A reply to a response to our task in Israel

The Future of Judaism

Rabbi Michael Graetz

In his article “Conservative Rabbis in Israel: This is not the way” (CJ, Spring, 1994), my colleague Hertzel Fishman has done me the honor of taking the time to write a detailed criticism of a speech of mine “Our Task in Israel” (CJ, Spring, 1993) . There is a genuine disagreement between us as to what the Conservative movement’s task should be in the State of Israel. His article points to the need for a serious and protracted discussion of this issue. The time has come for the Conservative movement to deal with the question of what its tasks in Israel should be.

In my reply to Rabbi Fishman’s critique I will follow the same headings as he used in his article. I will not respond to every point he made, but only to those reflect deep and serious disagreement between us.

Ideology and Zionism

Rabbi Fishman’s critique of my article begins with certain statements about Judaism and its role in Israel. He repeats the commonplace that non-orthodox Jews in Israel do not feel the need to join a synagogue because the calendar and atmosphere of the country provide Jewish identity. What Rabbi Fishman does not include in this evaluation are questions such as:

  1. Are the spiritual needs of non-orthodox Jews really being met by this “general Jewish atmosphere”?
  2. What happens intellectually and emotionally to those Jews who are treated poorly by the orthodox rabbinate, particularly in connection with marriage and divorce?
  3. How do we stem the tide of ignorance about Judaism and the rich treasures of Jewish wisdom exhibited by many Israeli Jews?
  4. How damaging to society is the growing polarity and sense of estrangement between Jewish identity based mainly on religious practices and beliefs (datiim) and Jewish identity based on a secularized sense of common history and state citizenship (hiloniim).

Rabbi Fishman’s criticism of my speech appears to be based on two different but related assumptions:

  1. That what is needed in Israel is a strong nationalist ideology which will lead individuals to commit themselves to give up their personal desires for the good of the community.
  1. Conservative Judaism as practiced in Israel reflects a lack of such a commitment to this idea of community, and is thus unsuited to be an ideology for Israel. (I will relate directly to this point only in the section of this essay entitled “summary”.)

His assertion that Zionism is a “national ideology” and does not relate directly to private individuals is misguided. Despite his efforts to explain what an “ethical Jewish nationalist (not a chauvinist)” is, he fails to do so successfully, because it is a cloudy idea. Rabbi Fishman uses “individualism” as almost a dirty word, because in his view it necessarily stands in opposition to “community”. Some individualists do overstate the value of the individual as against the value of the community. However, this is not the only type of individualism. In fact, I regard myself as an individualist, but one who recognizes the importance and value of community.

Indeed, the contemporary debate in political and social philosophy between communitarians and liberals is what Rabbi Fishman has posited here. He seems to be asserting that his position understands individuals in terms of shared relations with the community while my position posits two separate entities, individual and community with no shared relations, only contractual ones.

This presentation of the debate is unfair to liberalism, as I understand it, and not accurate. I agree with Rabbi Fishman that there must be shared relations between the individual and the community, contractual relations alone are not enough. But I believe that those shared relations are, in the terms coined by Neal and Paris, contingently shared relations, while Rabbi Fishman believes they are essentially shared relations.1 Neal and Paris define a contingently shared relation as one in which no matter how much the relation affects attitudes and behavior, it does not “penetrate the identity of the separate selves to the point that the identity of each becomes partially or wholly constituted by the relation

1 See the wonderful article by Patrick Neal and David Paris, “Liberalism and Communitarian Critique: A Guide for the Perplexed”, in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, XXIII:3 (September 1990). The authors explore several facets of this debate, only one of which I refer to here.

 itself.” On the other hand, when two selves essentially share a relation the identity of each self is partially or wholly constituted by the relation.

This distinction is very useful in explaining the disagreement between us. If my relationship to the community is contingent, I still remain apart from it as an individual. The relation will affect the content of my beliefs and practices, and yet as an individual apart from the relation, I am in a position to criticize the community if my individual sense of justice or fairness is dissatisfied. But, because of my commitment to the community and the fact that the content of my beliefs is influenced by the relationship, I will strive to express my dissatisfaction in terms accepted by the community.

In my opinion Masorti Judaism is essentially a liberal Judaism. Thus, for example, if my individual sense of justice is violated by halachot relating to the status of women, that fact allows me the freedom to demand changes in the community’s rules (halacha). But, because I belong to a community, I also feel a need to make those changes based upon the rules (halacha) of the community. I will attempt to use all the tools of those rules (halacha) to make the changes I believe necessary to create a situation which will result in a more fulfilled relationship between my individual self and my community. A halachic tool, such as takkanah, which was used throughout history to amend distortions in the community must be used so that my contingent relationship to the community can be healthy and positive, not strained or estranged. Rather than expressing a lack of commitment to halacha, I believe that Conservative Judaism has the strongest commitment to halacha. Its halacha is a dynamic and living halacha of choice, and not halacha which is seen to be a kind of whip used to keep Jews in line.

Rabbi Fishman’s sense of the values of community assumes that the identity of the individuals who belong to it is completely constituted by the community. He talks as if in communities all individual selves become one. There is a sense of union or sacred bond, as in marriage, implied in this description. On this view individuals who criticize their communities are acting immorally. But, this is both inaccurate and misleading. In saying yes to the community, one is only acting morally if one is saying yes to something moral. The moral quality of each kind of action is not a question of agreeing with the community. All depends on the character of the specific instance. I am sure that the strong community commitment, and the “voluntary actions of idealistic men and women who sought to further the interests of the national community”, in Rabbi

   Fishman’s words, of the Third Reich, for example, would be totally disapproved of by him.

His arguments concerning the collective order that he advocates are vague. What he says on this issue is at once confused and confusing. He at times says things that imply that the individual has no existence apart from the community and so is completely obligated by it. On the other hand, he wants the Masorti Movement in Israel, by which I presume he means the members of the Masorti Movement in Israel, to act as gadflies. But, a gadfly criticizes his community. The preference for the contingent relations of modern liberal societies, in which the autonomous individual has a role, finds support in Jewish sources. (For a good explication of this see Gordon Tucker’s article on the rationale of the CJLS, and his article on what we mean when we say we are an halachic movement).

Halakhic Development: Tactic or Belief?

Rabbi Fishman criticizes my describing our halachic approach as a “tactic” in the Diaspora and a “matter of deep belief’ in Israel. I certainly have no wish to insult colleagues anywhere, and I believe that the approach of the CJLS over the years has been a milestone in halachic development. What I meant by this sentence was that this approach has been explained to the public, on many occasions, as a tactic. The phrase “this is better than nothing” is heard as a kind of defensive apology why we are not doing the same thing as the Orthodox. I remember once hearing one of the distinguished professors at the Seminary explain that Conservative halacha was like the first few floors in a building. We really want to get to the top floors (i.e. orthodox observance), but in order to get to the top floors you have to go through the lower ones. I did not mean to imply that Conservative halacha was a tactic, but only that it had been explained that way. What I wanted to say was that we must stop this apologetic approach. This is essential everywhere, not only in Israel.

Rabbi Fishman argues against the halachic decisions of the Masorti law committee both when they are mahmir, and when they are meikil. He does so on the basis of a polarized conception of both his and my position. He tells us that, “The singular contribution that Conservative Judaism can make to Israel is not in the espousal of liberal doctrines of tolerance, democracy, coexistence with secularists and freedom of conscience…but in the cultivation of a nationalist­-religious ideology of commitment to klal yisrael.” I have already responded to  this view as oversimplistic. The commitment of the Masorti movement to klal yisrael is not inferior for the fact that it derives from beliefs in tolerance, democracy, coexistence and freedom of conscience, it is precisely those values which make the Masorti movement what it is. Indeed, the justification of tolerance is based upon the principles of 1) humility, 2) a plurality of views has positive moral value (“elu ve-elu”), 3) diversity is a necessary condition for freedom of choice, 4) freedom of expression is a necessary condition for getting nearer the truth. These principles are very important in the world view of Hazal, and are at the base of their conception of Oral Torah.2

Rabbi Fishman feels that we should be a “national gadfly, catalyst and paradigm/teacher for klal yisrael”. This is opposed, apparently, to our effort to become “rabbis” in the traditional sense of the word. Being a rabbi includes all of that, but also includes being a spiritual leader of the community, and a provider of religious services to the community. Life cycle events are undoubtedly both learning experiences and spiritual events, if not the most powerful of these. The process of meetings and discussion which we have made part of the wedding process, for example, is a profound learning experience for most of the Israeli couples that I have married. It is for most of them the first time they have had a serious and adult discussion of Judaism, and how they will relate to it in their life as a married couple and as parents. This study and discussion by the couple takes place in a setting that they have chosen and as part of a very important step in their lives. I have found it to be a most profound experience for them, and an experience which often leads to changes in their conceptions about Judaism and of the role they want it to play in their lives. I don’t see how I could have reached those couples that I succeeded to reach as profoundly as I did, if I only acted as a ‘gadfly’.

Objections to Israel’s Rabbinical Assembly Policy

Rabbi Fishman misdescribes our approach to marriage. Of course, we want the couples to be registered in Israel, but that cannot be done the way the laws stand now. We are not expressing “Ugandism”, but simply protesting the inherently discriminatory nature of the present marriage laws in the state. It is at once mean-spirited and misleading to suggest that our allowing couples to be married civilly abroad, only after having been married by us, is a sign of galut mentality.

2 See Tziporah Kasachkoff, in Synthesis Philosophica 17 (1/1994) pp. 53-8 1

Marriage ceremonies are in their essence spiritual in nature. Rabbi Fishman seems to fail to appreciate that the marriage ceremony advocated by us is the culmination of a long process of learning and experiencing from within our congregational life. The total time and investment in these ceremonies is very significant, both in terms of learning and in terms of spiritual development. Rabbi Fishman seems to take an ‘orthodox’ view of ceremony, implying that people are only interested in ‘doing what they have to do’ and to be ‘yotze’, but that is not the way we conduct marriages in Israel. Indeed, we do not accept requests for only a ceremony, but insist that the whole process is necessary in order for one of us to perform the ceremony.

I do agree with Rabbi Fishman that we need to provide religion and religious sensibilities to the Israeli public. But, it is inaccurate and misleading to imply that we provide no “theologians, ideologists or philosophers”. Rabbi Fishman himself is such an ideologist, and I know that he does not hide the fact that he identifies as a Conservative Jew. Prof. Zeev Falk identifies with us, Rabbi Avidor ha-Cohen, Rabbi Reuven Hammer and many others. What is needed is a social framework for people, where they live, which will organize all of the ideas of these rabbis and provide a framework for learning and practicing those ideas. This is provided only by the congregations which have sprung up across the country, and which because of the installation of rabbis in them have begun to make an impact on Israeli society.

However, community congregations, although the basis of our movement, are not sufficient in themselves to sustain it. These congregations needs to be supplemented by institutions of Jewish learning. Local people need both the inspiration of master teachers and scholars, and access to them. Indeed, if the Conservative movement made any mistake in principle in the United States, I believe it was in centralizing its institutions of higher learning into one or two places. By not creating branches of the Seminary in as many places as possible it effectively kept the level of spiritual resources and availability to a minimum in most places. I believe that this situation is the main reason why much of Conservative Jewish life around the U. S. finds it difficult to engender strong commitment to its religious ideals.

Rabbi Fishman points to the limited success of Conservative Judaism in Israel. He seems to be arguing that since we still have small numbers of Jews affiliated with us that we ought to understand that somehow we don’t belong here. He is confusing what is with what ought to be. Indeed, the cognizance of Masorti

Judaism in general is growing. In those areas where we have thriving congregations, there is a clear cut understanding that this is Judaism with a different “face”. Because of the increase of television channels and hours of broadcasting in Israel, more and more stories and interviews about the different approaches within Judaism are being broadcast. This works to our benefit.

Rabbi Fishman states that “Jewish religious commitment cannot be voluntary in Israel”. He is wrong. Religiosity is something individuals adopt for themselves. Is he suggesting that the laws of the state should compel Jews to be religiously committed? The religious compulsion that exists in Israel has succeeded in alienating most Jews from their own religious tradition. Rabbi Fishman’s assertion of an ideal by which to “utilize the sovereign powers of the Jewish state to realize” goals such as becoming a goy kadosh fills me with dread. When God says to Israel at Sinai “ve-atem tihyu li mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh”, He means “if you will it”. It is not a fiat of coercion, but a question, a consultation, just as “naaseh adam” is interpreted as a consultation in the Midrash (Gen. R. 8:3). Otherwise, it is impossible to give sense to the people’s assent to accept the Torah. The Bible, however, records the failure to live up to the choice made. Nowhere is it assumed that somehow being a goy kadosh could be forced on anyone.

I agree with Rabbi Fishman that one of our aims should be to make the Jewish people who are the majority of the State of Israel into a goy kadosh. But, we apparently disagree on how this is to be achieved. For Rabbi Fishman it apparently can be achieved by the adoption of a national policy requiring people to be kadosh. While it is not clear what that could be, I gather he means things like that the laws of the state forbid public transportation on Shabbat, that would not allow moviehouses to open on Shabbat, that would only allow kosher meat to be imported into Israel etc. In his view this kedusha could not be achieved by voluntary means, and so must be enforced by the sovereign powers of the state. This indicates that he apparently believes that it is possible to force religious commitment upon someone by state law.

Not only is this impossible to do, but such a view is anti-religious. I use the phrase goy kadosh in the sense of goy shel kedusha, a nation of individuals who act in a holy manner. Holiness or religious commitment cannot be forced on someone by state law. If there is no individual acceptance of the covenant, the laws therein are not expressions of the relation between a group of individuals and God, but the laws then become a kind of public idolatry which interferes in

the individuals direct relation with God. What if religious law operates in such a manner as to interfere with the “common good” of the citizens of the state? Just recently the Israel Supreme Court ruled that the rabbinical courts must use civil law as their guideline in property settlements resulting from divorce. The reason was that civil law guarantees equality of men and women in property division, but Jewish law as of now does not. As a Conservative rabbi, I see it as a duty to do my best to change Jewish law so that there is no need to have a conflict on this issue with civil law. Or, how can the laws of a state enforcing religious behavior on Jews be applied to non-Jews as well, Why should Christian or Moslem citizens be deprived of public transportation, or not have moviehouses which they can attend in the city?

Rabbi Fishman advocates following principle, yet asserts that “there is a vast difference between morally unjust laws and restrictions on officiating at marriages.” Both in practice and in principle there is no difference. It is morally unjust to prevent citizens from being able to practice their religion according to their conscience. Practicing a religion includes having your religious functionary, the one you have confidence in, officiate at religious ceremonies. Rabbi Fishman perverts the goal of the Masorti stand badly by trying to make it into the “professional rights” of a few rabbis. In principle the religious freedom of Masorti rabbis is also a moral issue. But, the issue goes far beyond that. It is that Israeli citizens by dictates of their conscience want rabbis they trust in to officiate at their life- cycle functions. Apparently, Rabbi Fishman has not had the experience of meeting those Israelis coming to us for conversion, bar/bat Mitzvah, etc. He has not heard the same themes over and over again, of our religious sensitivity, of the desire to practice this particular religious act in a spiritually meaningful way, and of a search for a religious leader who can speak with knowledge and authority from religious tradition, and still meet their particular spiritual needs. The rights of thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of Israelis to practice their religion in a meaningful way to them is what is at stake.

I am astonished by his assertion that these laws do not “exactly make Conservative Jews in Israel second-class citizens”. Is he not aware of the sense of insult and moral outrage expressed by hundreds of members of Masorti congregations as to the way “their” rabbis and “their” approaches to halacha are treated. Furthermore, the second-class status in Israel is often pointed to as a paradigm of how Conservative rabbis and Jews everywhere in the world should be treated.

His sanguine assumption that “sooner or later” our status will change because commissions have recommended it, or even, (which he does not state) because the Supreme Court of Israel has ruled that it should be so is utopian and unrealistic. Only by voicing our opinions forcibly and loudly and by employing every democratic means to stand up for what we believe in, will the change come about. If we do not stand up for ourselves and our ideas, no one else will.

It is wrong in our day and age for a State to “establish a religion”. This is not to say that the state should not support religion and religious institutions in a fair manner, and according to clear public criteria. In Israel, which is the focus of three major religions it is very important that this support exist in a manner which is seen to be and is both just and fair. Our task is to educate Israeli Jews to want to live as Jews. An indispensable part of the task of education must be living examples of individuals and communities who are contingently linked through common ideals, texts, study and worship. Thus, the expansion of the number of Masorti communities is essential to the job of Masorti education. People can only learn that such a way of life is desirable if and only if they can see both that it is desired by others and that it has something which is missing from their lives, if they have living examples from which to experience that this is the case.

Since the building and strengthening of Conservative communities in Israel is the key to changing things, it is clear that a program of Aliyah for Conservative Jews who wish to be part of creating the “face” of Judaism in Israel is an essential component. The highest rung on the ladder of commitment and observance of a Conservative Jew should be to come on Aliyah to Israel. The reason is not only to live in the Jewish state but to participate in the struggle to make Conservative Judaism a major factor among the population of the State. Rabbi Simon Greenberg writes: “…it is clear that taking up residence in Israel is probably the greatest service to ourselves, to the State of Israel, and to the Jewish people that most of us will ever have a chance to perform.” (A Jewish Philosophy and Pattern of Life, p. 387) Now, more than ever, that statement of his is true. We can create the necessary social model of Conservative Judaism by having mass immigration from within our movement, as soon as possible.


Rabbi Fishman and I disagree on the interpretation of our common goal. Our views of religion and society seem to be at odds. How has this disagreement produced different sets of “tasks” for the Conservative Movement in Israel? Despite the fact that Rabbi Fishman concentrated on ideology, which is a philosophy honed for action, I am still wondering what he thinks our “tasks” in Israel should be. What I can gather from his paper is that he thinks we should be involved only in teaching about Judaism, being a kind of gadfly that will promote a certain way of thinking or a certain ideology about Judaism. This is supposed to make Jews in Israel into a goy kadosh.

Now, there is no question in my mind that teaching is the essence of Judaism and that talmud torah is the highest mitzvah, but it is in order le-havi lidei rnaaseh. Our first task should not be merely the teaching of Judaism, but rather the teaching of Judaism to Israeli Jews. I find it vacuous to posit as the main goal of Conservative Judaism achieving an “ethical-nationalism” in the abstract terms such as Rabbi Fishman uses. Indeed, I think it is not possible to understand what ethical nationalism is apart from a description of the type of activities that ethical nationalism should engage in. The emphasis on activity seems to be one of the main characteristics of Judaism as a religion. Rabbi Fishman does not make it clear what people are doing, aside from obeying the laws of the State. He misses the point, that talmud torah is what informs my personal moral choice in a particular instance. So, talmud torah is an essential part of a larger process. It must be connected to an environment of everyday life, and it must influence the making of personal decisions within that life, which only exists within the context of communities.

The irony of this debate is that Rabbi Fishman’s seeming “communitarianism” is a sham. It is a theoretical construct, a kind of utopian existence ignoring the facticity of real people and their spiritual needs. Whereas, my “individualism” is predicated on being connected to a community which studies together, worships together, and becomes a kind of focal point for the individuals spiritual needs.

Judaism has four distinct but interrelated components: higher learning, faith (which also becomes ideology), spiritual leaders, and community. Conservative Judaism has its particular form of these four parts organized in an institutional framework. In Israel, our task is to create this framework, with all of these components, in a manner which fits Israeli society. Rabbi Fishman emphasizes only the first two components, gives short shrift to the third, and interprets the fourth in terms of the whole nation-state. My view is that all are important, but I make a distinction between an individuals “community”, i. e. the shul he does go to, and between his being a citizen of a nation-state.

Rabbi Fishman wishes to establish schools on all levels of study, to produce philosophers and ideologues who can continue to expound and teach ideology. Somehow, and he does not at all make it clear how, this ideology gets translated into laws of the State. To my mind, schools on all levels, and in all places should produce individuals who form communities based on faith which has been informed by their study. These communities, in turn, will found and support schools and supply the talent to further this process. Talmud Torah and community are linked by a two way street. They constitute a dialogue, which should enrich both. Rabbi Fishman seems to think that ideology can be decided upon and then be accepted automatically, without having to engage in a constant struggle with other ideas. But, that struggle is exactly the main characteristic of Torah: menatzhim zeh et zeh is how the study of Torah is described by R. Joshua (BM 59b).

 Israel is ripe for an ideology of community made up of individuals who choose to define their life and life style in a Masorti (Conservative) Jewish style. Masorti (Conservative) Judaism represents a religious understanding based on a “middle road” between seeming opposites. It takes into account, for example, both the individual’s free choice and concomitant responsibility to the community, both scientific (objective) study of sources together with passionate (subjective) commitment to living life according to those sources, both pride in being Jewish with respect for other religious traditions, both the ethical and the ritual. Indeed, the difficulty of propagating such a religious understanding is a great challenge to us. This difficulty is, I believe, one of the main reasons for the relatively slow growth of the Masorti Movement up till now. However, in reality, our approach is appropriate for many Israelis, especially today in an Israel which is becoming more sophisticated in general.

Rabbi Fishman turns this slow growth into a criticism of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. This criticism at times seems mean spirited. He speaks as if we had been active in Israeli society for 40 years and had achieved so little. The fact is that the Masorti Movement is only 15 years old. As little as 5 years ago there were only 6 rabbis serving in pulpits, today there are 18! A few years ago our point of view on any subject was almost never heard in the mass media. Today, our point of view is heard on almost every subject in the media. There are today six midrashot for study of Judaism which are tied to seven of our congregations,

in Tel-Aviv, Rehovot, Carmiel, Herzliyya, Haifa, Omer and Beersheva, and more are in the planning. Indeed, Rabbi Fishman seems to think that the test for viability of a religious philosophy is immediate mass acceptance. I know of no religious movement in the history of the world which gained widespread numbers in 15 years.

We need to consider at great length how we can spread a faith which requires of its adherents both intellectual honesty and passionate commitment. Both of these qualities have to be cultivated in individuals as spiritual resources. In order to do this we must establish institutions in Israel: congregations (local communities), schools, infonnal education (youth groups), and institutions of higher Jewish learning. The idea is to develop a spirituality in individuals that motivates them to form communities living by those values. Conservative Judaism as a philosophy, halachic approach and spiritual tradition is exactly what many of Israel’s citizens want for themselves. Our task is to make it available to them.