Ignoring vintage rabbis to strengthen the Jewish people

I expect my rabbis to continue to act in order to strengthen the ties with the Jewish people in the Diaspora and to ignore the alarms of the vintage rabbis.

MEN PRAY at the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, in the Queens borough of New York Last November. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEN PRAY at the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, in the Queens borough of New York Last November.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is vintage clothing that we thought and hoped had become defunct, that was out of fashion forever, and it was a good thing. Then there are vintage struggles.
They’re the same thing, only more noisy and worse. Like the rabbis’ losing battle against the drafting of religious girls into the army.
Like those same rabbis’ calls for a boycott of non-Orthodox sects in Israel and abroad. We thought it had passed, we were happy. But here it is again.
However, in contrast to the mass struggle against girls’ enlistment, which only damaged the rabbinate’s relevance, the struggle against non-Orthodox denominations, and any Israeli representative that cooperates with them, damages and threatens truly important issues – the future of the Jewish people, the future of the State of Israel, and the Jewish people’s connection to Judaism. Therefore, we need to stop stuttering and squirming; we need to say what should already have been obvious in the religious world: Yes.
Yes, we need to collaborate with Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora. Yes, we need to embrace them and strengthen them.
Yes, we need to visit their schools. To attend conferences. To extend a hand to anyone who wants to work together.
Almost half of all Jews in the world live in the United States. Half of the Jews in the US choose not to identify as Jews and do not belong to any Jewish framework. They are evaporating in droves. Of the half that chooses to preserve the connection, to continue to live as Jews, the majority do so through Reform and Conservative communities. It is a great pity to me, sometimes even tragic, but that is the reality. This reality places those streams on the forefront of the struggle against assimilation.
They make choices that I might make differently. Maybe. I’m not sure. The reality with which they cope is very difficult. Almost 60 percent of the Jews that married since 2000 (according to the Pew Report) married non-Jews. Under conditions such as these, the decision, for example, not to combat the marriages but to embrace the couples in the community with the aspiration that the children will grow up as Jews is a logical one. I believe it would have been preferable to emphasize more particularist values to begin with, not to give up Halacha so quickly. However, that is not so relevant now. This is the reality in which we need to act.
When rabbis ask government ministers to boycott them, what, in fact, are they asking for? To give up the connection with American Judaism, which is, as stated, almost half of the Jewish People? To give up the fight against assimilation? Are you serious? And more, in the name of Judaism? To be clear, there is no question here of giving legitimacy. The non-Orthodox streams do not need to the legitimacy of rabbis in Israel to flower in the United States. It makes no difference.
Also, it is not as if the State of Israel, by ignoring them, will convince masses of Jews to join Orthodox synagogues. They won’t. If we continue to debase them, their rabbis and their worldviews, it won’t influence one Jew to become more halachic. Or more connected to Israel. Maybe even the opposite.
So, yes, serious disputes exist. The question of “Torah from Heaven,” the question of Halacha’s place, weighty questions on which, by the way, there are huge differences of opinion between Orthodox and Conservative Jews, are secondary in relation to the biggest question: Will millions of American Jews continue to identify as Jews, even in a way that we do not love, and continue to feel a part of the Jewish people, or not? This is the one and only question.
There is another issue critical to us as Israelis.
The Reform and Conservative Jews are those fighting on our behalf in AIPAC and other frameworks thanks to whom, in large part, the US has generously and consistently supported Israel over the years. They are those who contribute lots of money, involvement and support to Israel. They are those who are struggling against the boycott of Israel.
They are those that we really need and whose support and collaboration we cannot take for granted. However, the truth is that this is also a secondary question. Although the support of the US is an existential interest of the Jewish people, it is negligible in comparison with the obligation of the Jewish state to the well-being of the Jewish People. Significant parts of which are Reform and Conservative.
There is also the question of denominations in Israel. This is both a very similar and different question. Here, in the absence of the threat of assimilation and in terms of sovereignty, there is no need to embrace and to strengthen. It is possible to argue and there should be debate. This is a deep division, for Heaven’s sake, but this division should exist without cowardice and without hiding behind a lack of legal recognition. This disagreement should exist under conditions of open competition. On the contrary, the State of Israel should allow any male or female rabbi to conduct weddings, to grant kashrut certificates (while noting which kashrut level is indicated). The State of Israel should fund rabbis of all types and should allow every community to express its Judaism in the manner that it desires, and we will see who and what the people living in Israel would decide.
Management of this dispute will require, so I hope, those participating in it to learn something about one another, to take seriously the arguments of the other, and to stop using the word “Reform” as a curse instead of as the expression of a worldview in relation to Halacha, Torah and Judaism. It will also require the participants to improve, to have consideration for the community. In short, it will be good for everyone – for all of us.
I am a halachic Jew. I also live in Jerusalem, and as such, can choose from among synagogues of various denominations. I choose according to my halachic, Orthodox identity.
I chose it in the first place – not because of fear of others and not in an attempt to ignore them. I expect the same level of self-confidence among my rabbis. At least. And from my ministers and president, I expect them to continue to act in order to strengthen the ties with the Jewish people in the Diaspora and to ignore the alarms of the vintage rabbis.
The writer is the director of the leadership center at ‘Kolot’ Beit Midrash, which works to develop ethical leadership in Israel.