Just weeks before the commemoration of the Second Temple’s destruction on Tisha B’Av, the last vestige of this holiest of sites has again come under destructive scrutiny, this time from non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora, many of whom do not even believe in its sanctity.
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a decision to freeze implementation of a plan to give non-Orthodox branches of Judaism a formal, recognized role in overseeing a permanent, pluralistic prayer area next to the main Western Wall area. The reaction was fast and furious, despite the fact that no Jew or gentile has ever been denied a rightful at the Western Wall under the status quo of halachic prayer that has existed since the state’s inception. Further, for more than twenty years Robinson’s Arch has been set aside for egalitarian prayer.
Yet this did not prevent the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, from immediately going on the attack, declaring that “The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal.” He cancelled a scheduled meeting with Netanyahu and issued a thinly veiled threat by urging his members “to be smart and strategic about all the money we give to Israel.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, likewise felt “betrayed.”
I think the rabbis are protesting just a little too much. Only about 29 percent of Reform Jews and 41 percent of Conservative Jews say they believe in God with absolute certainty. And with only 4 percent of Reform Jews attending religious services on a regular basis, the shrill outcry about a prayer platform seems rather disingenuous. Whom, exactly, are they protesting for?
Non-Orthodox denominations seem to have declared war on the status quo at a suspiciously convenient moment, their uproar coming at a time of declining identification with Judaism and Israel throughout their ranks. Close to 30 percent of Conservative Jews are intermarried and a staggering 80 percent of Reform Jews who married between the years 2000-2013 have non-Jewish spouses.
In particular, non-Orthodox Jewish millennial identification with Judaism and Israel is plummeting. Only 32 percent of that subgroup say caring about Israel is vital to their Jewish identity and only 43 percent sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians. A shocking 7 percent of Jewish Americans between the ages of 18-21 believe God gave the land of Israel to the Jews.
But perhaps this shouldn’t come as such a shock when viewed in the light of the positions taken by some of the most outspoken non-Orthodox rabbinical leaders. Rabbi Jacobs manifests typical “progressive” positions regarding Israel. Back in 2014 he threatened to drop out of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations when the umbrella group rejected an application of membership from J Street. And he publicly called Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the Iran deal a “bad idea” and “ill advised”, refusing to condemn the deal itself.
Yet it is Rabbi Jacobs who accuses the Israeli government of making liberal American Jewish groups feel “delegitimized and quite unwanted.” This accusation masks an inconvenient truth. It is actually Judaism and Israel that have been delegitimized by too many liberal American Jewish groups.
Non-Orthodox leaders have done such a good job promoting social justice as the raison d’etre of Judaism that they now face a crisis of identity vis-à-vis their own religion and homeland. Why would Jewish millennials be interested in prayer when they are taught that fighting for transgender rights and environmentalism is promoting tikkun olam?
Reform and Conservative leaders now seem to feel the need for some “tikkun” themselves to bolster their bases. What better method to deflect from their own weakness than to find an enemy to scapegoat? And what better enemy than the Orthodox, who are ascending in numbers and strength?
Unfortunately, the Jewish Agency, the body that liaises between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, participated in the non-Orthodox fury against Netanyahu. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, protested Netanyahu’s decision by canceling a scheduled gala dinner with the prime minister.
Sharansky also warned that some Jews might reconsider traveling or donating to Israel, without realizing that such bullying only serves to pinpoint fair weather friends. And threatening to withhold funds recalls a modern-day version of the Judgment of Solomon. The willingness to take a proverbial sword to a vulnerable young country reveals who its true “relatives” are.
Having worked for years to achieve a pluralistic space at the Western Wall, Sharansky may feel personally slighted by the abandonment of his efforts. But his visceral defense of the non-Orthodox position goes beyond a mere diplomatic gesture toward a segment of his agency’s constituents.
In his quest for “unity,” Sharansky extended an invitation to the non-Orthodox by pleading: “We want you. But we also want your communities, we want your rabbis, your grandchildren.” And he blasted “many Israelis…who believe that Reform is a kind of sect which destroyed Judaism from the inside in America…and now they are trying to come here.”
Well, duh. Even the most progressive Reform rabbi knows in his (or her) heart of hearts that an 80 percent assimilation rate is about as destructive as you can get. Ironically, the runaway assimilation rate among Reform Jews had its roots in the tampering with the traditional prayer service. So, yes, the last thing Israel needs is to import the same destruction.
While Sharansky is an undisputed icon and Israeli hero, the former Soviet dissident seems to have misinterpreted the conflict. Which might be a forgivable offense for a man who grew up in a country that prohibited the learning and practice of religion. In his romanticized quest for unity at any price, Sharansky inadvertently blurs the lines between those who seek to safeguard and those who seek to compromise Judaism.
Sharansky in much the same way idealized the concepts of democracy after growing up under the tyranny of communism. His famous manifesto, The Case for Democracy, deeply influenced then-President George W. Bush and the neoconservative movement by advocating the expansion of democracy as part of American foreign policy.
It is easy to understand how Sharansky, having been deprived of democracy, glorified the notion of nation building for all people who suffer under tyrannical rule, many of them in the Muslim world. But he failed to realize that not all cultures are candidates for Western-style freedoms, just as he now displays a misguided open-mindedness with regard to movements that have proven themselves to be antithetical to the long-term survival of Judaism.
Whatever the intentions or sincerity of those who want to upend the Kotel’s status quo, the end result are the same – a rejection of the very Jewish law that has sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. Any attempt to jeopardize that law is an attempt to jeopardize Jewish survival, and every attempt must be made to ensure that Israel’s sanctity and security are viewed as one and the same.