World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder’s impressive philanthropy, including support for institutions that educate Jews overseas about their religious heritage, make his recent public pronouncements about Israel and Orthodox Jews particularly disturbing.
Back in March, an op-ed in The New York Times by the WJC leader titled “Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds” bemoaned the “possible demise of the two-state solution,” born of settlement-building, and “Israel’s capitulation to religious extremists and the growing disaffection of the Jewish diaspora.”
Whether settlements are impediments to peace negotiations is arguable. A greater obstacle to peace, though, unarguably, is the vile hatred of Israel presented in Palestinian schoolbooks and media, and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s declared desire to drive the Jews into the sea.
Of greater concern in Mr. Lauder’s op-ed, however, is the so-called “religious extremism” he condemned. What apparently disturbs him is the Israeli Rabbinate’s determination to maintain halachic conversion standards and kvod hatefillah at the Kosel Maaravi.
That unwarranted attack on those standards was bad enough. Last week, astonishingly, saw an encore, in yet another outrageous op-ed in the same august periodical. Mr. Lauder’s new assault is titled “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are,” and the subheader reads: “Orthodoxy should be respected, but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.”
“Radical minority”? That would be Jews who embrace the Jewish mesorah, those of us committed to halachah.
Mr. Lauder bemoans how it seems “that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested” and that “Israel’s government appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality.”
And he goes on to sing the praises of “enlightenment,” “human progress, worldly culture and morality,” and to charge that Israel’s limited but laudable embrace of Jewish values was “crush[ing] the core of contemporary Jewish existence.”
“As president of the World Jewish Congress,” he calls on Israeli leaders “to rethink their destructive actions.”
A person looked up to as a Jewish communal leader has no business, to understate the matter, issuing indictments and demands that only provide succor to those who prefer a less Jewish Israel or harbor disdain for halachah-faithful Jews.
As to the developments that so exercise Mr. Lauder, Israel’s self-declared raison d’etre is to be, in some meaningful way, a “Jewish State.” For that phrase to have any meaning, the country must demonstrate some respect for Jewish laws and values. And some concern, as well, for Jewish unity — not the counterfeit “unity” built on the shaky foundations of “enlightenment,” “human progress” or “worldly culture,” but true Jewish unity, that which can only be predicated on the Jewish mesorah.
Halachic standards have been part of Israel’s Jewish identity since, in cases of geirus and gittin, the inception of the state; and, in the case of decorum at the Kosel Maaravi, the site’s capture in 1967. Reiteration of those standards is no “extremist” onslaught. The only onslaughts have been non-Orthodox American ones, aimed at dismantling Israel’s longstanding “religious status quo.”
That conceptual edifice was built on June 19, 1947, shortly before Israel declared its independence. David Ben-Gurion, who went on to become Israel’s first prime minister, and other Jewish Agency officials signed a four-part agreement that became known as the “Religious Status Quo Agreement.” It pledged the nascent State’s observance of Shabbos as its official day of rest, providing only kosher food in government kitchens, the option of a Torah-faithful system of chinuch for the state’s religious Jewish citizens, and addressed Jewish “personal status” issues like marriage, divorce and conversion.
What even Ben Gurion recognized was that multiple personal-status standards will inevitably result in multiple “Jewish peoples.” Only a single standard, and only the time-honored, Sinai-revealed one, could possibly serve to prevent that development, and terrible problems born of multiple definitions of marriage and divorce.
Likewise, the balkanization of the Kosel, offering a separate space for “non-traditional” services, empowers not Jewish unity but its very opposite. For more than a half-century, the Kosel plaza has been a place, perhaps the only place in the world, where Jews of every conceivable stripe could daven side by side. What allowed that was the maintenance of truly Jewish standards of decorum at the holy place.
How deeply disappointing it is to witness a person respected as a Jewish leader, on an international stage, no less, assailing Israel’s embrace of a Jewish identity and demeaning the part of the Jewish people most committed to Judaism and the Jewish future, the only part that is thriving in both numbers and vitality.
Orthodox Jews who remain faithful to Klal Yisrael’s mesorah are not a “radical minority” any more than the spine of a human being is a mere sliver of bone.