Reform Zionism: Shaping a Zionism That Reflects Who We Are

Maybe you’ve heard this one:

The Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Pope are in a meeting in Rome. The Rabbi notices an unusually fancy phone in the Pope’s private chambers.”What is that phone for?” he asks the pontiff. “It’s my direct line to God!” The Holy Father insists that the Rabbi try it out, and, indeed, he is connected to God and has a conversation with her. After hanging up the Rabbi says. “Thank you! Please let me reimburse you for my phone charges.” The Pope, of course refuses, but the Rabbi is steadfast and finally, the pontiff gives in. “All right! The charges were 100,000 Lira.” The Chief Rabbi gladly hands over a packet of bills. A few months later, the Pope is in Israel and in the Chief Rabbi’s chambers he sees a phone identical to his, and learns it also is a direct line to God. The Pope remembers he has an urgent matter that requires divine consultation, and asks if he can use the Rabbi’s phone. The Rabbi gladly agrees, hands him the phone, and the Pope chats away. After hanging up, the Pope offers to pay for the phone charges. The Rabbi says: “1 Shekel!” The Pope looks surprised: “Why so cheap!?” The Rabbi smiles: “Local call.”

Have you heard that joke before?  Perhaps, it’s been repeated over decades, because some truth lies in its message.  I would venture to guess that most of us, do not really believe that God is more present in Israel than in Philadelphia.  (I would venture to guess that actually, many of us are not certain about what, or where God is, in the first place.)  So why does that Rabbi’s punchline, “Local call,” ring true for me, and perhaps for some of you?

I believe that we understand that location matters.  One of our Hebrew names for God, Makom, literally means, place.  There is something holy about place.  In the place where the global Jewish community has understood that thousands of years of Jewish spiritual quest, Jewish history, and Jewish culture have taken place there is a rootedness that feels holy, even divine.

A Rodeph Shalom family recently took a trip to Israel just before their son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Describing Israel, the parents said: “It profoundly impacted us.  Experiencing Israel has cemented and reinforced our deep connection to Judaism and Jewish values. [We had] taken Judaism for granted… Seeing the existential struggle for survival of a Jewish democracy was eye opening.  One morning in the North we met a former IDF commander from Southern Lebanon. He pointed out a hill a few miles away in Lebanon where Hezbollah keeps rockets aimed at Israel, under a civilian area.  [We are] now more mindful of the tenuous nature of Jewish existence. This is not to say that we agree with all that the State of Israel does (in fact, we disagree with a lot of what the State does), but it certainly helped us understand the conflict better. One major take away was a greater mindfulness, that the freedom to live as a Jew should be cherished.”

I am touched by this couple’s ability to feel deeply what sometimes seem to be opposing views: Their Jewish life was deepened through a new understanding of Israel’s vulnerabilities; yet, they also appreciate the needs of other peoples.  They are informed by the particularistic lens of Jewish peoplehood; yet inspired by the universalistic lens of Jewish values that address all of humanity.

Whether or not they know it, this Rodeph Shalom family returned from their trip to Israel, with Reform Zionism on their lips.  Reminding us there is more than one way to love Israel, Reform Zionism integrates the purposes of Reform Judaism and of Zionism in a way that celebrates both Jewish peoplehood and Jewish universalism.  Reform Zionism teaches us that Zionism cannot be partisan.  It challenges the polarizing voices who would have us believe, either that the true Zionist must support Israel, with blinders to the needs of others such as the Palestinians; or that the true progressive must reject the promise of Israel as a Jewish home.

Politically, Reform Zionism has advocated for Israel’s security and military aide, and opposed the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement.   It has opposed actions that would undercut a peace process: The leaders of Reform Zionism have lobbied against Palestinian efforts to enhance their status in international bodies, calling out the UN’s anti-Israel bias and have lobbied against construction of Israeli settlements.  This Reform Zionist advocacy expresses clear support for a Two State solution, the model for peace that reflects Ahavat Yisrael/love for the Jewish people, and Ahavat haGer/love for the other — the model that recognizes the mandate: two states for two peoples.

Reform Zionism speaks to me because although it honors both ends of the particularistic-universalistic spectrum, Reform Zionism does not weaken the principles of either one.

Consider the particularistic: Jewish peoplehood. When early Reform Judaism came to America, the religious trend was to focus on history, scholarship such as archaeology, and faith– not nationality.  20th century founding leader of Reform Zionism, Rabbi Richard Hirsch teaches that when the classical Reformers (the early leaders of historical Reform Judaism) eliminated for instance, the kippah, the tallit/prayer shawl, the observance of kashrut/dietary laws, and other traditional rituals, their major motivation was to expunge those observances that could be seen as symbols of Jewish peoplehood.  For Rabbi Hirsch, Reform Zionism has meant an effort to restore those elements the classical Reformers rejected, not because Reform should return to a system of halachah/Jewish law, but because Reform Zionism should embrace Jewish peoplehood.

Consider the universalistic: love for the other.  Our Reform Movement’s Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism is a critical source of social justice work in Israel, bringing Jewish values to life every day.  One of its very earliest initiatives was called “Heart to Heart: Camps for Arab and Jewish Youth” where Jewish and Arab teen-agers were brought together to live, study and engage in sports and recreation.  The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and it social justice arm The Israel Religious Action Center leads work for egalitarianism, separation of church and state, civil rights in Israel.  Our alma mater, Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem campus, ordains Israeli Reform rabbis.  This fall, HUC ordained its 100th Israeli Reform rabbi.  Pioneers, every one of them is entrepreneurial: one of this year’s ordinees founded Nature’s Child, devoted to education about environmental responsibility, another connects kibbutz community members with Bedoin community members, another picks up her guitar for service-leading, and travels to bomb shelters on Shabbat when there is an air raid siren.

This fall, our own congregation explored the particularistic and the universalistic of Reform Zionism in our Israel education offerings.  One of our congregants shared his work training Jewish and Palestinian teachers to offer personal narrative writing and sharing workshops.  Another presenter shared her work bringing Jewish leaders to the West Bank to dialogue with Palestinians in the West Bank.  And the head of Temple’s business school taught about innovation and why Israel is a Start-Up Nation.

Zionism is so many things to so many people; it is up to us to shape a Zionism that reflects who we are. In a recent column in the Jewish Forward, the president of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, writes: “American patriotism and the words of the Founding Fathers, can be equally used, to justify the savage oppressions of white supremacy, as it can be used to justify the cry for freedom of the Civil Rights Movement.  (For) Zionism (too): The right of the Jewish people to self-determination as much argues for assertive support of a Palestinian right to the same, as perpetual Israeli rule over the occupied territories. A Jewish state does not only mean a state based on Halakha (Jewish law) or a Jewish-majority state, but a state that is Or Le’Goyim, a moral beacon of democracy and justice for the world. Zionism can mean Occupation or liberation: the choice is ours.”

I believe that we can see the complexity of our world deeply enough to reject the forced, false choice of narrow-minded polar opposites.

As the prophet Isaiah said, “For Zion’s sake will I not remain silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation like a burning torch.”

My Jewish soul cannot rest until Israel experiences peace and security.  And my Jewish soul cannot rest until the Palestinians have opportunity, dignity, and a home of their own.

In our hearts and in our advocacy, may we stand firmly on our principles, embracing both Ahavat Yisrael/Love for the Jewish people, and Ahavat haGer/Love for the other.