Israelis Need to Learn From American Judaism.

President Obama declared May to be Jewish American Heritage month. A month in which Americans learn about and honor the contribution of Jewish Americans to the United States. “Jewish Americans have immeasurably enriched our Nation”, said the President, “unyielding in the face of hardship and tenacious in following their dreams, Jewish Americans have surmounted the challenges that every immigrant group faces, and have made unparalleled contributions.”

There is no doubt that American Jews, from their beginning in 1654 to the present day, have greatly enhanced every value spheres of American life. Their names are legendary: Louis Brandeis, Steven Spielberg, Philip Roth, Irvin Berlin, George Gershwin, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Bette Midler, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Noam Chomsky, Allan Dershowitz, Allan Greenspan, Steven J Gould, Robert Openheimer, Carl Sagan, Thomas Friedman, Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Mark Spitz, Woody Allen, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and John Stewart. (Feel free to add [or subtract]your favorite Jewish American).

I have to admit that as an Israeli Jew I am jealous of this list. Though more than coveting America’s Jews, what I really want is America’s Judaism(s).

Israeli Jews, even secular ones, usually disparage American Judaism. Under the influence of an orthodox paradigm, Israeli Jews tend to see American Judaism (especially Reform) as a diluted and inauthentic expression of Judaism. But I am quit moved by it. I love the fact that in America a gay woman can become a rabbi. I also love the fact that if this offends you, you are free to join (or form) a less-progressive synagogue.

Living in the land of the free has turned the “chosen people” into the choosing people. And choice makes for a more persuasive, creative and vibrant form of religiosity. Therefore it is in the US that you find the flowering of Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Progressive and Renewal Judaism.

But can this happen in Israel? Structurally, Israel is not the most conducive place for religious pluralism. From the British mandate to modern times, Orthodox Judaism has had a government-sanctioned iron grip on the religious (and civil) activities of the land. (Thank you very much Mr. David Ben-Gurion!) This has meant that only one version of Judaism (as a religion) has been recognized and supported.

Yet the winds of change are blowing. Last week the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the state must allocate funding for Reform and Conservative conversion classes (as it already does for private Orthodox conversion classes). The court concluded that when the state favored one stream of Judaism over another, it “acted in contradiction to its obligation to support a diversity of opinions and beliefs in accordance with the basic principles of the democratic state.”

While I would prefer that the state refrains from interfering in religious affairs all together, this ruling is an important move in legitimizing alternative forms of Judaism in Israel. It is consonant with Israel declaration of independence which promises, “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Israelis need to know that secular and orthodox are not the only ways to be Jewish. At the top of this entry I stated that I coveted America’s Judaism(s). To be more precise, what I want for Israel is an environment that fosters religious equality and freedom. For this to happen a fundamental change needs to take place, and this ruling by the High Court is a good first step.

4 responses to “Israelis Need to Learn From American Judaism.

  1. Great piece. I want to see the change in Israel as well. It will be good for the region.

  2. Please take Noam Chomsky off the list. Add Jonas Salk, Paul Simon, the Warner Brothers (and all the others who started Hollywood), Richard Feynman.

  3. Hmmm…add Leonard Bernstein, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Yael Naim (ok, she isn’t an American Jew, but I adore her music and thought she should get some love since her music was selected by Steve Jobs for the MacBook Air commercials).


  4. Mordecai Drache

    Whether or not the long-term answer to the Israel and Palestine is a two-state solution or a binationalist state– as Jews in the 21st century, many of whom are living in security in the Diaspora with a network of laws that enable us to fight discrimination, we have to ask ourselves if in having a state of our own, in attempting to merge traditional ideas of return with modern democratic ideals, we were not naturally opening ourselves to divisive questions and controversies. What after all constitutes a Jewish state? Is a Jewish state goyim-free, a theocracy, a partial theocracy, a country for people with Jewish parentage, or grandparentage or even single Jewish grandparentage. I would never want to be an Israeli, and it pains me to think of the people I love in that country being trapped under these political structures that make everything so unncessarily complicated.

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