A meeting (not) of movements' minds

Who - or more accurately, what - is a Jew?

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Is it more by fortuitous chance, rather than divine providence, that the Reform, Conservative and (Modern) Orthodox movements are all holding major international conferences in Jerusalem this week? One can only conclude so, because if a heavenly hand had been guiding these various rabbis and scholars to the City of David, surely the agenda and very nature of these gatherings would be far different than they are - as would the possible results they could produce. At least some comfort can be found in the simple fact that these conferences are taking place here now, especially the seminar on "Contemporary Reform Judaism" and the Conservative movement's 30th anniversary celebration of its Israeli branch. Both major non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have had, in the past, a sometimes problematic relationship with Zionism and the Jewish State, and still remain distinctly minority denominations here in numbers and status. Yet their presence in Israel has undeniably grown slowly but steadily in recent decades, with new Reform congregations solidifying in many locales across the country, and the Conservative movement belatedly starting to invest and establish institutions here, including a Masorti Jewish culture center in Tel Aviv. The fact, though, that just this week the local branch of the Reform movement petitioned the High Court of Justice against alleged discrimination by the Jerusalem Religious Council in denying access to Conservative and Reform converts, illustrates how far the non-Orthodox streams still have to go in establishing themselves in Israel. The attendees of the World Conference of Orthodox Rabbis and Community Leaders, who belong to the same stream of Judaism represented by Israel's sanctioned rabbinical establishment, certainly share no such concerns about their official standing in the Jewish state, and their event is designed primarily as a solidarity gesture with it. Yet the national-religious community here is also contending with serious challenges, both internal and external - grappling with a diplomatic reality that is testing their commitment to maintaining and developing territory in the biblically mandated Land of Israel, as well as with the rising power of a growing non-Zionist haredi community that, despite sharing a belief in a halachically traditional lifestyle, differs with Modern Orthodoxy on matters of serious style and substance. Clearly all these rabbis, scholars and community leaders have a lot to talk about among themselves. But they should have even more to talk about with each other - and not just about the usually contentious relationship between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams. The Jewish People - such as it is - is now facing some truly revolutionary demographic challenges, which should be not only on the agenda of all three conferences, but the subject of a joint meeting of all these rabbinical minds. These developments affect all the streams, both in Israel and the Diaspora, and cannot be addressed simply by old denominational paradigms. The Jewish state has absorbed over the past two decades some 300,000 halachically non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Yet the vast majority of these new Israeli citizens don't see themselves as "non-Jews": Either they await conversion through a process that is painfully and unnecessarily slow, or they assert their Jewishness through a civic Israeli identity that will increasingly challenge the mainstream Orthodox monopoly on official religious functions here. Outside Israel, the high rate of intermarriage among the non-Orthodox majority of Diaspora Jews, especially in North America, has turned out not only to have had the effect of depleting through assimilation the ranks of Reform and Conservative communities; it has also blurred the essence of a Jewishness once defined even by the non-Orthodox streams as something as definite as membership in a synagogue, into a desire by those who enter into mixed marriages to still be counted in some manner among the Jewish People, albeit on terms they wish to proscribe. It is easy for the Orthodox to just claim that their adherence to halachic tradition will in and of itself preserve their community over time, even if it will remain a faithful minority within the larger secular or non-Orthodox Jewish public here and abroad. But it is now increasingly clear that this simple isolationist stance will at the very least cost them - probably sooner rather than later - their current monopoly over Israel's official religious establishment. The more thoughtful Orthodox rabbis already know this, which is why it is encouraging that one of them, Har Adar's Naftali Rothenberg, is taking a leading role in the Reform seminar. As for the Reform and Conservative, they will increasingly find their established institutions inadequate for the task of trying to shift with a restless laity that desires both a more authentic spiritual experience, and with a pluralistic approach appropriate to the modern religious marketplace of democratic societies. These are big, big issues to deal with, that all basically boil down to the contentious issue of who - or more accurately, what - is a Jew. This is a question that should not be answered solely by political or social expediency, but also by serious religious consideration. This will not happen, though, unless the leaders of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism truly begin talking not just among themselves, but with each other, and holding joint conferences, not just separate ones - be it in Jerusalem or elsewhere. [email protected]