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'Continuity of generations does exist in Reform communities' Photo: Guy Assayag
'Continuity of generations does exist in Reform communities' Photo: Guy Assayag
 
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg 
 
 

What are Orthodox Jews afraid of?

Op-ed: While US Jews work to unite all communities despite differences, discrimination against Reform Jews continues in Israel

Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg
Published: 11.14.12, 11:15 / Israel Opinion

When I was young I was taught to believe that "there is no such thing as a grandson of a Reform Jew." This is a false statement. Continuity of generations does exist in Reform communities.

 

Over time, I have learned that Reform and Conservative Judaism – with their communities, synagogues and organizations – fight for the survival of the Jewish people in their own way and are an important part of this effort.

 

Religion and State
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The phenomena of de-legitimization and polarization have not passed over America's Jews, but the federations, increasingly relying on synagogues of all streams, are making an effort to unite the Jewish communities in spite of the ideological gaps and deep religious differences.

 

Supporting the State of Israel is one of the central pillars of the different steams' common denominator. In the case of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and his movement – the commitment to Israel can be seen as "unconditional love", as the State does not give back love or recognize the Reform rabbis and communities in Israel.

 

I was invited to address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, taking place in Baltimore, about the commitment to equality for minorities in the Jewish nation state. My hosts asked me to focus on equal rights for the Arab minority, but after preparing the address, I realized that the majority of those attending the event belong to the Reform and Conservative communities, which do not enjoy equality in Israel either.

 

Israel is the Jewish nation state and a democratic country, hence every single Jewish community should be allowed to express itself and uphold its culture and customs. The more communities and streams feel they can express themselves and be creative here, and the more they feel at home here – the better.

 

It may sound simple, but it seems that there are quite a few politicians, rabbis and public activists who will do whatever it takes to stop this equality from materializing. And I ask myself: What are they afraid of? Is there any innovation or modern idea that Orthodoxy itself – or at least large parts of it – has failed to deal with?

 

Give up battle for Jewish people's sake

In an era characterized by an endless variety of modern and haredi Orthodox communities, do the wars against Reform Jews mean anything? Is it possible that inciting statements are made in order to serve the battle between Orthodox groups for internal needs of de-legitimization?

 

In this era of empowerment, is it not time for Orthodoxy to forsake the expressions of weakness which it was characterized by up to 40 or 50 years ago, and stop responding out of unjustified fear?

 

The Orthodox activists' struggle against Reform Jews' right to be recognized by the State is wrong or hypocritical, or both. It also contradicts Israel's essence as the Jewish nation state and a democratic state, which must make room for all factions, communities and streams.

 

It is also wrong because it gives too much importance and meaning to the "State's recognition", creating a relationship of dependency which puts the existence of religion in danger.

 

The Torah and the authority of "poskim" (scholars who decide the Halacha) is independent, and does not rely on the State's recognition. The majority of the haredi public, and a significant portion of the national-religious public, does not recognize the Chief Rabbinate's authority, although the latter enjoys the State's recognition along with Christian churches and Muslim, Druze and Bahá'í courts.

 

Those fighting against Reform Jews are not fighting the Torah's war, are not guarding Halacha, and are definitely not sanctifying God's name. This futile battle must end, and each community must be allowed to live its life here, and deal with difficult and complex challenges beyond the old squabbles.

 

Let us change our approach and say to ourselves that we are not giving up our principles, nor are we giving up our loyalty to a life of Torah and mitzvot based on Jewish Law.

 

On the contrary, it is our belief in the road we have taken that will make us forsake rivalry and move on to a different level, in which we may succeed – with a great amount of effort – in building bridges for cooperation, for the sake of all Jewish people and their future.

 

Rabbi Prof. Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

 

 

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