Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The latest round of tensions between Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli religious establishment over Chief Rabbi David Lau’s criticism of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to a school of the Conservative Movement in New York has elicited another round of criticism on both sides of the debate.
President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America Jerry Silverman said on Thursday that Lau was wrong to have criticized the visit, while Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, one of the most prominent leaders of the hard-right wing of the national religious community said Bennett was wrong to have visited the school and said the non-Orthodox movements were bringing about a “spiritual holocaust.”
Bennett, who also serves as Diaspora Minister, made a stop at the Solomon Schechter School in New York which is associated with the Conservative Jewish denomination on December 1, speaking with the pupils and joining in a Hebrew singing session with them
On Wednesday, Lau criticized Bennett for the visit, saying it was “forbidden” to deliberately speak to the Conservative community in such a manner, that education in Conservative schools “distances Jews” from their tradition, that the movement was “losing its children and grandchildren,” and that he would have forbidden Bennett, who also serves as Diaspora Affairs Minister, from making the visit had Bennett asked him.
Silverman welcomed Bennett’s visit and his engagement with the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations however, and said that he should be praised not criticized for it.
"Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau was wrong to criticize Minister Naftali Bennett for the minister's visit to a Solomon Schechter community day school in Manhattan,” said Silverman.
“As the minister who covers both the education and Diaspora portfolios, Mr. Bennett serves a unique role in representing the Israeli government and must continue to reach out to all Jews wherever they are -- including at religious schools, day schools and camps affiliated with all of the streams of Judaism,” he continued.
“By connecting and learning about Jewish educational experiences in the Diaspora, Mr. Bennett is doing exactly what is appropriate. There should not be suggestions that the Minister of Diaspora Affairs needs to ask for permission to experience Jewish education movements while traveling. In fact, Mr. Bennett should be recognized for his leadership with these efforts, not criticized.”
Alongside the backing from the Jewish Federations has come however severe criticism from national religious rabbis in Israel.
In an interview with the Kikar Hashabbat website, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, one of the most respected national religious rabbis in the country, said that “Reform [Judaism] isn't Judaism… it is forbidden for a man who observes the Torah and commandments to recognize the Reform.” Orthodox rabbis in Israel often conflate the Reform and Conservative denominations.
Eliyahu, who serves as the municipal chief rabbi of Safed, was also extremely critical of the Reform and Conservative movements and of Bennett’s visit to the school.
“The Reform and Conservatives are our brothers, but their path is a disaster, there’s no delicate way to put it, and it is forbidden to to give them encouragement, as a path by, drawing them close,” said Eliyahu in an interview with the Galei Yisrael radio station on Friday.
“We must help them to wake up, to do repentance, as we must for all Jews who we love… but remember that Reform and Conservatives are those who are leading assimilation in the US. In other words they are bringing about the annihilation of the Jewish people,” continued the rabbi, citing rates of assimilation and inter-marriage.
“They are of course not evil like the Germans, but they are bringing about a spiritual holocaust,” he said.
“To import this into Israel is a disaster, to give them legitimacy is a disaster, the education minister erred because he gave them legitimacy, and this is a shame. We need to draw them [the non-Orthodox] close as brothers but not give them legitimacy.”