Israeli rabbi sees pressing need for pluralism
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, a Masorti, or Conservative, rabbi in Jerusalem, offered dire predictions if advocates for pluralism in Israel don’t act now.
“The next 60 years will define the character of Israel. We must give everything we can to make it what we want it to be,” she said. “If we do not succeed, it’s very simple. The State of Israel will become a state ruled by haredim. The people in Israel will become haredim,” or fervently Orthodox.
She added that a small minority of non-haredim might stay, but “the Zionist project will not exist. The state will not recognize the Jewishness of our children. It will become a state alienated from itself, a governing population that has alienated itself from the Jews of the world. It’s going to be a tragedy.”
She spoke with NJJN from Jerusalem, where she is associate dean of the rabbinical school of the Schechter Institute. She will be scholar-in-residence at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell on Jan. 7-8.
Elad-Appelbaum pointed to a spate of events in 2010 that she considers particularly threatening to religious pluralism, including the arrest of women wearing tallitot at the Western Wall, and the movement of a bill that would give fervently Orthodox rabbis a monopoly on conversion.
But even as she and other liberal leaders fight these moves in court and in the media, she considers it a top priority to create Jewish leaders committed to promoting religious pluralism in Israel.
“There are two trends in Israel today. First, more and more Israelis are turning back to their heritage and looking for moderate, open-minded communities respectful of their autonomy,” she said. “The other is this notion of a large group of people that is getting larger who are becoming more and more extreme and aggressive.
“We are not getting close. It’s a spiritual, cultural, and ethical clash.”
The clash is not just about religious expression, but Zionism itself, Elad-Appelbaum said. “Now that the State of Israel is a fact, the question is: What should be the character of the State of Israel, or the character of Judaism in the State of Israel?”
Raised in Israel, Elad-Appelbaum was ordained at the Schechter Institute, the Masorti movement’s seminary in Jerusalem. She spent the 2009-10 academic year at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY.
“For me, as an Israeli, the idea of religious pluralism is an idea in my head. I had no idea what it really means until I had the chance to live and work at Temple Israel Center,” she said. “There, I could see that religious pluralism can happen not on a small scale but the largest scale possible, the richest scale possible. I trust in what I believe as a religious Jew that it will happen [in Israel]. It is something American Jews should be proud to share with us.”
She served as a scholar-in-residence once before at Agudath Israel, in 2008, shortly after launching the Masorti movement’s wedding initiative. That effort was designed to offer a Conservative alternative to government-sanctioned Orthodox weddings in Israel. Although it generated some controversy and news headlines early on, the initiative lasted only a year and yielded just a few dozen weddings.
Elad-Appelbaum nonetheless takes an optimistic view of the effort. “It was part of a trend,” she said. “Greater and greater numbers of Israelis are beginning to understand that in order to go through a halachic process, you do not have to go through the Israeli government. In our education system, everyone — including me — is taught that if you want to go through a halachic process you have to go through the establishment, which is ultra-Orthodox. But you don’t have to.”
At Agudath Israel, Elad-Appelbaum will speak about Israeli rabbis and the challenges they face; female voices, Halacha, and the public sphere; and women and love in Jewish tradition.