By Rabbi Stacey Blank
Last week, I was invited to speak before the “Ami-Chai” Pre-Army Preparation Course of the Zionist Council of Israel, based on Kibbutz Keramim.
It is becoming more popular in Israel to delay the mandatory army service which begins at age 18 for one year and to participate in a Pre-Army Preparation Course which generally combines service in the community with study and leadership training for the army.
The invitation to speak came from one of the mechinah participants who wrote me that the Ami-Chai Mechinah consists of “secular and religious (18-19 year olds), girls and boys, left-wingers and right-wingers.” I was to represent Reform Judaism in a day of learning about the different movements in Judaism. Other presenters (each speaking at a different time) were an Orthodox rabbi, Conservative rabbi, someone representing the Secular movement, and someone representing traditional Israelis (semi-observant).
I began with a question – Has anyone here ever had contact with the Reform movement or with a Reform congregation in their life? Of the 25 kids, two girls raised their hand. They had both had a bat mitzvah ceremony in Congregation Mevasseret Zion (outside Jerusalem). I said to the group, You’ve identified yourselves to me as “secular and religious” and it is clear to me that you are much more diverse than that. That is my first message: Israeli society is not either/or, our religious identity is not black or white. We are a religiously diverse society.
For the most part, the group listened attentively and respectfully. They asked thoughtful questions – what is the program of study for Reform Rabbis and where do you study? How does the work of Reform rabbis differ from Orthodox rabbis? What kinds of things do people come to you for? How do you counsel people?
But, the interesting part, of course, is when the room heated up. I explained that Reform Judaism views halacha (Jewish law) as tradition and instead of seeing halacha as binding on all, rather promotes the autonomy of the individual to choose from the tradition what enhances his Judaism. In Reform Judaism, the obligation is to study the array of Jewish sources on any given topic, including the halacha, and thus to make an educated decision about personal practice. In Reform Judaism, the emphasis is on mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, the commandments that deal with how we treat we other and how we can perform tikkun olam, repairing the world. While individuals decide for themselves in their private sphere, when we gather as communities, each community sets its own communal standards to which halachot the community as a whole will adhere. And when we join together as a national movement (i.e. The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism or the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel) we set national standards which determine membership in the organization.
One girl said to me passionately, “How can you just let go of (משמיט) the entire Jewish tradition? Don’t you think that if all Jews were Reform Jews, nothing would continue from the Jewish tradition? Don’t you think that Judaism can only survive with Orthodox Jews?”
Of course, I explained that every generation, also the “Orthodox”, chooses what to keep and what to let fall to the side. It is impossible to do everything that has ever been done by every Jewish community in history. When the Second Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai made the biggest Reform of all and said we’re not going to sacrifice anymore, we’re going to pray. This saved Judaism! I said, “Personally, I cannot find a way to reconcile with the halacha kol b’isha erva (the voice of a woman is nakedness/lewdness). I do not see the relevance of this Jewish tradition in my life and I don’t think it is appropriate for our society in light of the social and technological developments in the world. I think it needs to be rejected. Do you think a woman’s voice is lewd? I have witnessed both men and women having profound spiritual experiences when lead in prayer by a woman.”
Another girl said, “I believe that there is only one G-d. We Jews can only believe in the one and the same G-d. It is unacceptable to me that Jews would believe something else. That is what has kept the Jewish people surviving for thousands of generations – when we believe and do the same thing, everyone all together.”
When I heard her words, first of all, I told myself to stay calm. What is it in what I’ve said that has set her off? What is so threatening to her? But I also experienced frustration: Did they not learn about Jewish history in school? And I had already given so many examples of how Judaism has survived and even thrived on disagreement, diversity of opinions, and change. How the disagreements of Hillel and Shammai were preserved in the Talmud. How the Kabbalists revolutionized Shabbat by bringing us the Kabbalat Shabbat service. How Hillel introduced the “prozbol” which “allowed” us to not perform commandments from the Torah because they were not practical and were actually economically detrimental to the society.
Then another girl spoke up, one of the girls who had become a bat mitzvah in the Reform congregation in Mevasseret Zion. She herself was inflamed and answered the girl: “I don’t agree with you at all. Though I was only in the Reform congregation for the year that I had my bat mitzvah, I would have to say that I most agree with their approach to Judaism. Judaism has always changed.”
I took a deep breath and gathered myself. I said to the group, “This seems to me to be what this mechinah is all about. These are important discussions for all of you to have – Our tradition teaches that there are 70 faces to the Torah. There are hundreds of names for G-d – the angry, jealous G-d of the Torah, the Ein Sof (unending) G-d of the kabbalists, the Shechina (G-d’s presence) who comforts Her people, and so on. This is our tradition. You guys need to figure out how to hear each other and how you can live with each other, even if you believe different things about Judaism and practice it in different ways. We need to live with each other.”
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As I told my native Israeli husband (raised secular but having had traditional experiences) about the lesson, his reaction was: “Do you see how the Rabbinate has succeeded in Israel? They have brainwashed the entire country into believing there is really only one way to do Judaism.”
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As Honen, the director of the mechinah, accompanied me out, he said the lesson had been a success – it got the kids thinking about Judaism. However, he said, “I’m going to talk with them about how a few of them attacked you. You weren’t brought here to hold a discussion with them. They invited you to speak in order to learn from you. Their approach should have been only to respectfully ask for more information.”
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This mifgash (encounter) was a microcosm of the Israeli society that fills me with love and frustration. Israelis are filled with passion. We want to discuss, lay all the cards on the table, in the pursuit of truth. But we need also to listen better – to hear the other even when the other doesn’t share your beliefs. Not to agree, just to hear. The Jewish people was always always a diverse amalgamation of ideas and practices. That, as I have always said, is the secret to our survival.
It’s about time we got in touch with reality.
Rabbi Stacey Blank has served as the rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam, an IMPJ Congregation in Ramat HaSharon, since 2007. She also helps facilitate the relationship between the youth organizations BBYO and Tzameret, as well working with families and individuals who arrive from abroad, mainly performing bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and weddings. This piece was originally posted on her blog.