My Qualms and Self-Correction

“Tshuvah: Till by Turning, Turning, We Come Round Right”

 I have been having qualms about some aspects of what I wrote a few days ago in response to Rabbis Marc Angel’s and Uri Regev’s open letter called “Vision Statement: Israel As A Jewish Democratic State." (See below for their text.)

I have no qualms about the basic religio-political stance I set forth, but I do have qualms about the way I said it, So I want to do some self-correction – what especially at this time of year we call “tshuvah,” turning in a more ethical direction. 

As I wrote, I started reading Rabbis Regev’s and Angel’s “Vision” statement with hope, based on its title. But I finished reading with deep disappointment. 

I share the anger and sense of betrayal that many of my colleagues feel about the Israeli government’s refusal to recognize marriages or conversion ceremonies at which we officiate, or to honor the spiritual presence of Women of the Wall. Yet I feel far far more distressed by the habit into which many of our colleagues have fallen of defending those prerogatives of our own while ignoring the far worse oppression of the Palestinians. 

I understand how many dimensions there are to denial of justice by the present Government of Israel, just as there are to the denial of justice by the present US government. I know that no one can work on all these fronts simultaneously and equally.  But that is a far cry from singling out one or even two of them and using rhetoric that suggests fixing those problems will repair the Jewish and democratic quality of the State of Israel. For me, there can be no democratic State of Israel and no Jewish one in any values-based sense, so long as the State rules over millions of people and denies them the power to govern themselves.

I would have felt very different about the Vision Letter had it said forthrightly, “Among many denials of democracy and of Jewish values in the State today is its worsening insistence on subjugating the Palestinian people and making less and less possible the emergence of a new Palestine alongside of and at peace with Israel. But we see that goal is very difficult to achieve right now, and we want to work on others that will strengthen Israeli grass-roots democracy and the vitality of grass-roots Judaism there. We hope what we do on those questions will make it easier to end the Occupation.”

Even if Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, and Modern Orthodox Jews were all allowed to have their rabbis marry their congregants, that would still not equal democracy so long as the whole structure of the State leans more and more on subjugation of the Palestinians.  (And it would not mean the prophetic Judaism promised by the Declaration of Independence, either.)

As I wrote the other day, recreating democracy and a vital Judaism in Israel today while remaining silent about the Occupation is as if US Jews in 1861, facing a society heavily invested in economic and political support for slavery, had focused on anti-democratic discrimination against Jews – and there was plenty! -- without even mentioning the monstrous denial of democracy involved in slavery. 

For me, the better model -- one of my rabbinic heroes --  has been Rabbi David Einhorn. In 1861, in the Southern city of Baltimore in the slaveholding state of Maryland –-- a city commercially and interpersonally linked to the South --  he cried out that Torah demanded the abolition of slavery, naming the real anti-democratic, anti-Jewish  monster.  His own congregants threatened his life and forced him to flee Baltimore. He moved to Philadelphia, where slavery had been outlawed, and brought new life to a synagogue, Keneseth Israel, that remains successful today,

I hope that Rabbis who speak out about their religious marginalization in Israel --  as they should! – will speak also about the denial of equality to Israelis of Palestinian culture and connection, the ill-treatment of  the Israeli poor, the encroaching attacks on freedom of speech, and above all, about the cancer of the Occupation, as Einhorn did about the cancer of slavery.

For what then must I “Turn” and do tshuvah ?  For writing as if without addressing this broader and fuller truth there would be no merit at all in raising one of the many ways in which Israeli democracy and the values of the Prophets are in tatters. But there is merit in what Rabbis Regev and Angel did –--   not as much as I think we needed, but merit nevertheless.

Blessings for a year of emet, tzedek, v’shalom  -- truth, justice, and loving peacefulness. Without all three of these pillars, the world cannot stand. We must  rebuild  all three. 



Preamble: The following statement is issued by a diverse group of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora*, all of whom greatly admire and appreciate the tremendous achievements of the State of Israel. Israel is a remarkably dynamic democracy and creative society. Since its inception, it has sought not only to provide an independent state to a People that has been deprived of sovereignty for almost 2,000 years, but also to fulfill the values expressed in its Declaration of Independence— a State rooted in the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as taught by our prophets, guaranteeing freedom and equal entitlements and responsibilities to all of its citizens.

We come together to express our commitment to work towards the fulfillment of the promise of religious freedom and equal treatment. While appreciating the efforts of Israel to provide religious freedom to all its residents, the goal of providing total religious freedom remains to be achieved. This is a critical challenge facing Israel both as a Jewish and as a democratic state. We, who are committed to Israel’s growing strength and vitality, as well as its bonds with world Jewry, hold that this challenge can no longer be left to politics alone, and we will do our utmost, in partnership between Israelis and world Jewry, to address this challenge and help make it a reality.


* * * * * * * * * *

As a Jewish State, Israel must foster the Jewish character of the State.

As a democratic State, Israel must grant equal rights to all of its citizens, regardless of their religious views or affiliations.

In order to achieve a Jewish and democratic state, faithful to both its Jewish heritage and to the principles of democracy, the following core principles of religious freedom and equal rights and responsibilities are essential: 

  1. The State of Israel must proudly insist on its Jewish identity and maintain a Jewish character for its public life e.g. proper respect for Shabbat and holidays; Kashrut in its public institutions; teaching of Tanakh and other key texts of the Jewish religious and cultural tradition, acknowledging and celebrating the richness and diversity of Jewish tradition.
  2. The State of Israel must guarantee religious freedom and provide equal access to State services and funding to its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.
  3. The State of Israel must grant its citizens the right to choose their own religious leadership so that they are not compelled to adhere to a State-sponsored religious establishment. The State should not grant governmental authority to “Chief Rabbis”—whether on the national or local levels. Rather, each Jewish community must be free to employ the rabbis of its choice. The State must not be an official sponsor of any one particular religious movement, but must respect freedom and equal opportunity and responsibility for all its citizens.
  4. Those who wish to adjudicate their cases before religious courts may do so on a private basis, with no governmental participation or interference. The State must not grant governmental authority or funding to religious courts.
  5. The State of Israel must provide a system for marriage and divorce that allows citizens to be married in Israel in a religious or civil ceremony as they choose. When a Jewish couple opts to be married under Haredi, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform auspices, or under civil authority, the couple will do so with the express legal stipulation that it will go to the same authority if the marriage fails and will be divorced under the aegis of that same authority.
  6. Those who wish to convert to Judaism must have the right to undergo this process with rabbis of their choice, by rabbis who are duly ordained and recognized by their respective major religious movements. These conversions must be accepted as valid proof of Jewishness by the State of Israel, even as we respect the prerogative of the different religious groups to apply their own criteria for conversion.
  7. In guaranteeing freedom and equality of opportunity for all its citizens, Israel must also ensure that all its citizens fulfill their civic responsibilities and share fairly and appropriately in military/national service, as well as the labor force, without religious, ethnic or gender discrimination.
  8. Freedom of worship for members of all faiths at their holy sites has been a long held right. In keeping with this core principle, regard for divergent practices and gender equality should be accommodated in the spirit of mutual respect and sensitivity.

Written by Rabbi Marc Angel – Director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq. – President of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel

* Those of us who are not citizens of Israel understand that basic decisions regarding the character of the State must ultimately be made by its own citizens, but as Jews committed to a diverse Jewish community, both outside and inside of Israel, we seek to lend our support to this important endeavor.




Jewish and Interfaith Topics: