Dynamic Judaism

Israel’s discrimination against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism remains a major concern of US Jewry.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews look towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews look towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s discrimination against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism remains a major concern of US Jewry.
This was made painfully clear last Friday during a meeting between President Reuven Rivlin and leaders of the three main Jewish denominations hosted by the UJA-Federation of New York.
“It cannot be that Israel will be the only democratic state in the world that formally does not grant equal rights to the majority of the Jewish people,” declared Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“We insist on equality, not just at the Kotel – the Western Wall – but also in rabbinical courts, under the bridal canopy, at funerals and conversions,” Jacobs said.
We second Jacobs’s call. Indeed, on numerous occasions we have called for a radical reassessment of state-religious relations. Religious services such as kashrut supervision, conversions, marriages and rabbinical courts must cease to be treated as the private fiefdom of this or that political party. Rather, these services must be privatized as much as possible.
The Chief Rabbinate and those who lead it have done nothing – neither morally nor spiritually – to deserve a monopoly over deciding which food can be called kosher and which cannot; who can be called Jewish and who cannot; who can pray at the Kotel and how.
A broad range of rabbis of different spiritual leanings should be allowed to conduct conversions and officiate at weddings and arrange divorces. People should be given the freedom to choose from among them. Ultimately, these are very personal choices that touch on individual rights and are no business of the state.
In the early 1930s, Henri Bergson, an evolutionary philosopher, posited an important distinction between “static religion” and “dynamic religion.” The former tends to dominate closed societies. All participants know their places. Custom, morality and law reinforce one another.
To violate custom is to rebel against God.
In contrast, “dynamic religion” is in tune with the side of human nature that is open to learning, change and innovation, and it is compatible with open societies in which individuals’ need for the new, the different, the autonomous is fulfilled. As Walter Russell Mead put it in his book God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, dynamic religion can “lead people to find new meaning and possibilities in structures and dogmas that had once seemed like so many dry bones in the dust.”
The State of Israel is in desperate need of dynamic religion that can provide meaning for the Zionist project while at the same time grounding this project deeply in tradition. Expressions of dynamic religion in various Protestant streams of Christianity leveled thrones and forced surviving monarchs to accept the reality of popular sovereignty; provided inspiration for abolitionists and suffragettes; and spurred the American Civil Rights movement.
Similarly, the Jewish state needs the visionary power and inspiration of dynamic religion to provide meaning and direction into the 21st century. Israel faces many challenges and these challenges can only be met by an open, dynamic society that receives meaning from new and innovative interpretations of old sources and traditions.
The late Conservative sage Abraham Joshua Heschel was a representative of this dynamic stream of Judaism.
Rivlin even mentioned Heschel in his speech at the White House Hanukka party on Wednesday.
Yet, as Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism pointed out, in Israel of today Heschel, “would not be afforded the same rights as our Orthodox brethren – can’t do marriage, can’t do divorces, can’t do conversions.”
The present government coalition, which relies on the support of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas, seems intent on perpetuating “static” expressions of Judaism. Just last week the government, under haredi influence, decided to oppose a bill encouraging the appointment of female Islamic judges, on the grounds that it would set a legal precedent for the election of female rabbinical judges.
There need not be a contradiction between progress and religion. As history has taught, and as America and Britain have demonstrated, the two can be complementary. This can happen, however, only once more dynamic expressions of Judaism – including non-Orthodox forms – are given a voice in the Jewish state.