The Letter that Netanyahu Should, but Won't, Send

letter2Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently published an open letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu demanding that he advance Jewish religious pluralism in Israel.

“[The] failure of Israel to offer recognition and support for the streams of Judaism with which the great majority of American Jews identify is nothing less than a disgrace,” Yoffie wrote. “American Jews…have had enough. [T]hey will no longer tolerate that Reform and Conservative rabbis are scorned and despised in Israel; they will no longer sit silently while Israel’s official representatives offend them and denigrate their religious practices…. The angry voices are… coming from the heart of American Jewish leadership.”

He suggested, “You could point out that only two million of the 13.5 million Jews in the world are Orthodox, and that the overwhelming majority of American Jews come from the Reform and Conservative streams. You could say that these streams are the heart of our Jewish family and the core of Jewish support for Israel.”

What follows is the response that Netanyahu should send, but won’t.

Dear Rabbi Yoffie, 

Thank you very much for your thoughtful letter. You have dedicated your life to leading American Jewry with wisdom and passion, and I’m honored that we’re discussing these matters openly.

Let me begin with the bottom line: I am committed to addressing the issues that you raise. I will address inequality in allocations to non-Orthodox synagogues, will ensure that non-Orthodox rabbis are invited in official capacities to state events, and yes, I will invite non-Orthodox rabbis to teach at my Bible study sessions.

I will do that not only because it is the right thing to do, but frankly because it would also be good for Orthodoxy. What American Jewish life has in abundance – and that Israeli religious life lacks almost entirely – is an open marketplace of ideas.

Because Orthodoxy in America has no state backing, its leaders must attract their followers with visions of Jewish life that speak to the intellectual, moral, emotional and national instincts of American Jews. American Judaism is richer for that; I would like to play a role in freeing Orthodoxy in Israel from the power base that actually stifles its creativity.

At the same time, Rabbi Yoffie, it’s instructive that you warned me to act before I am “forced to act by the courts.” You may be right that the courts would eventually rule in your favor. But your threat of going the judicial route is tantamount to admission that this issue has no political traction. Isn’t that worth noting? Why are so many more Israelis concerned about the rights of Israel’s Arabs than they are about the rights of Reform (or Conservative) Judaism in Israel?letter3

The reasons are many. But central among them is that Israelis are far from convinced that the vision of Jewish life that Reform Judaism offers can survive. They see epidemic levels of intermarriage, which they know will destroy the Jewish people. They see the wealthiest, most socially accepted, and best secularly educatedDiaspora community that the Jews have ever known producing the most Jewishly ignorant community in Jewish history. They see that outside Orthodoxy in America, virtually no young Jews are conversant with Jewish texts. They know that in most non- Orthodox Jewish homes, one will not find a Mikra’ot Gedolot, a Talmud or any of the other books that have, for centuries, been the backbone of the most basic Jewish discourse.

Even non-Orthodox Israelis (who exhibit many of these same qualities) sense this, and worry. Pushed to the wall, they would admit that you are right that inclusion is only fair; but they would also note that they simply don’t care that much, because they seriously doubt that many of the grandchildren of today’s young non- Orthodox Diaspora Jews will live lives committed to the Jewish People.

You urge me to explore how Reform and Conservative Jews can be drawn into a deeper relationship with Israel, and I will. But let’s stipulate what you and I both already know. For Israel to matter to Jews, Jews must see themselves first and foremost as a people, not merely as a religion. Religions don’t have states; peoples do. The French have a country, but Baptists do not.  The Italians have a state, but Methodists do not. As American non-Orthodox Judaism increasingly recasts itself as a religion in the image of American Protestantism, it is inevitable that the Jewish commitment to statehood will wither.

Rabbi Yoffie, please do not misunderstand me. I know that Orthodoxy also has much soul-searching to do. Many non- Orthodox Israelis are appalled by what’s become of Judaism in Israel. There is often an ugly, even racist quality to some sectors of the Orthodox community, and I wish that our chief rabbis and Diaspora Orthodox leaders spoke out against it more.

Ostensibly religious Jews often speak about Arabs in ways that are despicable; in part of the community, the attitude toward women is reprehensible. All too often, intellectual narrowness comes with singular devotion to the study of Jewish texts; how I wish that the graduates of our yeshivot were interested in studying Aristotle alongside Maimonides and John Locke alongside Tractate Sanhedrim.  But that rarely happens.  Too many of the products of Israel’s religious educational system have little interest in anything outside the tradition. Israel can, and must, be better than that.

We all need to do serious soul-searching.

letter4Whatever form of Judaism is going to safeguard the future of the Jews into the mid- 21st century, it is going to have to be infinitely more grounded in Jewish learning, practice and peoplehood than the vast majority of American Reform and Conservative Judaism’s laypeople are, but far more morally nuanced and open to the intellectual richness of the West than much of Orthodoxy is.

All of us, Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are living in an era of collapsing worldviews. Israelis despair of ever seeing peace, and our politics are a response to that disappointment.  Our religious worldviews are also collapsing.

You yourself delivered a deeply moving sermon at the Reform Biennial last year, in which you spoke publicly about how one of your two children has found a home in Orthodoxy, while the other is not involved in the religious dimension of Jewish life. You gave that courageous speech, I believe, because you wanted the 5,000 Reform Jews who attended the biennial not to rest on their laurels, but to recognize that for all its success, Reform Judaism is in danger of being unable to sustain the level of Jewish commitment that any serious Jewish future requires.

So let’s work together. I’ll do as you suggest and work toward greater inclusion.

But you, in the meantime, must engender a serious conversation among American Jews about whether or not the varieties of Judaism that they so desperately want validated in Israel can actually sustain a Jewish future. Many Israelis suspect that they cannot, and I know that you share their concern. We need each other – we need each other’s validation, but we also need each other’s critique. I hope that this exchange is but the beginning of an ongoing exchange of ideas, and look forward to working together for the sake of our people’s future.

Yours,

Binyamin Netanyahu

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

25 Comments on "The Letter that Netanyahu Should, but Won't, Send"

  • Philip says

    Mr. Gordis, I would have said one more thing in reply to the good Rabbi:
    American Jews raised in the tender loving embrace of Conservative and Reform Judaism, don’t give a fig about Israel. They want Obama. This even when Iran is building an atomic bomb for a second holocaust. You and those like you are a failure. Why then should we encourage importing your useless brand of Judaism. In a generation, two at the most, it will be gone.

  • Stanley Tee says

    Superb letter, Rabbi Gordis, thank you.

  • Aharon says

    Why on earth would the majority of Americans go to a country where they feel unwelcome except for the Chabadniks who welcome them at the Wall to put on tefiliin? Go to a country where their reform stream of Judaism is seen in the same light as “jews for jesus”. A country where the degree of a Jew is more important than where you may be in terms of your Jewish view and how you choose to observe it. We have become just like the Christians where their backwater Baptist say the same about their less religious, “oh, oh, he’s not a Christian, he’s a church goer”. We’ve become no different than them. Call it baseless hatred. It will eventually destroy Judaism and it will ultimately destroy Israel.

  • ZeldaDvoretzky says

    Bravo, Daniel Gordis. As always your comments are perceptive and beautifully expressed.

    I was dismayed by the pessimistic tone of your last article. I hope the results of the recent election have lightened your view a bit. It has mine – a bit.

  • paul jeser says

    Your suggested letter from Bibi to Yoffie is way too respectful. What the Israeli PM should be telling Yoffie is simple: “since you think you know what is best for Israel why don’t you make aliyah, pay our taxes, serve in our military – in other words – put you life where your mouth is.”

  • ag says

    “For Israel to matter to Jews, Jews must see themselves first and foremost as a people, not merely as a religion. Religions don’t have states; peoples do. The French have a country, but Baptists do not. The Italians have a state, but Methodists do not. As American non-Orthodox Judaism increasingly recasts itself as a religion in the image of American Protestantism, it is inevitable that the Jewish commitment to statehood will wither.”

    What struck me about that selection is that the examples are all Protestant and not Catholic. Catholics, of course, had Christendom and saw themselves as both a religion and a nation. I think most would agree that Christendom came with various problems and abuses. How can a state that is both religion and people guard against such? How does Israel differ?

  • usher fogel says

    Your article correctly poses the dilemma confronted by Jews who are serious about their Yiddishket but confronted by reality.
    Generally it appears to me that while Reform/Conservative (RC)movements agitate for acceptance in Israel (with many their proponents publicly disparaging Israel in the US media) the question is acceptance of what?
    The average RC Jew today views nationalism especially Israeli nationalism as an anathema, religious observance as a hodgepodge of what makes you feel good, and Jewish learning as something that started with Karl Marx. And as you have highlighted in previous articles, except for some thoughtful individulas like Rabbi Yoffie (may he live and be well) many of the leaders and Rabbis in the RC movements have effectively turned away from Israel and a strong sense of Yiddishket. This is not a winning vision for the future and thoughtful Israelis of all stripes recognize this. I was recently listening to a broadcast on NPR that interviewed the leader of the movement for women have greater access to the Kotel. In her narrow minded focus she actually stated in public without hesitation or reservation that by failing to acquiesce to her demand Israel was a “bankrupt” nation. In other words her entire conception of the worth of Medinat Yisrael hinged on acceptance of her view.
    Contrary to the false public image created in the media, it is important to note that the current average observant Jew in the USA and Israel is well educated, populates all the profession, is highy charitible and strongly commited to the Medina and strenthening Judaism. Just look at Tzahal in which a significant portion of the officer and fighting force is Observant, and the number of observant doctors, lawyers, businesssmen and accountants. (I was glad to see that observent Jews populate many different parties in Israel, including Yesh Atid)
    My contemporaries had the opportunity to move over to RC Judaism yet most have moved to further Observance not because of an obscurantist view or lack of appreciation for a fellow Jew, but in response to the reality that the RC approach has simply been unable to sustain a Jewish future.
    I look at my own family as typical example. My parents came as refugees after the War with 5 small children. They had no skills and could not speak the language. Yet my father would not work on Shabbos (this was in 1950!). Somehow he made it through and all the children were raised and remained observant. Today there are more than 50 childrem, grandchildren and great-granchildren in the USA and Israel living committed observent Jewish lives. The odds are that this would not have happened if my parents had turned to the RC movement.
    I concur with you that religious establishments would benefit from competition ( I am a spitited capitalist). Unfortunately and sadly the RC movement has failed to provide an appealing product.
    Gut Shabbos!

  • Paul Nisenbaum says

    Nice letter from “Bibi.”
    Here’s another paragraph to add:
    “If your American Reform and Conservative movements had encouraged aliya for the last 60 years perhaps there would be a million of them and their progeny living in Israel. This ‘million’ would then be a voting, political force in Israel.”

  • Peter says

    Another great letter. The problems are real. Still, I think Reform can engender a commitment to Jewish life and to Israel. That’s been my experience with my Reform temple.

  • Marc says

    I grew up in Los Angeles among a group of friends whO’s families were ALL members of local Reform Temple. Most of these friends now have little to do with Judiasm, and many have married non jews. I would suggest that most of any remaining Jewish identity they have has actually come from their GRANDPARENTS who were not reform but traditional Jews. In Australia where I lived for 15 years, ALL of my Jewish friends that were going to ‘Progressive’ Temples married non-Jewish. The kids had almost no connection to being Jewish. Now I know very intellligent and very knowledgable Reform Rabbis and have enjoyed learning with them but their Temples feel to me like church or…a cruise ship. DO WE WANT THIS FOR ISRAEL? AMERICA HAS SOME WONDERFUL PEOPLE AND INSTITUTIONS BUT DO WE REALLY WANT ISRAELI JUDIASM TO BE LIKE AMERICAN JUDIASM–I DON’T THINK SO.

  • Raphael ben yoshua says

    There is enough failure to go around. Reform and Conservative Judaism have shown weakness in retaining their children as knowledgeable Jews, Israeli Orthodoxy has failed to convince the vast majority of Israelis to practice Judaism, in fact it has succeeded in turning them off. Do the Israeli youth know more Talmud than Reform youth? Doubtful.
    So where is the solution? I WISH I KNEW. Perhaps, as you suggest more interchange between the streams of Judaism and the secular Jew will help, I doubt it will do much harm. May Hashem help us all.

  • juanita driggs says

    In return for Rabbi Yoffie’s short, cogent letter, you contrive on Bibi’s behalf the usual, obligatory, long-winded boilerplate response designed to placate the hard right establishement he must kowtow to to keep his job. Just barely this time around I might add.

    Instead of burying the lead as you sadly too often do, how ’bout addressing the thousand pound gorilla always in the room straightaway with your two best paragraphs below?

    “…I know that Orthodoxy also has much soul-searching to do. Many non- Orthodox Israelis are appalled by what’s become of Judaism in Israel. There is often an ugly, even racist quality to some sectors of the Orthodox community, and I wish that our chief rabbis and Diaspora Orthodox leaders spoke out against it more.

    Ostensibly religious Jews often speak about Arabs in ways that are despicable; in part(s) of the community, the attitude toward women is reprehensible. All too often, intellectual narrowness comes with singular devotion to the study of Jewish texts; how I wish that the graduates of our yeshivot were interested in studying Aristotle alongside Maimonides and John Locke alongside Tractate Sanhedrim. But that rarely happens. Too many of the products of Israel’s religious educational system have little interest in anything outside the tradition. Israel can, and must, be better than that.”

    In a nutshell that’s the essence of the problem especially for many who don’t live in Israel.

    Will it be you, Bibi, or another Israeli politician who eventually possesses the requisite courage to follow through on those two insightful paragraphs and let the political chips fall where they may?

  • Nicole Blacksburg says

    My issue (and hurt) with what you say comes from a place of wanting to hear what you said, but the barbs (yes, they feel like barbs) got in the way. I intermarried. I didn’t convert until after marriage. To hear people like you, who I respect so much -even though lately you’re really making me mad- say that intermarriage is destruction of Judaism hurts me deeply. And, I agree that when a Jewish person marries a non-Jew and they don’t collectively commit to a Jewish household that the likelihood of that family being Jewish is small. Equally true though is that Jews who marry each other and each have the baggage of not wanting to be “too Jewish” aren’t going to have a Jewish home.

    I like what the man said above about teaching our children why being Jewish is important and how beautiful it is.

    I see in Northern California far more people who consider it a people and not a religion than the other way around. They’ll say, “I’m Jewish but not religious” as they light their Christmas tree.

    Your statements in the column lacked any seeming awareness of the gray in these issues. I know your writings well enough to know that you’re seeing the gray.

    In Northern California, I am living in a religious desert surrounded by plenty of non-observant Jewish friends — people we’ve got, religious not so much. I have my oasis at my shul, with my chavarah, and with my Torah study group.

    Help those of us in Reform and Conservative who want to be more observant and to have out great, great grandchildren be Jewish. By saying that the people in Israel don’t care bc they doubt my family will be Jewish…that feels like a judgment and a door slamming in my face.

  • Nicole Blacksburg says

    Can we also note that it is tough to read comments from Israelis talking about “all those American Reform Jews.” Just like not all Israelis are the same..not all of us are the same so lightening up on the stereotypes might help all of us to engage in more productive dialogue.

  • shnayer ben chaim leib says

    My wife reads your articles religiously, and then passes on the most cogent and salient ones- like this one.
    We are “chareidim” living in Jerusalem 15 years, born from 3 generation of American religious jews who were born and raised in places not famous for massive religious numbers, such as Washington D.C. and Providence R.I. We were raised, as they were, with many conservative and reform as well as a few orthodox friends.
    While I agree 100% with your comments of and by eric yoffee, I have to say that two really significant fact are rarely brought to life:
    1. While there may only be 2 million orthodox jews, of the 11.5 million others…how many are jewish due to patrilineal descent, or considered jewish due to a jewish spouse, or have a conversion that does not meet halachic standards? Unfortunately, 50%.at least. and those 50% missed the one fundamental bedrock assumption upon which orthodox judaism is based: the unequivocal acceptance of “ohl malchus shamayim”= acceptance of G-d and his torah as the absolute truth and fact. If you don’t accept this, do not expect to be counted in any real fashion as part of the mesorah of judaism. If you are reform or conservative but have masoritic traditional jewish roots, you and your offspring have a home always open to you.
    2. Forget about the numbers- but look at the velocity of the numbers. compare to 10 years ago, and you will get an idea of what the ratios will be in 10 years from now. sad news for our reform and conservative brethren.

  • Hana says

    It’s worrisome and sad that so much of Israeli Orthodoxy has become so harsh and rigid that it presents barriers and difficulties even for Jews who want to be observant. But I don’t see how that is a concern worthy of priority to an American Jewish communIty beset by so many problems of it’s own. I find myself alienated from leaders in my Conservative community who raise this as an issue and find activities such as those of The Women of the Wall to be as odious as their hostile Israeli Orthodax counterparts. With all the rampant -albeit different – threats facing American and Israeli Jews how can this internal argument merit priority in all the battles we need our passions and energies for?

  • Robert Choderker says

    Another quality of American Jewry is its continuing tenacity, if not yet success, in developing a viable day school model. Surely those Israelis who scorn the Reform and Conservative movements have taken note of this.

  • Nicole Blacksburg says

    shnayer ben chaim leib: A question for you. Based on your comment, it seems very important to you to be as limited as possible in your definition and your inclusion under the Tent of Judaism, can you explain why that is so important to you? What benefit is there in being so exclusive? Aren’t more Jews and more Jewish homes always a benefit even if you don’t 100% approve of the level of observance within them? Surely you don’t think that all Israelis are complying with the mitvot?

  • Nicole Blacksburg says

    Hana,

    I wish that there were a “like” option on your comment.

  • TomSolomon says

    More great thoughts from Daniel Gordis. Two minor points. Both Reform and Conservative movements in the US have been in a downward spiral. It’s doubtful the “great majority” belong to liberal movements, especially in the NY metro region, where Orthodoxy is on the rise. Secondly, I am uncomfortable with Rabbi Yoffee making such a public statement. I don’t think his arguments advance his cause by doing so.
    Finally, and most signficantly, Mr. Gordis’ comments on Orthodoxy, where negative, confirm my confidence and enthusiasm for Modern Orthodoxy. It values both secular and Jewish education. Unlike the right, it doesn’t view the “other” with suspicion or contempt, and unlike the liberal movements, it stands firm in particularistic, Jewish practices.

  • Laurie says

    I’ve been thinking about this article for several days. It very much expresses my feelings as well. We are united with our Jewish brothers and sisters worldwide, whether they practice Judaism or not. Yet we look at the form of Judaism that they want to import from America, see what it has done to American Jewry, and say, for the most part, no thanks.

    Even the vast majority of Israeli Reform and Conservative Jews are North American transplants. Reform/Conservative ideology has become the “minhag” of North American Jews, but the minhag doesn’t translate to the Israeli experience, and that’s why the protestations requesting “inclusion” and “equal rights” don’t resonate in Israel.

  • Dear Daniel,

    Normally I agree with you. With respect, I think you have got this one wrong. Please take a look at my response at http://weareforisrael.org/2013/01/30/why-oppose-my-rights-as-a-reform-jew-in-israel/

    • Daniel Gordis says

      Rabbi Boyden

      You completely misunderstood my article. I was explicitly referring to American Reform Judaism and the challenges that it (like American Conservative Judaism) faces. I did not write about Israeli Reform, so you are, as they say, knocking on an open door.

      Daniel

  • Len says

    I find Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s comments disgusting.
    Jews can converse and debate without the anger and name-calling.
    I’d like to see a breakdown of IDF soldiers by religious categories….orthodox, reform, conservative, secular and Arab (20%…mostly Christian and Druze).
    How representative are reform and conservative?

  • Victor Strasser says

    This “in America, only the Orthodox love Israel” trope is certainly convenient for folks looking to bash Conservative and Reform. Where I live, it simply isn’t true. OTOH, Chabad is deeply committed to classical Jewish learning, but not nearly as committed to the modern Jewish state.

    It is lighting Shabbat candles at home that really strengthens Jewish commitment and continuity, not possession of a particular set of books. If you care, put your effort into strengthening all of our institutions, not picking fights.

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