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Rabbi David A. Lyon
Rosh Hashanah Day
September 17, 2012
1 Tishrei 5773


“One People Under God”


On a recent trip home from Israel, I was in Tel Aviv, standing in line at Ben Gurion Airport. In front of me in line was a Haredi Jew, an ultra-orthodox man. He wore a wide brim hat, long black coat, payes that he constantly curled through his fingers, and a full beard. He stood straight as an arrow sharply focused on where he needed to be. He was totally disinterested in the distractions around him.

                I, on the other hand, was the average American man who was standing in khakis pants, a comfortable shirt, comfortable shoes, no hat, no side curls, and no beard. Another observer would have looked at us and seen many differences: old and new, traditional and modern, orthodox and progressive, shtetl and suburban. But, there remained one invisible similarity: we were both Jewish. At least to me!

                The stark differences between us are at the heart of my concern this Rosh Hashanah. They don’t relieve my concern about the physical or existential threats against Israel. These threats that surround Israel from the Arab Spring to Iran’s nuclear capabilities are the most critical issues of our time. Everybody is talking about what and when Israel and its allies will do something about Iran. Israel’s record has been almost stellar in its deployment of military forces, but even Israel’s best leaders raise profound questions about the realistic expectations of a strike on Iran. The consequences, both calculated and unintended, will be severe. I feel powerless in my effort to do anything but speak up to those who can speak louder. I can only pray with you that though the tension between Israel and Iran is severe, it’s a tension that might be resolved without war.

                The concern I must address with you today is the threat made by ultra-orthodox Jewish authorities against progressive Judaism. The old questions “Who is a Jew?” and “Who is a rabbi?” are at the heart of it. Unanswered and unchecked, the consequences are devastating. The wrong answers will destroy us from within, which will resolve our worries about being destroyed from without. Standing behind the Haredi Jew in the airport, I was reminded of the old saying, “With friends like you, who needs enemies?” Thankfully, the right answers are coming. In recent months, progress is being made and its formidable leaders come from within Reform Jewish ranks in the U.S. and Israel.

                In the last six months, non-orthodox Judaism in Israel, meaning Reform and Conservative Judaism, enjoyed a victory without bloodshed. After decades of painstaking efforts, non-orthodox rabbis will be recognized and also paid by the government for the services they provide as rabbis. This was groundbreaking because up until recent months only orthodox rabbis earned a salary from the government. The breakthrough came as a result of efforts by progressive Jews in Israel and America, led by the Reform movement.

                The breakthrough was especially celebrated by Rabbi Miri Gold, a female Reform Rabbi serving a non-orthodox congregation at Kibbutz Gezer, outside the city limits of Jerusalem. Her status as a “community leader” was different from the roles rabbis ordinarily play within the heart of the city. As such, some leeway in the law was found. She and others like her will be recognized as providing rabbinic services, but they will be paid not from the Ministry of Religion, but from the Ministry of Culture and Sport. Rabbi Miri Gold said, “This is a big step for pluralism and democracy in Israel. There is more than one way to be Jewish, even in Israel.”

                Some would question the wisdom of the breakthrough that left non-orthodox rabbis to be paid from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and not the Ministry of Religion, like all other rabbis. But, I and many others agree with Rabbi Gold. This is a huge step. The vault of orthodox authority has finally been opened, and further developments are on the way for progressive Judaism in Israel.

                Not surprisingly, the orthodox reaction came fast and furiously. The Haredi community blasted the decision and argued vehemently against it. One outraged orthodox rabbi called all progressive rabbis, Reform and Conservative, “clowns and Christian priests”. It was a disgusting reflection on the Haredim in Israel. But, progressive Jews were likewise emboldened to promote pluralism in Judaism and its inherent vision for equality and social justice in Israel.

                One such emboldened leader is Anat Hoffman. She is executive director of IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center, a branch of the Union for Reform Judaism. She is a remarkably outspoken leader for equality in Israel. She spoke here at Beth Israel last year. She is the voice of women whom she leads to the Western Wall for prayer and to read from the Torah scroll. She is the voice of women who in some parts of Jerusalem must ride on segregated buses, where men ride in the front and women in the back; and on some streets where women walk on one side and men on the other. Getting arrested for her demonstrations has become part of her work, but she’s making a remarkable difference for all Jews who stand for pluralism in Judaism.

                Another advocate is Rabbi Uri Regev, former head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and current head of “Hiddush” an advocacy group for progressive initiatives in Israel. Uri is a friend who has spoken in our sanctuary and addressed our groups in Israel.

                Uri Regev participated in addressing the damaging effects of the Tal Law, which has exempted over the years thousands of Yeshiva students from national or military service when they reached the age of 18. It is finally changing. If young men who currently receive government pay for on-going Talmud study in lieu of military service and real work, Israel will fail to meets its growing socio-economic issues and lose the able-bodied men it can ill afford to excuse and also meet the security needs of the nation.

                The exemption of orthodox yeshiva bochers began when David ben Gurion, the first president of Israel, encountered the orthodox Jews who were living in and were arriving to the new Land. They asked him to exempt them from serving in the military. Why? To be sure that there would be a Jewish future filled with Torah and Talmud. David ben Gurion thought that the modern world was at Israel’s doorstep, and the new Israel would be a land flowing with milk, honey, and modernity. Soon enough, he imagined, the ultra-orthodox would be overtaken by modernity; the Enlightenment and the age of science and reason was finally finding its way to the Middle East. But, Ben Gurion was wrong. The ultra-orthodox were not moved by modernity. As Israel grew, the orthodox grew by thousands to fill positions of religious authority and to fill the halls of yeshivas without returning to the country what it was due.

                Today, Israel needs more than Talmud studies to prepare for its future. The country cannot thrive if thousands of orthodox men deprive the Land of taxes earned on real work, and if they deprive the Land of security forces among able-bodied men who aren’t necessarily the “Chochems” their parents think they are. Only the best of the best should remain in Yeshivah study; the others, despite their parents’ protests, should serve in the IDF or provide national service.

                That these issues exist in Israel would be enough to qualify them for a sermon on Rosh Hashanah. But they also qualify because they’re issues that confront us at home. In our congregation and in every non-orthodox congregation in North America, Jewish families can be affected by orthodox religious authorities in Israel.

                It was highlighted a few years ago, when Jessica Fishman, a young woman from Minnesota, who grew up in an active Conservative Jewish home, confronted the ultra-orthodox on their turf. At home, her father was the president of their synagogue and her mother was president of Hadassah. Jessica was a Jewish day school student and attended services every Shabbat. At age 22, she made aliyah and despite being over the age limit she still volunteered for military service for two years. Naturally, she met a young man, fell in love and was engaged to be married. But, not so fast. To her dismay, she was disqualified as a Jew because her mother’s conversion was led by a Conservative rabbi. Her fiancé and his family wanted her to convert to Judaism with an Orthodox rabbi to ensure that future children would be considered Jewish by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate. She refused to undergo conversion. She explained, “This so upset me that these rabbis would define my identity for me.”

                Disillusioned, hurt, and angered, she and her boyfriend ended their engagement. She returned to the U.S. for good. What demoralizing trauma did the Jewish world, presumably eager for adherents to Judaism, do to this woman? What irreparable harm would the Jewish future have to endure as a result?

                Ironically, it happens among the orthodox themselves, too. A woman who converted under orthodox authority in Brooklyn, New York, was not recognized as having converted by the orthodox authorities in Israel. An outspoken Rabbi who supports the woman’s case remarked, “The State of Israel commits a travesty by allowing the Chief Rabbinate to be the deciding body regarding the Jewish status of orthodox converts. It has taken a hostile…position [by choosing] to recognize as Jewish those converts who subscribe to Haredi [ultra orthodox] views espoused by the chief rabbinate.” He asks, “How much longer can the Jewish people and the citizens of Israel put up with an obstructionist, xenophobic and inept Chief Rabbinate?” Finally, he asked, “Why am I considered Jewish everywhere except in Israel?”

                But, it gets worse. Rather than be lumped together with Reform Jews in the category of non-orthodox, Conservative Judaism has made attempts to separate itself from Reform. They do it by courting the favor of the ultra-Orthodox, even though it won’t work. How so?

                Thirty years ago, Reform Judaism’s vision led to an historic decision that added children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to the ranks of Judaism. Called “patrilineal descent” the position held that to enlarge the tent to welcome rather than exclude, Reform Judaism would recognize children born of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. But, there were requirements. Participation and identification with principle Jewish rites and rituals, including a Jewish home, Jewish educational training, consecration, bar/bat mitzvah, and confirmation, exclusive of other formal non-Jewish participation and identification, such children would, by personal choice and demonstration, be Jewish in the eyes of the congregation and community.

                The Reform statement reads as follows, “The child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.” It was a de facto principle to meet the community where it was already at, and where it was trending to go.

                Interfaith parents who bring their infant son or daughter to me for a blessing with the desire to rear their child in Judaism, are welcome at Beth Israel. As he or she grows, Jewish identity takes hold through Jewish studies and Jewish home experiences where parents are engaged in Jewish life. When the time comes for consecration and b’nei mitzvah, these rites signal the child’s commitment to God and the people Israel, and, ultimately, his or her own choice to be Jewish for a lifetime.

                An American Conservative rabbi disagrees with “patrilineal descent” and Reform Judaism’s 30 year-old vision for interfaith families. Recently, he told his congregation in a sermon that, “…our Reform brothers and sisters have caused a painful breach. It is one thing for a single movement to change its definition of a Jew; it is another to expect the entire world of Jewry to do the same. And to keep us together, to hold true on at least one thing on which we have historically been able to agree, is too vital to be squandered, too important to be pushed aside.” I beg to differ.

                Let’s examine the vision of Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism’s reaction. In 1972, Reform Judaism ordained the first woman rabbi. In 1983, the Conservative movement followed suit. In the 1970’s, Reform Judaism welcomed instruments and contemporary music to revitalize worship. Years later and to a greater degree, Conservative Judaism followed suit. In the last ten years, Reform Judaism openly welcomed successful candidates into the ranks of future rabbis and cantors, regardless of their sexuality. The Conservative movement followed suit shortly thereafter. Today, the call for human rights and equality in Israel for women, the GLBT community, the poor, and the non-orthodox are led by grass roots and organizational efforts led by the Reform movement. I couldn’t be more proud of our movement to set the bar high and with every expectation that the entire world of Jewry should do the same.

                The Conservative rabbi also referenced Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. He claimed that she was inspired by a trip to Israel and came home to claim Judaism for herself; but failed to meet the requirements for conversion. Unfortunately, his facts were wrong. I used to visit Gabby in the hospital when she was recuperating here. Her rabbi is a personal friend of mine. Gabby followed the directions of her Reform rabbi and participated in a conversion ceremony. That experience enabled Gabby to find in Judaism the spiritual and religious truth she desperately needed and grasped for during her darkest days. I observed her with her rabbi when Hebrew prayers and songs for healing brought smiles to Gabby’s face and obvious comfort to her soul.

                In light of Reform Judaism’s vision, and personal contemplation and study, I made a decision 12 years ago to perform interfaith weddings. I do them for members of the congregation and their families under these circumstances: 1) I make clear that I’m only a rabbi. I do Judaism and I’m interested in the Jewish future, not its demise; therefore, 2) I urge a personal commitment by the couple to raise their children Jewish. Knowing full well that I am not God, and that I cannot penalize them if they fail to do so, they make their own promise to God and to each other; 3) I don’t co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy, but I have welcomed an appropriate reading by a non-Jewish family member; and, 4) all our clergy welcome interfaith couples to study in a Basic Judaism class, to participate in our Interfaith Couples group begun more than 30 years ago by Rabbi Karff and led by Rabbi Scott, today, and to engage in every way in the congregation for adult education, friendship and spiritual life.

                Furthermore, interfaith parents who invested in their children’s Jewish studies and who bring their children to the bemah for bar or bat mitzvah are both honored with the privilege to pass the Torah to their children. And, rather than push them away or otherwise hold them at arms-length, I have, from time to time, approached non-Jewish parents to choose Judaism for themselves through study and rituals of conversion. For those whose time has come, it has been a blessing to them, to the congregation and the Jewish people.

                And, in case you thought “Who is a Jew?” was a new question, read what’s found in the Book of Numbers. God ordered Moses to confer authority on seventy appointed elders. But two men, Eldad and Medad, standing nearby included themselves on their own authority. When it was reported to Moses that Eldad and Medad were acting like prophets, and that he should stop them, Moses replied, “Would that we were all prophets; that God’s spirit rested upon all of us.” Indeed.

                Our Jewish future depends on a secure Israel, both the land and the people. They are inseparable. Reform Judaism leads the way for equality in Israel and for the people Israel. At Beth Israel, our Jewish tent is open to all who choose the way God established for us. Though our enemies stand on the borders of Israel, may they find us secure in our resolve to fulfill the Jewish mandate, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh,” All Israel is responsible for one another. In the New Year, may we join arms without prejudice to embrace one Torah, one people, and One God.

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