The Commentary Report
Reform’s Time of Choosing
The naming of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the new head of the Union for Reform Judaism has set off a debate about the Reform movement’s commitment to the state of Israel. Jacobs has been lambasted for serving as a member of the rabbinic cabinet of the left-wing lobbying group J Street, his participation in demonstrations against the building of Jewish homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, and his reported support for boycotts of settlements in the West Bank. His appointment, critics say, calls into question Reform’s willingness to remain part of the pro-Israel consensus.
Jacobs’s immediate predecessor at the URJ, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, may have been, like many Reform Jews, a liberal and a critic of Israel’s nationalist right and its Orthodox religious establishment, but he was also in the tradition of the mid-century leaders Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver—who changed Reform’s orientation from hostility to Zionism toward passionate advocacy. Yoffie chastised J Street when it publicly opposed Israel’s December 2008 counteroffensive against Hamas terrorists. His action, as much as any other, drew a bright line between genuine liberal Zionists and those, like the leaders of J Street, who are uncomfortable with, if not downright opposed to, any act of Israeli self-defense.
With the campaign to isolate Israel increasing in strength, the Jewish state needs Reform to stand its ground with the rest of the community. Reform leaders insist Jacobs is a loyal friend of Israel and a dedicated Zionist. But there is reason to worry he will veer from the path of Wise, Silver, and Yoffie and lead his movement into the J Street thickets.
Your Tax Dollars at Work
American aid to the Palestinian Authority—$150 million annually—pays for development projects as well as training programs for security forces that are supposed to help the “moderates” of Fatah hold off the “extremists” of Hamas. It is all part of the American plan to help build a peaceful Palestinian neighbor alongside Israel. But the logic justifying the aid is falling apart.
The newly announced unity pact whereby the Fatah-led PA has agreed to form a governing coalition with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas who rule Gaza is a signal to the West that Fatah believes that its future is with the Islamists.
Just as discouraging, the American-trained PA security forces are themselves a potential source of violence against Israelis. In April, a PA policeman shot and killed an Israeli who was visiting the Tomb of Joseph, a Jewish religious shrine in Nablus. The shooting illustrated what awaits Jews who seek access to holy sites under Palestinian control in a two-state solution.
These latest incidents show that if Tea Party activists are looking to trim foreign aid, perhaps the one allocation they should cut is the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to a Palestinian Authority that is as little interested in peace as it is in democracy. Indeed, the dynamic first-term Florida senator, Marco Rubio, has made an aid cutoff the first serious policy proposal of his Washington tenure.
Though American Jews rightly speak of their community as the most free in the history of the Diaspora, voters in one American city will soon have the ability to ban one of the practices that is most integral to Jewish identity. In November, citizens of San Francisco will likely be asked to vote on a law that would ban circumcision. If passed, the law would make it a crime to circumcise a boy younger than 18 with the only exceptions being for medical reasons. The penalty for transgressors includes a year in jail and a fine. The brit milah is, of course, the originating act of the Jewish people; it defines the covenant between Abraham and the One God.
The bris-banners are motivated more by bizarre theories about male sexuality and specious comparisons to clitoridectomies performed on girls in parts of Africa than by hostility to Judaism per se. Still, while the law’s passage is unlikely, debates about its constitutionality have already started. But for those who believe in the value of outreach between Jews and Muslims, there is a silver lining to an otherwise troubling development: the two religious communities are united in their opposition to a bill that would infringe on both faiths’ freedom of religion.
One Rabba, Two Rabba
The Academy of Jewish Religion, a nondenominational seminary in Riverdale, New York, announced in April that it was about to ordain the second “rabba” in history. The term “rabba,” a neologism meaning “female rabbi,” is a controversial one. While female rabbis are now commonplace in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism—with the percentage of women students in their seminaries approaching a majority—Orthodoxy has been adamant in its opposition to female clergy. The effort by some modern Orthodox to find a place for women on the bima led Rabbi Avi Weiss, the activist and dean of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, also located in Riverdale, to call Sara Hurvitz, his first female graduate, a “rabba.” The term gives a rabbinical gloss to what might otherwise simply be considered a teacher. But the backlash from the rest of American Orthodoxy to this decision forced Weiss to say that he wouldn’t do it again. Now that the Academy of Jewish Religion, an institution with no direct ties to Weiss or any Orthodox institution, has graduated its own rabba—Kaya Stern-Kaufman, 47, of Great Barrington, Massachusetts—some might think the practice is catching on. But since the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews believe female clergy to be unacceptable no matter what they are called, it’s difficult to argue that the rabba-inate has much of a future. Whether or not more rabbas are ordained, the term has made some progress. The plenum of Israel’s Academy of the Hebrew Language, the secular high priests of Modern Hebrew, accepted the term as an official Hebrew word last year.
A Helpful Suggestion
Perhaps the wisest comment of the month uttered in the Jewish world didn’t come from a Jew. Ayoob Kara, a Druze, is a Likud Knesset member and currently serves as deputy minister of development for the Negev and Galilee. When asked for his reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of American forces, he suggested that the date of this event, which coincided with Yom Hashoah, the international day of remembrance for the Holocaust, ought not to be overlooked. In the future, he said, Yom Hashoah ought to be marked every year by the killing of an international terrorist. While the Obama administration has been notably cool about any suggestions coming from Israel regarding the peace process, perhaps this is one the CIA will embrace.