Over the past few months, much of the socio-religious turmoil that has been taking place in Israel has caught the headlines and attention of American Jewry.
Most notable of those are the issues of women’s prayers at the Western Wall and the potential draft of yeshiva students to the Israeli army. Needless to say, the reasons these issues generate so much interest in the Jewish American community is the great deal of emotions and beliefs involved. With Israel meaning so much to us and with these controversies centering on issues about which we have so many feelings and beliefs, it is no wonder that they generate so much interest in our communities.
While there seems to be no downside to taking a position on these issues and saying clearly what we believe and what we think should be done – in taking sides on these issues – in fact there are two serious downsides to consider before taking up any side too passionately.
While American Jewry knew much controversy in its earlier, formative years, one of the community’s most significant characteristics in the past half century is its unity -to keep to itself whatever challenges and questions it might be facing, and to be coherent and highly functioning.
As an Orthodox rabbi I see this unity and ability to transcend differences in a most inspiring way in my community. I see people from across the Orthodox spectrum sharing so much in values and culture, operating with a great deal of cooperation, and being able to overcome many differences that in the past were defined as barriers.
Perfect examples of this are the beautiful Siyum Ha’shas, which took place just a year ago in the MetLife Stadium, with participants ranging from all across the Orthodox spectrum; the RCA, Orthodoxy’s rabbinic body, which has a membership that includes rabbis from every Orthodox institution, and the OU, which is the kosher standard for so many different kinds of Jew. Yes, there are controversies and differences of opinions from time to time, but the overall coherence is remarkable from a historical, religious, and sociological perspective.
This unity is not something that should be taken for granted. It is not easy to maintain. While Israelis can afford to disagree strongly on important issues, we do not have that luxury. Israelis can disagree because they all live in the same Jewish country. They know that despite the disagreements, they will return to live in peace and brotherhood with each other. And then there is the constant existential threat Israel faces in the Middle East. With a radical Iran coming closer and closer to a nuclear bomb, a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, and many other threats, Israelis will reconcile and find a way to transcend their differences. We do not have that luxury. To jeopardize the unity and cohesiveness of our communities would be a mistake we cannot afford.
The second and more moral argument against becoming invested and active in Israeli controversies is far more simple and understandable. We do not live there. While American Jewry has always been highly committed to the State of Israel, and it always will be, it is hard to justify an intrusion on the Israeli population’s ability to make its own decisions. It is hard to imagine that when David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir rallied American Jewry’s support for the State of Israel they intended to put American Jewry in the position of deciding the fate of the State as well. As the cultural and religious debates taking place in Israel at the moment have a great effect of life in Israel, it would be unfair and perhaps even immoral to have people from overseas being the ones to influence and dictate the outcomes of these debates. Israel needs our support, not our advice.
It is hard to imagine that the Israeli people are thankful to the American Jewish women’s groups that have done so much to blow the controversy over women’s prayer groups at the Western Wall into such a large scale debate that is now beyond any easy solution.
I do not think that members of the Israeli Defense Forces appreciate those who organized a protest against the potential draft of yeshiva students in Israel. It is for good reason that most leaders, even within ultra-Orthodoxy, have strongly discouraged their constituents from attending that protest for the same simple reason – there is no justification for such involvement on our part.
Overall, the role of American Jewry as enabler, contributor, and benefactor of the State of Israel is an undeniable, fundamental, and uniquely moral role. The Jewish American community has sent its best and brightest to Israel, has made great efforts and sacrifices for the sake of Israel, and has been an undeniable partner in the great success Israel has become. At the same time, it would be an epic mistake if we were to allow the cultural and religious debates that are taking place in Israel over the past few months compromise the unity of our community, or compromise our moral integrity by allowing us to attempt and make decisions for communities in which we do not live.
We have shown ourselves as being great at solving our own problems. Let’s try and keep to that.