Dear Israel: An Open Letter of Concern

by Rhonda Rosenheck

Rosh Chodesh Adar 5773, February 11, 2013

Dear State of Israel,

First of all, I love you.  Let’s start there and end there.  Now – c’mon!  You’re killing me here; I love you unconditionally yet I’m having some trouble liking you lately.  I just heard today’s Women of the Wall event (ten women arrested for donning tallit and tefillin at the Western Wall) played out over NPR’s All Things Considered, and guess what?  It sounded no different than the time I learned with repulsion that women in Saudi Arabia must sit in the back of cars and may not drive, or the time I heard about women in Iran being stopped on the street by squads of “religious police” to ensure that they are doing what the powerful religious forces insist they do.  The report stated that the police were following the orders of the authority for the Kotel (labeled officially as an Orthodox synagogue), who is an Orthodox rabbi.  In a democracy, police should not be following the orders of a synagogue Rabbi, but rather those of the city or state elected officials or at least their direct employees.

This has been going on long enough – too long!  For a quarter century and more, you have allowed your public religious life to fall further and further into the Medieval authoritarianism of some of your Muslim neighbors.  Your government has empowered the narrowest thinkers well beyond their representation of the populace.  They, in turn, have used that power to embolden those who would paint swastikas on the kindergartens of their own people because those children’s parents observe the religion a different way; to hold as righteous those who would silence half the population and place them in the back of a bus and behind a screen; to enrich its own institutions at the expense of those that reach out to people who need their religion to be less oppressive; and to decide according to their narrow constructs the most intimate, personal matters of marriage and identity for everyone in the country.

Several years ago, my cousin and I were with a group thrown out of the courtyard of the Kotel by the police for mixed prayer, and (just to be safe), thrown out the Dung Gate of the old city, like the trashy and toxic pseudo-Jews we were being seen as. We, too, were told by the police authority that “the rabbi of the Kotel has deemed this to be against the law.”  C’mon Israel – civil law should never be ceded to religious leaders! You should know that by now. Ironically, it was Tisha B’Av, on which religious Jews traditionally blame the holy Temple’s desecration not on historic external conquering power so much as on the rise of free flowing hatred among practicing and scholarly Jews!  Ta-da! Talk about repeating history, even while meditating on the very aspect of it they’re repeating.

Dearest Israel, please think quite seriously about the ways in which you are straying from the directive to be a “light unto the nations.” If you want to claim a hereditary right to the land, then you must note the obligations that come with it.  A nation of priests; a light unto nations; turning away from idolatry and toward the all encompassing G!d that gave us both directions for getting there and directions for staying there.  Don’t sink to the lowest moral trend in your region: don’t allow idolators of male dominance, or idolators of ancient symbols, or idolators of money, or idolators of rabbis, or idolators of study, or idolators of their own interpretations, or idolators of vanity and arrogance; or idolators of rabbinic (a.k.a. human) writings, or idolators of hatred determine the well-being and future of the State.  In Hosea 10:12-13, the prophet chastises Israel for getting too smug, mean, deceptive, and combative.

“Sow for yourselves righteousness;
        reap kindness (hesed);
    break up your unplanted ground,
        for it is time to seek the LORD,
        that he may come
        and rain righteousness upon you.
13 You have plowed wickedness,
        you have reaped depravity,
        you have eaten the fruit of lies,
    because you have trusted in your way
        and in your many warriors.

So CUT IT OUT!  Stand up to such avodah zarah, strange worship, such sinful idolatries, and stake out the moral high ground.  For the sake of those who believe and of those who don’t.  For the sake of a future that will be able to withstand and even prosper when there is peace with your neighbors. For the sake of the expansion, rather than the contraction, of Jewish creativity and adaptability at a time when we need a lot of it. And, perhaps even in the memory of a man who just left the living battle field of ideas – R. David Hartman, may his memory be a blessing to us all — to his intellectual, moral, and familial heirs and compatriots.

The year I lived in Israel was the year of the evil madman, Baruch Goldstein, who murdered Muslims as they worshipped because he thought that his god and community wanted that of him.  It was the worst Purim of my life, and remains a bitter undercurrent eroding my joy each Adar.  I’d love an antidote to that, a replacement memory that shows we understand differently what our G!d, our broader community, and our own moral sensibilities – perhaps three names for the same thing – want from us this year, this Adar.

Thank you, my beloved State of Israel, for listening. I hope you take my proposal seriously. I love you.

Your daughter and most faithful friend,

Rhonda Rosenheck

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