Separating Synagogue From State

The following address was delivered at a conference in Jerusalem hosted by Tmura-IISHJ (the Israeli center for training Secular Humanistic rabbis) on March 20, 2015

My rabbi, Sherwin Wine, had a way of put things well in just a few words. He once wrote that Israel is an unusual homeland because people here ask each other “where are you from?” This happens because through our history we Jews became a world people, and we still are today, even here. If someone asks me where I am from, a long time ago it was eretz yisrael [the land of Israel], but in my history with names I come from two places before the modern world – my mother’s family are Litvaks [Jews from Lithuania] who left the shtetl [small town], and my father’s family are Halabi Jews from Aleppo, Syria who were raised in the Ottoman Empire.

In both of those worlds they left, relics of the Medieval ages, there was no separation between religion and government – Jews had very little self-government anyways, and what little they did enjoy was always connected with religious authority. The heads of the communities married their daughters to the rabbis, and vice versa. My ancestors left the world of the shtetl and the Ottomans to move to the modern world. So I am a child of many worlds: ancient Israel, medieval Diaspora, and modern freedom.

And that is why it is intolerable, unimaginable that so many of my people who want to live a modern life with modern values and modern freedoms are trapped in a medieval life. People in my congregation are still amazed to learn that a divorced woman cannot marry a Cohen and Jewish state cemeteries will not bury a Tzahal [Israeli army] soldier whose Jewish parent was the wrong one. Perhaps they are imagining the heavenly Jerusalem instead of the real one. The contradiction between their modern values and their Judaism begins as a crack, and over time grows wider.

Israel is not a shtetl, or if it is, it is the first shtetl with wi-fi and an air force. But when authorities who believe Jewish life was best hundreds of years ago control who you can marry, where you are buried, how your money is spent and who can join the Jewish family, we are back in the world of the shtetl, the Ottomans, and we cannot be am khofshi b’artzeinu [a free people in our land, from the Israeli anthem “Hatikvah”], as we hope and work for.

We already have many separations between Israeli Jews and American Jews: different language, different experiences: a child turning 18 means college for most of us and giyyus [army induction] for most of you. The weddings I perform are fully recognized; last year I was happy to write a reference letter for Rabbi Sivan Maas so she could officiate in the United States, but she cannot do the same for me here. I saw an article on Huffington Post just before I came to Jerusalem by a self-declared secular Jew: “Why I No Longer Support Israel.” Israel has lost his support not only differences over the possibility of a Jewish future in the Diaspora or political machinations around the Israeli election, but also over Orthodox control of marriage, dress codes, public and private life.

Put simply, to keep the Jewish people together we need a separation between religion and government in Israel. We are stuck in an arranged marriage between religion and the state, between Shulkhan Arukh [authoritative Jewish law code] and Megillat ha-Atzmaut [Israeli Declaration of Independence], between the shtetl and modernity. By now it is very clear that the marriage is not working, it’s not good for either one, and it’s time for divorce. Never mind a constitution – first I want a gett! [bill of divorce]

If it will be a healthy divorce between Jewish religion and the Jewish state, it will be good for everyone: the state, Judaism, and the rest of the Jewish world. You don’t need me to tell you how it will improve the state of Israel. And if Judaism must convince people instead of force them, then change will come there too – creative Judaism needs freedom like oxygen to live and grow, freedom and competition – that was the new Judaism of the Yishuv [pre-independence Jewish settlement] and the kibbutz [collective farm], and that has been the new Judaism of the modern world.

What would this look like from my perspective?

  • Any child of the Jewish people, from either parent, is welcomed as part of the Jewish family to join a Jewish and democratic state, or even to visit. I can’t tell you how many children of intermarriage visit Israel, on Taglit-Birthright or any other way, and are told they do not belong. THEY ARE THE ONES THAT CAME, and they are being pushed away. Any individual who sincerely and clearly identifies with the Jewish people, with or without mikvah [ritual immersion] and milah [circumcision], should be encouraged and welcome. I’ve heard this saying credited to both David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan, but it’s true either way: “Whoever is crazy enough to want to be Jewish, deserves it.” The more these people on the margins of Jewish life can be encouraged to deepen their connection, the better for everyone.
  • Every Jew who finds themselves in Israel, man and woman, can find a Jewish connection, leader, congregation, social connections that are equally accepted by Israeli Government – you will never make the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] like you, but you can make sure that both their shuls [synagogues] and your communities treated equally by the state you share. In that world Reform and Conservative and Secular Humanistic Jews will not feel like second class Jews in a Jewish state. How exactly to do this is a debate for you: equal support for various options, or no support for any of them so they will supported by the private citizens who value them. Either way would be better than the alienation we experience now.
  • Jews who visit the land of Israel to connect with their roots do not feel like they have to betray their values; the special places that are important to the entire Jewish people not run as if they were haredi synagogues. I would love to have the option of bare head at the Kotel [Western Wall] together with my wife to celebrate my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Find a picture of the Kotel from the 1920s, before a Jewish state married Jewish religion, and you’ll see men and women together without incident.

    Women and men together at Western Wall before 1948.

  • As a tourist who likes to ride the bus, I am not trapped in hotel or the neighborhood or the city I am in by Jewish holidays. Our Jewish holidays here should be celebrations, opportunities for new connections and experiences, visiting museums and experiencing Jewish culture – more like “Khag Ha-Bekhirot!” [Israeli Election Day is a national holiday]
  • Every citizen of the state has the right to marry the person they love, the way they want to be married. Next week, I will be marrying a couple in Chicago who live together here in Jerusalem. The bride is not Jewish, but she came for a visit to Israel and never left because she fell in love with the state, and then with a man here. Her groom is a Cohen, they are both secular, and they have to leave where they want to live to start their life together despite her voluntary identification with the Jewish state and Jewish culture. My officiating this ceremony is my gain, but it is our loss!

One of reasons Israel became beloved by Jews outside of Israel was the belief that it fulfilled both Jewish and human values: an egalitarian society, tohar ha-neshek [a moral army], a vibrant new Jewish culture that lived in ha-olam ha-zeh [this world]. I have no vote here, all I have is a voice. My vision after the divorce between medieval and modern, a divorce between Jewish religion and a Jewish state? My Jewish and my human values will be confirmed and celebrated through my connections with this place and this people. But don’t do this just for me – do it for yourselves, and do it for all of us!

We must separate the state from religion to keep the Jewish people together. One people, many voices, and free at last.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
This entry was posted in General HJ. Bookmark the permalink.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s