The Thirteen Wants

What can American-style liberalJudaism offer Israel? After the battle over the proposed conversionbill is settled, that question will remain. We can puff up our chestsand demand equality with Orthodoxy over who is a Jew. But,inevitably, every political victory in the Knesset will beshort-lived unless we find a way to talk to Israeli Jews about theirown lives.

“Equality,” “legitimacy” and “pluralism” areWestern-style fighting words that seem like special pleadings withoutmuch resonance to Israelis. These words, inherently adversarial, mayinspire American Jews to boycott and disrupt fund raising, but theywon’t give us what we want — a homeland where all Jews are welcomein peace.

Progressive Judaism has to answer the red-hotmilitancy of the Orthodox community with some fervor of its own. Thismeans selling not only the ideals of American democracy (courts,rights and justice) but the ethics and values of Judaism itself. Whatis it about Jewish life, American-style, that Israelis want?

Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu Jewish Center andSynagogue, who recently returned from the Jewish Federation Councilmission to Israel, said that secular Jews there long for a liberalalternative.

“They know that by ceding the religious terrain tothe Orthodox, they’ve given up a piece of their inheritance,” shetold me.

We need to express a nexus of faith as powerful asthe Orthodox belief in the 613 mitzvot. Without such a statement, wesound like John Locke or Betty Friedan, enlightened democrats andcivil libertarians, but strangers. Meanwhile, Orthodoxy retains itsposition as “the real thing.”

I found an answer in, of all places, a 71-year-oldprayer written by Mordecai Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan, arguably the mostprofound American Jewish thinker of our age, knew the troubles of aJewish people drifting apart. Born and educated Orthodox, Kaplan hadhis books burned and subjected to a herem(excommunication) when he tried to analyzeJewish tradition according to the John Dewey-style social scientificprinciples of his days. From his belief that Judaism is an evolvingcivilization, the Reconstructionist movement emerged.

Here is a slightly rewritten version of Kaplan’s1926 prayer, originally entitled “The Criteria of Jewish Loyalty” andalso published as “The Thirteen Wants.” See how many of them arestill relevant to you.

1) We want Judaism to help us overcome fear, doubtand discouragement of our mortality.

2) We want Judaism to guide us toward responsibleuse of God’s blessings.

3) We want the Jew to be a true light amongnations.

4) We want to learn (from the Jewish calendar) touse our lives to their best physical, intellectual and spiritualadvantage.

5) We want the Jewish home to be a center of love,virtue and holiness.

6) We want Jewish children to be raised for moraland spiritual growth and to revere their Jewish heritage.

7) We want the synagogue to be a house of sincereworship.

8) We want our religious traditions to beunderstandable and relevant to our present-day needs.

9) We want to participate in building EretzYisrael as a focus for the renaissance of the Jewish spirit.

10) We want Judaism to find expression inphilosophy, letters and the arts.

11) We want Jewish organizations to activatespiritual purpose and ethical endeavor.

12) We want to be part of the people of Israel,offering mutual help and cooperation in time of need.

13) We want the Jewish values of justice, freedomand peace to influence and inspire individuals, nations and theworld.

These 13 principles (paralleling Moses Maimonides’13 principles of faith) provide remarkably useful, cant-free goalposts for modern Jewish values. I’d give these 13 to anyone seekingto know what we believe.

Coincidentally, Rabbi David Teutsch, dean of theReconstructionist Rabbinical College, was in Los Angeles last week. Ispoke to him about what Reconstructionism might offer to IsraeliJews.

“Reconstructionism is probably the one liberalmovement that can readily adapt to Israeli society,” Teutsch said.”Reform and Conservative Judaism are synagogue-based. Israelicommunities don’t have synagogues as their focus; that’s why thosemovements have such a hard time taking root.

“Reconstructionism is based on the chavurah, smallstudy groups of friends getting together. It’s a natural forIsraelis, who know the language of the text, and who like to gettogether. We’ve got an intense outreach program going on in Israelright now. I think we’ll catch on strong.”

Teutsch conceded that liberal Judaism is waking uplate to Israel’s need for an alternative to Orthodoxy.

“We need to be involved in a massive reorientingof money and energy to Israeli society,” Teutsch said. “We stood bysilently while the Orthodox built schools and gained politicalstrength. We didn’t pay attention.”

Late as it may be, Israel needs us now.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Her Skirball Cultural Center series, “Conversations,”continues on Dec. 7 with authors Jonathan and FayeKellerman.


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