Reform leader says Liberalism, Zionism not incompatible

Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch discusses new memoir with 'The Jerusalem Post'.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
June 28, 2011 23:59
2 minute read.
Reform leader Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch 311

Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

At age 85 Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch can still give an interview while climbing up a steep Jerusalem hill in the summer heat without losing his breath. The busy rabbi, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday while running from one social commitment to another, talked about his new memoir “For the Sake of Zion: Reform Zionism – a Personal Mission” which was officially launched earlier in the day.

“My previous books have dealt partially with social action in the religious arena,” Hirsch said. “This one deals almost exclusively with the Zionist movement and it describes my orientation to some of the major problems. I felt the Reform movement would become an insignificant sect in Jewish life if it were not involved in the greatest drama of the Jewish people which is the establishment and strengthening of the state of Israel.”

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During his long career Hirsch has been praised for rejuvenating the Reform movement. In particular, he is credited with placing it in the center of the Zionist camp whereas before it had a more ambivalent relationship with the Jewish state.

“He created Zionist commitment throughout the Reform movement in the world,” said President Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism at the rabbi’s book launch. “He realized [the importance of] being committed to Israel and moved the headquarters to the only place it can be and that is Yerushalaim. The 70s, 80s and 90s were the Dick Hirsch era.”

Born in Cleveland, Hirsch was ordained as a rabbi in 1951. He was the head of congregations in Chicago and Denver before eventually becoming the head of the reform movement in 1973. In that position, Hirsch was instrumental in moving its headquarters to Israel where it has remained ever since. At Hirsch’s book launch, President of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi Eric Yoffie paid homage to his predecessor.

During the 1960s, Hirsch was part of the civil rights movement. At one point he is said to have shared his office in Washington with Martin Luther King where the renowned human rights activist wrote his famous “I have a dream” speech.

Recently, some commentators, most notably Peter Beinart in his influential 2009 essay, have said Zionism and Liberalism are drifting apart, an argument Hirsch personally disagrees with.

“In general I don’t like artificial dichotomies and putting people in categories,” he said. “In the good old days when I first came to Washington at the age of 33 I thought every liberal was a great guy and every conservative a mamzer, but I learned very early on that you can be a mamzer and very liberal and a person of no virtue and a person of great virtue and be a conservative.”

Asked to elaborate further on his relationship with Martin Luther King, Hirsch apologized politely but said he would have to be terse.

“I’m sorry,” said the rabbi, who was in a hurry to pick up his wife Bella. “If you’d like to learn more you can read about it in one of my books.”


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