Friday, June 12, 2015

The Judaism of Our Forefathers

President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin 
I know this may be a very unpopular opinion. But I support Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s approach to the religious character of the State. Or more specifically which body should determine that. My understanding is that although he is a traditional Jew in many ways, President Rivlin in not an observant Jew in an Orthodox sense. Nonetheless he endorses the idea of defining Judaism in Orthodox terms.

This was demonstrated recently by the following incident described by Shmuel Rosner in a New York Times oped
The ultra-Orthodox mayor of the Israeli city Rehovot, canceled a bar mitzvah ceremony for autistic boys because of its planned location: a Conservative synagogue. 
Progressive leaders protested, and the government, seeking to prevent the story from turning into a storm of Jewish protest against Israel, asked Mr. Rivlin to host the ceremony.
The president initially agreed, but then things turned ugly. After some negotiations, it became clear that the president’s idea of “compromise” was to let an Orthodox rabbi take over. The Conservative rabbi — the rabbi who invested months of work in preparing the boys for their bar mitzvahs — was relegated to a secondary role...
Government officials, from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to the Foreign Ministry, tried to negotiate a compromise. Even the prime minister’s office got involved. But all attempts ultimately failed. Mr. Rivlin insisted on having an Orthodox rabbi officiate.
This was of course very upsetting to the Conservative Movement. They and other heterodox movements have been trying to get a foothold in Israel’s religious life to - as of yet - no avail. To many, including some Orthodox rabbinic leaders on the far left, this is seen as grossly unfair. They believe that all denominations should be allowed to have some influence on the Judaism as practiced by their constituency. Tiny though they may be in the Jewish State.

After all, their membership in the west has been supporting the state both morally and financially since its inception. Fully 53% of all American Jews are either Reform or Conservative compared to 10% being Orthodox. The implied threat being, “If you keep barring us from having any say about religion in Israel the money will stop flowing!”

Now that’s motivation! And yet Israel has refused to cave – despite the fact that most Israelis are not observant by Orthodox standards.

Why is that?

There is a saying about secular Jews in Israel that goes something like this: The Shul that I don’t go to – is Orthodox! The reason they say that is that they understand that Conservative and Reform Judaism is an invention of the 19th and 20th century. They did not exist prior to that. Secular Jews in Israel look at their grandparents and great-grandparents in Europe and the Middle East that were observant by Orthodox standards. 

Even those that weren’t observant in those days understood that authentic Judaism required observance of the Mitzvos the way Orthodox Jews understand it. Even as many Jews increasingly abandoned observance at the time they still knew what defined Judaism. Israelis know by instinct that Conservative and Reform Judaism is not the Judaism of their forefathers. The closest thing to it is what we today call Orthodox.

Of course Heterodox rabbis don’t see it that way. They see the an Orthodox stranglehold on religion in Israel that is a function of coalition politics. The Israeli rabbinate has been given unprecedented power over religion in Israel. They forget however that that most of that power was granted to them by Israel’s founders in its earliest stages. 

Even though Charedi influences now dominate the rabbinate, it has always been an Orthodox rabbinate from day one. It should also not be lost on anyone that the very term Orthodox was thrust upon those of us by Heterodox movements. Before they came around we were all Jews. Some observant. Some not. Some more some less. But all cut from  same cloth.  There were no denominations.

There are those who say that Charedism is not authentic Judaism either. That observant Jews were never tied to the Hashkafa of Daas Torah as Charedim define it. That may or may not be true. But even if it is, there is not a doubt in my mind that Conservative and Reform Judaism is a lot further from authentic Judaism than Charedism is. 

So unlike my Orthodox left wing counterparts, I absolutely do not want to see them get a foothold in Israel. That the Conservative Movement is now struggling to survive does not give them license to try demand spreading their movement to Israel. Especially when their constituency there is minuscule. Besides, if it didn’t work in America, why would they think it would work in Israel? Theirs is a failed system of religion.

It is only a matter of time that they will cease to exist at all in nay significant. I may not see it in my lifetime, but just like the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Samaritans, the Karaites, the Sabbateans, and the Frankists, they too will dwindle to an insignificant minority if not disappear altogether. I believe that will happen even if they successfully challenge the Orthodox control of the Rabbinate. (Which I don’t think will happen.) What about the threat of dwindling financing support? That may happen. But money should never impact on maintaining one’s ideals. 

I am not saying this to be mean. I am just analyzing the statistics and making predictions. I actually think that their waning influence over the masses of non Orthodox Jewry has its downside even for Orthodox Jewry. That they instill any appreciation of Judaism at all to their members is helpful to those of us in outreach. A lot of now Orthodox Jews (Balei Teshuva) started out as serious Conservative or even Reform Jews – looking for more that their denominations gave them. Conservative Jewry’s waning numbers will negatively impact on outreach.

But the handwriting is on the wall. And I don’t think Israel should change its policies in order to save them. Even if it costs them support . Which is in any case uncertain. In the end, the only Jews that will survive into the future are those Jews whose children will be educated to be observant. And the place that is happening the most by orders of magnitude is in Orthodoxy. What kind of Orthodoxy is another question and not the subject of this post. But it will be an Orthodoxy evolved out of the traditions of our forefathers that will remain. Not the new doctrines of heterodox movements. Although President Rivlin is not himself observant in Orthodox terms, he is very wise to know that.