So, You Call That Being Jewish?

At the end of last month, a group of American Orthodox rabbis issued an extraordinary public statement, in which they roundly denounced their fellow rabbis who head Reform and Conservative Jewish congregations, the two branches of the religion with which the overwhelming majority of North American Jews are affiliated. The group, called the Union of Orthodox Rabbis (UOR) -- or Agudat HaRabonim in Hebrew -- called a press conference in New York City to accuse their Reform and Conservative co-clergymen of promoting a form of the ancient religion that, in their estimation, has no validity. Then, having labeled as frauds the vast majority of ordained rabbis on this continent, the UOR members took an even more drastic step. They called on the millions of Jews in the U.S. and Canada who belong to Reform or Conservative congregations to drop those affiliations, immediately and permanently. In other words, the black- hatted membership of the Agudat HaRabonim invited the world's largest Jewish community to tune in and drop out -- tune in to their ultra-Orthodox message of fundamentalist theology and specific religious practices and prohibitions while dropping out of the synagogues, temples and congregations in which they and their families have worshipped, gotten married, been bar and bas mitzvah'd, celebrated new life and mourned life's passing throughout most of American history. Rid yourselves of "the plague of pluralism" urged HaRabbonim. Abandon the "heretical" Conservative and Reform movements "which have plagued our people, having no basis in our everlasting Torah," demanded the UOR spokesmen -- quoting here the founder of the Lubavitcher Chabad movement. Cleanse yourselves of the "contamination" of Reform Judaism, they begged of their co-religionists, reminding them that a former occupant of the government-appointed position of Chief Rabbi in Israel once determined that "Reform is not Judaism at all." Cease from the forbidden practice of driving yourselves in automobiles to partake in "sham" Sabbath services, warned the Orthodox sages, for such services are conducted by rabbis who "are not religiously qualified in any area of Jewish law" -- not even if they have been educated in the world's finest institutes of Jewish learning. If you cannot find an Orthodox synagogue within walking distance on the High Holy Days, the Orthodox Unionists insisted, stay at home to pray. Do as we do, declared these men who declare themselves "bound by the eternal commandments of the oral and written law," shun whatever in the world offends the exhaustively delineated principles of Torah-based observance. Turn your backs on the spiritual leaders whom you know, trust and respect, for these charlatans "permit outright violations of the laws of Sabbath observance." Take as your first obligation, preached the dark-suited sages, not your duty to your fellow man, but rather your duty to "a system of religious laws for daily living." Walk away from the congregations that have served as centers of spiritual and community life for generations of American Jews, counseled the Orthodox rabbis, because the men and women who lead and sustain them "have demonstrated their rejection of the Halacha (laws of Judaism).""By what right," demanded HaRabonim, "do they call their religion Judaism?" All in all, the Orthodox attack and reactions to it from Jewish leaders across the devotional spectrum have made for a lively prelude to the festival of Passover, the age-old scripted feast observed by Jews everywhere who convene to take part in this traditional springtime celebration of the Jewish family (inestimably warmer and more spontaneous than that commercialized Christmas-wannabe, Chanukah), and to join their voices to the Passover recitation of that ancient narrative overview of the Jewish spirit -- its origins, its identity, its character and moral aspirations, its inextinguishable and undiminished passion to survive as history's most enduring (because most enduringly challenged) form of spiritual and ethical coherence; a resoundingly text-based, orally sustained diachronic of theological humanism that is both instantly recognizable and virtually impossible to define with complete specificity. Even by the self-proclaimed "preservers" of its quadramillennial laws and dictums. "Next year in Jerusalem" indeed!Standing Up For Pluralism, One Leg At A TimeWhoever renounces idol worship may be called a Jew. -- from the Megillah The UOR broadside followed hard on the heels of another development that came as a blow to Reform and Conservative Jews, this one in Israel, where the Knesset (parliament) gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make any conversions to Judaism illegal in that country unless performed by a state-authorized Orthodox rabbi. As Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at pains to point out, the law changes nothing in Israel, where, since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948, Orthodox rabbis have had a government-backed monopoly on performing conversions, marriages and all other institutional religious ceremonies and services for the country's Jewish majority. Despite Netanyahu's attempts to downplay its significance, however, the Knesset vote has outraged Reform and Conservative leaders who had hoped to build on the momentum of recent Israeli Supreme Court decisions that have chipped away at the Orthodox stranglehold on Jewish religious life in Israel. And, Reform and Conservative leaders agree, the demand for that vote by Orthodox Knesset members -- whose defection from Netanyahu's slim majority coalition could topple his government -- was prompted in part by a desire to protect the flow of huge government subsidies for Orthodox religious schools, dispensations from Israel's otherwise universal military duty and the other perks of their state-sanctioned religious monopoly.Together, the action taken in the Knesset and the virtual declaration of open ideological warfare contained in the UOR statement comprise what many observers say is an unprecedented threat to the unity of the world Jewish community. Moreover, the dispute has dramatic implications for the Middle East peace process -- and that makes it everyone's problem."This is an attempt to de-legitimize pluralism in the Jewish community," says Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who, as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), heads one of the world's largest institutions of higher Jewish learning and the oldest such institution in this hemisphere. Zimmerman was a signatory to a joint statement issued on April 2 by the combined leadership of Reform and Conservative Judaism's most influential organizations -- a statement that strongly criticized the Netanyahu government and those members of the Knesset who supported the "Orthodox-only" bill and strongly implied that Reform and Conservative leaders would henceforth use their considerable clout with international Jewish fund-raising agencies to get their message heard in Israel. In fact, as Zimmerman made clear to EN during our interview last week at the Clifton campus of HUC, the challenge thrown at the Reform and Conservative movements by the Orthodox rabbis will prompt the exchange of a great many significant messages regarding Jewish values, Jewish traditions -- even Jewish survival. As far as Zimmerman is concerned, the internal crisis highlighted by the UOR statement offers as grave a threat to Judaism as does any attack from the outside. "[The UOR statement] is to say, clearly, that pluralism is not a part of Jewish life," says Zimmerman. "There are two issues in Israel. [One is] the soil -- land is sacred, and part of the peace process is how much [land] is sacred and how much isn't sacred. But the other issue ...is the soul of Israel and who's taking care of the faithfulness of the Jewish people in Israel? Now, let me tell you something. If that which is pluralistic is rejected and disenfranchised, the issue will be the soul of the Jewish people, not just the soil of Israel."Zimmerman says the Knesset vote amounts to a "government-backed disenfranchisement" of the Reform and Conservative movements, that -- along with Zionism and other elements of modern Judaism -- originated in Germany in the early 1800s. And the issue goes far beyond getting a piece of the conversion pie in Israel."How many people converts are we dealing with here? Not that many," says Zimmerman. "But what we are dealing with is the educational system, the contact Israelis have with the sources of faith and rootedness and tradition beyond just one way of looking at it. And what we're discovering in Israel is that there is a destruction taking place of the soul of the Jew."Zimmerman, however, does not lay the principal blame for this impending crisis on attempts by religious leaders to influence politics. Rather, he faults "the attempt by political authorities who, for the most part, have no religious sensibility or knowledge, to impose political understandings on what is essentially a religious issue." Whatever the cause, Zimmerman is convinced that the effect on the unity of the world Jewish community could be catastrophic."I'm talking about the connection between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the rest of the world," says the HUC president. "That connection has always been a sense of peoplehood based in covenant experience. And if these guys get their way -- and they are getting it -- they will destroy that connection." In fact, says Zimmerman, the stress is such that more than connections are at risk."We have had threats," he says. "The Israeli Religious Action Center, which is sponsored by the Reform movement in Israel, received bomb threats last year. They were traced to the Yeshivah. We don't know exactly who made them, but the police traced them. So, we're talking about the same kind of 'verdict' placed by religious authorities which, if taken seriously by some of their more extreme followers, could result in death. That's what we're talking about; it's not a joking matter. All you need is someone like an Amir or a Baruch Goldstein who will say, 'This is a religious matter; these guys are heretical teachers; they're destroying Judaism.'"Nevertheless, says Zimmerman, this is no time for timidity or ideological caution."Oh, I think we're just at the beginning of a massive confrontation, in Israel and around the world, on the issue of pluralism and on the issue of the nature of Judaism and the State of Israel. Can you imagine a Jewish homeland in which the only group that does not have freedom of religion are Jews? Imagine that! I mean, it's the most amazing thing I've ever heard in my life! We've got to start worrying about the spiritual quality of life in Israel ...that's the issue, and they're not pushing me out!" Marching To The MiddleTo learn Torah, it is best to go to one teacher; to discuss it, it is better to go to several teachers. The many different explanations will help to give you an understanding. -- from the Talmud (Gemara)In issuing their call for American Jews to leave Reform and Conservative congregations, Orthodox rabbis such as UOR executive board member Rabbi David B. Hollander claim they are issuing an invitation "to return to authentic Judaism." Hollander recently told the Los Angeles Times that it was the Reform and Conservative movements that had threatened Jewish unity by establishing practices "outside the Torah laws," while his Orthodox constituency was attempting to heal that breach "through their unbroken allegiance to the Torah laws given by God through Moses at Sinai more than 3,300 years ago." But Reform and Conservative scholars are quick to point out that, whereas in many Christianit denominations articles of faith are subject to the determinations of a hierarchical clergy, all rabbis are equal. Now, some rabbis may be more equal than others, but there hasn't been a high-priest class in Judaism since the Romans destroyed the second Temple and in the intervening millennia pluralism has been one of Judaism's most integral qualities. Which is why many Reform and Conservative leaders claim it is the Orthodox rabbis who, in actuality, are turning their backs on Jewish tradition."Judaism really has a history of openness and acceptance," says Rabbi Arthur Flicker, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ohav Shalom in Roselawn, a Conservative Jewish congregation that began as an Orthodox synagogue. "For example, there are places in the prayer book where there are two versions of a prayer included, because there was some dispute about which one was right, so, to be inclusive, both became part of the service." The same is true, says Flicker, of the Talmud, the multi-layered series of commentaries on the scriptures and commentaries on those commentaries -- hoary palimpsets comprising both the means and the end of Judaism's ur-historical tradition of exegitical jurisprudence. "The Talmud includes minority opinions in almost every case, sometimes two or three. Again, because the rabbis wanted to be inclusive, recognizing there are disputes, recognizing that Judaism is, by its very nature is a religion of some tension. Tension between man and God and tension between man and man, about what that relationship between man and God should be. Moses fought with God; Abraham fought with God, and we continue to do that and we continue to argue with each other. That is our history."As congregational leaders in a movement whose genius for subsuming influences from both the right and the left of the Jewish devotional spectrum has made it the affiliation of choice among a majority of Jewish Americans, the Conservative rabbis EN spoke to were, not surprisingly, noticeably less prone than was HUC's Zimmerman to roll up their ideological sleeves and head down some theological dark alley for a dialectical punchout with their Orthodox detractors. On the other hand, they aren't about to let these Orthodox bad boys shove them off the sidewalk. Both Flicker and Rabbi Irvin Wise, who leads Cincinnati's largest Conservative congregation, the Addath Israel Synagogue in Amberly Village, express the hope that the blistering tensions created by the Agudat HaRabonim statement will prompt some re-evaluation of tactics if not philosophy among the Orthodox camp, perhaps stepping down the rhetorical voltage of some of their halacha-slinging octogenarian colleagues. But they're not counting on it."We cannot change the Orthodox," says Flicker. "What we need to do is to stand firm and stand tall for who and what we are. I think part of the reason these statements bother us is that there's a little itty bitty part of some of us which says, maybe [the Orthodox rabbis] are right. Because they have beards and we don't, because they wear black coats and we don't, because they go to yeshivot and we don't, maybe they're 'more Jewish' than we are, or their form of Judaism is a little more legitimate than ours is. To which, I say, 'Bunk!' Let's stand tall and recognize what it is to be a Conservative Jew.'"At Adath Israel, Rabbi Wise's inclusion of women and young people in the conducting of services at Cincinnati's oldest continuing traditional Jewish congregation (founded in 1847 as the Polish Synagogue) has earned for him an enmity from some in the local Orthodox community rivaling the level of indignation they usually reserve for the Reform practice of ordaining women rabbis. Himself the product of an Orthodox family environment -- and a Hebrew Union College ordination -- Wise refuses to take such derogation personally. He also refuses to mince words about his commitment to the theological standards of the Conservative movement. Regarding important religious questions such as conversion, Wise says Conservative practice observes the letter of the halachic law -- minus the Orthodox mind games."The [Conservative] acceptance of converts," says Wise, "is a question of what was done -- not 'what is your theology?' not, 'what is your personal practice?,' not, 'what is your [degree of] belief in whether the Torah was dictated word for word at Mt. Sinai or whether the Talmud is eternally binding or if you ride to shul on Shabbat. It's, rather, based on whether you had mikvah (ritual bath) or the things halachically required."Wise says there are those in the Orthodox contingent who would counsel moderation -- if the political and ideological climate permitted it. (The president of Bar-Ilan University -- infamous as the alma mater of Yitzhak Rabin assassin Yigdal Amir -- is one of those would-be moderates, according to what Wise hears from Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Ismar Schorch, who met with him in Israel). But, regardless of whether or not moderate Orthodox leaders do manage to find some cover under which to fashion a rapprochement -- without having their black fedoras handed to them by their own constituents -- Wise echoes the sentiments of Flicker and others in the Conservative and Reform movements in saying that the most important assessment Jews must make in the wake of the Agudat HaRabonim's verbal blitzkrieg is the one undertaken by looking in the mirror. And his congregants, Wise says, will not have to fly solo when they do their soul- searching."What you will definitely see are the Reform and Conservative communities being educated, informed, being positively challenged, being encouraged, supported, legitimized, validated by their leaders," Wise promises. "It is an opportunity for us to really solidify our identity as Jews, who practice Judaism in our own ways, which happen not to be Orthodoxy, but happen nevertheless to be equally -- unequivocally -- as authentic as Orthodoxy."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close