Chelsea Clinton’s Jew “ish” wedding contrasts American Jewish vastness with Israeli Jewish density

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-5-10

This week, Chelsea Clinton was married under a chupah, during Shabbat, to a Jew, Marc Mezvinsky. That Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter married a Jew has thrilled many Jews craving acceptance as further proof that American Jews have “made it.” That this intermarriage was adorned with some ritualistic Jewish touches has appalled many Jews defending tradition as further proof that American Jews have diluted Judaism, making it Jew-ish, a more digestible Judaism-lite. I am surprised either camp is surprised.

North America is defined by its vastness. Whenever I travel around America, I am struck by the expanse that defines the New World. Irving Berlin was not just whistling Dixie when he praised America’s spacious skies.

By contrast, Israel is defined by its density. First time pilgrims and veteran Israelis are equally impressed by all the history, humanity, and hysteria often packed into every square kilometer. Israel’s greatest national songwriter Naomi Shemer got it right when she channeled the great medieval poet Yehudah HaLevi in “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” by writing “for ALL of your songs I am your violin” (or lute) – lechol shiriech ani kinor. Especially in Jerusalem, it seems that every stone has multiple stories, nothing is simple; everything is multilayered, multidimensional.

Parked in a land so vast and free, American Jewry has developed a culture of expansiveness. American Jewry is justly celebrated for its openness, to others and to new ideas. The creativity and accessibility make American Jewry hip, dynamic, and welcoming. Most American Jews seem to shout out “Shalom Aleichem,” or “y’all come on in,” to fresh initiatives for achieving gender equality, to liturgical updating, to new rituals, to syntheses with modern culture, to new bridges beckoning to those who show interest in Judaism, regardless of their halachic legal status.

Alas, the vastness also leads to porousness, the creativity flirts with superficiality, constantly being demeaned by trendiness. Judaism, traditionally defined as the Etz Haim, the solid, steadfast Tree of Life, risks becoming a will o’ the wisp.

Living in the land of possibility, existing in a state of mobility, blessed by so much space, Americans and American Jews often view identity as malleable, relationships as disposable, change as the only constant. With surveys showing that American Jews are among the most cosmopolitan Americans, this next generation of American Jews is particularly wired to roam intellectually, ideologically, spiritually, existentially. And in the age of prolonged adolescence, all this searching, all this pondering, all this comparing and contrasting, sifting and synthesizing, can persist for decades.

At the same time, Israel’s density roots Israeli Judaism in more traditional anchors, in tremendous depth and passion. Committed Israeli Jews are justly celebrated for their literacy, their intensity, their zeal. Israeli Jews are more likely to mutter “take it or leave it,” relating to the legend about the Shalom Aleichem hymn that if all is prepared for the Sabbath, the good angel who accompanies every Jew back from synagogue prays “may it be the same next week,” and the bad angel must mutter “amen”; but if all is chaotic at home the bad angel prays for a repeat the next week to which the good angel must mutter “amen.”

This approach treats Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, as unyielding, unchanging, stone-like in its reliability and impermeability. It risks being unwelcoming, unaccommodating, unresponsive, unable to adjust, paralyzed when facing great change. It makes Jewish education less about the American-style exploration and process but more of a knowledge-transfer. It sets Judaism in opposition to the modern world, come hell or high water, for better or worse.

These general characteristics were on display during the recent conversion controversy. The Israeli Jewish establishment appeared particularly foreboding, hidebound, medieval, insensitive both to the Russian Jews who are Israeli cititzens but are not halachically, legally, Jewish and to the sensibilities of American Jews who value klal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.

At the same time, too many American Jewish leaders approached the problem emotionally, even demagogically. Many railed about “Israel” delegitimizing them, Israel invalidating all American conversions, when no law passed, no such sweeping move even was proposed, and, beyond all the politicking, a complex problem needed solving.

Judaism has survived all these years by having clearly defined boundaries, making it clear who is and is not a Jew. But Judaism has thrived all these years by being humane, by improvising solutions to new, unanticipated problems.

The original idea behind the David Rotem conversion bill of empowering municipal rabbis to manage conversions would have brought more lenient rabbis into a broken, unduly strict process. Tragically, ugly coalition politics produced a proposed bill that would have formalized and centralized conversion power in the Chief Rabbinate, despite its terrible track record of not being sufficiently welcoming to aspiring Jews.

However, the headline among North American Jews should be that their voices were heard, leaders like Natan Sharansky stood tall for Jewish unity. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu most recently vowed to kill the bill.

More broadly, day by day, week after week, we see too many pockets of American Jewry that are vapid and need deeper rooting along with too many expressions of Israeli Jewry that are too dense and need some reforming. Israelis could use some of the North American vastness – not only for breathing room but to facilitate the kind of change that perpetually renewed Judaism as it evolved from Abraham to Abraham Joshua Heschel. And American Jews, in many realms, desperately needs more density, more depth, more anchoring.

So, yes, Chelsea Clinton will find whatever American Judaism her husband exposes her to far more user friendly than most modern Israeli varieties.  But whether it has the depth to grab either of them remains unclear, just as whether their yuppie peers will ever feel welcomed by Israeli-style Judaism remains equally unclear.

Only a Revitalized Religious Zionism Can Fight the Black Hole of Israeli Judaism

Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-14-10

As Yisrael Beiteinu’s controversial conversion bill advances, the movement most suited to mediate is stymied. Religious Zionists should have the Halachic standing to forge a suitable Jewish solution to the problem along with the nationalist commitment to avoid alienating many fellow Jews, in Israel and abroad.  Yet rather than being bold visionaries like Caleb and Joshua, too many Religious Zionist Rabbis are exhibiting the ten sniveling spies’ conventional cowardice.

In fairness, the proposed law is not all bad. Some of Israel’s most open-minded rabbis would be empowered as city rabbis to do conversions. But by making the Chief Rabbinate Israel’s dominant authority in conversions, the law rejects Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, risks alienating Diaspora Jews, and rewards a failing institution.

Unfortunately, the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate is the Black Hole of Israeli Judaism.  Necessary initiatives to free Israeli Judaism from the twin curses of state coercion and fetishistic ritualism often get sucked into the Chief Rabbinate’s toxic vacuum, never to be seen again. The Chief Rabbinate – along with the broader Israeli religious establishment – has a catastrophic track record, having alienated generations of Israeli Jews with all-or-nothing, heavy-handed, polarizing, pedantic, narrow-minded, authoritarianism.  The Chief Rabbinate’s arrogance and failure demonstrate why separation of church and state protects the synagogue AND the state.

Religious Zionism is in crisis. Religious Zionists feel betrayed by the state over the Gaza disengagement, outflanked by ultra-Orthodox haredim who call them too soft religiously and too tied to the State politically, yet harassed by the left for being too harsh religiously and politically. Religious Zionism’s stilted silence has harmed Israel. The absence of its moral might in denouncing those settler hooligans who prey on Palestinians, its political impotence despite an increasingly aggressive, anti-Zionist haredi rabbinate, and its failure to find common ground with the Zionist center, let alone the left, has left a gaping ideological vacuum in an increasingly fragmented society.

Last week, an inspiring gathering at Bet Morasha in Jerusalem launching its Israel Institute for Conversion Policy demonstrated the kind of Zionist idealism and moral grandeur that could redeem Religious Zionism – and revitalize Israel.  Approximately 320,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union live in Halachic purgatory, with Rabbis questioning whether they are legally Jewish. By making conversions increasingly difficult, the Chief Rabbinate keeps hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens in Halachic hell, unable to marry within the existing legal framework. The new center will promote a more flexible, humane, and Halachic conversion process, especially welcoming young people into the Jewish people.

“The Russian Aliyah of more than one million people is a jewel in our crown, bringing glory to Israel,” Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Beit Morasha’s leader, proclaimed when opening the conference. “We must find a solution to make them feel at home.”

Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, insisted we must “welcome every individual who wants to belong to the Jewish people.”  In a tough talk, Sharansky blasted those politicians and rabbis using the crisis to undermine Conservative and Reform conversions.  “Conservative and Reform Jews ask, ‘Why when we are fighting against Israel’s delegitimization abroad, is Israel considering delegitimizing us?’”  Israel’s government should facilitate Jewish unity, not spark denominational civil wars.

In one panel, three leading lights of Religious Zionism embraced this conversion crisis as an opportunity to welcome more Jews, save Religious Zionism, and strengthen Israel. Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar Rabbinical organization warned that by “failing to address this great challenge, Israel risks creating five distinct people within one country of seven million”: the questionably Jewish, secular Jews, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arabs.  Rabbi Benjamin Lau, also of Bet Morasha, blasted the Chief Rabbinate for creating a culture whereby “Rabbis boast about not making any conversions in a given year.” Instead, “we need a national movement to push conversion,” to incorporate these Jews.

Finally, defining the conversion issue as one of basic “social justice,” as well as essential to Zionism’s future, Maj-Gen (res.) Elazar Stern identified the underlying metastasizing, political cancer few Religious Zionists will confront directly. “Israel has given the keys to its kingdom to people who question its very existence,” Stern declared, assailing the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox grip on the Chief Rabbinate. To Stern, Religious Zionists who accept this absurdity are betraying Israel.  How can Jews, how can Zionists, fail to protect the weak, the marginalized, Stern asked, demanding that a mass movement of Religious Zionists embrace these people.

It was great hearing some righteous indignation from Religious Zionists about a compelling moral question that could unite most Israelis and most Jews. “Religious Zionism has been too concerned with land and not enough with people – it is changing now,” Rabbi Barry Gelman, of United Orthodox Synagogues, Houston, Texas, subsequently explained. Rabbi Gelman, who is President of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, put the issue in historical context, saying: “Haredim still treat Halacha like a private matter – which is the Diaspora approach. In a Jewish state, Halacha is a matter of public concern. Therefore, approaches to Halacha should consider national realities, such as applying well-known broader approaches to conversion.”  This broader approach includes asking converts about Judaism’s moral principles and fundamental values, not just what the correct blessing is over an olive or cheese.

Sometimes movements, like individuals, get stuck. If they can find their voice in one area, it frequently returns elsewhere too. Taking a nationalist, humane, welcoming yet traditionally Jewish approach to the conversion crisis could galvanize Religious Zionism.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must demonstrate political leadership not coalition stewardship here, Religious Zionists have the standing to liberate the rabbinate – and Israel – from the grip of non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Some Religious Zionists have a vision that could unite religious and non-religious Israeli Jews in a compelling, quality-of-life issue central to the Jewish people.  Ethics of the Fathers teaches: “say little, do much.” These Religious Zionists have said a lot. They must do even more, including defeating this harmful, divisive, anti-Zionist conversion bill – and pioneering new solutions.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” he is also the author of “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” He can be reached at