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Running a Synagogue vs. Running a State

Unlike the multiple synagogues we can choose from, when it comes to a Jewish state, we only have one
©Sean Gladwell/
©Sean Gladwell/
Dr. Tal Becker is a senior research fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal

It is striking how particular we Jews can be about the synagogue we attend. We complain freely about the cantor’s melody, the length of the rabbi’s sermon, the precise version of the prayers used, as if there were an inherent human right to have a shul function precisely to your individual specifications. Indeed, a popular response to a synagogue that strays from one’s personal preferences is to establish one’s own “break away” congregation. The common joke is that every praying Jew has at least two synagogues: the one they attend and the one they absolutely refuse to attend. Exaggerated perhaps, but close enough to the truth to be funny (and troubling).

Satisfactory explanations for this phenomenon are hard to come by. Is it that we see the synagogue we attend as reflecting so significantly upon our identity that we want it created in our image? Is it the sense of ownership we feel over a place we attend of our own free will? Is this an expression of our lesser or our better selves? I am open to ideas.

For an individual Jewish community, it is perhaps tenable to fragment into ever smaller identity groupings so that diverse beliefs can be more fully expressed and respected. But, as Donniel Hartman has written, if a Jewish state wishes to be more than a collection of separate tribes – if it wishes to truly be a national homeland for all Jews – considerable energy needs to be devoted not only to realizing sectoral aspirations but to building a collective identity and to concern for the collective welfare.

Too often it seems as if competing groups in Israel are primarily fighting to ensure that the state be an expression of their own convictions. They see power as an opportunity to advance their own select interests more than a responsibility they owe to society as a whole. The tribes of Israel (ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist, secular Israeli, etc.) often seem to want the state to be their denominational “synagogue,” with their name out front, their rabbi at the pulpit, and their committee determining membership.

The result can be an Israeli public space that looks more like the debris of a power struggle than an effort to forge a shared community. Rather than creating a strong center in which each group in society is a stakeholder, the “center” becomes the lopsided and misshapen remains of competing groups’ attempts to monopolize it.

The recent headlines about Israel’s approach to asylum seekers and migrants from Africa offer an example of this. At least from the way the debate has proceeded until now, it seems as if we hope that a coherent policy will emerge merely from the clash between those at one extreme who believe we should welcome asylum seekers and those on the other extreme who wish to expel them en masse, as if thoughtful policy is found in the wreckage of the collision between extremes, rather than through the active formulation of a position that is sensitive to the legitimate concerns and obligations of multiple groups.

To mention another example: The attitude of the Jewish state to Judaism’s different denominations cannot be left to coalition bargaining. A Jewish state, as opposed to a particular synagogue, cannot elevate one denomination of Judaism over others. A Jewish homeland cannot tolerate a situation where all Jews, regardless of denomination, do not feel equally welcome and equally respected.

The arguments over social justice in Israel present a third example. In a multicultural society, each group is supposed to tolerate the other, but not necessarily to care about them. A society built on a common core, on the Jewish ideal of arvut hadadit (mutual responsibility) aspires to more than that. The test of our social cohesion is not whether we tolerate the protests of aggrieved members of Israeli society. It is whether we are ourselves willing to argue for their rights, even when our own interests and needs are unaffected.

There is a place in every society for competing visions and hard debate. But shouldn’t we want a Jewish state in which groups with which we disagree still feel they belong? Shouldn’t we aim for a society where diverse communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, religious, traditional and secular, all see in the State some reflection of themselves and their aspirations?

This is about more than compromise. It is about understanding that the common ground in Israel is not merely the place for those lacking conviction, nor the ruins left after polarizing debates. It is its own space. It needs to be created with the same passion and energy that we so often reserve only for our personal convictions.

To achieve this, Israel will need citizens, advocates and politicians who worry more about the kind of collective society we are building than about the place of their own tribe in that collective. And it will need us all to remember that unlike the multiple synagogues we have to choose from, when it comes to a Jewish state, we only have one.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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