Browse Topics

View all talks

Israel and the Leadership Dilemmas of Jewish Peoplehood

Rachel Sabath Beit-HalachmiFilmed at Wexner Institute

The future of Jewish Peoplehood depends upon the three core questions I address which will determine our collective future: 1) Can Jewish women play an equal role in Jewish life and even in the public square in Israel? 2) is non-orthodox Judaism legitimate in Israel? 3) Do Diaspora Jews matter? Do Israeli Jews matter to Diaspora Jews? Each of these three questions and their necessary answers is posed in stark ways by the controversy around Women of the Wall which serves as a case-study on Israel-Diaspora relations and the future of Jewish Peoplehood.

I am Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D and for nearly two decades I have directed pluralist leadership programs for lay leaders,  rabbis and Christian clergy both in Israel and throughout North America. Ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1995 I later earned a Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spent the last decade as a scholar and Vice President at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I teach and write about liberal theology, Zionism, Israeli life, gender, and other challenges of the 21st century. I have spent a decade teaching prayer and other theological dilemmas  at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem and am now in search of the next generation of Jewish professional leadership. I am married to Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a third generation Israeli, and together we are blessed to raise three children: Tehillah, Yedidya, and Ben-Yishai.

Israel is the most significant issue facing the Jewish people today, Jewish leaders, in order to respond to the challenges that Israel poses to Jewish Peoplehood, will need to be able to answer three questions. But answering these three questions as we shall see, has been particularly challenging because it is not clear what kind of covenant, if any, still binds us together as a People. In an address in 1956 on Yom HaAtzmaut, an address called Kol Dodi Dofek, “The Voice of my Beloved is Knocking,” Soloveitchik, the Rav taught about two kinds of covenant, a Covenant of Fate, “A Brit Goal” and a Covenant of Destiny “A Brit Yeud”. A Covenant of Fate is based on the experience of shared suffering and this shared memory of shared suffering generates shared responses, the creation of a people and most importantly, the behaviours of mutual responsibility. But according to Soloveitchik “A Covenant of Destiny”, emerges now anew because of the rebirth of the State of Israel. Israel is an opportunity for the Jewish people to become actively engaged in shaping our future rather than only responding to our past. Because of the State of Israel, we can now respond to the call of the future, collectively and actively with a new consensus about our shared, sacred purpose. But if we are honest we must admit that today Soloveitchik’s notion of a dual covenant while inspiring is at best only an aspiration. In fact, one might argue that while Israel unifies the Jewish community in times of crises, on an ongoing basis its complex realities often confuse, distance and divide world Jewry. No single aspect of the Jewish reality today challenges Jewish peoplehood and the possibility of a Covenant of Destiny more than the realities of the State of Israel. We need to realise that the answers to three big questions will determine the future of Jewish peoplehood and a potential for a ‘Covenant of Destiny’ now. The answers to these three questions, for the Jewish people as a whole might ultimately be equally important for our ‘Covenant of Destiny’ than when and how the Israeli- Palestinian conflict might be resolved. Three questions; one Can Jewish women play equal role in Jewish life? In other words, are women fully people too? Are Jewish women fully part of the Jewish people? Events of the last year several years have indicated that this is indeed still a question in the Jewish democratic state. Can women be sent to the back of the bus, forced to create secondary spaces and institutions, and made absent from the public sphere? Indeed for Israel and for Judaism as Hilary Clinton famously said about the rights and the role of women in the world: “This is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” Question number 2; is non-Orthodox (liberal/secular) Judaism legitimate in the State of Israel? Can the Jewish egalitarian movements have equal representation, equal access and equal resources? And question number 3, do you matter? Does the Jewish identity in practise of Jews throughout the Diaspora matter when answering the first two questions in Israel? And conversely should the lived reality of Israelis and the sensitivities of its various populations matter to world Jewry? And to what extent? But as David Hartman so aptly put it, “Israel is too important to leave to the Israelis.” A case study on the three questions; the complexities of all three questions are powerfully clear if we think about the Case of Women of the Wall, Neshot Hakotel. Women of the Wall is a group of Jewish women; orthodox, conservative, reform, renewal, non-denominational, who have been gathering every Rosh Chodesh, on the first of every Hebrew month for more than 26 years, in order to pray and read Torah and celebrate together at the main Kotel. But the arrests and detentions of these women and the confiscation of their Talitot, their prayer shawls, by the Israeli police in accordance with restrictions and the increasing instructions of the Rabbi of the Kotel, all these events have gained increasing attention throughout the Jewish world and in the general media as well. Even though a court decision gave them, and egalitarian Jewish groups, the right to pray at a separate area, near Robinson’s Arch in the Davidson Archaeological Garden, these women and now thousands and thousands of supporters, are still seeking the right to pray at the main Kotel, to wear talitot and read from the Torah there, just as men do. They want equal access to the most sacred sites for the Jewish people. They want to be there at the place of the ingathering of our people to celebrate, just as men do. Just for two hours once a month. On and off after the last 25 years I have participated in their powerful prayer services, but I have also been a public critic of their tactics and the attention that their efforts received. I like many argued. Don’t we have bigger problems? Don’t we have so many more urgent priorities both as Israelis and as women? But my position has changed. Yes there are many pressing concerns but I have come to understand that Women of the Wall and the debate around it is the central way people are asking pressing questions of Judaism in our time. Are women people? Is liberal Judaism legitimate in Israel? And does the Diaspora matter? All of these question are ethical questions, all of these questions are leadership dilemmas. I now better understand why this originally very small group of women have gained so many supporters throughout the world. Because the Kotel, the Wailing Wall is not just another issue of Israel struggling between being Jewish and Democratic. The Kotel is about Jewish Peoplehood. It pulls at the hearts and minds and souls of Jews over time and space. The liberation of the Kotel in 1967 and the unification of Jerusalem symbolised the final coming home to Jerusalem as a fully free people. Jewish women want to be fully free and fully at home too. The Kotel cannot belong to or be controlled by the Orthodox as much as we love and respect that way of being Jewish because the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people. The paratroopers themselves in 1967 and until today, have said in public, repeatedly, ‘we liberated it for all Jews not just for the Orthodox’. These two pictures were taken by the same photographer, David Rubinger, one in 1967 and one in 2012. In a newspaper recently, some time ago when I was asked about the potential solutions I suggested a timeshare. Honestly, I was kidding but I said, I told the interviewer that; “Women of the Wall should have the Kotel on Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings and three mornings, two hours a morning and that all the rest of the time we would concede it to those who currently hold that space”. And the interviewer, this is a great statement about Israeli society really, the interviewer printed what I said. And I’m quite convinced didn’t understand what you understand. But since then, remarkably, I have been called by very senior Orthodox authorities of the State of Israel to discuss the matter. I have been called by senior officials in the Foreign Ministry to discuss the matter. I have been called by some of the largest philanthropists of our people to discuss the matter and potential solutions. And in the meantime, of course we know the issue has been moved from the Prime Ministers’ office to the Jewish Agency. That’s how we know it’s an issue of Jewish peoplehood or that there’s an election coming. And Natan Sharanksy put it this way very recently; “Is it easy? Not. But we Jews.” This is great. “We Jews chose to be a not easy people and to live in a not easy place and to do a not easy religion.” And really friends, who knows more about the power of Jewish peoplehood than Natan Sharansky? “A not easy place, a not easy religion”, we know that. But it’s more than not easy this situation, it’s not tenable. Many Diaspora Jews in general and of course women especially, cannot possibly feel fully at home there if they are denied the powerful ritual experiences and collective resources given to other Jews. So, should the status quo continue? In many areas if the status quo continues it should not surprise us, if even more Jews both women and men, feel even more distanced and disconnected from Jerusalem and do not feel that they can call Israel their homeland. The denial of women and for that matter of liberal Jews, equal access and equal resources will only further distance them from Israel because that lack of access symbolises the extent to which they are rejected for the very spiritual yearnings that bring them to Israel in the first place. What is at stake? There can be no Jewish people without religious pluralism. There can be no religious pluralism for the Jewish people without religious pluralism in Israel. In other words, the future of the Jewish people depends on religious pluralism in Israel. David Hartman wrote these words and these pieces in the 1980s but he could have written them last month. “How can delegitimizing Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel imply nothing about these forms of Judaism in the Diaspora. If you believe I’m traif in Jerusalem how can you believe I’m Kosher in New York or Chicago?” The last statement, “Making the State of Israel the spiritual possession of one segment of the Jewish people undermines the most important instrument for building Jewish collective consciousness today”. Israel and her daily trials and triumphs is surely, potentially one of the biggest sources for building Jewish peoplehood and therefore a shared sense of destiny. But in its often crumbling complexity it might also ultimately serve to be a source of ongoing divisiveness and the breakdown of Jewish peoplehood. Thus each dilemma is an opportunity for leaders to engage towards new possibilities, perhaps even towards a new covenant. If more leaders are more brave, concerned more with Jewish peoplehood and less with politics then they will be more likely to find even among the legitimate debates, shared values regarding the issues of the day. Such courage will represent the possibility of our collective future, a future in which all Jews can fully embrace shared purposes and shared sacred spaces. [What is at stake] There can be no Jewish people without religious pluralism. There can be no religious pluralism for the Jewish people without religious pluralism in Israel and the future of the Jewish people depends on religious pluralism in Israel. How we answer three big questions will determine the future of the Jewish people. Can there truly be gender equality in all arenas of Jewish life? Can there be legitimacy of non – Orthodox Judaism in Israel and will we ultimately be able to renew a Covenant of destiny? The people who will succeed, or failed to have answered these questions and make Jewish peoplehood relevant are Jewish leaders like you. The knowledge, relationships, resources and leadership capital to respond to these questions exists and can be harnessed to ensure positive responses to all three questions and thus in this way to ensure the renewal of a Covenant of destiny in our time.
Thank you

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License