Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Jews' Jews

The Jewish Week ,June 27, 1997

How does it feel to be a Conservative rabbi at the start of a full-fledged Culture War, a struggle that will have vast implications for the future of Israeli-diaspora relations, the Jewish nature of the Jewish state and the often shaky relationship between synagogue and federation?

It feels like being Jew two times over.While some would choose to minimize the problem and chalk it up to politics, and others hope to pacify us with a few pluralism bucks in the hope that we'll return to Rashi or our black-tie benedictions, it's just not going to happen. The recent attack on Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall was nothing short of a pogrom, according to eyewitnesses. The complete lack of revulsion on the part of Israeli officials immediately following the event only adds to our pain.

And what do we hear from the American Jewish leadership? The same things Israel is used to hearing from the U.S. State Department: "We hope both sides will stop shouting at one another and, well, can't you just try to get along?"

It's enough that I have to stomach the moral equivalence imposed from the outside that allows a bus bomb killing dozens of Jews to be balanced with a construction project on the West Bank. Now I'm supposed to accept moral equivalence imposed by fellow Jews, when only one side is allowed to pray at the Western Wall, and only one side is creating halachic scenarios that will justify the murder of the other side.

My prayers are becoming inverted. When I pray for peace, it is for an internal peace, because our external enemies are no longer the greatest threat to Jewish survival. When I pray for victory, it is for me to be able to lead prayers at our holiest site. When I pray for Israel, it is for an Israel of dreams, for the real Israel would not accept my prayers as authentic, at least until the encouraging news of a compromise reached this week on the conversion issue. When I pray for the prime minister, it is with the knowledge that he would doubtless not visit my synagogue to hear that prayer for fear of angering his haredi minions. He's had a number of chances to attend services at a non-Orthodox synagogue since becoming head of state but has refused to be seen at one.

Mr. Prime Minister, you are cordially invited to mine. We even provide baby-sitting.

I've been disenfranchised by my own people. I've become the Jew's Jew.

I would love nothing more than peace and unity. But I'm becoming a haredi in the literal sense - one who trembles. All of us should be shaking at this turn of events, including Orthodox Jews. Especially Orthodox Jews. What happened at the Kotel was hardly unique: Women's groups, for example, have been assaulted routinely for years by Jewish fundamentalists. But the scope of these new attacks, the unleashing of pure hated, has not been seen between Jew and Jew since the zealot days of the first century. The Shavuot incident was nothing less than the Culture War's Lexington and Concord, the (excrement deleted) Heard `Round the World. And the Israeli police just stood by and let the hooligans dod their business. Why defend the Conservatives, they must have wondered. After all, they are small and weak. Jews' Jews.

When my people are attacked, my reaction is always from the gut. I recognize that it is dangerous to allow the gut to make decisions for the rest of me, but that's what most of us do. That's why so many of us poured so much money into emergency campaigns to aid Israel during her wars and immigrant airlifts. So did I.

And that's why I'm about an inch and a half from resigning from the UJA Rabbinic Cabinet in response to, among other things, an ad recently circulated by UJA throughout the country whose headline read, "He's not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. He's poor and hungry." According to a memo circulated by Richard Wexler, national chairman of UJA, and Bernard Moscowitz, chief operating officer, the ad reminds the public of UJA's "most important" work, "for the good and unity of the Jewish people."

But that ad, as well as the remainder of that memo, also minimizes and mocks my pain and lends the false impression that those who support religious choice in Israel are putting the lives of innocent immigrant babes in jeopardy, that pluralism can be sought only at the cost of absorption. The pitiful immigrant pictured in the ad will soon discover the need for pluralism in Israel, probably much sooner than Mr. Wexler. A Conservative rabbi with feces on his tallit might not be as suitable a poster child, but the pain is no less deep and the threat to the Jewish people far greater because of his plight. Echoing the misguided strategy of the poster campaign, Manfred Steinfeld, general campaign chairman of JUF in Chicago, wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune, "It's not important whether a person in need is a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jew. We refuse to allow anyone to drive a wedge between us and the people of Israel."

Memo to Mr. Steinfeld: Unless you get out front on the pluralism issue, you will continue to spend lots of money shlepping needy Jews to a country where undoubtedly they will come to hate the Ayatollan brand of Judaism presented to them as the only option, and where they won't get to be buried with loved ones denied the chance to covert. You want to raise money on the back of human tragedy? Accompany your poster babe to his Promised Land and do a follow-up in a few years.

As a rabbi, I am committed to keeping my own community viable and unified. I have always supported our local campaign and will continue to do so. I, too, believe in helping poor and hungry people, as well as promoting Jewish education here at home. But for those leaders who would choose to stand above the fray and pretend that the diversity mess will all go away if only those darn rabbis would learn their place and behave themselves, let them understand that pluralism isn't just the top of the agenda; right now it is the agenda.

I suspect that rabbis all over North America are reassessing their communal partnerships, as I am, in light of the recent provocation. And I guarantee that our congregants will be behind us. They are feeling this pain, too. We will preach about this week after week and it won't go away. It's bigger than just the conversion bill now. The era of Status Quo, which never really existed anyway, has officially ended. If our organizations and leaders continue to mock our pain, we'll just have to find new leaders and new organizations.

We didn't fling the feces from the window of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem as our brethren fled the Western Wall on Shavuot morning, but it has most definitely hit the fan.

No comments: