As Shabbat approaches at the end of this very difficult week, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) expresses its continued outrage at the shortsighted, hostile, and divisive decision of the Israeli government to rescind the agreed upon plan for the development of an egalitarian, pluralistic worship space at the Kotel in Jerusalem. We also oppose, in the strongest possible terms, the Conversion Bill now under consideration, which would essentially hand absolute control over Jewish conversion in Israel to the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, with disastrous results for both Israelis and world Jewry.
The government’s choices are particularly stinging to our students, faculty, board members, and the thousands of Israelis and millions of North Americans who feel daily impact from our graduates who build meaningful pluralistic Jewish communities around the world. Each year in Israel, they officiate at thousands of weddings, they stand with families who have lost loved ones, they educate children in schools, kindergartens, and universities, and they help members of their communities shape lives of Jewish integrity and purpose. Their dreams of a world in which Jews can coexist with other Jews in peace, respect, and cooperation are shattered by self-serving, politically driven, and cynical actions such as this, which surely do not live up to the highest values of our Jewish tradition.
HUC-JIR has mightily supported the State of Israel since before its founding. Our graduates, including Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and many others, helped assure American support for the United Nations partition plan in 1947, they serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, they work for peace and the betterment of Israel in innumerable settings—from synagogues and museums to schools and local and national organizations—helping to build an Israel that can be a source of pride for Jews worldwide. Since 1972, our Rabbinical and Cantorial students have been required to spend a full year studying in Jerusalem, to know and understand the Jewish State, and to be able to teach its history and import to the congregations and communities they serve in the largest Jewish movement— the Reform movement— and far beyond.
The Kotel is, in the end, a symbol of the Temple that once stood near it. The truly important value encapsulated in the Temple was that it was, as Israel should be today, one place to which all Jews felt connected—celebrating and mourning, worshipping and learning—in a context of shared respect and cooperation. The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains that the reason for the Second Temple’s destruction was sinat hinam—baseless hatred, where one Jew hated another for no good reason, not knowing them well enough to understand them, and not investing the time to do so. The medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra ties this to the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:17), when he writes:
לא תשנא את אחיך -הפך ואהבת לרעך. והנה אלה המצות כולם נטועות בלב, ובהשמרם ישבו בארץ, כי על שנאת חנם חרב בית שני.
“Do not hate your brother [or sister in your heart]” (Lev. 19:17) —its opposite is “love your neighbor [as yourself]” (Lev. 19:18). These are the mitzvot that are planted in the heart, and in their observance we can [return and] settle in the Land, for it was because of baseless hatred that the Second Temple was destroyed [Ibn Ezra to Leviticus 19:17].
Ibn Ezra’s comment suggests that Israel can only be properly settled when we overcome baseless hatred with the love of our fellow human beings, and, most importantly, our fellow Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of the Israeli government: we implore you to begin to love your neighbor, as Jewish tradition demands. Members of the Ultra-Orthodox parties whose unceasing attacks on Reform and Conservative Jews have fueled the hatreds that led to this impasse: we remind you to observe the Torah you purport to love—drop your unnecessary baseless hatred toward other Jews who love God as much as you do but in different ways, and join hands with us in making Israel and the entire Jewish community a place of unity, respect, and love. For the sake of the unity of the Jewish People worldwide, these are the actions demanded of you here and now.
Rest assured that we will not be deterred. Rest assured that we will rise above such unnecessary divisiveness, continuing to educate inspiring leaders for the vast majority of the global Jewish community with insight and love, with respect and pluralism, unimpeded by the hateful actions of others. Rest assured, that we will never stop fighting for the proper recognition we deserve in Israel and that these events will only strengthen our resolve. Rest assured, as well, that we will oppose any and all attempts to delegitimize the Reform movement and the graduates of our institution, as vociferously as the Government of Israel is opposing attempts to delegitimize the State’s existence.
May this Shabbat offer a time of reflection and regrouping. May we recommit ourselves to the unity of the Jewish People, and to the respect and cooperation we must learn to show for other members of our community.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D. Andrew Berger
President Chair, Board of Governors