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Some Things Shouldn’t Be Sacred

Alyssa Goldstein
June 28, 2012

by Alyssa Goldstein
I was recently reading Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism by South African Rabbi Brian Walt on the Jewish Voices for Peace Rabbinical Council’s blog. Walt describes his liberal Zionist past, and how his travels through Israel and Palestine eventually convinced him that the myriad human rights abuses he witnessed were “not mistakes nor a blemishes on a dream – they were all the logical outcome of Zionism.” It’s long, but really worth a read.
I wanted to focus, however, on one piece of information about Reform Judaism in Walt’s article which I hadn’t known before. Walt explains that “Last year there was some controversy in the Reform movement when Rabbi Rick Jacobs was chosen to replace Rabbi Eric Yoffie as the the head of the Reform movement. To allay the fears of those who were afraid of Rabbi Jacobs’ support for J Street and the New Israel Fund, my colleague Rabbi Peter Knobel [who himself served on Jstreet’s advisory board] defended Jacobs as a “staunch Zionist.”
He goes on to quote Knobel’s defense of Jacobs in Haaretz:

This is not just a reflection of Rabbi Jacobs’ personal views, for this staunch Zionism and support for Israel are enshrined in Reform Judaism – and in the hearts of most of our more than 1.5 million Jews. For us Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is not only a national celebration but a religious one as well. We have enriched our ritual life with new observances and liturgy rooted in our commitment to Israel. The Israeli Reform siddur, “Avodah Shebalev,” has a special Amidah and Kiddush for Independence Day. The new North American Reform siddur, “Mishkan Tefillah,” has a special service for Yom Ha’atzmaut, which uses the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a sacred text. [Emphasis added]

Maybe this only surprises me because I’m out of the loop. I’m not a Reform Jew. I’ve never belonged to a synagogue, Reform or otherwise. The Jewish communities I’ve belonged to are the Jewish Students Organization at Bard, Hashomer Hatzair, and my family. I don’t really know what goes on in synagogues. From what I’ve gathered, it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear rabbis voicing support for Israel from the bimah, or for synagogues to fund youth trips to Israel, or to host a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. (If you have some personal familiarity with Reform Jewish communities, please share your thoughts on this in the comments.) Though I wouldn’t want to attend either, there does seem to me a difference between a Yom Ha’atzmaut party and a Yom Ha’atzmaut religious commemoration. I’d expect to find the latter in a national-religious settlement, not among J-street supporting Reform Jews.
Two years ago, I reviewed Marc Ellis’ book Judaism Does Not Equal Israel. Though I took issue with Ellis’ tendency to not muster enough evidence to support his critiques of the American Jewish establishment, I agreed with his overall argument. It is one that Peter Knobel could do well to take to heart. Ellis argues that a state exists on its own, “with its own priorities and rhythms. Adding ‘Jewish’ before the word ‘state’ would not change the nature of the state,” though it could change Judaism for the worse.
Like Ellis, I don’t believe that Jews or Judaism is uniquely or inherently ethical. I don’t believe that social justice is the “true” interpretation of Judaism (not least because I don’t consider myself remotely qualified to make any statements about what Judaism “really is.”) It is instead the interpretation that I (and many others) choose and think is best for doing the greatest amount of good in the world. If we want a Judaism that’s about ethics and social justice, that’s about fighting power and privilege and working on behalf of the oppressed, making state documents into sacred texts is a fantastic way to ensure we never have it. There’s a lot to be said about making Israel’s Declaration of Independence in particular into a sacred text, and Brian Walt says it. However, we need to remember that this is a terrible idea regardless of the state or the document. Besides being antithetical to what a social-justice oriented Judaism is about, revering state documents as sacred texts goes against the principles of democracy. Even if you’re someone who believes in the sacredness of certain texts (and I am not one of them), state documents in a democracy must allow for critique and amending. To use them as sacred texts in religious commemorations undermines their purpose.
States (insofar as you can attribute agency to states, so forgive my simplified analysis) want to maintain the status quo of their power and their monopoly over violence. They are increasingly intertwined with corporate power. Becoming trusting and complacent with our governments is bad enough, but actually worshiping them is the express train to fascism.