Whose Judaism Is It, Anyway?

Whose Judaism Is It, Anyway?

For the sake of religious freedom, Jews in Israel should be allowed to select the rabbi of their choice for marriages, conversions and burial, argued Manhattan businessman David Arnow.

For the sake of Jewish unity, there must continue to be only one recognized form of Judaism in Israel — Orthodoxy — countered Jerusalem writer Jonathan Rosenblum.

The two men presented their opposing views last Thursday morning during a spirited one-hour discussion at the 92d Street Y sponsored by The Jewish Week. It was the eighth in a series of public forums on topics of current interest sponsored by the newspaper and moderated by its editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt.

The discussion, which was attended by more than 200 people, came just days before the release of a report by an Israeli commission, headed by Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman, attempting to resolve the conversion issue in Israel.

In his remarks, Rosenblum pointed out that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, conferred on Israel’s chief rabbinate control of all matters of personal status “because it was paramount for him that the people of Israel remain one people.”

He noted that he grew up in a Conservative household and had some rabbinic training at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary before deciding to become Orthodox.

“Until I was 25, I never met a religious Jew,” he said, adding that he cannot be accused of lacking empathy toward or understanding of non-Orthodox Jews. “We’re talking of most of my family and most of those dearest to me.”

What he laments today, said Rosenblum, is that the Jewish lineage of those with whom he grew up will be “coming to an end in this generation or the next” because of assimilation and deviations from Orthodoxy. In fact, he said, there are even fundamental disagreements between Reform and Conservative Jews themselves.

Rosenblum, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, explained that although the Reform movement in the United States recognizes patrilineal descent (considering as a Jew those children born of either a Jewish mother or Jewish father and who is raised as a Jew), the Reform movement in Israel does not, nor does the Conservative movement. And traditional Conservative Jews will not recognize conversions performed by more liberal Conservative rabbis if a woman was on the panel that presided at the conversion.

“By the year 2050, there will be 1 million Jews [left] in America,” he asserted. There are now about 5.5 million.

Arnow, a past president of the New Israel Fund, maintained that Israel was founded 50 years ago as a nation free of discrimination that offered opportunities to all Jews.

“People in Israel ought to have a full range [of options] in terms of building a Jewish identity,” everything from archaeology to the study of mitzvot, said Arnow, vice president of UJA-Federation. “It’s not the state’s responsibility to force one group’s view of Judaism over another. There are 16 types of Christianity in Israel. That policy works for Christians, it should work for Jews as well.”

He said a widely reported proposal of the Neeman Commission — involving the establishment of a joint conversion school and an Orthodox bet din or court to approve conversions — “is not the ultimate but it is a good balance” between the interests of all concerned. (The proposal is now being studied by the chief rabbinate.)

Both Arnow and Rosenblum had statistics at the ready to support their views. Arnow said that between 200,000 and 300,000 Israelis identify themselves as “progressive Jews” and that the status quo was not satisfactory for them. Rosenblum, noting that 17 percent of Israelis said in a recent poll that they had become closer to Judaism, quipped: “We will be lucky if in America 17 percent of the Jews don’t disappear.”

He added that the 30,000 Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel maintain that halacha or Jewish law “is not the definitive form of Judaism.”

Asked by Rosenblatt what they would tell the Neeman Commission if they had the chance, Rosenblum said: “To become a citizen of the Jewish people, we [must] accept the Torah and make it binding upon us.” He said that meaningful Judaism should not be about lifestyles and personal choices, but about observance of the laws given at Mt. Sinai.

Arnow said a survey recently found that about 64 percent of Israelis support the notion of religious pluralism in Israel.

“Compromise is not a dirty word,” said Arnow, insisting that in this context “it is a holy word.” He noted that “Judaism has survived in all kinds of political structures and it can in the democracy of Israel.”

Both speakers commented on the importance of engaging in dialogues and debates that emphasized tolerance. Rosenblum noted that if such a forum were to be held in Israel, it would doubtless end up in a shouting match, with at least one participant walking out.

Audience members applauded each of the speakers, and seemed impressed with the diverse makeup of the standing-room-only crowd. Rosenblatt explained that the purpose of such forums was to advance The Jewish Week’s goal of “not only covering the community, but being part of the community,” and of being as inclusive as possible in reaching Jews of all beliefs and viewpoints.

During the give-and-take of the program, Rosenblum criticized the Supreme Court in Israel for attempting to take on more power for itself than it was entitled to. Arnow responded that 83 percent of Israelis recently told a pollster that they had faith in the Supreme Court, while only 28 percent expressed a similar view about the Knesset and 33 percent about the government.

Rosenblum offered statistics to show how few Reform Jews have been to Israel. Arnow noted that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had never made the trip.

Asked if he was prepared to “jettison 80 percent of the Jewish people who do not favor halacha,” Rosenblum replied that he was not prepared to “jettison a single Jew. Our view is that we need every Jew to fulfill his potential within the parameters of halacha.”

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