Re’eh Sermon 2010 – Well Done Prime Minister Netanyahu

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 11 August 2010

It’s lovely to be able to share good news about Israel and a couple of weeks ago we were able to.  It started with bad news though in mid July –  through all the different ways that we communicate each week at Alyth, in common with Reform and Liberal congregations worldwide, we passed on the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s request that we write to or e-mail the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to quash a new bill on conversion to Judaism in Israel.  Rabbi Josh spoke about this at the of a Shabbat morning service.  Rabbi Laura organised a Sunday evening meeting at Alyth jointly with Pro Zion and the New Israel Fund to galvanise support for the campaign against the bill.

Then four days after the campaign began we were able to put up a news item on the front page of the Alyth website saying “Good news from Israel”.  Prime Minister Netanyahu had ruled that there would be no new legislation on conversion until 2011 at the earliest and that a new committee to look at the issue of conversion to Judaism from the standpoint of the State of Israel would be put together led by Natan Sharansky, now the Chairman of the Jewish Agency including representation from Progressive Jewish groups.

It all happened so quickly that we never had the chance to draw to Alyth member’s attention what the big issue was and why it mattered – but today’s Torah portion gives us just that chance.  The Book of Deuteronomy has an overriding theme driving the narrative of Moses’ final words to the Children of Israel.  Again and again it focuses on the necessity of worshipping God in what Professor Marc Brettler calls “one fashion and in one place.” {[1]}

This theme stands out in the section from the portion which we heard Lily reading today:  “Look only to the place that the Eternal your God will choose amidst all your tribes as God’s dwelling place, to establish the divine name there.  There you are to go and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices…..Together with your households you shall feast there before the Eternal your God.”  {[2]}

The next verse in the Torah says this: “You shall not act as we have been used to acting – each one of us doing as we please.”

As Rabbi Amy Perlin writes in her commentary of this week’s Torah Portion:  “If you read [this] passage literally, you become witness to this transition from a sacrificial cult of the wilderness, where you could set up an altar to God anywhere to the worship of “one God in one fashion and in one place” with our arrival on the soil of the Promised Land.

In his commentary to the passage, Nachmanides describes the sacrificial practices of our people in the wilderness as chaotic, everyone doing what he wanted because he could. Therefore, Nachmanides sees [these verses] as dictating a new approach toward sacrifice—a shift from individual practice to one of communal control.

But, if you read Deuteronomy as a document written in the time of King Josiah (621 b.c.e.), when the people were already living and worshipping God on “the Land” (that we now call Israel), [as our Biblical historians tell us is indeed the history of Deuteronomy] then you become witness to a paradigm shift of power, a shift from autonomy of practice to centralized sacrifice and worship of God demanded by those in authority in an effort to maintain control.

History teaches us that whenever something is forbidden it was being done. We can practically hear the voices of our ancestors, especially those far from Jerusalem, protesting limits on their choices and practices in the name of a centralised religion.”

In the end the centralisation which Deuteronomy asks for – the single way of doing things – was not able to give Judaism and Jews the ability to serve God as they dispersed around the world, nor even when they were mostly resident in Israel – witness the hundreds of Synagogues which already existed even in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Temple.   One people did take the words of our Torah portion literally – the earliest verses – which seem to specify that the place where God is to be worshipped is not Jerusalem which became the site of the Jewish Temple – but rather Mount Gerezim near Nablus – which is still the only worship site of the Samaritan people.  One site only – one way only – and after two and a half thousand years of existence the Samaritan people worldwide now numbers around 700 people (having got down to 150 people a hundred years ago).  One place and one way is not how to make a people thrive.

Judaism thrives in the balance between law and autonomy.  If there is a monolithic communal law then Judaism and Jews are unable to adapt to the world that we live in.  If there is autonomy only then there is no Jewish code to guide us and make us a people with a future.  We have to get the balance right – not just to act as we please but also not to set restrictions around ourselves that strangle ourselves from inside.

And that was the problem with the conversion bill that our protest was against.  It was sponsored by Member of the Knesset David Rotem, he is a member for the Yisrael Beiteinu party and lives in the West Bank settlement town of Efrat.  Yisrael Beiteinu draws much of its support from Russian olim and is led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

It may have been from the best motives that David Rotem created his conversion bill – to help the 300,000 immigrants to Israel who are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinic authorities.   The Neeman commission in the late 1990’s had set up a workable but still, in the final analysis, monolithic solution to conversion in Israel whereby Rabbis from all streams of Judaism could prepare candidates for conversion – but the final authority for conversion remained in the hands of Orthodoxy.  Even so in 2008 an Orthodox Rabbinical Court retroactively revoked thousands of conversions by this process – which were subsequently reinstated – a total mess.

David Rotem’s new suggestion was on the face of it simple – every municipal Rabbi would be able to authorise conversions.  Trouble with this is that every municipal Rabbi is in a hierarchy with the Israeli Chief Rabbis at the top – cementing an Israeli Orthodox monopoly on conversion to Judaism.  This would mean potentially that Jews who have converted worldwide could have their Jewishness put under question by the Israeli Orthodox Chief Rabbis should they wish to be recognised as a Jew in Israel – whilst the current status quo is that conversions by all denominations of Judaism are recognised as valid in ensuring Jewish status by the Israeli Interior Ministry.  Recognition by the Israeli Interior Ministry is what matters for making Aliyah to Israel – even if the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate might still refuse to recognise any conversion which is not under its authority for Orthodox religious purposes.

As Leslie Susser puts it in this week’s Jerusalem Report ,  if David Rotem’s bill had passed into law, and now with Benjamin Netanyahu’s intervention it won’t, it would have sent Israel on a less democratic and less pluralistic path which would put her in danger of losing the support of younger generations of Diaspora Jews.{[3]}   Too much of the “one place, one way” kind of Judaism.

We do need there to be standards of learning and practice which are the entry point to religious and peoplehood Judaism.  We do not want Judaism to be a religion where each of does as we please.  But we want those standards of learning and practice to reflect the best of the plural ways in which one can be Jewish – Reform and Orthodox, Conservative-Masorti and Liberal.  We do not want the concentration of the definition of who is a Jew to be in the hands of one or two men whose vision of Judaism is restricted only to their own beliefs.  This is for our own good as Jews and the good of those who choose to join us but also for Israel’s good, as Leslie Susser writes “How Israel deals with the conversion issue is not only a question of its essence as a state, but of how that essence is perceive, with all the attendant ramifications.”

Isaiah speaking about the spiritual restoration of the Jewish people in exile in our Haftarah portion this week exclaimed:  “Come, all who are thirsty, come for water; even if you have no money, come buy food and eat, come buy food without money, wine and milk without cost.” {[4]}  This is spiritual nourishment and is offered to all. Judaism must be open to all who will learn, hear, understand and practice here or in Israel – we cannot allow a monolithic authority here or in Israel to close it down.  I am glad that we heard good news from Israel two weeks ago.