Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv on the privatization of Jewish identity and the tycoons of religion
'The tragedy of Israeli Judaism is the Orthodox monopoly,' says the 39-year-old executive director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism.
Talking to: Rabbi Gilad Kariv, 39, attorney and executive director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism. Married and father of three. Lives in Ramat Gan. When: Monday, 11 A.M. Where: In his office at Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz had a harsh saying about you Reform Jews. He said: “It’s very nice and all, but it’s not religion.”
Leibowitz is my teacher and mentor, and I respect his views in many areas, but certainly not in the area of religion. In Leibowitz’s Judaism, God is in the center and then − and this is something he said explicitly − there is no question of moral judgment. The human being does something not because it is the right thing to do from a humane point of view, but because it is the right thing in terms of God’s will. Now Leibowitz can say what he likes, but the Torah is filled with commands to kill the other because of his otherness. That’s it. In every other sense, Leibowitz was a prophet for us all, and it’s a shame that, as is always the way with prophets, his prophecy remained a voice crying in the wilderness, certainly in regard to the occupation. There’s a marvelous essay by Ahad Ha’am called ‘Priest and Prophet.’ We are a society that produces priests, not prophets. We as a society move between falling in love and being heartbroken, between falling in love and betrayal. We crown kings and then pull the chair out from under them.
Kind of like a soap opera.
Yes. There’s a collapse of spirit, there aren’t enough prophets. To me, Judaism is not some magic solution. I believe in the importance of Reform Judaism, because in Israel there is a camp that is raping Judaism. And there’s no point in using the prettified language of reconciliation here. There is a direct connection between the book “Torah Hamelech” and the recent lynch in Jerusalem. To get a group of youths to carry out such an attack on an Arab youth, it takes a good few years of dehumanization of the Arab. We started the month of Elul with a Molotov cocktail that burned an Arab family in the territories, and with an Arab young man lying in intensive care as a result of a pogrom.
The threshold is going up. All the time.
And here there is a planned, orchestrated, ideological effort that relies entirely on the distorted structuring of relations between religion and state in Israel, which gives these rabbis immunity, and budgets, and public positions and status. There is a grand project of dehumanization of whoever is not a Jew.
And of the other in general.
The Arab is number one, although now he has competition for that ranking − from the migrant worker. While we’re sitting here in this air-conditioned office, refugees and their little children are in tents in Ketziot.
Like the concentration camps Leibowitz prophesied.
Yes. There is also a detention facility where dozens of African youths have been sitting for many months because no framework was found for them. We’ve negated their humanity, we’ve removed them from the circle of human beings whom we must treat with dignity. And then this fellow − You know, I don’t want to use such words in talking about Eli Yishai ...
So this immoral man, on the day of the first expulsion flight to South Sudan, goes to Ben-Gurion Airport, takes the hands of refugees and waves them in a victory sign. And I said to myself − you know, there’s a custom at the Seder, that when you recite the 10 plagues you dip your finger in wine and take out some drops.
And Abrabanel, who personally experienced the expulsion from Spain, and went from the heights of being an advisor to the king to the low of being a refugee, said that we do this to show that the cup of happiness is not full. That your redemption came at the cost of their troubles. This is also why on the seventh day of Passover we don’t say the full Hallel prayer, because the Egyptians drowned in the sea on that day. And then this is what this representative of Judaism does.
Instead of sitting in sackcloth and fasting on the day of the expulsion and saying, “I think, as a leader, as a politician, that this is the right thing to do, but I also understand the moral cost and therefore I am fasting on this day.” And he’s fond of fast days, this minister is.
Maybe he doesn’t understand the moral cost.
We let him become Interior Minister and we cannot disavow all responsibility. How do you train your soul so that you do not become cruel? You have to understand that there is a price that you pay for this decision. Now the question is, what do you do with this price? Do you give it a place so that the next time you don’t act like an automaton? Within a few months, Israeli society, this society of refugees, whose entire DNA should be sensitive to this story, became uncaring and indifferent. A consequence of years of dehumanization of the other. Years of giving preference to every Jewish Israeli who speaks a chauvinistic and aggressive language, of “You (God) chose us,” without anything about man having been created in God’s image. Where were Jerusalem’s Orthodox rabbis after the lynch? The ones that think we need to remain in the territories. They should be going out to Zion Square, sitting there on the ground and tearing their clothes.
The secular, too, fit the bill here as “the other.”
Of course. Look what Ovadia Yosef said, about how judges are evil and unfit to serve as witnesses. And on Sukkot, a parade of Israeli officials, including the president and the prime minister, will go to wish this man a happy holiday. And don’t let anyone tell me that it’s just a matter of political interests. This parade of groveling to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is a deep cultural matter, and one result is the parade of tycoons to the X-ray Rabbi and to Rabbi Pinto and all of those. Anyone who thinks this is just a political dance before Shas’ 11 Knesset seats is mistaken.
So what it is about?
It’s about the self-negation of Israeli secularism, or Israeli liberalism, before what they perceive as something more authentic, something deeper. And in this sense a terrible process has occurred in the State of Israel.
Because of the identification of the state with religion? We feel guilty about our secularism?
Because we’ve privatized Jewish identity and put it in the hands of the tycoons of religion, such as Ovadia Yosef. There’s the famous story about the meeting between Ben-Gurion and the Chazon Ish, where the Chazon Ish said: ‘It is known that when there is a narrow bridge, and on one side there is a full wagon and on the other side an empty wagon, the empty wagon will let the full wagon pass.’ I’ve always thought that this was a somewhat problematic allegory, because chances are that if the bridge is going to collapse it will collapse with the full wagon on it. These visits to Ovadia Yosef reflect an adoption of the allegory of the full wagon and empty wagon by Israeli secularism, which deep down feels that it is an empty wagon. To me, any politician who makes a pilgrimage this Sukkot to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is committing an act that disqualifies him from leading the public.
You think that Shimon Peres, say, doesn’t get this? And yet he goes.
There’s something deeper here. Because of this collapse of spirit in the democratic and liberal camp, with our almost built-in difficulty in producing prophets, in producing philosophers, in producing ideologues, I think that there is self-negation. Just look at the superlatives that were heaped upon Rabbi Elyashiv after his death. A person who throughout his leadership showed a fierce hatred and deep scorn for all that you represent. What was this unbelievable fawning all about, as if he represents some ancient truth, some great source of wisdom? A person who preached hatred his entire life.
I wonder how much the alienation of post-modern life plays a part in this.
It certainly plays a part. Israeli secularism gazes with admiration upon this human stream of 100,000 people marching after the coffin of Rabbi Elyashiv. But this is 100,000 men. They won’t follow a woman’s coffin this way. So remember that this option is an oppressive option.
How did we get to the point where our wagon is empty?
The wagon is empty because it threw things off, not because it is empty by its very nature. The non-Orthodox side of the Zionist enterprise was a wagon filled with pioneering and with Jewish creativity and sharp Hebrew, and a full wagon in terms of vision and a sense of mission to establish a model society here.
So what is the process? Is the dilution and weakening because of divisiveness, or did it happen on its own?
If you’re an Orthodox believer, then what sustains this framework is the obligation that you follow. But if you live in a democratic, liberal world whose motto is: “Make choices and manage your choices according to what is good for you,” then there is a built-in tension between that which connects and that which divides. Between the material and the intellectual or ethical. Materialism is not a dirty word, but in this tension between the individual and the material on the one hand, and the communal and the ethical on the other, we are at the end of an age in which the material and the individual are triumphing.
The tragedy of Israeli Judaism is the Orthodox monopoly. But it can’t be blamed for everything. The sacrifice of a deep bond with Jewish culture is one that we make. And this causes two very serious things, in my view. One is that it makes our wagon less full. I am the first to think that it’s better to drive a wagon that has in it values of wisdom, critical thinking, equality. Our wagon is filled first of all with 52 percent of the Israeli public, which sits in the front seats and not in the back. Why are there mehadrin bus lines? Because 50 percent of ultra-Orthodox women go out to work. And so the ultra-Orthodox establishment tells them − okay, go to work, because someone has to earn a living, but on the way we’ll remind you where you really stand. Because, God forbid, as a result of your contact with secular people, the hierarchy that’s been imprinted in you might be upset. So there’s an attempt here to prevent a reaction. We non-Orthodox Israelis have to invest in loading up our wagon. Not only with Judaism but with other things. Look at our schools. What does the graduate of the state education system look like? Is this a renaissance man? Someone who has broad cultural knowledge?
Of course not.
So in the state-education system and the ultra-Orthodox education system, I don’t like what they fill the bookbag with, but the focus on values there is much more dramatic. If we don’t wake up, we’ll lose the battle.
You don’t think we’ve lost it already?
You really are an optimistic Jew.
Yes. Yes, because I truly believe that wisdom and critical thinking and education and freedom of choice and self-fulfillment − that these are stronger forces in the end. I once talked about this with Amos Oz. The ultra-Orthodox world’s success is the secret of its collapse. The demographic growth, the political standing − these are what will make it impossible for the old ultra-Orthodox world to survive.
That’s the opposite of what is generally thought. Can you explain what you mean?
This thing is too big for the ultra-Orthodox control mechanisms, which kept the ultra-Orthodox behind the walls of the ghetto, to succeed.
Because too many mines have already been buried there.
Yes. The larger the population gets, the stronger and more sophisticated the control mechanisms need to be, even if they’re not governmental, even if they’re just psychological. This story is steadily crumbling. Much of the extremism that we’re seeing is a reaction, just as has always happened. No argument is as untrue and easy to refute than the one that says that until the modern age Judaism was monolithic and maintained a united front. Contrary to the Orthodox myth, it wasn’t Judaism’s stagnation that preserved it. Just the opposite − Judaism survived because this people had the ability to preserve a deep and vital and authentic connection to what we inherited from previous generations. In prayers, language, customs, lifestyle, beliefs, folklore, and at the same time to always be in a process of movement, of renewal, of change.
The wandering Jew.
Yes. The wandering Jew isn’t just someone who wandered from one land to another, but someone who knew how to move. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi wrote the Kuzari in Arabic. Maimonides wrote the Guide to the Perplexed in Arabic. [Martin] Buber, Rosenzweig − the most important books in Jewish philosophy in the modern age were not written only in Hebrew. Also Herzl’s “State of the Jews” and “Altneueland.” So this whole idea that something there is more authentic, more worthy, is our disaster, because we don’t see that our wagon is not filling up. The loss of prayer, for example, is a very sad thing. Leah Goldberg prayed, Yehuda Amichai prayed. I’m not blaming the secular parents − when the kid comes and says, they taught us about the siddur in school, then all the antennae that are on guard against missionaries and religious coercion suddenly shoot up. And rightly so, because this is what is happening in Israel. There is religious coercion, there is corruption of the religion.
The ones you say are corrupting religion would say that you are the one doing that.
True. But you know what we have to our credit? That we do not try to impose our way on others by force of law. We don’t claim that we have the truth and that others are sinners. We are ready to subject ourselves to critical thinking and to self-examination. Despite everything, I am optimistic because I think that what’s happening on the other side cannot endure.
I’d never thought about it that way.
Now the question is what do we do with this? Do we let the reactionary forces lead? There’s a lack of action. Gideon Sa’ar is considered to be a reasonably good Education Minister, right? But consider how throughout his whole tenure nothing has genuinely been done about the matter of the core curriculum. Last Sunday, 50,000 ultra-Orthodox pupils entered exempted schools that receive half their funding from the state and yet do not teach the core subjects at all. And because they receive half a budget, they sit in dilapidated and dangerous buildings, in conditions that none of us would want to see our children studying in. What have we done? We’ve put them in a trap of ignorance and poverty. And because there is no state-Haredi education today, the state-religious education system is becoming more extreme. Why aren’t the exempted schools being shut down? In the past three years, we’ve nearly doubled our number of communities. We’re not a large movement, but more and more Israelis are realizing that if we don’t become proactive, if we don’t retake command − in our egalitarian, open and critical-thinking way, then our wagon will not be full enough and the wagon coming from the opposite direction will just run us off the road.
How did a boy from north Tel Aviv grow up to be a rabbi?
I grew up in a secular family that voted Labor. My first political phase was sort of rightist, Orthodox. As a 12th-grader I used to correspond with Yosef Burg. There was a debate over who would be the right’s candidate for president. And I wrote to the Mafdal leader telling him to run for president.
Where did that come from?
Hard to say. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been very attracted to the traditional thing. For me, to go see my great-grandmother, who was ultra-Orthodox, in Jerusalem, was incredible. My grandfather and grandmother lived in Tzahala and we were with them every weekend. They were secular. I started going to synagogue alone, as early as second grade. I was the kid of the Orthodox synagogue in Tzahala, and I was happy there. Intellectually, emotionally, as part of the community.
Did you have social problems?
No, not at all. I did the whole popular thing − head of student council in elementary school and high school, young coordinator in the Scouts and head of the leadership council.
It’s like a mutant gene.
Yes. I grew up in a super-secular environment, a home that was never anti-religious, but where there was bread every Passover. My parents − until I started going − had never set foot in a synagogue. I started going to synagogue on my own, I started studying intensively. I remember going with my mother when I was in fourth grade and picking out Jewish books and then sitting and studying alone at home. I started eating kosher.
A double life.
Yes, that’s one of the arguments, that Reform Judaism is a Judaism of convenience. And I don’t understand where this bizarre idea comes from that religion has to equal suffering. What in our education about religion makes us think that religion has to be filled with agony and suffering?
That’s not exactly the question. The question is what is the essence of religion. What are we here for? Are we here to serve some lofty purpose, or is the lofty purpose supposed to serve us? Is this a kind of buffet Judaism where I can just pick and choose what pleases me?
I’m through apologizing. Whoever wants to call it buffet Judaism, be my guest. So yes, I do continually make a choice as to what I take on my plate. I dearly hope that my choice to be a member of a community, to be a man of faith; someone who studies and observes mitzvoth is not related only to what’s pleasant for me and serves needs that are very focused on the here and now, but to what I should do. To what the society around me should do.
Where does faith fit in to the story?
At the synagogue here upstairs, one of the walls is decorated with the verse from Micha − “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your Lord” ... In other words, the most meaningful outward expression of our Jewish life should be in
doing justice and acts of kindness. In these challenging times we live in, faith is something that is personal and intimate, and also something that involves questioning. I have a very hard time with people whose faith is followed by an exclamation mark. For me, faith is first of all the foundation upon which rests the recognition of man’s free will, of his obligation to be a moral person, to see the other.
How far does it go? Does God exist?
I’m a believing person. I believe that behind the word God there is something real. I can’t give you a whole neat two-hour lecture here about what God is. It is truly beyond my comprehension. But I feel God’s presence in the imperative for morality, for justice, for seeing the other, for acknowledging the equal value of every person.
Are you ready to acknowledge the possibility that God may not exist? What if I said to you − I want to join your community but I want you to know that I don’t think God exists. Would you be ready to accept me?
Yes. Absolutely. I have no problem praying in a community in which there are people who believe and people who don’t. People who believe with an exclamation point scare me more than people who say in a gentle way − I don’t believe.
Is there any red line for acceptance into this community?
The conditions for entry into this club is first of all the desire or the commitment to the Jewish people and to the future of Judaism. But there are other conditions, too. A racist person has no place in our community. You won’t find a Reform community that will decide to restore the mehitza (divider) between men and women, or prohibit women from being called up to the Torah. It’s not that everything is permitted, just come on in.
Perhaps you’re an imaginary community, in certain ways?
No. We just believe in a communal life that, by choice, is less stringent than the traditional models. I’m telling you just the opposite − I want to be in a community where one person drives on Shabbat and another doesn’t. I think strength based on homogeneity is rotten to the core. Either it collapses in on itself or it constantly needs to swallow up more victims in order to justify itself.
How liberal are you? Would it be fine with you to officiate at your daughter’s wedding to another woman?
Yes. I marry same-sex couples.
Totally fine with it?
If I think it’s good for her, then yes. Strange as it may sound, the more challenging question as far as I’m concerned is what would happen if my daughter came to me and said that her true love was a non-Jew. That would be a more challenging question in terms of my liberalism.
And what would you do?
First of all, I would respect her choice. It would make me sad, because I am very dedicated to the continuity of the Jewish people, but I would do everything to see that, despite her choice, Judaism would play a very significant role in her life and in the lives of my grandchildren. But yes, it would be hard for me.
This may be a little simplistic, but try to explain to me a particular choice. For example, why do you drive on Shabbat?
Because driving on Shabbat helps me very much to fulfill and achieve things that, without them, Shabbat wouldn’t be Shabbat for me. For example − to get to the Shabbat meal with my family, or to our synagogue. I could walk to the Orthodox synagogue near my house, but there’s nothing for me there with my daughters and my wife. These are essential layers of my religious Shabbat. For me, not driving on Shabbat doesn’t add anything to the holiness of the day. My approach is to ask what are the values, what are the ideas, what are the reasons for keeping this thing called Shabbat, and what is the right way to do it. And I go to the tradition.
And what do you conclude?
I am humbled by 4,000 years of Jewish creativity. I think that despite major mishaps along the way, humanity is progressing morally. The whole Orthodox theory is the opposite. A famous Haredi saying is “If our forefathers were angels, then we are as human beings. And if they were as human beings, then we are as donkeys. And if they were as donkeys, we are as grasshoppers.” A theory of decline over the generations. And we say − if despite the experience that our forefathers bequeathed to us, and the ability of one generation to learn from another, we are still declining, then something in this whole story of human civilization isn’t working. I think that even though technology today gives man much more extreme tools for wreaking destruction, from a moral perspective, humanity is progressing. Too slowly, very slowly, but progressing. Look, I am willing to attest to many big challenges for Reform Judaism. For example, the question of boundaries. If everyone chooses, then what is the boundary? The question of commitment. Let’s be honest, too many of our people don’t take commitment, and knowledgeable choice, to the fullest.
It’s just very easy to board this wagon, and for all the wrong reasons. You take a lot and give a little.
It’s easy to be a free-rider, I admit. But this exists in Orthodoxy too.
In Orthodoxy the price is higher. Even if it’s just for show.
There’s always a trade-off. As the head of the Reform Movement, my greatest concern is the attempt to make the Reform community in Israel more meaningful, deeper, more involved in society − for a Reform rabbi to be able to preside over weddings in Israel, for our conversions to be accepted, and for the ultra-Orthodox to learn a core curriculum. You’re asking me if I prefer the existing reality, with all its drawbacks, or to choose between these two extremes of all or nothing. My problem with the Orthodox Shabbat is not that it’s forbidden to squeeze out a rag. It’s something else entirely. It’s the fact that the halakha says that you [violate Shabbat] to save a Jew’s life, but not a non-Jew’s life. The thought that I’m a Reform Jew rather than an Orthodox Jew because I find some of the mitzvoth inconvenient is bullshit. I’m not willing to accept that a woman cannot be a rabbi, I’m not willing to accept the concept of “You chose us” in its Orthodox sense. Anyone who thinks that there aren’t plenty of sources in Judaism that say God commanded us to hate the non-Jew is mistaken. In Judaism there are peaks of humanity and abysses of hate. The question is what you choose.