“When our country behaves badly, it is still ours, and we are, perhaps, especially obligated to criticize its policies.”
– Michael Walzer
We write this from Israel where for the eighth summer in a row, we are studying together –b’chavruta, in Torah fellowship – at the Shalom Hartman Institute with 180 other rabbis from North America from all of the major streams of Judaism. The learning community we create each summer here in the heart of Jerusalem represents the best of our People and our wisdom, and is characterized by a deep love of Torah, an abiding commitment to the Land, State and People of Israel, and a genuine desire to come to know each other and share our Torah with one another.
This sense of chevruta – fellowship – was deeply shaken this week when we heard the Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, David Azoulay, say publicly that, regarding a Reform Jew, “I cannot permit myself to say that he is a Jew.”
While we have, sadly, come to expect our approach to teaching and living Judaism to be maligned by some Orthodox religious figures in Israel, never before has someone of Mr. Azoulay’s stature – a Minister in the Knesset no less – made the claim that we and the more than 1.5 million Reform Jews around the world are, in fact, not Jews at all.
Mr. Azoulay insults not just our movement, for in the continuation of his remarks, he makes it clear that all Jews who fail to observe our tradition as he understands it fall into the same category. This would include our Conservative and Reconstructionist brothers and sisters, as well as the many, many Jews around the world who align with other Jewish religious denominations, and also those who do not consider themselves to be observant or religious at all. In one exceptionally misguided and small statement, Mr. Azoulay weakens and lessens the very People he has been charged to lead.
As rabbis of Los Angeles-based Reform congregations, we enjoy the honor of helping the families we serve raise their children as proud Jews. We teach them our tradition's wisdom about our duties as members of the human family. We teach them the rituals and practices that help them to build lives of Jewish meaning. And we teach them that they are part of a People that has a special connection to this place and a special responsibility to the welfare of all Jews everywhere. As the Talmud expresses it: kol Yisrael areivin zeh la-zeh (“all Israel is connected one to the other”).
When these children reach young-adulthood, the great majority of them go off to our college campuses, where they are on the front lines in combating an ever-intensifying anti-Jewish activism growing out of the BDS movement. These young men and women are struggling to maintain and defend their attachments to the Jewish People and the Jewish Land in an increasingly hostile environment. Are we to tell them that, in the eyes of the Minister of Religious Affairs of the very State of Israel that we have tried so hard to attach them to, they are not even Jewish? What would Mr. Azoulay have us say to these children and their parents?
While we are appreciative of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement condemning Mr. Azoulay’s comments, we call for a stronger response: David Azoulay has demonstrated that he is not fit to serve as a Minister in the Israeli government, certainly not as Minister of Religious Affairs.
Today, our teacher, Dr. Micah Goodman, shared with us a close reading of the seventh chapter of the Book of Jeremiah. Dr. Goodman taught us that for Jeremiah, it was not ritual (Jewish observance) or politics (Jewish power) that would strengthen our People. Instead, argues Jeremiah, it is through our righteousness, our justice, and our empathy, that we will find our true strength and prove ourselves worthy of redemption.
To be sure, we consider David Azoulay to be a Jew. We do not, however, consider him to be worthy of the great honor of serving the State of Israel as Minister of Religious Affairs.
To be areivin zeh la-zeh is to be willing to speak the truth to each other: Mr. Azoulay, your words are a betrayal of our People and our Torah. We can no longer permit ourselves to call you “Minister.”
Rabbi Ken Chasen and Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback are the spiritual leaders, respectively, of Leo Baeck Temple and Stephen Wise Temple, in Los Angeles.
Blessings to Count