Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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Zionism & Pluralism

18 Elul 5757

Almost exactly 100 years ago, on 29-31 August 1897, Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. From the First Zionist Congress came the Basle Program, defining the goal of Zionism as the establishment, through human initiative, of “a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” Fifty years later, the promise of the Basle Program was embodied in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. Among its cherished principles, the Declaration pledged that the State of Israel would “safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

This principle has carried forward to this day. As the 25 August 1997 issue of U.S. News and World Report quotes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Remember that it is only under Jewish sovereignty that all three religions in Jerusalem have enjoyed free and unfettered access to their holy places.”

Surely of the first order of importance for the Zionist program was the preservation of freedom of access of Jews to their Holy Places. Surely, too, would it turn Zionism on its head if the Prime Minister’s pledge were to hold for Christians and Muslims but not for Jews.

The principle of broad Jewish access in the area of the Temple Mount, I would suggest, predates the Zionist movement, indeed all of modernity, finding its origins in Biblical times. Today’s Parshat [weekly Torah reading], Ki Tavo, provides our proof text. The very first section of the Parsha contains the declaration known as miqra bikurim, the “Recital of the First Fruits.” As Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, points out in her Studies in Devarim,

[t]he Israelite farmer who brings the first fruits of his soil does not say: “My fathers came to the land which the Lord swore to give them.” Rather he proclaims in every generation, as long as his people dwells in the Land, whenever he brings its first fruits, in thanks to the Almighty: “I am come to the Land.” Every member of the House of Israel thus identifies himself personally with his people and its history. He came to the Land, it was given to him.

Ms Leibowitz points out the similarity of this proclamation to our Pesah Hagada’s central teaching that “in every generation every Jew is obliged to see himself as if he had gone out of Mitzrayim – the Holy One blessed be He did not only redeem our fathers, but He redeemed us, too, with them.”

Nehama Liebowitz continues by relating a vivid description from the Talmud, contained in the third chapter of Tractate Bikurim, of the response of those in charge of the Temple area to the bringing of the first fruits:

When [the men of all the towns] approached Jerusalem, they sent messengers before them and adorned first-fruits. The officers and the prefects and the treasurers of the Temple went forth to meet them_. And all the craftsmen in Jerusalem would rise up before them and greet them, saying: “Brethren, men of such-and-such a place, you are welcome!” – The flute was played before them, until they reached the Temple Mount. When they reached the Temple Mount, even Agrippa the king would take his basket on his shoulder and enter. When they reached the Temple Court, the Levites sang the song: “I will exalt Thee, O Lord, for Thou hast raised me up, and hast not suffered mine enemies to rejoice over me” (Psalm 30).

We may ask ourselves how well the State of Israel is upholding the Zionist principle that finds its roots in such Biblical practices. The answer is not well at all. Virtually simultaneously with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s quote came the following news item from Jerusalem about the treatment of a Conservative egalitarian minyan attempting to pray at the Kotel (Western Wall) plaza on Tisha B’Av, a day of prayer and fasting to mourn the destruction of the Second Temple:

(JTA) – As the Tisha B’Av holy day began Monday evening, fervently Orthodox men began trying to shout over the prayers of about 200 men and women worshipping together in a specially designated area at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza, a couple of hundred yard from the Wall itself. Anxious to avoid a confrontation with the thousands of fervently Orthodox men milling about the plaza, [Israeli] police, braced for confrontation, quickly broke up the non-Orthodox prayer group and herded them forcibly though security gates at the entrance to the plaza.

Then, shoving and swearing, the police forced the group another hundred yards down a driveway leading to the Dung Gate out of the Old City, as the Conservative Jews sang a Hebrew prayer calling on God to make peace in the heavens and within the nation of Israel.

Much has already been said in the media and in our Congregation about the disgraceful behavior of the Haredim at the Wall and later outside a nearby Yeshiva as the Conservative worshipers retreated. However, by far the most ominous behavior was that of the police, part of the armed force of the Jewish state. Here the power of the Jewish state was put at the service of the mob to deny Jewish worshipers access to the Western Wall plaza. The Conservative prayer group, it should be noted, had applied for and received official permission in advance to assemble and worship. Yet instead of the joyful welcome recounted from Biblical times, the prayer group was greeted with, as one participant later described it, a police pogrom.

This is Zionism turned on its head. This is the Zionist dream denied. Should we fail to rise up in protest, I fear for the future of Zionism, Zion, and the Jewish people.

So what is the answer? I fear there is no easy answer. However, part of the answer must surely be the affirmation of pluralism as a core value of Judaism and Zionism. Advocating pluralism as a core value of Judaism, Rabbi Irwin Kula, who has recently succeeded Rabbi Yitz Greenberg as Director of CLAL, eloquently states:

For centuries, the tendency to absolutize any human understanding of God and/or Torah was held in check by the legitimacy and the mandatory recording of Rabbinic disputes (mahloqet). Mahloqet served as an internal self-critique mechanism. Today, because of the wider range of options available in modern culture, wider than at any [other] time in Jewish history, mahloqet may not be broad enough to correct runaways or tendencies to absolutize. Pluralism serves this role in the modern world. It serves as the self-corrective to all tendencies to absolutism. Pluralism does not require any abandonment of party or school of thought or any diminution of commitment. Nor does it require any admission that the other view is right. Pluralism is an admission of one’s own limitations. Only if you are perfect and your method is perfect and you are always perfectly sure is pluralism superfluous. But perfection models do not work, they destroy others and ultimately self-destruct. Far from weakening Judaism pluralism is a commitment to a Judaism that is ahead of ourselves.

Now religious pluralism is a two way street; toleration must be mutual. This will be a challenge for all. But Jewish pluralism, while requiring toleration, should go beyond it to include celebration. I call for the celebration of Jewish pluralism as a core value of Judaism.

Because the state of Israel has taken sides in the religious dispute between its citizens, however, Jewish pluralism must go beyond the merely religious to include the political. The Jewish state will poison itself if it continues to act at the bidding of violent religious extremists. Rather, the Jewish state must be zealous in the protection of the physical safety and religious rights of those under attack.

Advocating pluralism, so understood, as a core value of Zionism are many of the leaders of our Conservative movement and many like-minded others. I join them in calling for the protection of religious pluralism within the Jewish state and among the Jewish people as a core value of Zionism.

As you know, we are in the midst of the elections for representatives to the 33d World Zionist Congress, the direct successor to the First Zionist Congress of which I spoke earlier. As you also know, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement, MERCAZ, has put forward a slate of candidates for election. MERCAZ advocates the principle of pluralism in Zionism. The ballots have been mailed out and must be returned no later than 30 September 1997. Vote MERCAZ.

Shabbat Shalom.


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