Jubilee and Jubilations for Progressive Judaism in Israel
The following is more or less my sermon from Friday night, celebrating the Diamond Jubilee in part, but also an incredible week for Progressive Judaism in Israel.
Walking around London this week it has been so so lovely to see flags flying and bunting flipping in the wind. There seem to be London themed or Royal themed stickers, umbrellas, scarves and mementos everywhere. And I have to confess, I love it. When we sing the national anthem at WLS, I never fail to be stirred, particularly when accompanied by our grand organ and choir. I have always felt very British, particularly I suppose when abroad, and I suspect this has always been a big part of why making aliyah never felt like the right move for me. I love visiting Israel, and have often toyed with the idea of living there, but it’s never quite felt right.
In the last decade, one of the reasons for not really considering making my life in Israel, other than my love of bunting, crumpets, and afternoon tea, is that as a Progressive Rabbi, I have both more religious and certainly professional freedom in the UK.
As a British Reform Rabbi, the government of the country legally ordains me to perform a marriage, recognised by the state, between two Jews (at the moment only if they are straight but we have hopes this might change!). In Israel, only Orthodox Rabbis may do this. Progressive couples tend to head to Cyprus to have a civil wedding, so that when they have a Reform Chuppah, it is still a legal marriage in the eyes of the state, if not the Rabbinate. And until this week, it was only Orthodox Rabbis who received legal recognition and funding from the state. But this week things have changed. While we are celebrating the diamond jubilee, we really must be celebrating Israel too this weekend, as this has been a pretty exciting and momentous week for Progressive Judaism there (even if not all the news has been good news). On Wednesday, the Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein agreed that Progressive Rabbis should receive state funding, albeit from the ministry for Culture rather than the Ministry of religious affairs (heaven forbid!)
This has been a long, hard fought battle, and isn’t just about money, but the fact that the state will also recognise the Rabbinic title as applying to Progressive Rabbis, and that in this first case, the defendant is a woman (shocking I know! We’d never put up with such nonsense here!) Her name is Rabbi Miri Gold, and she is the minister of Kibbutz Gezer and congregation Birkat Shalom. For the last seven years, Rabbi Gold has, along with supporters around the world, including, I suspect, some of you here tonight, and the Israel Religious Action Centre, been campaigning for this recognition and state support, not just for herself, but for all those Rabbis who want to contribute to making Jewish life meaningful, egalitarian, authentic and Progressive for others in Israel. A few weeks ago I was one of five thousand people that emailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu to ask him not to continue stalling this issue. In true, polite British style, this week I emailed him again, to say thank you!
Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet. As Rabbi Micky Boyden wrote this week [in Ha’aretz], “those familiar with the intrigues of Israeli politics would be well advised not to rush to open the champagne”
As he continues, however, the ruling has yet to be implemented, and Israel has a long history of court rulings being ignored by government and public institutions. And of course when we have two Jews we have three opinions and any future government could always introduce legislation to overturn the Supreme Court ruling and re-instate the previous status quo.
But the noises from Government are generally good. As reported in the Times of Israel, Shas' Minister of Religious Services Ya’akov Margi said on Tuesday that if the High Court of Justice decided to recognize Reform or Conservative clergy as community rabbis, he would ask permission from Shas’ spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to resign from the government. Quite rightly, another member of the Knesset Nitzan Horowitz (of Meretz) said a minister of religious services who practiced such discrimination should indeed resign. Now I’d like to see that implemented in the UK!
Even Natan Sharansky, currently chairman of the Jewish Agency, who my grandfather helped to free from Soviet Russia and who, frankly, I find I very rarely agree with, had good things to say about the progress being made. He said: “The government’s decision to recognize Reform and Conservative leaders gives official recognition to these dynamic community leaders and rabbis who work tirelessly to build strong and vibrant Zionist and Jewish communities throughout Israel.” He’s making a lot of sense; we have so many divides and struggles in Israel, so many enemies and challenges as a Jewish people, how on earth can the State continue to snub movements that contribute so much worldwide as well as in Israel, to Jewish life.
So perhaps we need to stay aware and vigilant, but for now, we can celebrate not only that we enjoy incredible freedoms and religious rights in the UK, but that in Israel we might enjoy similar benefits and rights, allowing us to be fully the Jews we want to be in our Jewish state. Now to work on those rights being extended to all.
May this be the beginning of us as a Jewish people creating our own vision of a messianic era, when we can all just get along together!
Cain Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will