I have long considered sharing some thoughts on these pages and felt that America’s 237th birthday would be the perfect time to do so. We live in perhaps the greatest country in history, and our Founding Fathers created a matrix that has served us well for over two centuries. So well in fact that many in the American Jewish community suggest that Israel could benefit from a wholesale importation of American culture, values and enshrined constitutional provisions. However, Israel’s formation documents are different, evolving under very different historical and geopolitical circumstances. While Israel and the U.S. enjoy significant compatibility in their ideologies, they are not identical in foundational underpinnings or mission.
The miracle of the state of Israel has become manifest in our generation. It is a gift to the Jewish people, promised by God and sustained by God against all odds. We know that there is no historic logic that can be applied to Israel’s existence and growth, its military victories or its emergence as a major global contributor. We are witnessing the fulfillment of a prophecy that God gave thousands of years ago that Jews would return from all corners of the earth and that the land would flourish only in Jewish possession.
The 32nd state?
So I have reason to argue against Israel looking like the 51st state of America. But, how about the 32nd state…of Mexico? On a recent flight to Mexico City, I struck up a conversation with my seatmate, a Mexican Jew whose daughter is getting married in August. She commented on my special meal and, though not Orthodox herself, she was familiar with kashrut through observant family members. She shared her excitement about the upcoming wedding and offered the following insight. For a couple to be married Jewishly under the chuppah in Mexico, there are three requirements: kosher food at the wedding, a visit to the mikvah and, most surprising to me, a confirmation letter from their UJA (their equivalent of Federation) that a donation was made by the couple. My mind was spinning with the possibilities of such communal unity. I questioned this one carefully. She responded, “Everyone gives without exception — according to each one’s ability, of course.” I asked if young couples object to or resent such a demand. “Not at all. It’s accepted as a way of keeping the generations engaged.”
Research reveals that the donation practice is an ironclad custom rather than an absolute decree. However, customs embraced by community leaders and respected by its members have weight and impact. They hold a community together and help define best practices for current and future generations. What might seem like an imposition to the uninitiated, upon reflection, is an opportunity. It is an abilities-based opportunity to participate and preserve the values that have kept us together as a people for thousands of years. Sadly, it is rejected by so many here in the land of the free in the name of rights, and our declining numbers tell the story. Intermarriage rates in the U.S. approach 50 percent. In Mexico they are in the low single digits. So, if Israel ever chooses to learn from the Diaspora, at least on this matter, I submit that the Mexican, Venezuelan and other Latin communities offer a more effective model of Jewish sustainability than the “anything goes” liberalism pervasive here in the U.S.
My Fair Kallah (bride)
Who can forget poor Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady trying to teach Eliza Doolittle manners, grace, diction and generally how to conform to his lofty standards of proper British conduct? Finally he wails in frustration, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Similarly, many Jewish Americans lament, “Why can’t Israel be more like America?” If only Israel had a U.S.-style constitution with an anti-establishment clause ensuring freedom from religion under all circumstances. If only Israel “enjoyed” the same unfettered liberal ideals that anyone can marry anyone else without prerequisite.
As we witness the ongoing debates around same-sex marriage in this country, we know that this is not the case in the U.S. either, but the trend is clearly in that direction. And that may very well be appropriate for this country. But that doesn’t automatically make the case for universal application and it certainly ignores the unique factors of Jewish identity and Torah law that are part of the mix in Israel and other important communities around the world. Just as the Eliza Doolittle who returns to Henry Higgins at the end of the movie was unmistakably a woman, Israel is unmistakably a unique place with a unique culture, proud of its liberal values but also proud of its history and role as the world’s only Jewish country. And, while extremism is never welcome and I hope that the current shared burden discussions will be resolved amicably, most Israelis, including ostensibly secular Israelis, recognize the importance of maintaining a Jewish homeland as more than a beacon of democracy and Western values in the Middle East. In that light, it is clearly the apogee of hubris to agitate for a U.S.-style separation of religion and state from abroad.
Furthermore, God says in parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 20:22), “You shall observe all My decrees and all My ordinances and perform them; then the land to which I bring you to dwell will not disgorge you.” Commentators note that although we can accept disparate choices of individuals, certain rules must be upheld to protect the holiness of the land itself. Why would we not accept a parcel of land in Africa as the Jewish homeland? Because we understand that there is sanctity to the land itself and God gives us the prescription to ensure it; that can mean upholding a Torah standard that does not feel friendly or familiar. Just as adhering to boundaries has protected the Jewish people from extinction, Israel’s survival depends on adhering to boundaries that ensure against dilution.
The Rabbinate that governs the marriage process in Israel is not perfect and is indeed in urgent need of revamping its methodology with an eye toward inclusiveness and tolerance. But working toward a kinder and gentler system does not justify throwing out the system altogether. And the need for reform is certainly no basis for mimicking the U.S. system to satisfy individual rights advocates.
The Mexican Jewish community realized that a free-fall jump away from tradition would be a death dive for its continuity. Therefore, they issue all members a parachute of authenticity upon getting married. These parachutes are saving Jewish souls from assimilation. The good news is that there are plenty of them to go around. It’s up to us to support keeping them afloat to prevent a crash landing from too many holes cut in the cloth.
So on this Fourth of July, I pray that God bless America, and that God bless Israel, together and uniquely. Chag sameach.
Manette Mayberg is a member of Washington Jewish Week’s ownership group.