Seeking to answer the religious pluralism symposium question — “Can We Jews Get Along?” — three leading rabbis of different denominations posited a cautiously hopeful response. Despite strong ideological disagreements, they addressed the need to work toward change within the nexus of religion-state relations in Israel.
Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, chancellor of the Reform Hebrew Union College and Jewish Institute of Religion, advocated doing away with the chief rabbinate in Israel, and adopting an American style pluralism in the Jewish state.
Rabbi Saul Berman, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and director of Edah, a fledgling Modern Orthodox think tank, while not addressing the chief rabbinate directly, acknowledged that there are elements of the The JewishWeek.com on Facebook religion-state relationship that are “destructive,” and advocated “evolutionary change” to be decided by Israelis themselves.
But Rabbi Berman defended past accomplishments that resulted from the mix of politics and religion, such as providing Jewish education in public schools and common standards for marriage, divorce and kashrut in Israeli society, and argued against a negative, revisionist view.The symposium last Sunday morning was the culminating event of a four-day conference held in New York by Tel Aviv University, and was co-sponsored by The Jewish Week. Dr. Yoram Dinstein, president of Tel Aviv University, moderated the program, and three Jewish Week contributors — Stewart Ain, a staff writer, and columnists Francine Klagsbrun and J.J. Goldberg — posed questions to the rabbis.
Dinstein, whose university last year built a unique twin-synagogue structure, one for Orthodox prayer and one for non-Orthodox, asserted at the outset that tolerance and understanding are the only ways to avoid “the fatal collision” of religious and secular cultures in Israel.Rabbi Berman, speaking first to an audience of several hundred at the Plaza Hotel, said that after 50 years of incredibly productive cooperation among world Jewry, we are at risk of destroying it all over religious divisiveness. He said it is time to stop talking of pluralistic Judaism, a well-meaning but false concept based on giving equal weight to each of several competing ideologies, and to replace it with the notion of pluralistic Jewry.“We need to find how to create tolerance among Jews who disagree strongly about what God wants of us,” Rabbi Berman said. “We need to persuade each other with honesty and love, and we must not tolerate physical or verbal violence.”Rabbi Gottschalk called for “a separation of church and state in Israel, however long it takes”; the “disestablishment of the chief rabbinate,” which he said is unnecessary in a democratic society; secular alternatives for marriage and divorce, which are under the authority of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel; and equal status for all denominations.
He noted that he was the first rabbi to ordain women in Israel, 25 years ago, “because it was the right thing to do,” and predicted that Orthodoxy someday will also ordain women.Rabbi Schorsch began his presentation distinguishing between the political experiences of Central European Jews, who were exposed to emancipation, and Eastern European Jews, who were not. He pointed out that the American Jewish tradition, affording equality to all denominations, is based on the Central European experience, while Israel’s founders, who established the chief rabbinate, came from Eastern Europe.Religious pluralism, which Rabbi Schorsch advocates, is “a level playing field in which one group doesn’t have an advantage over the others.” He said that it should be the model for post-emancipation Jewish societies, and asserted it already functions as such in America.
The Conservative leader charged that the chief rabbinate, by converting only 300 of hundreds of thousands of former Russians in Israel, is “undermining” the government’s inclusive immigration policy and has become “dysfunctional.”During the question-and-answer segment of the program, Rabbi Schorsch defended the use of blunt rhetoric to describe this “grievous issue.” He said it was “not a matter of name calling, but addressing a structural problem that threatens to tear us apart, and you can’t paper over hard divisions with saccharine.” What promotes hatred is power, he said, and “Orthodox power in Israel is corrupting the relationship” with other Jews.
Rabbi Gottschalk acknowledged that the Reform movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent was done too hastily, and noted that there is a move “back toward some form of halachic Judaism” among younger Reform rabbis. Reform Judaism is “in a stage of major redefinition,” he said, seeking to accommodate both tradition and autonomy.Rabbi Berman acknowledged that “religion in Israel has become overly politicized,” and said that Israelis themselves must work out a new religion-state relationship. He emphasized, though, that democracy and Judaism are not incompatible. In response to an impassioned statement by Rabbi Gottschalk, claiming that Israel cannot be a democracy when it tolerates the verbal and physical violence against egalitarian Jews seeking to pray at the Western Wall, Rabbi Berman said that he had been subjected to such abuse during civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala., in the 1960s. Rather than spending time dwelling on what happened to him, he said, “I got on with my mission, and it’s important to get past this and figure out how we can work together.”