Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, writes an open letter to MKs David Rotem and Uri Maklev following their recent statements condemning Reform/Progressive Judaism.


The Politics of Exclusion

Ben Zoma was wont to say: “Who is deserving of honor? He who honors other people.” Rabbi Eliezer urged: “Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own.” Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa declared: “He who pleases the spirit of man, will also please the spirit of God; and he who does not please the spirit of his fellowman, will not please the spirit of God either.” Pirkei Avot 1:15, 4:1, 2:15, 3:1

Dear MKs David Rotem and Uri Maklev,

I am writing to you today to share my thoughts and feelings on your latest parliamentary outbursts. I know you have been inundated with letters recently, as the shockwave of your recent statement has thoroughly angered many in the Jewish world, not to speak of the masses of those from our movement who are proudly Jewish, Reform and Zionist. Speaking from the Knesset floor, your verbal condemnation of Reform Judaism and libelous defaming attacks are going to only hurt you in the end.

This was a week of showing your cards and letting the world know what you think – not that we didn’t know already. Perhaps you were only attempting to position yourself in good historical company. Writing off an entire Jewish movement as not being Jewish is of course nothing new and from Shammai to Spinoza we, sadly, have a long tradition of telling one another “We’re in – you’re out!”

In the mid-18th century a vicious controversy erupted between the famous rabbis Yaakov Emden and Yonatan Eybeschutz employing vitriolic and abusive language accusing the latter of being a Sabbatean (a follower of the great 17th c. false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi) and a heretic. They held nothing back in terms of abusive and insulting language, coming up with all kinds of slanderous accusations for the purpose of defamation and deprecation.

A few short years later, in 1772, the Gaon of Vilna dedicated considerable effort to suppress the fledgling Hassidic movement and its leader R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi. While not as damaging as R. Emden, the Gaon’s 1796 epistle wrote off this new and interpretive radical movement, deeply criticizing their theoretical understanding of the nature of the divine immanence and leaving tensions high and inter-communal relationships scarred.

Even later throughout the Emancipation and enlightenment the mud-slinging continued and in the 20th century we witnessed one the century’s most revered Torah scholars Rabbi Elazar Shach, advocate a complete boycott of Chabad, its institutions and projects. When asked which religion was theologically closest to Judaism, Rabbi Shach responded “Chabad!” – clearly aiming to insult and exclude the growing movement. ‘They may consider themselves Jewish, but we don’t,’ was the message.

So when you make such statements as “The Reform movement is not Jewish … they are another religion,” (MK Rotem) or [members of the Reform movement] “put pressure on and bribe politicians,” (MK Maklev) your echoes of the past, play very well into exclusionary politics. Despite our longstanding tradition of deeming our co-religionists unfit for belonging, I am un-phased by your remarks. Like Hasidut and Chabad, and many more “victims” of exclusion only grew in strength, as will we.

What does worry me is that in our current case the circumstances are different. From your places in the Knesset you have considerable seats of power and influence. Now that we have our own sovereign state and such laws as the Law of Return, the words “another religion” weigh heavy on the ears of those listening. The coincidence of language used here of course was meant to reverberate loudly sending the message that Reform Jews have no place in Israel – as states the Law of Return. This message poses great danger to the fabric of Israeli society to which you serve.

While, you MK Rotem have issued an apology, we all heard your inner thoughts come screaming outward like they did during the conversion bill proceedings of 2010. Apologies are an interesting way to save face in politics yet, as Dov Seidman was quoted in a recent New York Times article: “Apology-washing changes no one, neither the apologizer nor the recipient, because the act regurgitates a social norm rather than launching an emotional process.”

Make no mistake, our Reform movement in Israel is only growing, strengthening and reaching Israeli Jews searching for an authentic and inclusive Jewish expression. Hopefully history will not denigrate you to the outskirts of the exclusionists just know that you are only hurting your own cause with such statements.

May we ALL go from strength to strength!

Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).