Our Task in Israel Speech to RA 1992

Our Task in Israel

Michael Graetz

I want to share with you some thoughts about the Conservative movement’s direction in Israel from my perspective of living twenty-five years in Jerusalem and in the Negev. I have served in the army, have been through two wars and have earned an honorable discharge. In the army I served with the Hevrah Kadisha, so many of my friends are haredi Jews. I have taught in a teacher’s college for seventeen years, meeting Israeli students of all backgrounds. All of my children were born here. It is not easy being an American father of sabras, even though it gives one great pride and naches. Thus I feel that I can speak about the Masorti movement in Israel with some degree of experience and, I hope, even with some degree of intelligence.

The challenge of our movement in Israelis to change and mold religious perceptions, to express a religious ideology that is Zionist in the purest sense of the word, presenting a revolutionary approach to the meaning of Jewish life. The Zionist revolution reflected the realization that no one can confine Jewish life solely to time, history and ritual, that a meaningful Jewish life must also include a place.

The Zionist approach of the Masorti movement insists that Jewish life can have meaning only when attachment to a place is combined with a renewed religio-ethical goal for the individuals who live in that place. Just as the original Zionist revolution was necessary to wrench Jews from their acceptance of their lot as “creatures of Diaspora,” so today a religious Zionist revolution is necessary to wrench Jews from romantic religious extremism on the one hand and from secularism on the other.

The Conservative movement in the United States and Canada has stressed that the Synagogue is the center of Jewish life, because it is the only Jewish “space” there. The average Jew in the United States and Canada is so far from Judaism that there is no choice but to try to bring him back to Jewish space, almost at any price. But what role does the Synagogue play in Israel, where the ground one walks on is part of “Jewish space”?

Today in Israel, the center of Jewish life is the individual citizen of the state, and thus the Jewishness of the state depends on the Jewish sensibilities of its citizens. The American Conservative movement’s flexibility in approaching halakhah is necessary here, for a totally different reason. In Israel it is not necessary as a device to bring alienated Jews to Jewish space, but it is necessary because we are a Jewish society, and society is best served by such an approach. In other words, what might be considered a tactic in North America is in Israel a matter of deep belief That is why I assert that only in Israel can Conservative Judaism be realized fully.

The Diaspora Jew cannot have “place” as part of his Jewish being, because the place in which he lives is not Jewish. For the Diaspora Jew, a Zionist perspective is radical and revolutionary, not evolutionary. Without the dimension of place, his Jewish being is at best a strong personal religious commitment with no real implications for the world. The Israeli Jew’s Jewish being, by contrast, is tied to a conception of personality which is grounded in a place.

Without the added dimension of time, history and ritual, however, the Israeli’s Jewish being is merely a rather petty nationalism. For the Israeli, adopting Judaism would seem as radical as the Diaspora Jew going on Aliyah, even though for both the locales of those “places” is each individual’s inner spiritual revolution.

In order for us to succeed at making Judaism a possible option for the secular Israeli we have to change the perception of religion in this country. To change the perception of religion means to change the functioning of religion. Barbara Spectre tells about one of her students who was always “anti” in her classes on Jewish thought. After one particularly good lesson, Barbara looked to this student as if to say, “Now you must surely acknowledge the beauty of Judaism.” The student responded: “This is indeed beautiful, but it is not Judaism. Judaism is what the rabbis are doing to my friend who is being blackmailed by her husband to give up all her property in order to obtain a divorce.”

Our task is to create a religious movement that will become the majority, a movement that future historians will identify as Judaism. It is connected to the Judaism of the past, it grows out of it, and it even claims that it is the Judaism of the past. Yet it presents its own agenda as the Jewish agenda. As Charles Liebman told us at last year’s Rabbinical Assembly seminar, unless we firmly believe that our way is the correct Jewish way we will never succeed as a religious movement!

There may be some among us who will fight that notion. They may not truly believe that our way is the correct way, or they may take a more subtle line and claim that our way is only one of the right ways. Neither of those stances will further our goals. My intention, as president of the Israel Begion of the Rabbinical Assembly, is to push that notion and to raise the consciousness of our members so that they will begin to understand that this should be our stance toward our own ideology.

What are the schematics of our ideology? On the theological level we must reaffirm belief in God and the experience of God as one of the fundamentals of Jewish life. On the halakhic level, there must be a living and livable halakhah. This means, in the context of a State, a living Jewish body politic, reviving takkanah, legislation and declaring ourselves to be a body that can legislate. We should revive semikhah in Eretz Israel, and fashion a curriculum that will enable our rabbis to legislate in all the areas of societal life that comprise an independent Jewish state.

The return to takkanah, legislation, and the change in our perception of our task as halakhic Jews may go a long way in stopping the endless debates among ourselves about making changes in halakhah. I am talking about changes that we as sensitive Jews know must be made in halakhah, though we feel constrained about making them because of reverence for what is written in the ancient texts.

We have to identify with the Pharisees, who saw themselves as having the franchise from God to create Oral Torah. They changed and legislated according to what they believed was right, absolutely, in terms of justice, socially, in terms of the social needs of the hour and religiously, in terms of their interpretation of Torah. We would do well to follow this precedent. In today’s terms that will mean creating new rituals, new prayers and new modes of expressing our experience of the Divine that will. speak to an autonomous Jewish society.

To make an impact in the political sphere we need to adopt a forceful and clear stance against the existence of an official state Rabbinate. We must discredit the idea that the current Chief Rabbinate’s narrow interpretation of Jewish law and tradition, which more and more ignores the needs of Jews, is the only legitimate interpretation.

While “taking on” the rabbanut in the political arena, we still must function among our people as rabbis, not just as scholars. Our tendency is to be scholars, not teachers of a Jewish way of life! To function as a rabbi means to deal with real people and real problems, to find halakhic solutions for individuals and to overcome the negative image of a rabbi that so many people harbor. It means bringing people to lead a Jewish life by making Judaism meaningful, through teaching and by example.

All of this demands both consciousness of purpose and consciousness of an ideology which is uniquely ours, and which we affirm to be the correct ideology of Jewish religion. It also presupposes a commitment to live this ideology in our lives and to teach it to all Jews.

I hope that the Rabbinical Assembly will become an instrument that will lead the Masorti movement in these directions.