Guest columnist: Religious Zionism and non-Orthodoxy

Guest columnist Religio

In recent months religious Zionism has been witness to another of the internecine quarrels that testify to the deep splits within its ranks. The latest episode concerns the appointment of Prof. Shmuel Glick as the dean of the Lifshitz Teacher's College in Jerusalem, one of the leading teaching seminaries for Religious Zionist educators. Glick heads the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and teaches at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduate School, which used to be a branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. (It is now an accredited Israeli academic institution). As a result of his appointment, despite Glick's denial of any identification with the Conservative Movement, a group of religious Zionist rabbis threatened to boycott the institute. The threat forced the board at Lifshitz College to rescind its appointment. This move was generally interpreted as a capitulation of more moderate forces within religious Zionism to haredi elements within the religious Zionist rabbinic establishment. This interpretation of the latest squabble, however, is mistaken in its link between the opposition to Glick's appointment and the appearance of religious radicalization within certain segments of religious Zionism. It actually derives from the traditionally antagonistic attitude of religious Zionism toward the liberal Jewish streams. The group of rabbis who vociferously opposed the appointment of a professor with supposed affiliations to Conservative Judaism acted no differently than other religious Zionist rabbis, even those associated with the more liberal wing of religious Zionism. Indeed, one can argue that Lifshitz College was acting more liberally than other religious Zionist teaching seminaries. Glick has previously taught and acted in an administrative capacity in the college without any objection. And only his appointment to head the institution generated opposition. In contrast, most other religious Zionist teaching seminaries disallow any lecturer associated (even in a tenuous manner) with the Conservative or Reform movements. As a result, the Lifshitz College incident does not testify to the ascendancy of hard-line forces within religious Zionism. Rather, it bears witness to the categorical delegitimization of the non-Orthodox religious streams by religious Zionism as a whole. Thus, if Glick's dismissal is seen as problematic by religious Zionism, it should compel them to reexamine their attitude toward the Conservative and Reform movements. THE QUESTION of the relationship between religious Zionism and the Conservative and Reform movements entails at the least two distinct issues. First, it involves the question of whether Orthodox students should be exposed to ideas, rabbinic figures and thinkers associated with these non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Second, it involves the question of the attitude of religious Zionism toward the efforts of Conservative and Reform Judaism vis-à-vis secular Jews in Israel and non-Orthodox Jews in America. The opposition of religious Zionism to the efforts of the liberal streams vis-à-vis secular Jews derives primarily from a deeply misguided assumption: It is better that a secular Jew practice no Judaism than the "distorted" Judaism of the Conservative and Reform movements. Here Orthodoxy displays a woefully inadequate understanding of secular Jews. In the previous two decades many institutions and programs have been directed toward bringing about a cultural-spiritual renaissance among certain segments of secular Judaism. These efforts are pitted against a dominant individualistic post-Zionist culture, which has corroded the collective ethos of secular Jews and their ties to their cultural heritage. In order to successfully combat these powerful assimilatory forces, all groups must work together toward strengthening the attachments of Israeli Jews to their culture and tradition. And Conservative and Reform Judaism (as well as Orthodoxy and various forms of secular Judaism) have something to contribute in this area. Indeed, one cannot exaggerate the importance of Bnei Jeshurun, an innovative liberal New York synagogue, in the current spiritual renaissance among secular Jews. Other homegrown efforts of the Conservative and Reform movements, such as the TALI network of schools and the Beit Daniel synagogue, have also provided important contributions in returning the secular Jew to his or her cultural roots. Religious Zionism must, therefore, rid itself of the instinctive Orthodox opposition to other denominations. Indeed, one can detect a shift among certain religious Zionist scholars and leaders on this issue. Rabbi Israel Rosen, the head of the Tzomet Institute and an influential religious Zionist rabbi, has called for a reevaluation of the attitude of religious Zionism toward the Reform Movement. And religious Zionist politicians generally supported the bill for pluralistic Jewish education in the previous Knesset. Nevertheless this shift must be expanded and deepened. In short, in the face of the existential threat of post-Zionist forces, religious Zionism must unequivocally recognize the positive contribution of the Conservative and Reform movements toward strengthening the cultural-spiritual mooring of Israeli Jews. • The writer is a lecturer in Jewish thought and education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and an academic adviser to the TALI leadership program.