Both the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly have issued statements condemning comments made by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi about non-Orthodox Judaism and its practitioners.
On June 17, Rabbi Shlomo Amar said in an interview with the haredi Kol Berama radio station that he would fight Israel’s recent agreement to pay the salaries of some non-Orthodox rabbis who lead their communities.
“The greatest danger for our generation is the danger of assimilation, and we need to be strong and steadfast in our fight,” Rabbi Amar said. “It is forbidden to remain silent because there is nothing more serious than this measure.”
He also said the decision to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis could “uproot all the foundations of the Torah.”
JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman said in the organization’s statement that it’s “a fundamental Jewish virtue to ‘love your fellow as yourself.’ We condemn comments that disparage fellow Jews and, in particular, well-established branches of Judaism that represent 80 per cent of North American Jewry.”
The Rabbinical Assembly expressed concern over what it called Rabbi Amar’s “incendiary language [which] can result in devastating consequences.” The RA’s statement recalls the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by an Orthodox Jew.
It describes Rabbi Amar’s subsequent remarks in a letter issued on Israeli government stationery as a “threat to Masorti rabbis’ physical safety, not only their personal integrity.” The letter, addressed to Israeli rabbis, called for a rally at Rabbi Amar’s office on June 26 to stop those “who uproot and destroy Judaism.”
Rabbi David Seed of Adath Israel Congregation, a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Ontario region, said that Rabbi Amar’s comments on the radio show that the chief rabbinate – which he described as an anachronism, “is really out of touch with so much of the Israeli Jewish population… Rather than bringing people closer to Judaism, they have turned people away.”
Rabbi Martin Lockshin, one of the few Orthodox rabbis who belongs to the Toronto Board of Rabbis, told The CJN that while he disagrees with many stands taken by Conservative and Reform rabbis, they “have been instrumental in providing strong Jewish identity to many Jews who were not interested in what Orthodox Judaism has to say to them.”
He said he thinks Rabbi Amar’s characterization of Conservative and Reform rabbis is “totally inappropriate and inaccurate.”
Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, who is also Orthodox, said the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel “do not pose any threat to Judaism. Their leadership is characterized by wonderful people who are intensely devoted to the future of Jewish life, but who have a different vision of religion.”
He said Rabbi Amar’s remarks “are an indication of a mindset which reveals an ignorance of what is really motivating young people.”
Rabbi Poupko added that the funding of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel, “while not fully equitable, is a move toward a more equitable position.” However, he noted, he would prefer to see no funding of rabbis at all, because he believes religion and politics should be kept separate.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, newly elected president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, said it is “ridiculous, and a distortion of history” to imagine that assimilation is a result of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Frydman-Kohl added that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the TBR, which had not taken any position on Rabbi Amar’s remarks.
Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Toronto’s Temple Sinai Congregation, who has been following the issues in the Israeli press, is not surprised by Rabbi Amar’s comments.
He said he finds it sad that the salaries for non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel have to come from the Ministry of Sport and Culture. “All the other rabbis are funded through the Ministry of Religion,” he noted. That discrepancy, Rabbi Dolgin believes, “shows how far we have yet to go.”
In an email to The CJN, Rabbi Steven Garten, spiritual leader of Ottawa’s Temple Israel and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Canadian region, also criticized Rabbi Amar.
“Reform and Conservative congregations throughout the world bring Jews to Torah and the mitzvot. They reach out to those that Rabbi Amar would leave behind, because they will not affirm his narrow interpretation of Judaism,” he said.
“Rather than see Reform or Conservative synagogues or their Rabbis as a challenge to the future of Judaism, one should see that the Orthodox establishment [in] the State of Israel is a danger to Jewish survival.”
Rabbi Garten added: “Rabbi Amar does not have a monopoly on holiness… his arguments are not l’shem Shamayim.”
With files from JTA