Religious Zionists' attitude toward non-Orthodox is slowly evolving

“So if we want to strengthen mutual [Jewish] responsibility between the different parts of the [Jewish] people, the representatives of the different communities must meet in friendship and respect.”

Eliezer Melamed: Our intention is not to make them religious, but, rather, to fight assimilation and strengthen Jewish identity. (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)
Eliezer Melamed: Our intention is not to make them religious, but, rather, to fight assimilation and strengthen Jewish identity.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)
A professor, an Orthodox rabbi and a Reform rabbi walked into a Zoom meeting. No, this is not the beginning of a Jewish joke but a description of a very real online conference event earlier this year that generated strong waves that are still being felt today and which are likely to be felt into the future.
In June, the Mekor Rishon newspaper hosted its first International Diaspora Conference, online, and with that, held a session about common denominators between Jewish communities around the world under the title “Shared Purpose: Who’s afraid to talk?”
That session was moderated by Prof. Gil Troy, an expert in the Diaspora and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and his two panel participants were Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a religious-Zionist leader from the more conservative wing of the sector, and Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, a female French Reform rabbi.
The event was remarkable because Melamed is one of the most high-profile, respected, and authoritative rabbis and arbiters of Jewish law in the entire Orthodox, religious-Zionist community, whose rabbinical leadership has traditionally shunned the non-Orthodox.
Melamed’s participation in an event with a Reform rabbi was a consensus-breaking move and was noted as such almost immediately by critics and those who welcomed the move, alike.
Earlier this month, the ripple effects of this panel discussion continued, as Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef strongly denounced Melamed’s participation in a discussion with a Reform rabbi, and even threatened to excommunicate him.
And this was followed by a strongly worded letter by Melamed’s ideological allies, when several senior rabbis from the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community insisted that there was “no permission, God forbid, for cooperation with official representatives of the Reform movement, which has uprooted the Torah and fights today to uproot everything of holiness in our country.”
But this sharp criticism itself faced a backlash just this week.
Several moderate and liberal rabbis from the religious-Zionist community in Israel, along with some of their Modern Orthodox peers in the US, published an open letter expressing regret for “the growing tone of negativity and even incitement against leading Torah figures who are working to build bridges between the diverse groups within the Jewish people,” adding that they “applaud and support” efforts to create a more cohesive and unified Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.
So does Melamed’s engagement in a conference panel with a Reform rabbi presage greater openness in the religious-Zionist community to the Reform and Conservative movements, or will the forces of conservatism prevail, and clamp down on such collaboration?
For Rabbi David Stav, founder and head of the Tzohar rabbinical association and a moderate in the sector, the question of formal engagement between the Orthodox world and the Reform and Conservative movements is not the most pressing issue.
Stav, who was one of the signatories to the letter backing engagement, says he is most concerned for those Jews in the Diaspora, particularly the US, who may be nominally associated with the non-Orthodox denominations, or have no affiliation at all, but who have little sense of Jewish identity.
The seminal Pew Report on American Jews in 2013 found that Jewish intermarriage among US Jews since the year 2000 stood at 58%, and that one-third of Jewish millennials define themselves as Jewish with no religion, with two-thirds of those saying they were not raising their children Jewish or even partially Jewish.
“The fight today is why Judaism is important, why it is important to remain Jewish,” says the rabbi, insisting that the Orthodox world in Israel needs to convey that non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews in the Diaspora “are our brothers and sisters, that we are both children of God and children of Jewish people, that we love and care for them, and want to be connected with them.”
Stav says he does not wish to make Jews Orthodox; his wish is simply for them to be connected to their Jewish identity and values, and more basically “that they want to remain Jewish,” and to “save Jews from assimilation.”
He says that he has no problem cooperating with non-Orthodox denominations in order to achieve this goal, but says that he is not sure if it is strictly necessary, emphasizing instead the importance of working with young Jews, through youth groups, Jewish student associations and the like.
In short, interdenominational reconciliation is not Stav’s motivating factor in embracing engagement, but instead the concern of a religious-Zionist leader for the large numbers of Jews losing their affiliation with the Judaism he so passionately believes in.
Interestingly, this position is not so far removed from some of Melamed’s more conservative detractors.
Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu is the head of the conservative Association of Community Rabbis, and the son of Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who was one of the signatories to the letter criticizing Melamed for his participation in the panel discussion.
Amichai Eliyahu notes that his organization has in recent years begun to take a deeper interest in the phenomenon of declining Jewish identity in the US and ways to halt this trend.
He says that the association has begun efforts to make the members of its 300 communities in Israel more aware of the issue, and to counter what he says is “a lack of care or concern in the religious community, and even despair, toward assimilation among Jews in the US and the rest of the Diaspora.”
Once this goal has been achieved, he believes that the drive and motivation within the religious-Zionist community to solve problems within the Jewish world will lead to greater and more effective efforts to check declining Jewish identity in the non-Orthodox and unaffiliated world.
And, says Eliyahu, his organization is even willing to speak with and engage with Reform Jews, although not on an organizational level but instead “in dialogue with them as Jews to Jew.”
“Our intention is not to make them religious, but, rather, to fight assimilation and strengthen Jewish identity,” he says, similar to Stav’s stance.
Eliyahu is, however, more strident in his insistence that there can be no formal recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, insisting that Reform Judaism on a theological basis is not legitimately Jewish and saying that recognition of non-Orthodox marriage and conversion would create a schism within the Jewish people in the Jewish state.
It is for this reason that his father and the other senior rabbis criticized Melamed, since, Eliyahu argues, his engagement with Horvilleur as a leader and representative of the Reform movement constituted tacit recognition of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism.
Melamed's approach, however, is quite different from both Stav and Eliyahu.
In article in the Besheva newspaper of Arutz Sheva, Melamed said that he was shocked by the notion that theological differences between Orthodoxy and the Reform and Conservative movements should be a cause to boycott them and their leaders.
And he said that when he became aware of the “campaign of intimidation against anyone who thinks we shouldn’t boycott them... I decided in my heart that the next time I get invited to a meeting with Reform or Conservative [representatives], I would go.”
Wrote Melamed, “I participated with the specific intention to express the holy obligation to establish good relations between all Jews and their communities.”
The rabbi is no less determined in his belief, like Stav, Eliyahu, and the conservatives, that Reform and Conservative Judaism “cannot be considered to be a denomination that expresses Torah tradition.”
But, he argued, both these movements represent large numbers of Jews who observe Jewish traditions, for whom the Jewish character of their lives is important, saying that the non-Orthodox denominations themselves strengthen Jewish identity and stymie assimilation.
“Therefore, it is correct to relate to their representatives as representatives of central and important movements whose members are Jewish, and who deal with education, culture, Jewish communal activities, and feel mutual responsibility toward all Jews and all citizens of the State of Israel in general,” wrote Melamed.
The rabbi argued that intercommunal contact is possible only when leaders of those communities have direct contact.
“There is no way for the members of a community to form a connection with the members of another community unless their representatives meet.
“So if we want to strengthen mutual [Jewish] responsibility between the different parts of the [Jewish] people, the representatives of the different communities must meet in friendship and respect.”
The attitude of the religious-Zionist community in all its variety toward its non-Orthodox brethren has undoubtedly evolved in recent years, and the fact that even the strongly conservative elements in the sector have begun to recognize the importance of solidarity and mutual responsibility is an important and significant development.
But the perspective Melamed expresses goes beyond that. Whereas both his supporters and detractors appear uninterested at best in engaging with the representatives of the non-Orthodox communities in their goal to “save Jews,” Melamed appears to be saying that such engagement is in fact necessary in order to achieve this goal.