Masorti is honored to share Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s eloquent and passionate sermon in response to the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision on Conservative/Masorti and Reform conversions in Israel and its impact on the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
March 6, 2021
If I had to describe, as the old joke goes, my thoughts on this week’s news out of Israel’s Supreme Court in a word, I would say: “Good.” If I had to describe my thoughts on the news in two words, I would say: “Not good.” You may have read about it, and if you didn’t, I am going to tell you about it. This past Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the State of Israel must recognize conversions to Judaism performed under the auspices of Israel’s Reform or Conservative Movement for the purposes of the Law of Return. Established in 1950, Israel’s Law of Return allows anyone to claim Israeli citizenship who was born to a Jewish mother, has at least one Jewish grandparent, is a convert to Judaism, or is the spouse of a Jew. Israeli citizenship, it is important to note, while including the right to vote, pay taxes, serve in the military, and otherwise, does not include matters of personal status such as Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial, all of which are controlled by the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. Without getting too much into the weeds, there is a distinction between non-Orthodox conversions conducted in the diaspora and those performed in Israel. If an individual converts to Judaism under the auspices of a diaspora non-Orthodox rabbi (me, for example), while neither they nor their descendants would be Jewish in the eyes of the chief rabbinate, that person would be entitled to immigrate to Israel (make Aliyah) and become an Israeli citizen. Prior to Monday, an individual who converted under the auspices of an Israeli Reform or Conservative/Masorti rabbi, would be considered Jewish neither for the purposes of the Law of Return nor, needless to say, to the chief rabbinate. As of Monday’s landmark decision, an individual who converted under an Israeli non-Orthodox rabbi is now considered Jewish by the state, but still not by the rabbinate. By all accounts, a momentous day in the decades-old “Who is a Jew?” debate.
It is probably not so hard for you to imagine why my one-word reaction to the news is “good.” “This is a historic day,” announced Rakefet Ginsburg, the head of the Masorti movement in Israel. Since its founding, Israel, despite being the Jewish state, has been anything but hospitable to the full range of Jewish expression. How funding is allocated to synagogues and schools. Who controls what is and isn’t kosher. Who can and can’t officiate at Jewish weddings. Who can and can’t pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall. And of course, who is and is not a Jew. There is no separation of church and state in Israel, and, in a story that dates back to the status quo agreement of Ben Gurion’s day, all matters of Jewish life in Israel are under the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox. It’s not that there are so many individuals seeking conversion in Israel under the auspices of the non-Orthodox; in the last few days many have asked aloud just how big a bombshell this decision, practically speaking, actually is. But Reform and Conservative Jews all agree that on a symbolic level, this decision in very significant – and good – in that it chips away at the monopoly Orthodox rabbis have over religious identity. What we all take for granted – that there is more than one way to be Jewish and confer Jewish identity – has now been acknowledged by Israel’s high court. It has taken a while; the case had sat in the courts for fifteen years. But for those of us committed to the proposition that the State of Israel should be the homeland for all Jews, Monday’s decision was a reminder that long as the moral arc of the Israel’s judicial system may be, it does, eventually, bend toward justice.
The “good” is easy enough. But why, you may be wondering, “not good”?
Well, if you have followed the story, then you also know that modest as Monday’s decision may be, it has elicited an outpouring of vitriol from the Orthodox establishment. Some lowlights include Israel’s chief rabbi calling Conservative and Reform conversions “counterfeit Judaism”; an Orthodox political advocacy group calling Reform Judaism a mutation; and an advertisement from the political party United Torah Judaism (UTJ) comparing Reform and Conservative Jews to dogs. To be sure, attacks on non-Orthodox Jews in Israel are not new. A few weeks ago, Haredi lawmakers pledged to exclude the Reform rabbi and Knesset member hopeful Gilad Kariv from the Knesset minyan, and the other day another UTJ Knesset member said that a female soldier who converts through the IDF conversion court is a “shiksa” (a derogatory word for a non-Jewish woman) and that the father of anyone who marries such a woman should “sit shiva, rip his clothes, and recite kaddish.” Falling as it did just a few weeks prior to Israel’s upcoming election, Monday’s decision has been seized upon by the ultra-Orthodox as a rallying cry to mobilize the base. By playing the politics of fear and demonization, the ultra-Orthodox are pouncing on the opportunity to lash out at what, in their eyes, is the greatest existential threat against the Jewish state: Reform and Conservative Judaism. The days since the decision have been not just not-good; they have been, frankly, shocking. A disquiet made all the more alarming by the deafening silence coming from those in Israel and the American Jewish community who should be denouncing the hateful rhetoric but have chosen not to do so. For those of us who remember Rabin’s assassination, or, for that matter, the events of January 6, 2021, it is nothing short of chilling to consider the possible violent outcomes of the dehumanizing language of these past few days, words that can turn to bloodshed. For those of us who care about that which I have spent my entire career caring about – the relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israel – the news out of Israel this past week is, in the aggregate, decidedly “not good.”
Shver tsu zayn a yid. It’s hard, as Sholom Aleichem wrote, to be a Jew – even in our own day. Blessed though we are to live in a time of a strong State of Israel and diaspora Jewry, in this moment of identity politics, it can be confusing to negotiate all the competing tugs on our Jewish souls. Many of you, I know, have squirmed in the last few years over how to square the circle of an administration that did much to strengthen Israel – in Jerusalem, in the Golan, in the Abraham Accords – but also seemed to do so much that stood contrary to a host of other Jewish values, and, for that matter, the security and safety of our community. Many of you, I know, also squirm over how to make sense of a world in which the most vocal advocates for a series of values and causes dear to the Jewish community have proven themselves, time and again, to be inhospitable if not hostile to the well-being of the Jewish community and, needless to say, of the State of Israel. I would much rather take our problems than the problems of one hundred or two hundred years ago, or, for that matter, of any other chapter of Jewish history. But our problems remain problems all the same. Identity politics are tough to figure out. It can be hard to be a Jew.
For me as a proud Conservative rabbi and proud Zionist, the challenge of identity politics is not just about the right and the left, this or that administration, or the latest article about intersectionality and white privilege. I find myself, especially after a week like this last one, caught betwixt and between values that are fundamental – core – to my very being. I believe in a vibrant and dynamic expression of Judaism, a Judaism that seeks to communicate the tradition of our ancestors in a way both understandable and inspirational to our children and grandchildren. I believe in a Judaism of both spiritual and scholarly integrity, where no question is off limits and nobody is ever asked to check their intellect at the door. I believe in a Judaism in which every Jew, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, is included as a full stakeholder in the project of Jewish communal life – on this bimah, under the huppah, and in the eyes of God. I believe in a Jewish identity that prizes what it means to be part of a covenanted community and is also willing to give a welcoming embrace to all those seeking to enter that covenant. And I believe that the ideology of Conservative Judaism, imperfect as it may be, provides an authentic effort to give expression to these values. I also believe that to be a Jew today is to live with Israel as a central pillar of my religious identity. Some choose to live in Israel, some don’t, but to not put one’s engagement, concern, and support for Israel – the sole sovereign Jewish state and home to half of world Jewry – at the forefront of one’s Judaism is to abdicate what it means to be a Jew. I could no sooner abandon my commitment to Israel than I could my commitment to prayer, mitzvot, Torah study, or Tikkun Olam, and as long as I am rabbi of this synagogue, these commitments will infuse our communal mission. These are my values. These are our values. These are not beliefs arrived at casually, ideas that I read on the back of a cereal box or in someone’s Twitter feed. These are principles cultivated and strengthened over a lifetime, a sacred cluster of values by which I live as Jew and by which I lead as a Conservative rabbi.
And yet, it would seem, I am – we are – being asked to choose. I read the headlines coming out of Israel and feel that diaspora Jewry is being told to choose between two essential aspects of our religious identities: our Jewish lives or our support for the State of Israel. It is a choice made all the more tortured because, to state the obvious, it is by way of my Judaism that my support for the State of Israel is derived. I am an adult. I get it. I understand how politics work – the art of the trade and how the sausage gets made – especially in the weeks before an election. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. At my core I am also a pluralist; everyone is entitled to their opinion. And yet I wonder, I really do, if the elected leadership of Israel does not understand the consequence of their actions. Do they not know that eighty-five percent of AIPAC’s membership is constituted of self-identifying Reform and Conservative Jews? Have they not considered that maybe it is not the smartest thing to call us dogs and clowns at the very moment the Biden administration is looking to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal? Moreover, at the very moment that non-Orthodox American Jews are being asked to stand in the breach against the forces of BDS, defending Israel in the court of public opinion, is this really the moment you want to tell us that you don’t believe that we and our children and grandchildren are Jewish? “How can I,” as one of my colleagues lamented, “fight against the delegitimization of Israel when the government of Israel delegitimizes me?” The rhetoric out of Israel this week is injudicious for a variety of tactical and practical reasons. But most of all it is just downright wrong. For one Jew to demonize another Jew for political gain, or ever, is antithetical to every Jewish value I know. It strikes at the heart of the Jewish people, and it is of deep personal offense. And please don’t tell me these attacks aren’t personal, that it is my Judaism, not me, that is being attacked. My Judaism is me; short of an insult to my wife or children, there is little I feel more personally than an insult to my Judaism.
I am, as you can tell, a little worked up about all this. Maybe a little like Moses when he stood at the top of the mountain, aghast at the sight of the apostasy of Israel dancing around the golden calf, and in his hands that which is most sacred, the ten commandments. We know what happened: the hurt was too great; his will wavered; something had to give; and the tablets were smashed to the ground. In my hands, I hold not the tablets of the law, but my love of Israel. I will learn from Moses. My grip will not give way. My love for my people will not slip and it certainly will not be smashed to the ground. But to my brothers and sisters in Israel: Would it, I wonder, be too much to ask to lend a brother a hand? Help me lighten my load, help me lift you and all of us higher. If it is a whipping boy you need, pick on Iran, pick on COVID, pick on the oil spill wreaking environmental havoc on Israel’s seashore. Pick on any number of ills that afflict Israeli society. For God’s sake, just not on your own brother! We do, after all, have a long journey ahead of us, and I know, and I would like to think that somewhere deep down inside, you know, too, that the only way we will get there is together.
This sermon is made available by the kind permission of Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and the Park Avenue Synagogue of New York City.
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, PhD, began his tenure at Park Avenue Synagogue in 2008 and is a leading voice in the Conservative Movement
Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999, Rabbi Cosgrove earned his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Rabbi Cosgrove is the author of twelve collections of selected sermons, In the Beginning (2009), An Everlasting Covenant (2010), Go Forth! (2011), Hineni (2012), A Place to Lodge (2013), Living Waters (2014), Stairway to Heaven (2015), Rise Up! (2016), A Coat of Many Colors (2017), Provisions for the Way (2018), Tree of Life (2019), and Bring Them Close (2020). He is the editor of Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations and Future of Jewish Belief. His essays and op-eds appear frequently in a variety of Jewish publications, including The Jewish Week and the Forward.
Rabbi Cosgrove also serves the Conservative Movement, the Jewish community beyond PAS, and the community-at-large. He sits on the Chancellor’s Cabinet of JTS and on the Editorial Board of Conservative Judaism. A member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, he is also an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis and a member of the Board of UJA-Federation of New York. He serves as Rabbinical Advisor on Interfaith Affairs for the ADL and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Rabbi Cosgrove also serves on the Board of Trustees of Hillel at the University of Michigan and on the National Board of Governors of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania.