David Ben-Gurion and Reform Judaism in Israel:
A Brief Assessment Marking the 70th Anniversary of the Establishment of the State of Israel
Student-Rabbi David Barak-Gorodetsky, Ph.D.
The backdrop to the question regarding David Ben-Gurion's attitude towards Reform Judaism connects to his outlook on the Jewish religion as a whole. A continued study of this topic in recent decades presents Ben-Gurion as a complex figure, who was inspired not only by philosophical ideas but also by spiritual and religious thought, while at the same time fighting against the establishment of religion as a formal institution and working for freedom of conscience in Israel.
The discussion of Ben-Gurion's position on religion also exposes an inherent difficulty in dealing with the religious thought of political figures: to what extent is Ben-Gurion's position an ideological one, and to what level does it pertain to his political views regarding the religious establishment in Israel, Jewish identity and Zionism in general. Ben-Gurion's attitude towards the Reform movement should thus also be examined on these two levels, asking the question of how Ben-Gurion grasped the Reform belief system, and, conversely, what were the instrumental political considerations that resulted in Ben-Gurion adopting a relatively sympathetic position vis a vis the Reform Movement in Israel.
Ben-Gurion, at a relatively early stage, determined the likely importance of the United States as opposed to Britain in determining the fate of the Yishuv in Palestine and the establishment of the Jewish State. As a result, during the early 1940s, Ben-Gurion remained for an extended period of time in the United States, investing considerable efforts in persuading American Zionists to realize their political power to benefit the Zionist cause in Palestine. At the same time, it was very difficult for Ben-Gurion to abandon his call to American Jews to make Aliyah, despite a deep rift with the American Jewish leadership who feared this request would negatively affect the political legitimacy of American-Jewish integration in the United States.
When examining Ben-Gurion's attitude towards the liberal movements in the United States one should also consider the hope that establishing strong Reform and Conservative communities in Israel would create favorable conditions for encouraging American Jews to make Aliyah.
Israel's Declaration of Independence, 1948
"The Masses Will Join Them"
A look at Ben-Gurion's diaries and other documents in his archives reveal his surprisingly positive attitude towards the Reform movement in Israel, combining a direct call to Reform rabbis to establish congregations that appeal to the Israeli general public, while renouncing Orthodox attacks on such attempts. An example is the visit to Ben-Gurion on January 28, 1955 of Rabbi Herbert Weiner, an eclectic Reform rabbi who had later distanced himself from the movement. Ben-Gurion writes in his diary: "[…] afterwards Yehuda Erez came with Rabbi Weiner, a Reform rabbi who also wants to establish a Reform community in Israel. Dori, Bentowitz and a few others are ready to join, but there are those advising to first establish groups (circles) and not a synagogue. I was against this opinion. The circles will have no value. A synagogue however, will have fierce and tremendous opposition, but in the end, the masses will join them." On November 9, 1963, following another visit to Ben-Gurion by Reform rabbis, he writes in his diary: "Rabbi Zeger (later Zemer, a rabbi for Progressive Judaism) from Kfar Shmaryahu and Reuven Samuels, also a Reform rabbi and teacher at a school named Leo Baeck (a Reform school). In Kfar Shmaryahu he has five minyanim at the synagogue. There is a Progressive group in Nazareth Illit and Jerusalem. They are called the 'Circle for Progressive Judaism'. In Haifa there is an elementary school with 1,000 students and a high school with 200 students. I asked why they do not take the masses by storm".
On deterring Orthodox resistance: on May 28, 1956, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Maimon, the first Minister for Religious Affairs for the State of Israel, then the Director of the Rav Kook Institute, wrote to Ben-Gurion. The letter included a request to Ben-Gurion based on their friendship and acquaintance from the days of the provisional government.
"They have started talking about building a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem", Ben Maimon wrote to Ben-Gurion, "Something that not my friends or myself nor you or your friends need. This will only cause sorrow and fighting and increase the conflict in Israel and strengthen the hate of one another, and I ask you why do we need this trouble? When I was in America the last time,” Maimon summarized using an Orthodox term that is considered derogatory and a way of preventing the recognition of Reform rabbis, "I met with a few Reform rabbais [instead of the Hebrew rabbanim] who informed me that justice is with me, and this dispute should not be intensified especially in the State of Israel."
Ben-Gurion quickly responded the next day: "I don't know why you are writing to me about a Reform synagogue. I do not require it and will not concern myself with its existence. I don't even know if someone else is dealing with this, but I will definitely not interfere in this, as it is not my affair, and if there are Jews who want to pray in a different style to yours, I will not dare to interfere at all […]". He said this, even though as we have seen, Ben-Gurion was well aware of attempts by Reform Jews to establish congregations in Israel. He summarizes his comments by touching on the question of treatment of Reform Jews as representing the issue of freedom of religion and conscience in Israel. Ben-Gurion writes: "You and your friends committed to freedom of religion and conscience, and the meaning is not only freedom of religion and conscience for you and your friends, but also for those who think different than you…the attempts to coerce through the State the maintaining of religious laws will bring about a terrible dispute that could, god forbid, destroy the State, and preventing conflict does not mean that everyone will become devout, but rather mutual tolerance will reign."
In this way, Ben-Gurion combines the allowing of the establishment of Reform congregations with the issue of separation of religion and state. The disappearance of this type of separation, serves as a menacing threat to Ben Gurion, balancing out the threats of Maimon regarding the conflict that will arise with the establishment of Reform congregations in Israel.
Ben-Gurion's subsequent correspondence from that decade reveals his frustration at the absence of a significant Aliyah to Israel from the United States, and the hopes and interests motivating his support for the establishment of the Reform Movement in Israel. On December 7, 1959, Ben-Gurion responds to a request from Los Angeles referring to a claim made by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [today known as Union for Reform Judaism] from 1943 until his death thirty years later, stating that there is discrimination against Liberal Jews in Israel. "Rabbi Eisendrath is mistaken", Ben-Gurion writes, "There is complete freedom of religion and conscience in Israel. If Rabbi Eisendrath brings a few thousands Reform Jews to Israel and establishes a Reform synagogue, he will realize his mistake. Nelson Glueck, the famous American archeologist, is building a house of prayer for his students in Jerusalem, and no one is stopping him." Here, Ben-Gurion challenges the Jewish American leadership that is concerned about the supposed lack of religious freedom and worship in Israel, but is not doing enough to establish the Reform Movement's presence. Specifically, this is a reference to establishing facts on the ground to increase the demand for Liberal Judaism in Israel, in other words, Aliyah.
It is worth noting Ben-Gurion's reference to Nelson Glueck - the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, based in Cincinnati - to establish a "House of Prayer" in Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion's determination that no one was preventing this initiative is not accurate. Glueck worked to establish an institute for archeological studies in Jerusalem, with the intention of using this same venue to train American Reform rabbis and strengthen their connection with Israel. Yet this part of the program was hidden from official bodies that Glueck approached for the allocation of land, though he had previously received support for his other plans, despite the objections raised by Orthodox groups. Indeed, they threw up many obstacles that resulted in delays in the allocation of the land (even though it was eventually approved by the Jerusalem Municipality), and even in the actual building process. Despite these delays, the institute finally opened in 1963, with a ceremony attended by Ben-Gurion himself.
It should be noted that the closeness between Ben-Gurion and Glueck had additional layers. Glueck's image as an adventurous archeologist who identified with Lawrence of Arabia and in addition had served as a spy for the American government in Jordan, Egypt and Israel during the Second World War, were far removed from the typical image typically associated with an American Jewish leader. Moreover, Glueck and Ben-Gurion shared a mutual appreciation for the importance of the desert as defining the character of the State of Israel and its Zionist aims.
The Family Aspect
Another significant incident in Ben-Gurion's relationship with the Reform Movement was of a more personal nature – the marriage of his granddaughter. The source of the story, as documented by the historian Avi Shilon, was pure love. After being injured during his military service in the British Army, Amos Ben-Gurion (Ben-Gurion's son) fell in love with Mary, the Christian nurse who cared for him. After she underwent a Reform conversion, Amos and Mary established a home in Israel. However, when their oldest daughter Ruti was about to get married, the Rabbinate objected, claiming that the Reform conversion of her mother is not recognized and her Jewishness is thus invalid.
Ben-Gurion was shocked and contended that Mary and Amos provided their children with a much richer Jewish education than he had given his children. In the end, Ben-Gurion convinced the Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Goren, to conduct the wedding ceremony for the couple.
David Ben Gurion attending the wedding of his granddaughter Ruti, 1968
This incident, it seems, had an influence on his general position regarding religion and state. In his correspondence with Shulamit Aloni July 26, 1970, Ben-Gurion writes: "During the first period of the Knesset, I advocated the marriage law in accordance with Halakha. I had my reasons then – as most of the Olim following the Second World War arrived, unlike prior to the World War [not] from Europe, but from Asia and Africa, and I know that these Jews, as devout as they may be, are not strict about Halakha, and they have one holy principle, which is the family, and I thus saw no flaw in arranging marriage by a rabbi […], now I feel it is unnecessary and it should be handled as it is in America, religious marriages – for those who want that, along with civil marriage for those who prefer [this option]."
In examining Ben-Gurion's attitude towards the Reform Movement one should also look at the idealistic perspective. Ben-Gurion was greatly influenced by the teachings of the Prophets, and from this perspective a proximity in ideas exists between him and Reform philosophy. At the same time, Ben-Gurion's attitude towards the Prophets included a particularistic dimension alongside the universal dimension. Ben-Gurion saw the Prophets not only as champions of universal morality, but also those who were able to define the limits of the Jewish People and maintain them.
In 1954, Ben-Gurion writes: " Two central motifs that are one and the same thread throughout history and in all of our literature: the motif of redemption and the motif of a Chosen People, the hope of a national future and a universal human destiny. These motifs are the main content of Hebrew prophecy."
The following quote by Ben Gurion in 1954 is an appropriate way to mark the State's 70th birthday in 2018: "The State of Israel is a goal unto itself and the blessing of its existence is in its development and existence. [However] it is also a means and an instrument for a bigger purpose – full and complete redemption, Jewish and humane, in the spirit of the vision of yore, of the Prophets of Israel and the Messianic aspiration of generations."
Dr. David Barak-Gorodetsky is a rabbinical student in the Israeli rabbinic program at HUC-JIR Jerusalem and the regional Rabbi of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ben-Gurion Institute for the research of Zionism and Israel. His book, 'Jeremiah in Zion: The Religion and Politics of Judah Leib Magnes', is forthcoming in Hebrew (June 2018), in Ben-Gurion University Press.