The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m an American rabbi. Israel no longer recognizes my religious authority.

Fundamentalists in Israel are shunning open-minded Jews from the rest of the world.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew prays at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem in June. (European Pressphoto Agency)

When I discovered this past week that I was one of the 160 rabbis officially not to be trusted by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate, I had an uncanny flashback to an earlier sensation.

I was 19, and I had allowed myself to be “kidnapped” at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It was a well-known thing to do at the time: If you were an American kid exploring your Judaism and you wanted to get an invite to an ultra-Orthodox home for a Sabbath meal, you simply hung around the Western Wall on a Saturday afternoon until an Orthodox man well-known for his outreach approached and asked if you wanted to join a family for lunch. Like so many young American Jews who grew up in largely secular homes, I was in Israel to delve into my Jewish identity. I had never personally known Jews who wore black hats and headscarves. When I saw them walking the Jerusalem streets, speaking Yiddish to one another with large broods of kids in tow, I was reminded of stories my Yiddish-speaking grandparents told me of their vanished childhood worlds in Europe. That Sabbath, I wanted to be kidnapped. I wanted access to that sweet, haimishworld of my ancestors.

The man led me through the magical winding streets of the Old City until we finally came to a tiny apartment. There was a large, beautifully set Sabbath table. We arrived late: There were already at least seven other Americans there, and they had finished eating. The apartment belonged to a young couple. The wife, a stout woman modestly dressed in Orthodox garb, led me to my place at the table and put a bowl of cholent in front of me. Her husband, a thin man with a long black beard, white shirt and black pants with ritual fringes hanging in front, was already speaking animatedly to the group.

“And so everything in this world depends on the mitzvos we do,” he was saying, using the Yiddish pronunciation of “mitzvot,” the Hebrew word for “religious commandments.” “There are no exceptions. You do the mitzvos, and your life will be well and the world will have peace, and we will bring on — God willing — the messiah. But if the Jewish people aren’t doing their mitzvos, this brings on calamity upon our people.”

“Wait a minute,” another kid chimed in. “What about the Holocaust? Are you saying the Holocaust . . .”

“I am absolutely saying the Holocaust!” the bearded man interrupted. “Everything you learned about the Holocaust is wrong. The Nazis were nothing but an instrument of Hashem [God]! Hashem brought the Holocaust on the Jewish people, and do you know why? It’s because the Jews of Europe fell away from a life of piety. They were abandoning their kashrus, they were desecrating the Sabbath!”

We sat for a moment in silence, stunned.

He continued: “And don’t think it was just the big things. Every mitzvah counts. The Holocaust very well may have been brought on because too many Jews weren’t regularly checking the mezuzahs on their doors to make sure they were still kosher!”

I couldn’t believe my ears, and I couldn’t even process my outrage. I remained silent for the rest of that lunch, in a daze. The conversation shifted to talk of a local yeshiva our hosts hoped we might attend to become more like them. I just wanted to leave. I felt an ocean of difference between who I was and who this ultra-Orthodox man was. This wasn’t the haimish world I had heard about from my grandparents. This was a world of magical thinking, predicated on a fearful worldview that treated everything — even our fellow Jewish people — with the deepest mistrust. I left my bowl of stew uneaten.

That feeling came back to me this past week when I read about the latest maneuver by the Rabbanut, the official religious authority in the Israeli government. The authority has collected the names of diaspora rabbis — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — whose letters attesting to the Jewishness of any immigrant seeking to prove their Jewish identity in Israel will be rejected outright. The reason? We can only guess. The Rabbanut has offered no explanation for how it decided which rabbis it trusts and which it doesn’t. All of us on the blacklist have signed letters attesting to the Jewishness of people that the rabbinate refused to accept. But a spokesman for the Rabbanut told Jewish Week that there is “no clear criteria ” for whose recommendations they take.

Still, many of the rabbis on the list practice a more open, pluralistic Judaism than our ultra-Orthodox colleagues who run the Rabbanut do. And any number of things could have put me on the list: I am a Conservative rabbi who is outspoken on social justice issues; I call for a progressive interpretation of ancient Jewish laws; I am openly gay; when I believe that Israel’s policies are immoral, I say so publicly.

So when I saw my name there, I wasn’t surprised. I remembered that lunch in Jerusalem all those years ago, and I felt nothing but sadness. I’m sad that within my beloved Jewish people, there are views so radically different that the gulf between us often feels unbridgeable.

And I know that the rabbis on the list with me aren’t the only rabbis blacklisted. The blacklist really encompasses all rabbis who don’t subscribe to the narrow worldview of the Rabbanut, which holds that the only valid form of Judaism is one that adheres solely to the strictest interpretations of Jewish law and the most traditionalist social values. Most of all, I feel sad because it is not just rabbis: All progressive-minded Jews have been rejected. The Rabbanut has shunned all of us who welcome open questioning, diversity, pluralism, and many paths to God and to holiness within our people and in the world.

I mourn for all the Jewish people, for the Rabbanut’s contempt toward Jews who aren’t like them. I grieve for the way those authorities undermine Jewish unity in the interest of their political power. Israel has no separation of synagogue and state, and since 1948, ultra-Orthodox Jews have had the sole authority over personal-status issues in Israeli law. Moreover, ultra-Orthodox groups wield considerable power in the Israeli parliament and exert great influence over legislation. This lethal mixture of politics and religion is tearing apart the Jewish world through this list and similar exclusionary tactics — most notably, the recent agreement between ultra-Orthodox Jews and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to revoke a deal that would have officially sanctioned pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall.

Finally, my heart breaks for all the Jewish kids like I once was, who want nothing more than to enter into the traditional world, to feel its depth and its warmth. Years ago, I found mistrust, rejection and twisted logic instead. And now the rest of the world is finding those things, too, with this despicable list and the Rabbanut’s closed-mindedness.

I still think about that uneaten bowl of cholent. I pray that the growing rifts between Jews, between Israel and the diaspora, between all rapidly polarizing groups in this world, will heal. Until then, I must speak out against the mistrustful and exclusionary vise-grip that the Rabbanut has over the homeland of all the Jewish people. May those of us who do not subscribe to fundamentalism join our voices together and demand that Israel release us from that stranglehold. Meanwhile, I will put out a bowl of my own cholent on my Sabbath table, and pray that all my Jewish brothers and sisters will join me there, to be embraced for who they are. May that day come soon, before the cholent gets cold.

This story has been updated.

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