Liberal Judaism in Israel
To the Editor:
I have just returned from another trip to Israel, and it seems to me that Rabbi Weiner (and you) went through a lot of trouble to determine that there is no basis for even the title of his two articles, “The Liberal Religious Impulse in Israel.” It just ain’t. Religion is the last thing you hear Israelis talk about.
The very plain fact is that there is in this country—let alone in Israel—hardly any belief or commitment attached to membership in a temple. This is a social convenience in a country which encourages “liberal religion” and frowns on religious indifference. To be comfortable one must be not only against sin but for religion, as well. . . .
In Israel there is no environmental pressure to conform to liberal Protestantism, hence no soil for the growth of liberal Judaism. . . . Essentially, neither we nor they are concerned with religion as a factor in daily life, and the difference one finds is merely a different expression of the desire to conform to prevailing social ideals.
Jacob B. Shohan
West Orange, New Jersey
To the Editor:
May I commend you for the excellent subtitle you attached to Rabbi Weiner’s article (July and August) on religion in Israel? The words: “An American Rabbi ‘Spies Out the Land’” aptly describes the same type of report which Weiner’s forebears, the ten false spies of Biblical days, brought back with them from a similar jaunt. Weiner’s report reveals more about Weiner than it does about Israel. If this be the type of emissary which the Reform movement is thinking of having become its representative in Israel, so much the worse for Liberal Judaism. COMMENTARY has been wailing year in and year out that the Israelis have somehow come by an absurd view of what Jewish life is in this country; and yet it goes out of its way to publicize distortions about life in Israel, expecting that Americans will have a clearer idea of what goes on in the Jewish state from Weiner’s superficial report.
The gist of Weiner’s piece is that much spadework has to be done to get a Reform movement started in Israel. That is certainly true enough. However, one may well question why it has taken the Reform group until now—fifty years after the founding of Zionism and seven years after the establishment of the state—to start thinking in term of religious pioneering. Perhaps the reason can be found in a remark made last year by Rabbi Julius Mark at the forum in New York dealing with the theme of religion in Israel. For a group which started with the pioneering zeal of an Isaac M. Wise, it is a revealing statement: “The Union of American Hebrew Congregations in cooperation with the Central Conference of American Rabbis,” stated Rabbi Mark, “has for several years been attempting to find an American-trained Liberal Rabbi possessing the necessary qualifications of scholarship and idealism who would be willing to settle in Israel to carry on this work. Applicants have not been wanting, but this far they have either been men who are not suited to do the job or well-qualified rabbis who are willing to spend a year or two in Israel. Ben Gurion had a point when he chided American Zionists for not wishing to settle in Israel.” . . .
Most shocking of all in Weiner’s piece was his report of his meeting with a blonde from Canada who exhorted him to do something about “saving Israel from being drowned by the niggers.” This is grist for Elmer Berger’s mill! Weiner is conveying the impression that a sizable number of people share this attitude; yet I was in Israel for over four years and I heard that comment only once and that from a neurotic. However, to the uninformed American reader, here is an “expert” implying that there is a serious racial problem in Israel.
It is quite possible that a Liberal Judaism will some day come to Israel. Certainly the country could stand it. But it will not be brought by those who wax indignant from afar and air distorted accounts in periodicals whose ideology clearly precludes them from printing anything positive about the Jewish state. Let those who would save the souls of the “poor Israeli natives” look first to see whether their own spiritual houses are in order. It may well be that the reason so many Israelis look suspiciously at the American brand of Judaism is because so pitifully few religious adherents possess a sincere belief in God—as Weiner acknowledges—and still fewer allow religion to influence the moral texture of their day-to-day lives.
The question of saving souls can be summed up in a quotation which is, no doubt, familiar to Rabbi Weiner: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye but considereth not the beam that is in thine own? For how wilst thou say to thy brother: let me pull out the mote of thine eye, and, behold, a beam is in thine own!”
New York City
Rabbi Weiner writes:
There is only one point in Mr. Whartman’s abusive letter to which I need reply. The rest of his grievances concern the remarks of another rabbi, or thoughts which are not in my article and are indeed quite the opposite of my own ideas. The one complaint specifically offered by Mr. Whartman as reason for his anger concerns the remark of a lady about the effect of the large Oriental immigration on Israel’s cultural standards. Of course, there is no necessary implication whatsoever that any of the numerous individual opinions recorded in my report are shared by “a sizable number of people.” Yet there is rather glory than disgrace in the fact that, next to security, Israel’s most important problem (publicly proclaimed as such by Israeli leaders who are quite “positive” toward their own state) is its variegated population. Mr. Whartman should credit people with understanding that the juxtaposition of so many ethnic groups in so small a state cannot but make for tensions.
As to the “distortions” of the article, Mr. Whartman mentions none, but instead confuses his charge with the remark that “the gist of Weiner’s piece . . . is certainly true enough.” Nor, of course, is there the slightest indication in my report of any desire on the part of Liberal Judaism to “save souls” in Israel, or any feeling that our spiritual largesse in America is so ample that we want to share it with Israeli Jews. Whatever the reasons for Mr. Whartman’s anger, they should not have prevented him from perceiving that the burden of my report is plainly the opposite of what he thinks he read. Not the possible influence of American Judaism on Israelis, but the decisive effect of Israel’s religious condition on Jewish life here, is my main thesis. And not the desire of Liberal Judaism here to “teach Torah” to Israel, but the clear realization that Israel’s Judaism must be an indigenous product, and that both communities while searching for meaningful forms might profit from a mutually enriching dialogue, is the point made several times in my article.
Whartman’s final quotation reminds me of a story told by the Dubner Maggid about himself. Somebody once asked him how he always managed to find the quotation or parable which precisely fitted the point of his sermon. He answered with a parable and told of a boy who always seemed to score a bull’s-eye when shooting his arrows. One day he observed the boy at target practice—saw him shoot an arrow, then come forward and draw a bull’s-eye around the spot where the arrow landed.
Well, Mr. Whartman is in possession of a quotation, and obviously has some strong feelings that he is eager to express about Liberal Judaism and COMMENTARY. Unfortunately, the ideas expressed in my article have nothing to do with his aim.
To the Editor:
May I call your attention to an error appearing in your September issue? The article in the “Cedars of Lebanon” contained a prefatory note which stated that the story of the Binding of Isaac is the Scriptural reading for the Yom Kippur morning service. Now in my synagogue this selection from the Torah is read during the morning service of the second day of Rosh Hashanah. . . . Fortunately another article in your same issue [“The Birthday of the World”] does place the reading of this portion in its proper setting.
Camden, New Jersey
[Several other readers also called our attention to this error.—Ed.]