VaEthanan 5778: Heartbreak in Israel

Our Torah portion this week is suffused with yearning—Moses yearns for the opportunity to arrive in the Land, knowing full well that this dream has already been denied him. And Moses yearns for his people to live up to their potential, creating a civilization that will be universally admired for its righteous laws. He imagines a time when others will observe the righteous laws and rules of Israel and remark, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

In Yerushalmi Rosh HaShanah 1:3, this verse serves as centerpiece for the claim that, unlike a human king, God first fulfills God’s own decrees before imposing them on others. In our case, God designs the Torah with justice and righteousness, and then challenges Israel to follow suit. Achieving this goal is a historic task; sadly, it remains before our eyes, still unfulfilled.

Like Moses, we often experience the heartbreak of a reality that falls far short of divine instruction, and yet like Moses we hold fast to these commands and commit ourselves to work, and to fight, so that reality will bend closer to our highest goals. This past week has surely been one of heartbreak for we who love Israel and think that it can and must come closer to achieving its own ideals. Three distinct events have signaled that the State of Israel is intent on discriminating among its citizens and oppressing its minorities.

We in the Masorti/Conservative movement are appalled by the arrest of our distinguished colleague, Rabbi Dov Haiyun, for the “crime” of performing a traditional wedding ceremony between two Jews in Israel. This outrageous arrest has stirred up many Jews in Israel and around the world to call for the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate, since these unrepresentative government officials have proven incapable of respecting and protecting the plurality of Jewish practice in Israel and abroad. The chief rabbis and their enforcers are guilty of the ban listed in our portion of “lo tosif,” not adding additional stringencies to the Torah. Adding stringencies is their default mechanism, and now they have added police enforcement as well. Rabbi Haiyun was right to warn us of the similarity to Iran.

We are equally appalled by the revisions to Israel’s Surrogacy law, which officially discriminates against LGBTQ Israelis for the crime of wanting to become parents. We in the Masorti movement are concerned for the dignity of all our people, and we celebrate the desire of queer Jews to form families and raise children in Israel. In both of these two actions, the Government has made it impossible for many Israelis to marry and form families in the Land, instead pushing them abroad to marry and to bring children into the world. These actions are cruel and contrary to the spirit of justice that the Torah commands.

The third action, the new basic law declaring Israel as an ethnic Jewish state, might seem to be merely a statement of the obvious. It is true that the State of Israel seeks to be two things at once, a democracy and a Jewish homeland, and that balancing these two goals is not easy. Yet in the Declaration of Independence these two goals are harmonized by the statement that religious minorities are to be guaranteed equal protection. In contrast, this new law signals a turn away from democracy and the demotion of non-Jewish Israelis to second class citizenship. This is not the way of justice, it is not the path of righteousness, and it will certainly not lead toward peace. Arab Israelis are a fifth of the State’s citizens, and it is essential that they and other minorities be treated as equal citizens, even if they do not share the religious identity of the Jewish majority.

Given our deep disappointment with these cruel and unjust actions of the Government, it is challenging to celebrate the project of Zionism and of the State of Israel. Yet, undemocratic laws are not a problem only in Israel. Citizens of democracies around the world, very much including the United States, are often dismayed by the cruel and unjust actions of their government. We do not have the luxury to despair or to disengage from our beloved countries, but rather must fight for our ideals. Like Moses we must state our principles clearly, and like Moses we must be willing to criticize conduct that falls far short of our goals.

The gap between ideals and reality can be painful, but we must not despair. This is a time to increase our engagement, to augment our activism, and to support our organizations, such as the Masorti Movement in Israel. Rather than venting, we must provide a counter-reality, just as Moses did. Then, perhaps, we can one day achieve his glorious vision, of building a country that is admired for its just and righteous laws.

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת ראש השנה פרק א הלכה ג

בנוהג שבעולם מלך בשר ודם גוזר גזירה. רצה מקיימה רצו אחרים מקיימים אותה אבל הקדוש ברוך הוא אינו כן אלא גוזר גזירה ומקיימה תחילה מאי טעמא [ויקרא כב ט] ושמרו את משמרתי אני ה’ אני הוא ששימרתי מצותיה של תורה תחילה. א”ר סימון כתיב [שם יט לב] מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן ויראת מאלהיך אני ה’ אני הוא שקיימתי עמודת זקן תחילה. א”ר סימון כתיב [דברים ד ח] ומי גוי גדול אשר לו חקים ומשפטים צדיקים וגו’