You Can’t Leave Anyone Behind

I love Israel. But I could never live in a place called “the Jewish homeland” when progressive Jews are treated as second-class citizens.

In Israel, the Orthodox establishment controls matters of personal status – primarily conversions and marriages. Jews who wish to be married, religiously, by a Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform rabbi generally leave the country to marry secularly, and then return to have a non-recognized religious ceremony. Orthodox rabbis receive state funding. Non-Orthodox rabbis, with just a handful of exceptions, do not. The same is true of non-Orthodox schools, synagogues, and other institutions.

Granted, the challenges religiously progressive Jews face in Israel are not merely because of the de-legitimization of their religious way of life. It’s more complex than that. A good analysis can be read here. But at the same time, state recognition in Israel of progressive Judaism would dramatically change for the better the lives of at nearly a half a million Israelis.

Perhaps this week’s Torah portion offers us a model of how to achieve that recognition.

Moses is arguing with Pharaoh for the release of the Israelites in Egypt. Parshat Bo brings us the final three plagues, locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born. After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh offers to let the men leave. But Moses refuses, saying “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and with our daughters.”

Who were these people – the young and the old, with their sons and their daughters? Torah tells us that 600,000 “men on foot” made the journey out of Egypt. Accepting that number literally, “men on foot” means a total community of around two million people – men on foot, older or infirm men carried on animals or in carts, women, and children.

Does Moses really care about each and every individual Israelite? Wouldn’t it have been easier to argue that half the community, or even just a quarter of it, a full 500,000 people, be allowed to go?

To begin with, some of the people were no doubt sick or injured from years of dehumanizing work and inadequate medical attention. These people would be a tremendous burden on the rest of the community. Furthermore, it’s probably fair to assume that the Israelite community had its share of people who were lazy, mean spirited, socially inappropriate, conniving, unjust, abusive, bigoted and any number of other things and who, quite frankly, might be better left behind.

And then what about the question of religious faithfulness?

We have never been a homogeneous people. It’s unlikely that our biblical ancestors were, either. They were the only monotheistic people in a world filled with pagans and multi-god worshipers. No doubt, many Israelites, influenced by surrounding peoples, rejected their own God in favor of another god or more likely, in favor several other gods. There is ample historical evidence and Biblical references to Israelites worshipping other gods. This is understandable if you have known only slavery your entire life. It’s easy to doubt the presence of a just and loving God whom you are supposed worship and honor when you have never known justice or a loving world. Might Moses not have been tempted to leave the doubters behind?

No. Moses insists that they leave together as one – the men and the women, the old and the young, the personally offensive, and the doubters. They are all to come. If any one must remain behind, all shall remain behind until the day that the entire community can leave.

Progressive Jews in Israel are crying out for a modern-day Moses who will make this argument to the enslaving Orthodox establishment. But no one seems to fit the bill. For example, in July of 2015, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the Orthodox Shas party claimed on Israeli radio that Reform Jews aren’t real Jews. American and Israeli progressive Jews were outraged. The Union for Reform Judaism’s President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, demanded a response from Prime Minister Netanyahu. He issued a statement that he had spoken to Azoulay to “remind him that Israel is a home for all Jews.”

But words devoid of any real action are empty words.

We need action and actors. For once we all left Egypt, we all came together again, as one people, to experience revelation at Sinai, where all was given – the written Torah, the oral Torah, and the ongoing interpretations – with the specifics revealed over time. Progressive Jews must reveal what God gave to us at Sinai so that Israel can come to embrace pluralistic minds, pluralistic hearts, and pluralistic laws.


Rabbi Robin Nafshi leads Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.