At Beth Chaim, Israeli Reform rabbi sees clash between West and Islamism
In the wake of last summer’s war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, Israelis feel as though they’ve been through a storm, observed Rabbi Michael Boyden.
“But it has not been a storm that has left after it a blue sky,” Boyden said as he stood in the social hall of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction on a mid-November afternoon. “The sky is still laden with clouds, and there is a sense today in Israel that there is more to follow.
“So these are difficult times,” he said. “Yet as a Jew and a rabbi, I know our history is replete with examples of difficult times we have overcome. Just as we survived Pharaoh, we shall also survive this. So, in spite of the very real challenges we face, inevitably as a Jew, I remain an optimist.”
Boyden was at Beth Chaim as part of a personal speaking tour that also took him to Reform congregations in Morristown and Tenafly, as well as to Austin, Texas; Asheville, NC; and Plantation, Fla. A native of London, Boyden made aliya in 1985 and has since risen to the positions of director of the rabbinic court of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis and religious leader of Reform congregation Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
While at Beth Chaim, Boyden made two presentations one on Israeli politics, the other on the challenges facing Reform Judaism in Israel. He said in an interview that he sees Israel’s struggle against Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a paradigm of a much larger problem.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a microcosm of a much broader issue that has to do with the relationship between radical Islam and the Western world and its value system,” the rabbi said.
“We are essentially dealing with forces that are armed, financed, equipped, and trained by Iran,” he said. “Just as the Western world is now going to deal with the issue of an Iran that is going nuclear, so we, too, in Israel are having to deal with what are, in effect, Iranian-sponsored militias that are unprepared to recognize the right of Israel to exist in the Middle East. This is a threat not only for Israel, but for the entire free world.”
Boyden said he sees the threat as not dissimilar from the one that faced Europe in the 1930s. “The question,” he said, “is whether the free world is going to be prepared to stand up united against the threat that Iran poses today, not only to us in Israel, but to the entire West.”
As for internal challenges to progressive Jewish life in Israel, Boyden said that the Reform rabbinate has managed to make inroads in Israel despite the hegemony of the Orthodox Jewish establishment there.
“In spite of the fact that we in the Reform movement do not enjoy full and equal rights, we are very, very popular,” he said, “and there are certain fronts on which we have made progress.”
One of those fronts involves some 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were taken in by Israel under the Law of Return which accepts anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent but who were then registered as “Russian” rather than “Jewish.”
“We help many of those people to convert to Judaism,” said Boyden. He said, however, that in the past, Israel would not recognize conversions conducted by non-Orthodox Israeli rabbis for any purpose although the state did recognize non-Orthodox conversions conducted by rabbis outside of Israel.
“We went to the Supreme Court of the State of Israel and said, ‘This is crazy,’” Boyden said. “The Supreme Court recognized our arguments and determined that our conversions would be recognized for the purposes of recognition as a Jew.” As a result, he said, anyone converted through the rabbinic court of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis can now be registered as a Jewish citizen of the State of Israel. “However,” he said, “it won’t enable them to get married by an Orthodox rabbi.”
A similar situation holds for children who are adopted abroad by Israeli couples, according to Boyden. Such children cannot be registered as Jewish in Israel without a conversion, he said, and the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel will not convert them unless the parents pledge to enroll them in Orthodox day schools.
“They turn to our rabbinic court so the children can be registered as Jewish citizens of the State of Israel,” Boyden said. “But when they come to get married, they won’t be recognized.
“I don’t think that will carry on forever, by the way,” he added. “You have 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are technically not Jewish. You have people growing up in the State of Israel who go to school, serve in the army, and then have to go abroad in order to get married. There is nowhere else in the world where citizens of a country cannot get married in their own country.”
Despite all the stumbling blocks set before the Reform movement in Israel, Boyden said he feels privileged to be there.
“Israel is important for us as Reform Jews, and we need to be there,” he said. “Actually, Reform Judaism should be making a huge investment in Israel. It is a colossal market, and most Israelis do not have a religious home. Orthodoxy is not for them, and we have something that is immensely appealing. That is our exciting challenge.”
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