Recognizing the Reform and Conservative: A diverse kehilla


“I wouldn’t call him a real rabbi,” a friend quipped as he described one of the supporters of the publication that I edit. “He’s said some things that put him at the fringe,” he finished. I tried to restrain myself from responding to this offensive jibe with something nasty. By trying to discredit the Halakhic authenticity of this Jewish leader, my friend had resorted to a low blow.
Living in the Orthodox community, I notice how we are often apprehensive about awarding traditional rabbinical titles to outsiders and those with non-traditional beliefs. Variations of rabbi have been used to show reverence for scholars since Mishnaic times, and they have long been used as meaningful markers for Jewish leadership. When my friend chose to attack this rabbi’s title, he tried to dishonor him: To strip him of all credibility. And despite the theologically unorthodox statements that this leader may have made, my community needs to acknowledge that my friend’s type  of accusation is inappropriate.
In a book of essays entitled “Seventy Faces” (coincidentally the name of this blog), the former President of Yeshiva University, Norman Lamm, writes:
As an Orthodox Jew, I not only have no trouble in acknowledging the functional validity of non-Orthodox rabbinic leadership, but also in granting that the non-Orthodox rabbis and laypeople may possess spiritual dignity. If they are sincere, if they believe in God, if they are motivated by principle and not by convenience or trendiness, if they endeavor to carry out the consequences of their faith in a consistent manner—then they are religious people.
Rabbi Lamm, like many other Modern Orthodox leaders, has seen the importance of accepting religious leaders outside of his community. And putting aside the crucial issue of respect, he claims that recognizing Reform and Conservative rabbis is additionally necessary to preserve the broader Jewish population. He understands the desire to retain a more traditional criteria for the rabbinate, but also acknowledges that it isn’t always practical.  Many more American Jews are affiliated with movements outside of Orthodoxy, and ignoring them would simply be ignoring reality. 
In support of Lamm’s position, Maimonides reminds us how Jews have long abandoned the original, ritualistic qualifications for the rabbinate.  His Mishna Torah describes how the once sacred chain of ordination, believed to have originated with Moses, has been lost to history. And with this lapse in tradition, the word rabbi has acquired a less rigid definition, one no longer involving an absolute, religious authority. So by further expanding the word to include even the non-Orthodox, my community an help unite the broader Jewish world without compromising our tenacious embrace of Halakha.
Last week, I saw an article by Eric Yoffie, the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, where he applauded the Israeli government for finally recognizing Reform and Conservative rabbis as rabbis. At the beginning of the piece, he mentions how Moshe Katsav once refused to address him by his title for supposed religious reasons. Despite the vertiginous irony that a now-convicted rapist had claimed to refuse to do anything for religious reasons, this example shows the extent to which some Orthodox  Jews have isolated themselves. Using the title rabbi for leaders like Rabbi Yoffie does not imply that you agree with everything they say - but it does recognize their invaluable leadership in the broader Jewish world. The Union for Reform Judaism represents nearly 1000 synagogues across America, and its philanthropy and commitments to Israel should be cheered by Jews everywhere. 
Refusing to recognize the titles of Reform or Conservative or nontraditional rabbis continues to be commonplace in many Orthodox circles. However, this position fails to look at reality, and the insensitivity it demonstrates to those leaders is egregious. With assimilation and anti-Israel sentiment on the rise, a unified Jewish community which is respectful and tolerant of all is desperately needed. We can’t afford this type of internal separation, and it’s time for the entire community to realize that by properly acknowledging everyone.
After hearing my friend’s accusation, I reminded him that it was, ironically, a Conservative rabbi who had originally introduced him to Judaism. His response was a cool shrug of the shoulders, but I think he understood the message.