The articulated reaction of the Haredi Orthodox rabbinical establishment to the recent symbolic achievements of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are angry and pejorative in the extreme. Lest we forget the vituperative character of the comments made about us, mark the following for reference:
- The Council of the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement saying it was “against bodies that are called ‘liberals’ or ‘progressive’ that have engraved on their shield the uprooting of the Jewish people from its essence and uniqueness.”
- M.K. Moshe Gafni stated that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah.”
- Rabbi David Yosef alleged that the Reform movement “is not Jewish” and its members are “literally idolaters.”
- M.K. Yisrael Eichler compared the Reform Movement ”to someone who is mentally ill”.
Now, while the stream of insulting allegations have seemingly subsided, these same haredi religious and political leaders have mounted a coordinated legislative and political effort to cancel the modest concessions won by the non-Orthodox movements. Thus, in response to haredi political pressure against the agreement to create a pluralist prayer section at the southern end of the kotel in the Robinson’s Arch area, Prime Minister Netanyahu has invited the United Torah Judaism and the Shas Party leaders to prepare an alternate proposal for consideration. This followed the refusal of the Religious Services Minister, David Azouly to sign off on the government’s agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements. This was hardly surprising given the fact that Azouly is known to believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jewish. And now, Haredi Ministers Yaakov Litzman and David Azouly along with M.K. Moshe Gafni, and with the support of Likud Minister Yariv Levin, have collaborated in proposing a law to enable the Chief Rabbinate to assume administrative control of state funded mikvehs. If passed, this law will enable them to circumvent the Supreme Court decision to allow non-Orthodox religious groups use of local mikvoth for conversion purposes.
In light of the political machinations and religious zealotry of our adversaries, one wonders how members of our movement throughout the diaspora, view these developments.? Do they perceive the conflict as threatening and perhaps even correctly dismissive of their identity as progressive Jews? Have they accepted the thinking of the Orthodox as representative of the Jewish state and concluded that they have no stake in Israel’s future?
How does one explain to our own people the sociological and theological differences which define our legitimate belief system and theirs? Can we describe ourselves in ways which are no less authentic than the way in which the haredim define as their historically correct understanding of Judaism? Is not our Jewish mindset and lifestyle at least as accurate an expression of Jewish principles of belief and practice?
Let’s remind our people that Haredi Judaism is in large part a result of the reaction to the threatening influence of the European Emancipation on Jewish life. The fundamentalism of haredi Jews expresses itself in what they believe to be the unchanging character of Jewish thought and life. Rather than change in ways which might have challenged their faith and traditions, they took refuge behind the psychological walls of resistance to new ideas and modern thought. First and foremost is their claim to the unchanging and universal truths of the biblical text. Needless to say their fundamentalism expresses itself in their conviction that Jewish law, halacha, as codified in the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, must be fully observed and recognized as the expression of the true character of Jewish thought and life.
The religious principles of Haredi Orthodoxy are defined therein as binding rules of Jewish observance and practice. The fact that the Shulchan Aruch is stifling and anachronistic for most modern Jews is of little concern to the Orthodox Haredi believer. But to imagine, as they do, that all Jews must live an insular existence in the 21st century is to propose that proper Jewish life can only be expressed in medieval terms. It is as if nothing has changed in the last several hundred years, not to mention in the last millennium since our ancestors received the Torah on Mount Sinai.
How else can one describe this reality than as one of the great tragedies of modern Jewish life? Moreover, the fact that in Israel it is this minority community of faith which controls contemporary Jewish life is restrictive of the forces of normal social evolution. The consequence is that the non-Orthodox majority Israeli Jewish population is subjected to the invective and authoritarian control of the Haredi rabbinate. And when it comes to matters of identity, conversion, marriage, divorce, death and burial rights, etc., Israelis are compelled to function in the shadow of a form of spiritual terrorism. Conformance to the rules and demands of this Rabbinate is obligatory. There are consequences, enforced by law, to rejection of the Orthodox Rabbinate’s authority.
The fact that for many Israeli Jews, particularly those who are secular, Judaism is what the haredim define it to be, is to accept as normative an intellectual distortion of fact.
Contrary to their uncompromising assertions, as we well know, Jewish thought and religious principles have not been frozen in the canons of Orthodox rabbinic literature. To the contrary, the fact that the vast majority of Jews in the world define themselves as non-Orthodox speaks volumes about the evolution of Jewish life. Reform and Conservative religious Jews in particular define our faith and practice not only in modern terms of reference but substantively with a more comprehensive appreciation of classical Jewish thought and principles.
The fundamental difference between Orthodox Judaism and the modern streams of Judaism can be explained in the difference between living an insular life of religious observance, what moderns refer to as priestly practice as compared to an integrated life of the priestly and prophetic.
In modern Jewish thought the prophetic narrative is accentuated by affirming the moral and ethical principles articulated by Hosea, Amos, Isaiah and other major and minor biblical prophets. For modern progressive Jews, to be Jewish is to strive to live a moral life. To work towards a more just and ethical society. To condemn economic and social inequalities. To fight against racism and intolerance. To affirm the inherent right of all people to life and to help create the conditions which are necessary to ensure social justice. And above all else it is to work to create a world of peace.
We do not reject the tradition, we incorporate it, all of it into our understanding of Judaism and Jewish life. We are religiously observant but we recognize that our symbols and practices carry a profound message of human responsibility and commitment beyond our own community. Although it is rarely acknowledged, the rabbinic tradition does speak to a reality beyond that of our own.
“I call heaven and earth to witness that whether one be Gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or free, the divine spirit rests on each in accordance with his deeds.” Yalkut Shimeoni in Judges, Section 42.
“Upon three things the world rests, upon justice, upon truth and upon peace. And the three are one, for when justice is done, truth prevails and peace is established.” Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:2
As an Israeli Reform Rabbi I recognize my responsibility to act out the principles of my faith in religious observance and social engagement. This is what distinguishes me from Orthodox rabbis. My horizon of responsibility goes beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish community. It encompasses all who live in Israel, Jew and non-Jew alike. And it reaches beyond our own country into the troubled world in which we all live.
In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Heschel also explained that, “to us, a single act of injustice is a slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”
If believing and living as I do makes me a “clown” or “mentally ill” so be it. Would that there were many others like me and my colleagues.
Stanley Ringler is an Israeli reform rabbi and social activist.