aaron –  his family members – betray him, murmuring against him. His tribe rebels against him… his people betray him in the incident of the ten spies… and finally, even God betrays him [when he hit the rock and lost his dream of ever entering the Promised Land].” (Ibid)

Numbers is a book about burdens, not blessings. Again, Rabbi Feinstein:

“Everyone has found himself in that excruciating moment when words don’t work – when we try and say the right thing, to heal and to help, but each word brings more hurt. Everyone has tasted the bitterness of betrayal – when no one stands with us, when those who should know better stand against us. Everyone has felt the deep disappointment of the dream turned sour. It could have been so good! I should have turned out so differently! Where did I go wrong? Everyone has tortured himself with the torment Moses feels in Bemidbar. And that’s the ultimate lesson. Listen to the Torah’s wisdom: the agony, the self-doubt, the frustration are part of the journey through the wilderness. Anyone who has ever worn Moses’ shoes or carried his staff – knows the anguish of Bemidbar. But know this, too: You’re not alone. You’re not the first. You’re not singled out. And most of all, you’re not finished. The torturous route through the wilderness does not come to an end. There was hope for Moses. There is hope for us.” (Ibid)

Where does hope come? In the turning of the heart, the turning of a page, the discovery of shared values and shared purpose, of shared life, shared listening, and shared doing.

In Deuteronomy, the fifth and last of the five books of Moses (representing our senior years when we begin to integrate who we are and rediscover our greater purpose), we’ll hear “Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen O Israel.”

In Devarim (Deuteronomy), “words” return and we’re able to share as a people in listening to God’s voice and to each other. In this, there is hope yet to come.

Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameach.

12 New Rabbis – A Bit of Counsel and a Prayer


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I was privileged to attend the ordination of 12 new Rabbis this past Sunday in Los Angeles from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Because the ordination ceremony was held in the Sanctuary of my synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, HUC invited me to offer the invocation.

I was ordained myself 36 years ago from HUC-JIR in New York and remember well the excitement, exhilaration, pride, optimism, hope, and, not a small amount of trepidation that must have filled the hearts of these young men and women (see names below).

As the 500 family, friends and members of the HUC community (faculty, staff and rabbis) gathered in our Sanctuary, the 12 “almost Rabbis” processed and took their seats. I approached the podium and offered these words just moments before Rabbi Aaron Penken, the President of HUC-JIR, placed his hands upon each of their heads in the traditional gesture of s’michah (“the laying on of hands”) and pronounced them “Rabbi in Israel.”

I said:

“Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nism’cha bo!
This is the day that God has made, let us sing and be joyful!” (Psalm 118:24)

B’ru-chim ha-ba-im – Welcome esteemed teachers and faculty, colleagues, parents, grandparents, friends, and kim’at (almost) “Rabbis in Israel”…

As rabbis, in whatever ways you will serve our people and faith, I can assure you this after my own 36 years tilling the soil in this unique vineyard of matter and spirit, that you will be challenged and tested as you’ve never been before, to think broadly, to learn from our traditional sources every day, to respond with uncommon passion and compassion to the needs of others, to be endlessly patient with people and ferociously impatient for truth and justice, to dig into your soul’s wellsprings seeking God’s life-affirming power, and then, working and reworking what it means for you and us to be progressive Jewish religious leaders amongst our people.

The only thing I can say with any certainty at all is that if you wish to rise to your best selves, and you allow yourselves to be pushed to your limits, you will feel exhilarated in ways few others will understand, for being a rabbi in Israel is unlike anything else I know.

In these brief moments, I wish to leave you with a few truths I’ve learned over the years serving our people:

First – Always follow your heart, but be smart about it.

Second – Never compromise your values and principles, but choose your moments carefully and go “to the wall” rarely, for there’s much truth possessed by others that will expand and enrich your own sense of the truth.

Third – Find the very best and brightest, the most creative, kind and special among our colleagues, your congregants and friends to join you as partners in your sacred work, for only then will you soar as if on “the wings of eagles.” (Isaiah 40:31)

Fourth – Never stop even for a moment studying our sacred literature. Learn as much Hebrew as you can. Memorize as much text as you are able. And push yourself to break through convention while at the same time respecting your community’s rhythms and needs.

Fifth – Put your emphasis always on the half-full glass, and regard the half-empty, but don’t dwell there nor allow yourself overexposure to toxic people who will steal your heart, soul, mind, and strength if you let them.

And finally, place your family’s and friends’ needs over work even as you give your all to your congregants and community.

I know I speak for all HUC alumni scattered around the world in wishing you well, joy, happiness, and fulfillment in this sacred work.

On this Yom Y’ru-sha-la-yim, despite its history of violence and strife, may the Holy City that lives at the center of our people’s heart and soul inspire you in your sacred work as ohavei am Yisrael u-m’di-nat Yis’rael, lovers of the people and the State of Israel.

The Jewish world needs you, and remember that you are never alone.

Ma-zal tov, chol ha-ka-vod, ti-hi-yu ba-ri, ta-a-ko-vu a-cha-rei lib’chem, teil’chu b’dar’chei sha-lom!

Congratulations and much respect; may you be healthy; follow your hearts; go the ways of peace, and “May the works of your hands and the meditations of your hearts” (Psalm 19:14) make you worthy to stand before God and before the people of Israel.  Amen!

The Los Angeles HUC-JIR Ordination Class of 2015 (5775):
Rabbis Courtney Leigh Miller Berman, Allison Dorie Fischman, Amanda Beth Greene, Rachel Kaplan Marks, Molly Beth Plotnik, Lara Leigh Pullan Regev, Jason Samuel Rosner, Gavi S. Ruit, Todd Harris Silverman, Samuel Louis Spector, Beni Wajnberg, and Bess Bridget Wohlner.

Why “The Third Narrative: Progressive Answers to the Far Left’s Critiques of Israel” is a Must-Read


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This pamphlet is intended for any American Jewish college student who is confused about the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions (BDS) movement and conflicted about what it means to be loyal to human rights values while also remaining loyal to Judaism and the Jewish people.

It is also an important resource for their parents and grandparents who are worried about their young adult children’s Jewish identity and bond with the state of Israel as they are confronted with anti-Israel demonstrations on college and university campuses across the United States.

This booklet offers a way for American liberal Jews who love and support the state of Israel to continue to do so despite their discomfort with specific Israeli policies, the Israeli political right’s control of the Israeli government, and American Jewish alienation from segments of the organized American Jewish community that considers progressive Zionist values and positions to be anathema to the pro-Israel camp.

Finally, this pamphlet is for American conservative and right-wing Zionists who believe that American liberal Jews have been duped by the left about Israel and consequently have become, in the view of the conservative right, part of the anti-Israel camp.

“The Third Narrative: Progressive Answers to the Far Left’s Critiques of Israel,” will, regardless of your positions, values, worries, and fears, offer you an opportunity to consider a different pro-Zionist position.

This 25-page pamphlet was produced by Ameinu (Heb. “Our People”), a national, multi-generation community of progressive Zionist North American Jews that believes that “a secure peace between Israel and its neighbors is essential to the survival of the democratic Jewish state.” Ameinu is committed to a “negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The pamphlet addresses most of the accusations leveled against Israel by the international BDS movement, by the international media and on the web, on college and university campuses, and in other settings.

Its introduction notes:

“Some of these attacks come from the far left, from activists trying to appeal to Jews and non-Jews who are committed to human rights and social justice. Often, these critics are not just attacking specific, objectionable Israeli policies and behavior. They treat Israel as the epitome of evil. They portray the entire Zionist enterprise…as nothing more than a racist, colonialist and immoral land theft.”

The pamphlet addresses the following key questions:

• Is Israel an “Apartheid State?”

• Is one, bi-national state a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict?

• Is pro-Israel and progressive an oxymoron?

• Should Palestinian refugees and their descendants be granted the “right of return?”

• Should boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel be encouraged?

• Does Zionism = racism?

• Is “ethnic cleansing” inherent to Zionism?

• Does the pro-Israel lobby have a stranglehold on the U.S. government?

It is important that all of us be able to respond to these questions not just from the perspective of the Israeli and American Jewish political right, but of the Jewish progressive left as well.

I highly recommend this important contribution to the discussion about Israel and that you share it with your high school and college-age children, grandchildren, and friends (Jewish and non-Jewish) alike.

You can learn more about the Third Narrative at http://thirdnarrative.org/ and acquire a copy by calling Ameinu at (212) 366 1194 or visiting its website at http://www.ameinu.net.

Jerusalem – A City of the In-between and Not-Yet Peace


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Jerusalem, itself on a mountain, is made up of a series of mountains. On top of each mountain is an important symbol sacred to a religion or people. Taken together, these multiple symbols represent perhaps the most significant city in world history.

Har Habayit – The Mountain of God’s House, also known as Har Moriah – The Mountain of ‘Sight’ is, of course, the most sacred place in Judaism. Legend teaches that the dust that formed the first human being, Adam, was gathered here, and this mountain top is the place on which Abraham bound his son Isaac. It is here that King Solomon built the First Temple and King Harod built the Second Temple.

Har Habayit- Har Moriah is the gateway between heaven and earth, the umbilicus through which the milk of Torah flows from the Divine breast to the children of Israel, where there is Divine sight and insight.

This most ancient of Jewish mountains is claimed by Islam as its third most sacred site after Mecca and Medina. Muslims call it Haram al Sharif – The Noble Sanctuary where Quran says Mohammed ascended to heaven.

On another small mountain is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, now shared in a delicate and sensitive balance among Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Roman Catholic, Syrian, and Ethiopian Christians because Jesus was crucified there.

To the east is Har Hazeitim – the Mountain of Olives at the foot of which is the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and his disciples slept the night before their Lord’s crucifixion.

Har Hazeitim contains the most holy Jewish cemetery in the world, the closest burial ground to the “The Golden Gate” of Jerusalem that was sealed by the 16th century Ottoman Qalif, Suleiman the Magnificent, because he feared that the Jewish Messiah would pass into the holy city through this gate in the end of days. Jews have been burying our dead on the Mountain of Olives for centuries so their souls would be close and ready to follow the Mashiach.

Just south of the Old City walls is Har Tziyon – Mount Zion from where the prophets Isaiah (2:3) and Micah (4:2) said that Torah and God’s word came into the world. For Christians, Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper here.

A few miles west is yet another mountain made sacred by Zionism and the state of Israel, Har Herzl, on which is built the military cemetery for those who died in the defense of the state and the nation’s leaders. Har Herzl is walking distance from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and museum.

Thirty-four times since the age of David Jerusalem has been conquered. It is arguably the most famous and fought over real estate in the world. It is a city of the in-between. It embraces old and new, past and present, east and west, reason and faith, earth and heaven, this world and the world to come, imperfection and messianic dreams, temporal and divine power. It has been and remains the symbol of a history of intensely competing interests.

Israel celebrates “Jerusalem Day” this Sunday, May 17 (28 Iyar), marking 48 years since Israel reunified the city after the 1967 Six-Day War. Though Jerusalem has rarely known peace, it is an enduring symbol of our people’s yearning for peace nevertheless.

What is to become of this sacred city for so many going forward? Most Israelis do not want it ever divided again. For the past 48 years Israel has maintained the peace and security of Jerusalem and free access for peoples of all faiths to the city’s holy sites.  Yet, distrust and hatred fills still too many hearts and pollutes too many minds. Spitting and shoving, vandalizing and threats, provocation and incitement, violence and murder continue despite efforts by Israeli security to prevent it.

The problems that continue are compounded by the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. East Jerusalem’s Palestinian Arabs, non-citizens of Israel who live under Israeli military rule, do not share equal rights with Israeli citizens, nor is their property necessarily respected by Israeli military law and ultra-Orthodox Jewish squatters who use every opportunity to occupy Arab homes.

Two different sets of law are enforced and non-Israeli citizens almost always come up short.

For Israel’s sake as a Jewish and democratic state and for the sake of the Palestinians the status quo is unsustainable, and if Jerusalem is to be the beacon of and symbol for peace throughout the world, it will take our two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, every ounce of courage, patience, creativity, understanding, and mutual respect to make it happen.

I believe, despite the deep distrust and hostility, that there is a solution, but that will take the willingness to compromise and accommodate the needs of the “other” not as some kumbaya liberal dream, but for the sake of peace, security, the survival of and the dignity of all peoples.

“Racism and Gender in Israel” – Guilt and Accountability


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Now that the new Israeli government will be sworn into the Knesset this week, an issue that has festered unchecked for too long needs to be addressed more extensively – racist and gender-inspired incitement against Arab citizens of Israel. Though President Reuven Rivlin began his presidency by shining a light on this scourge in Israeli society and initiated a nationwide conversation and campaign to emphasize that anti-Arab racism has no place in the democratic state of Israel, bigotry continues against Arabs, and in a different way against Ethiopian Jews. The large presence of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers has, at the very least, exacerbated the problem.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) have published a report called “Racism and Gender in Israel.” It includes introductory remarks by Rabbi David Saperstein, formerly the Director of the RAC in Washington, D.C. and now a Presidential appointee as United States Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the IRAC, wrote the Preface (see below to obtain a copy).

This 66-page pamphlet was written by Israeli attorney Ruth Carmi who notes that though the assassinated MK Meir Kahana was condemned for his racist and extremist remarks in the 1980s when he charged that Arab men were threatening to steal “our” wives and daughters, such comments today by the most extreme Hareidi rabbis are “no longer confined to the margins but are becoming increasingly common in Israeli discourse, and have even found their way into official debates in the Knesset…. [these comments pray upon] emotions exploited with the goal of imposing complete segregation between Jews and Arabs in Israel, isolating and humiliating the Arab community in Israel, and depicting it as a dangerous enemy against which defense is essential… The goal is to marginalize Arab citizens in Israel, to prevent coexistence between Jews and Arabs, and to impose a misogynist perception of women as passive pawns in the conflict who lack any will of their own.”

Racial incitement is prohibited under Israeli law as a criminal and a disciplinary offense.

The “Gender and Racism” pamphlet describes how extremist orthodox religious organizations, associations and some ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel have devoted themselves to a campaign to “defend the honor of Jewish women.” The primary offending organizations are Yad L’Achim, Lev L’Achim, Lehava, Hemla, Derekh Chaim, and the website Hakol Hayehudi, and the chief rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, is most identified with this racist campaign to mark Arabs as schemers, seducers and abusers.

Carmi notes that “throughout history national humiliation has been closely associated with the sexual humiliation of women…and that a Jewish woman who submits to wooing by a non-Jewish man brings dishonor on herself and shame on the entire nation.” (p. 52)

“The woman’s body is the nation, and accordingly the war over this body is the war of the entire nation and becomes the focus of the conflict. Jewish women who have relationships with the enemy – Arab men – are perceived as contributing to the defeat of the Jewish people and the State of Israel and as humiliating Jewish men. The bodies of Jewish women become the focus of the Arab-Jewish conflict and ownership over these bodies determines the balance of power in the conflict.” (pp. 53-54)

This growing movement in Israel is promoted by flyers in Safed warning about “Arab Seducers,” posters in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Beitar Illit opposing employment of Arabs, flyers in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood of Jerusalem calling for the expulsion of Arab residents, and letters given to IDF soldiers declaring “The War is at Home.” Statements by ultra-Orthodox rabbis warn against encounters and fraternization between Jewish women and Arab men and against Arab students and letters by some Rabbis’ wives are posted and distributed beseeching Jewish women not to date Arab men. In Ashkelon, there are efforts to exclude Arabs citizens from local places of entertainment, and kashrut certification is granted to businesses that follow this racist agenda. On the Lehava website there is a “Page of Shame” that lists names of Jewish women involved in intimate relationships with non-Jewish men. An Informers’ Hotline enables people to report incidents of Arab-Jewish fraternization.

Violent attacks against innocent Arabs whose sole “offense” was to be present in areas where there is a Jewish majority, have all created “an atmosphere of terror and intimidation that serves the agenda of those organizations and individuals that advocate for the total segregation of the two populations in the State of Israel.” (p. 13)

It remains to be seen whether this new government including two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, will prosecute this moral scourge in segments of Israeli society.

The Talmud is clear when it says “One who is able to protest against a wrong that is done in his family, his city, his nation, or the world and doesn’t do so is held accountable for that wrong being done.” (Bavli, Shabbat 54b).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel echoes that reminder when he said, “We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Note: Contact the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center for a free copy of “Racism and Gender in Israel” – 2027 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036 – Phone: (202) 387-2800 – http://www.rac.org/.

“The Disaster that Judaism Won’t Survive” – A Response to Haaretz Op-Ed



Tomer Persico is an Israeli intellectual, a popular blogger on religion and spirituality, an advocate for freedom of religion, and a serious observer of Israel’s religious life. When he writes, Israelis take him seriously.

Persico has concluded in a recent Haaretz op-ed (“The Disaster that Judaism Won’t Survive,” April 25  http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.653125) that after the shelving of the vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Israel will not be able to continue being both Jewish and democratic.” He is alarmed that Judaism in Israel is increasingly being equated with autocratic despotism and oppression, and this turn away from both democracy and liberal Judaism to extremism will eventually lead to disaster for the Jewish people and state of Israel:

“When our best friends, the countries with which we like to boast that we share values, increasingly perceive Israel’s Judaism as an antithesis to the state’s democratic character and a threat to the liberal approach and equality of rights to which Israel committed itself in its Declaration of Independence – it appears that we are closer than ever to having the Jewish tradition relegated to the abhorrent status of Communism in the past and of Salafi Islam in the present. We are witnessing Judaism being tarred-and-feathered, and the charges will stick to it more than any anti-Semitic calumny in the past, simply because this time no blood libel will be involved.”

For an increasing number of Israelis, Persico says, Judaism is regarded as inconsistent with democratic values and when asked to choose one over the other, they prefer Judaism over democracy. He worries that when western Diaspora Jews fully understand what has happened in Israel they will separate their practice of Judaism from the state of Israel and turn their backs on Zionism and the Jewish state.

Based on data collected by the Israel Democracy Institute, he reports: “If in 2010, 48.1 percent of Jewish citizens replied that the two elements [Judaism and democracy] are equally important to them, in 2012 this fell to 41.9 percent, and in 2014, it was 24.5 percent. At the same time, the proportion of Israeli Jews for whom the Jewish element is the most important rose to as high as 38.9 percent; 33.5 percent of the respondents opted for democracy as most important.”

Despite these disturbing trends, I believe that Persico’s fears are overheated, exaggerated and misleading. Non-Orthodox liberal Judaism and interest in the study of classic Jewish texts are being embraced by significant numbers of Israelis who seek meaning in Jewish life-cycle and holiday celebration outside of Orthodoxy. These Israelis are western and liberal in outlook and they highly value the life that democratic institutions support. Nevertheless, Persico’s alarming conclusions have to be taken seriously because so many Israelis, fed by the settler movement, extreme right-wing orthodoxy, and the politics of fear, believe today that democracy and Judaism cannot co-exist.

The original sin leading to this polarized view was committed by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion who gave a monopoly of control over Jewish religious life to a then very small right-wing orthodox community. Successive Israeli governments have allowed the polarization to continue over the entire 67 years of statehood because of pragmatic coalition politics and the ruling party’s need to secure a majority of mandates in the Knesset.

The second sin was committed after Israel conquered the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Days War. Then Israeli right-wing religious nationalists, seeing God’s hand behind the redemption of Judea and Samaria into Israel proper, conflated Judaism with the Greater Israel movement thus morally justifying Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and giving the settlement movement religious and national credibility.

Historically, there has always been tension in Jewish tradition between tribal and universal impulses and values. However, we Jews need not have to choose between being patriotic to the Jewish state or being universal humanitarians concerned about justice for Palestinians and other peoples. We can be both. Each trend ought to be a check against the other’s excesses, and though Persico is right in his worry that the two-state vision has been shelved after the Kerry mission, the two-state solution is still the only concrete assurance that Israel can remain Jewish, democratic, just, peaceful, secure, and part of the family of nations.

It must be said that Judaism as a whole embraces both orthodoxy and liberalism. It’s neither a fair demand that all Jews be either liberal or orthodox. It’s also inaccurate to claim that Judaism can survive only if Jews become right-wing extremist nationalists or live in consonance with the left’s worldview as expressed regularly in Haaretz.

What is, I believe, a certain threat to the Zionist enterprise, arguably the greatest single achievement of the Jewish people in two millennia, is the pitting of Israel’s Judaism against democracy and the continuing monopoly over Jewish life by the ultra-Orthodox political parties and rabbis.

The only way to buttress democracy in Israel is first and foremost to support the two-state solution, and at the same time encourage all efforts to separate church from state because that will also support the health and vitality of Judaism and Jewish life.

The New Israeli Government and Ultra-Orthodox Parties – More of the Same and It Isn’t Good



We Jews are good at worrying, and I’m worried.

When speaking about the state of Israel, American Jews always need to remember that we’ve chosen to live here and not there and so we must be deferential to our Israeli brothers and sisters who are on the front lines and not second-guess them. They are the ones who must make the tough decisions and live with the consequences. They have done so in free elections last March and are now forming a new ruling coalition government.

Though Israelis have every right living in a democracy to choose their leaders, what Israel does affects Jews living in the Diaspora too, and it is on this basis that we living here have a right to speak and be part of the conversation. This conversation, of course, isn’t easy. We are, after all, a complicated people living in a complicated time, and Israel is situated in a dangerous region of the world.

Though the Israeli right-wing prevailed in this last election, I don’t believe that liberal Zionism is dead. Liberal Zionist values are still held by the majority of Israel’s political center, center-right and center-left. Israelis still want a Jewish democratic state. Though racism and anti-democratic trends are intensifying in certain segments of Israeli society egged on by elements in political parties that will be part of the ruling coalition government, and extremism is growing, Israelis as a whole are neither racist nor extremist.

A free press and independent judiciary are still alive and well in Israel, and every issue is debated thoroughly out  in the open. Human rights organizations advocating and working on behalf of immigrants, asylum seekers, women’s rights, civil rights, religious freedom, democracy, and pluralism are doing their work without interference.

As he strives to form a government, Prime Minister Netanyahu is making deals with small parties in exchange for their support. My fear is what those deals mean for the health of Israeli society, its open Jewish character and its democratic institutions all of which will affect continuing support for Israel in the international community and in the United States, and that support has a direct influence on Israel’s security.

The last Israeli ruling coalition government, for the first time in Israeli history, included no Orthodox religious parties. Consequently, progress was made in the Knesset to reduce the amount of money automatically granted to support ultra-Orthodox synagogues and yeshivot. The goal of that policy was to force thousands upon thousands of non-productive Hareidi students to learn general studies in order to be able to enter the Israeli work force and thus reduce the unfair financial burden carried by Israeli tax-payers having to support them and their very large families indefinitely.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has brought back into power the very ultra-Orthodox Religious Parties (i.e. Shas and United Torah Judaism) that opposed this policy thus representing a major step backwards and a threat to social and economic fairness and equality, religious pluralism, and diversity in Israeli society.

Hiddush, an Israeli organization committed to the separation of church and state in Israel, just published an analysis of what the new coalition agreements with the Ultra-Orthodox religious parties mean. Among its findings are:

1. 4 billion NIS of Israeli taxpayer money once again will be diverted to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students at a time when Israel’s middle class is squeezed and poverty in other sectors is increasing without equal redress. Unfair preferential and discriminatory use of public funds will be given to the Hareidi population, declared illegal by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Netanyahu’s agreement with these parties undermines efforts to reduce massive subsidies and removes incentives for yeshiva students to seek gainful earning potential and not rely on welfare thus handicapping them from integrating into an education-based workforce.

2. Public transportation – There is no public transportation available anywhere in the state of Israel on Shabbat and Holidays. Hiddush shows that public support (among the adult Jewish population) has reached an all-time high of 74% in favor of public transportation on Shabbat and Holidays including 72% of Likud voters (PM Netanyahu’s own party). This is important because the very people at the lowest end of the economic ladder who cannot afford a car are discriminated against. But the Orthodox parties are against it, and the current prohibition will likely continue.

These are but two consequences in bringing in the ultra-Orthodox parties back into the government. There will likely be more.

You can access Hiddush’s findings here:

1. “Hiddush analysis of new coalition agreement with United Torah Judaism”  


2. “74% of Israelis want to change the status Quo – What gives Israel its Jewish character? Is it liberty, justice and peace, as taught by the Hebrew Prophets, or is it the lack of public transportation on Shabbat, which greatly restricts the weakest sectors of Israeli society?” 


As My Mother Disappears Before My Eyes


As my mother nears her 98th birthday in June, the dementia that has consumed her brain is taking more and more of her away. It’s as if there’s been an invasion of a body snatcher.

My mother is, on the one hand, still there. She sounds, smells and feels the same. But increasingly, she has entered into oblivion.

In my last three visits, she didn’t know who I was – I, her son of 65 years.

In my visits these days, I try and discover where she is and what she thinks about and remembers. I’m no longer asking her if she knows who I am. She may indeed know, but I don’t think she easily remembers my name.

One of the tragedies of advancing dementia is the utter isolation that sufferers progressively experience as they move through the fog left by lost memory. It’s also difficult and painful for us who love them because we can’t help but grieve as we watch them disappear.

My mother’s world has become so very small. She had always lived an active and fully engaged life invigorated by family, friends, people, Jewish community, causes, and ideas. Then, she began to forget things. She couldn’t find the words that had once flowed so easily past her lips. She couldn’t recall the memories that made her who she was and defined her world. She didn’t know the names of the people she loved. And she couldn’t recognize anyone in the room.

My mother has always been exceptionally verbal, and though she still talks up a storm, her words are nearly impossible for me to understand, and I know her better than most people.

I’ve asked myself what is actually left, what remains of all that she was, learned and knew. Thankfully, certain things haven’t yet left her. She retains her essential sweetness, gentleness, kindness, generosity, and joy when she looks into my face and has some recognition that I’m an important and familiar person to her, but I wonder what the content of the familiarity is.

For those who suffer with dementia, it’s as if the life cycle has been reversed. They undergo a great unlearning, an unmaking of themselves, a reversion to a uncluttered brain – but this time, the mind is shutting down and not opening up.

Sometimes, nevertheless, my mother offers a pearl of wisdom. Last week she said, “We all have to love each other – for what else is there!?”

Because my mother can’t hear, can’t see and can’t walk, I sit very close to her when we interact, touch her constantly, look into her face from five or six inches away, and speak very loudly into her left ear, the better ear of the two. If I’m able to break through the fog of her confusion, she may know me, but most of the time I’m not sure that she does.

In being with people with dementia, it’s important for us to remember that when the mind goes our bodies carry powerful memories too that may remain. A mother never forgets the vibrations, smell and energy of her child, and I, her son, certainly have never forgotten my mother’s vibrations, smell and emotional presence.

After all the years, what’s left between her and me has come down to this – the purity of a love between a mother and a son. I cherish this and pray that she still does too.

Each time I leave her I kiss her and say directly into her ear: “Mom – I love you!”

“I love you too,” she always says.

I hope she knows that it’s ME who has spoken those words, and not just some stranger showing her love and kindness.

Yom Haatzmaut – Reflections 2015


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Who could have imagined 67 years ago that Israel would become as economically viable, politically and militarily strong, technologically advanced, and creatively cutting-edge as it is today?

Who would have dreamed that Israel’s Jewish population would grow from 600,000 souls in 1948 to nearly 6 million today?

Who would have thought that after having had to fight seven wars, endure two Intifadas and bear-up against ongoing terrorist attack that the Jewish state would remain democratic and free despite little peace with its neighbors and no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

All told, even with her imperfections and serious challenges, Israel is a remarkable nation, testimony to the spirit, will, ingenuity, aspiration, creativity, and sacrifice of generations. Today Israel is like none other in the world, more culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse, more intellectually, artistically and academically productive. The depth and breadth of her accomplishments are nothing shy of breath-taking.

On the occasion of Israel’s 67th Independence Day, Jews the world over are well to take stock, celebrate her massive accomplishments, mourn and honor her dead, and ask what unique place the Jewish state holds in the innermost heart, mind and soul of the Jewish people.

This is no easy task. Permit me to offer some thoughts as I reflect on Israel’s meaning:

Israel is far more than a political refuge as envisioned by political Zionists. It is more than the flowering of the Jewish spirit as dreamed about by cultural Zionists. It is more than the fulfillment of Jewish memory and religious longing as experienced by the entirety of the Jewish people.

Israel starts with the land, with Jerusalem at its heart, for the land has been a key focus of Jewish consciousness for three millennia. The land of Israel is at the center of our history and is an essential element of our Jewish faith. But Israel is far more than land.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way in his moving volume Israel – An Echo of Eternity: “Israel reborn is an answer to the Lord of history who demands hope as well as action, who expects tenacity as well as imagination.” (p. 118) “The inspiration that goes out of Zion today is the repudiation of despair and the example of renewal.” (p. 134)

In this spirit the Zionists sought to create a new kind of a Jew, at home in the land, self-activated, self-realized, independent, creative, and free. They understood, however, the limitations of their state-building endeavor. Heschel said: “The State of Israel is not the fulfillment of the Messianic promise, but it makes the Messianic promise plausible.” (Ibid. p. 223)

In other words, the political state is not and cannot be regarded as an end in itself. Rather, the Jewish state represents a challenge and a promise that will rise or fall based on how our people and Israel’s government uses or misuses the power that comes with national sovereignty. With this in mind a Jewish state that was founded upon the principles of democracy and that is worthy of its great mission must challenge our individual and communal ethics, our nationalism, our humanity, and our faith.

May Israel be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations, and may her citizens and all the inhabitants of the land know justice and peace.


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