Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What Century Do They Live In?

Guest contribution by Paul Shaviv

Image  taken from  the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan 
I received the following submission from Paul Shaviv, a Jewish educator par excellence. Mr. Shaviv is someone I admire and respect - and has posted here before on various issues. This submission is on the subject I touched upon yesterday. Although there are several points with which I disagree - in the interests of fairness and balance, I present his views unedited in their entirety.  

Our respected blogger, Harry, addressed the latest flurry of anti-Conservative/Reform pronouncements by Israeli rabbis, political leaders and the Haredi press.  His most important point, I think, is in his last sentence – “…But it does mean taking every opportunity to reach out -  even if it means sharing a stage with a Reform rabbi whose theology you openly and clearly reject or sending an Israeli cabinet minister that happens to be Orthodox to a Conservative Shul”.  I agree with him 100%.

However, my take on this issue is somewhat different, and I am grateful to Harry (as always) for having the courtesy of providing me with space to contribute to this discussion.  I think that the crucial issue here is the public, leadership status of the protagonists, who – as Harry points out – are not speaking only as Rabbis, and have considerably broader responsibilities.

Of the current round of statements, first was the Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs, Mr. Dovid Azoulay, last July: – “I can’t allow myself to say that such a person [a Reform Jew- PJS] is a Jew”.  He kept his seat in the Cabinet.  Then the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Dovid Lau, last week, criticized Minister of Education and Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett, for visiting a Conservative Day School in New York – “... behavior unacceptable to the Jewish public, etc. etc. etc.”.   He is still Chief rabbi.  

Not to be left out, the Haredi press, led by Yated Neeman, criticized Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for being in the same room as a Conservative rabbi … in the White House!  Well-known purveyor of extreme views (to which he is nevertheless entitled), Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Sfat, joined in with a comparison between non-Orthodox Judaism and the Holocaust.  It seems as though nothing will dislodge him from Sfat.

Listening to these Israeli rabbis and leaders, it sounds as though they imagine US Jewry to still be solidly Orthodox or traditional, with upstart movements snapping at their heels – movements which can be totally marginalized if Orthodox leaders ‘delegitimize’ them.  They seem to be blissfully unaware that non-Orthodox Jews are a huge majority of the Diaspora, and that – for better or worse – they will not listen to orders by Orthodox rabbis.  (I also feel it is infantilizing the Jewish public to assume that they cannot understand that different rabbis hold incompatible opinions, and that seeing an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox rabbi together will lead them to think that one confers credibility on the other.) 

One has to ask oneself a series of questions:  What century do these people live in?  Do they know anything about Diaspora Jewry (probably not), or the last two hundred years of Jewish history (also, probably not – they don’t teach history in Yeshivot)?  Do they have any idea of the intense damage they are doing, at a time when the image of Orthodoxy in Israel and in the Diaspora is, overall, already dismally negative?

My guess is that this new verbal offensive is connected to feelings that Israel is moving towards ‘recognition’ of non-Orthodox (or alternative Orthodox…) movements and streams.  Maybe it is.  If so, it should surprise no-one, since the establishment Orthodox appear so unfriendly and hostile not only to the Israeli population, but to the very State itself.  However, that is not my point in this piece.  Instead, I want to discuss what I believe is the incalculable harm these pronouncements inflict on Diaspora Jewry, and on Jewish support for Israel.

Surprise, surprise, non-Orthodox Judaism is not something new.  The first purpose-built Reform Temple opened in Hamburg in 1819 – almost two centuries ago.  The Conservative movement in the USA is over a century old. The nineteenth century saw fierce battles for control of European Jewish communities. But for the overwhelming majority of Jews outside Israel, those battles are over. Hitler y”ms, and in a different way, Israel, put an end to those arguments.  We agree to disagree.  

The obliteration of European Jewry, and the rise of North American Jewry, also changed the map.  In America, the Orthodox were the last to arrive and the last to organize – and unlike almost every other Jewish community in the world, the Orthodox were, and still are, only a minority in the Jewish population. (And among them, a sizeable proportion are either non-Zionist or anti-Zionist.)
Here are some points to consider:

Most important, in my view:  there is barely any such thing as secular Judaism in ‘chutz la’aretz’.  Whether they are near or far from Jewish observance, or Jewish tradition, most Jews still define their Jewishness as somehow connected to religion.  Many, if not most, also see “Israel” as representing the center of Judaism and Jewishness. (It is a central paradox of Jewish history that Israel itself, for all sorts of reasons, does not necessarily share this self-image).  If central figures in Israel – Chief rabbis, Cabinet Ministers – tell the Jewish masses that they are not Jewish, or their Jewishness is unacceptable – the natural reaction will be “Then why should I bother?  If Israel doesn’t want me – fine.  I don’t have to be Jewish – and I don’t have to bother supporting Israel any more!”  

Israel totally misjudges what will ‘turn off’ American Jews from Israel.  Life, and allegiance, is about emotions. The sort of public pronouncements referred to above, the sight of women being arrested by Israeli police because they want to pray at the Kotel, horror stories regarding the discrediting of conversions, or announcements about the ‘right not to work’, not to serve in the Army, and the ‘right’ to live off the public purse - all impact more on the American psyche (including – make no mistake – many Orthodox psyches) than security or political issues.  The former affect the most important beliefs we hold, and most Jews regard the latter as matters for Israelis to decide.

The organized political and financial support for Israel in the USA comes overwhelmingly from non-Orthodox Jews.  Alienate them at your peril.  The lukewarm, politically motivated non-reaction from Prime Minister Netanyahu to the latest broadsides is grievously misjudged.  If Israel claims the attachment and support of all Jews – it has to be a country for all Jews (and all of its citizens). A broad umbrella (Israel) must be inclusive and friendly, not exclusive and insulting.

History has overtaken denominational arguments.  Whether Reform and Conservative Judaisms (and other, smaller streams) were originally founded to keep Jews in the fold when they were already leaving in huge numbers (which I believe is historically accurate), or whether they were founded to offer ‘easy exit’ (the official Orthodox line) is irrelevant.  Nowadays we coexist (sometimes uneasily), recognise our differences, recognize our overwhelming common interests, and respect the positive in each others’ programs.   

Diaspora Jewry, including Orthodoxy (especially outside NY/NJ, whether it admits it or not) faces huge, and real, practical challenges in a rapidly changing Jewish world.  How should synagogues, families and individuals relate to interfaith families? (The flood of seasonal ‘Chrismukkah’ articles seems more this year than I ever remember.)  Or the changing Jewish family?  Or changing gender norms?  How do we deal with BDS?  How do we keep being Jewish affordable, especially to young families?  What is the future of synagogues?   In all of this, we look to Israel for constructive and sympathetic support – not negativity and aggression.

We may agree or respectfully agree to disagree with Jews of different beliefs and denominations to our own.  We – and especially those in public positions - do not have to be insulting, or sneering, or aggressive, or rude.  Making wild statements which are barely, if at all, grounded in contemporary reality, are not helpful.  

Does anyone really believe that a Conservative day school in today’s Jewish community is anything other than a positive force for Judaism?  (That an Israeli Chief Rabbi is attacking Diaspora Jewish day schools – of whatever allegiance -  is in itself surreal.) Do our Israeli brothers know that many teachers at non-Orthodox day schools are Orthodox?  Or that many Orthodox rabbis lecture and take part in joint programs with Conservative and Reform rabbis? 

A more jaundiced observer might also comment that Mr. Azoulay, Rabbi Lau, Rabbi Eliyahu and Yated Ne’eman have more than enough work to do in Israel itself before commenting on a community of which they are clearly ignorant.

Finally, a personal note.  A few weeks ago I underwent serious surgery, from which, thank G-d, I am well on the way to recovery.  But as a result, I learned to appreciate more those beautiful, more meditative and more personal first opening pages of Shaharit, before the ‘brachot’.  One of the very first blessings we say on beginning prayer in the morning, part of the ‘Birkat haTorah’ is ‘Veha’arev na…’ – “… make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of your people, the house of Israel….”  

It is good advice.  And, whatever you wish to say, if you cannot speak ‘b’darchei noam’ – consider remaining silent.

Paul Shaviv, after many years of heading Jewish Day Schools, is a management consultant for independent schools and NFP’s.