Fighting about egalitarianism in Israel

Resolving internal disputes is a prelude to peace

For anyone who loves the Jewish people, the fighting in Israel over egalitarianism is cause for great sadness. In my column, “Why the Israeli chief rabbinate is wrong,” in the Aug. 17, 2012 issue of The Jewish Voice & Herald, I tried to show how Judaism is not monolithic in theology or in practice and why there is room for pluralism within the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

As a federation president, I regularly get information from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which addresses various issues in Israel and around the world. I have followed with concern JFNA’s reports about creating an egalitarian section at the Kotel (the Western Wall) and the response of Israel’s chief rabbi to these efforts.

Recently, however, a new chapter came to light given the threats of violence against two chief rabbis for their positions opposing creating an egalitarian section at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall immediately disavowed participation in these threats. The matter reminded me of the recent threats to our own political leaders in this country by those who believe that sending Ricin-laced letters is an appropriate form of political dissent.

Having recently returned from Israel, I was struck by how difficult tolerating external dissent seems to be for everyday Israelis. It is hard, I found, for a non-Israeli (even a Jew) in Israel to criticize policies within the Jewish state. Yet, Israelis have plenty of internal dissent. In fact, tolerance of dissent is a hallmark of our journey throughout our history.

As I write this op-ed, we are studying Parashat Korach, the story of a rebellion of Levites and Reubenites against the authority of Moses in the desert. In the first century C.E., Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and others argued plenty – and about many topics: Who had the right calendar? Was the apocalypse coming? Who and what was the Messiah? How they should fight Roman domination? Which texts were correct? Could gentiles join the Jewish nation without adhering to the rules of kashrut and circumcision?

Today, we have numerous sects with differing theologies and practices. Orthodox, Hasidim (with many sects of its own), Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewals, JUBUs (Jewish Buddhists), HUJUs (Secular Humanist Jews) and others all compete around practices and theologies. Perhaps we have not come so far from either Sinai or the first century.

But all of this seems devoid of spirituality. All of us are in awe of the universe, thankful for our self-conscious awareness and our hope that things can be improved. Surely, this is a grounding on which we could all agree.

We Jews have enough external detractors. We are our own worst enemies – given our difficulty with pluralism and real tolerance for dissent. Yet, pluralism and dissent are the hallmarks of a free people – and a hallmark of the Jewish people’s journey. Without those, we remain enslaved in our minds; therefore, symbolically, we have never left Egypt.

It is time for reason, tolerance and pluralism to reign in Jerusalem. Peace must start at home. If we are only children squabbling among ourselves, how could we hope to make peace with the nations? Peace will come by honestly accommodating and respecting differences. Let’s hope that it will begin at the Kotel.

STUART I. FORMAN (, a self-employed consultant (including, formerly, for the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island) and humanities teacher, lives in Fairhaven, Mass.