Editorial: Push Me, Pull You

Should religious institutions adapt to changing times or ought they insist on conformance to their traditional practices? It’s a tug of war that has been repeated throughout the ages, with the rope being pulled aggressively to one side or the other.

Right now the stress is playing out on public stages across the world. In the Catholic arena, for instance, there’s tremendous dialogue about whether the church should be more flexible to accommodate the real-world beliefs and conduct of its membership on a number of issues, contraception being only one of them. In a fascinating article in Monday’s New York Times, Bill Keller discusses Catholic League President Bill Donohue’s recent book, “Why Catholicism Matters,” in which the author suggests perhaps “a smaller church” — one whose remaining membership eschews change in favor of dogmatic traditionalism — “would be a better church.”

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A similar issue is now front and center in Israel. A recent determination by the attorney general on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling has enabled a small number of Reform and Conservative rabbis to be officially recognized and paid, alongside the approximately 2,000 Orthodox rabbis already receiving government compensation.

This change has not sat well with certain political and religious leaders, who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox rabbis as credible religious figures. The words of one opponent of the change were called out in a May 30 Jerusalem Post article by Jeremy Sharon: “MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) took aim at the legal system as well as non-Orthodox Jewry in general, wondering how there is money available for the ‘Reform and Conservative clowns, for whom Judaism is a laughingstock.’” (Emphasis added).

We daresay this rhetoric wouldn’t commonly be deployed in addressing an American Jewish audience, at least not without rampant objection. Here, an estimated 60 percent or so of Jews associate with the Reform and Conservative movements, and for many institutions, the focus is on finding any meaningful landing point for Jews within the organized community, amidst a sea of intermarriage, lifestyle choices and geographic transience.

Yet with the religious institutional structure (and government support) squarely in the Orthodox camp, Israel has been topsy turvy from the United States. There, a common choice until recent years for those of a less traditional bent has not been the other movements so much, but rather secular Judaism.

The changes reflected in the new orders from the attorney general are on their face small, despite the potential for what they mean down the road. Even this small advancement for Reform and Conservative rabbis is being funded through a separate ministry from the payments to Orthodox rabbis, and the authority accorded them will be more limited than what’s given the existing rabbinate.

Yet the symbolism is rather striking given the historical context as the Reform and Conservative movements have begun to make inroads to an Israeli population that, like the rest of the connected world, is more knowledgeable about choices and desires empowerment to act in furtherance of those choices.

Moreover, there are those Israeli voices that believe the opposition by some Orthodox leaders and rabbis is fueled not only by religious objection but by allegations of social control in favor of the entrenched system. For instance, as Sharon reported, “Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, chairman of the Knesset Lobby for Pluralism, called the decision ‘a step of great importance in the struggle for pluralism and freedom of religion. Judaism in Israel has been kidnapped for many years by extremist groups who use it as a political instrument and as a source of endless patronage. The time has come to recognize all streams of Judaism and to free the religion from ultra- Orthodox politicos.’”

Regardless of the reasons for the changes, they are welcome and we support them. A more pluralistic Jewish community is a more welcoming one, and lines in the sand, particularly those that chase Jews away from observance or connection with institutions either religious or cultural, are not helpful. Moreover, limiting the official connection of the Israeli government to one strand of Judaism suggests that other movements are less credible or legit, and that sends a fairly damning message to Diasporan Jews who by large numbers engage in their practice through non-Orthodox observance.

We reserve for another day the question of whether and to what extent the government should even be in the funding of rabbis business. For now, we appreciate a move toward a more inclusive approach by Israel toward different movements, and hope that at the very least, having public representation of different strands will over time tone down some of the condescending rhetoric that has been cast by and among Jews in the course of this discussion.