The Jewish People are perhaps the world’s oldest people. Much of the reason for that can be found in our shared traditions and religious practices. Yet today, the inevitable differences in religious practices are creating a dangerous divisiveness in our tiny tribe.
I say inevitable because there have always been divisions among our people. It is in our nature. Jewish culture values education, discussion and debate, research and study. And, for most of the last 2,000 years, the Jewish People were exiled all over the world, so that religious practices have evolved along geographical lines.
Today, however, this divergence of practice has presented us with a problem as a people, and the presence of the State of Israel, where half of us live, has centralized religious practice in a way not seen since the Second Temple period.
Several months ago, the Jewish world shook with the news that the Kotel compromise agreement had been abrogated by the Israeli government at the behest of the haredi parties, while greater powers were put into the hands of the rabbinate. These decisions were accompanied by the statement of a former chief rabbi of Israel that “Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers,” a statement that was accompanied by other derogatory comments.
At the time, I wrote an op-ed for The CJN that pointed out that the diminution of progressive Judaism by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate is problematic because the majority of non-Israeli Jews who are supporters of Israel might then find it more difficult to maintain their passion for the Jewish state if the definition of what is a legitimate Jew does not include them.
However, the denigration of progressive Judaism does not just exist in Israel. The problem exists in the Diaspora as well, as evidenced by the treatment afforded by the Orthodox community to those who have converted under the guidance of non-Orthodox rabbis. For instance, if someone adopts a son who is converted by a Reform rabbi, and that son later wishes to marry an Orthodox girl, that girl’s Orthodox rabbi is unlikely to agree to perform the marriage without the male undergoing a second, Orthodox, conversion. Similar principles are in operation when one compares the treatment of those who are pronounced Jewish based on patrilineal descent, as compared with the more restrictive matrilineal descent, which is the basis of who is a Jew under Orthodoxy.
I respect the Orthodox for their dedication to tradition and for their approach to Judaism. I think Orthodoxy is a necessary component of the fabric of the Jewish People. But for the health of the Jewish People as a whole, it is not sufficient. The progressive forms of Judaism do not reject Orthodox Judaism, nor suggest that it is invalid, nor do they reject Orthodox Jews. They wish to be Jewish in their own way, and they accept the rights of others to be Jewish in their way.
The Orthodox, on the other hand, have a hard time accepting the practice of Judaism in other, what they might regard as “lesser,” forms. That should not be a surprise. If you firmly believe in the rules by which you should live, and believe those rules are fundamental to being Jewish, the corollary is that you will be inclined to regard those who do not follow those rules as less Jewish, or perhaps not Jewish at all.
So we have a problem. And it is a problem which, like the fall of the Second Temple, is already weakening the Jewish People more than any physical enemy.
Where does the onus lie? There is little the non-Orthodox can do to solve the problem. I believe the onus falls on those who are rejecting to find ways of accepting. That means creative thinking, dialogue and a willingness to accept that which is inconsistent with one’s belief system.