Reform and Conservative Jews feel discriminated against in Israel. The rabbinic establishment shuns them. Though the state pays salaries to some non-Orthodox rabbis, it ignores and discriminates against them in many other ways.
Polls indicate many secular Israelis favour equal rights for all religious streams, yet most non-observant Jews choose Orthodox synagogues and rabbis for life-cycle events. Of those who turn to Conservative and Reform congregations, only a few actually join them, and even fewer are actively involved.
Nevertheless, non-Orthodox Jewish movements remain committed to Israel. They show it, for example, by insisting that their rabbinical students spend at least a year there. If some return less than enthusiastic about the state, it may be due to a sense of not really being wanted.
I perceived some of that when I heard a Shabbat sermon last month at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College, which trains Reform Jewish professionals. The weekly portion was Metzora, which deals with an affliction called tzara’at, often erroneously rendered as leprosy but is better identified as “a mysterious and causeless malady that renders you utterly incapable of partaking in society.”
That’s how it was described by the speaker. Sam Kaye is completing a year in Israel before returning to the United States for the rest of his five-year rabbinical training. Referring to the ritual unfitness that may cause the affliction and deem sufferers to be outside the camp yet still inside the Israelite community, he suggested that’s how many Israelis perceive Reform Jews.
I believe he reflects the feelings of most of his fellow students: “All too often, especially in this city, it feels as if Reform Jews are the modern lepers of the traditional Jewish world, described as unfit and unqualified to participate in matters related to spirituality. While we remain in the secular realm, we’re tacitly accepted… but when we desire to enter into the realm of that which is holy, suddenly our infection bubbles to the surface.”
He believes the reason is that “Reform Judaism lifts up a mirror to Jewish society and reminds it of an uncomfortable truth” about the Orthodox establishment. He argued that “those that society has traditionally deemed ‘spiritually unfit’ are actually quite capable of embodying spirituality.”
Kaye seems to have had in mind the “big tent” that Conservative and Reform Judaism advocate. They and other liberal groups seek to make room for as many Jews as possible, irrespective of halachic status and chosen lifestyle.
He urged perseverance in the face of establishment intransigence: “Even if authorities don’t believe in our message or when they invalidate the messenger, it doesn’t change the need to continue holding up the mirror and show our people the flaws, the cracks, and the impurities they would rather pretend did not exist.”
Escape into victimhood is common among those who feel discriminated against. Self-righteousness to the point of claiming higher moral sensitivity than others is part of the defence mechanism.
But Kaye went further. He urged the future Reform rabbis, cantors and educators whom he was addressing to apply the same scrutiny to themselves as they do to others. Our critics, he said, are also holding up a mirror “that is shedding light on our failure to maintain Jewish identity” and they’re sending us a message “eerily similar to our own: ‘turn inward; acknowledge where you have left others behind.’” Instead of self-pity and self-righteousness, he advocated self-scrutiny.
Hence his sober conclusion: “When we demand that others face their reflection, it is fundamental that we do not find ourselves unable to bear that same self-scrutiny when our own turn arrives.” Being victims doesn’t entitle us to be smug. Responding to our critics includes being steadfast in our commitment, yet learning from them, despite their belligerence.
I can think of no more apt way to articulate my own Judaism: stand my ground as a critic, but apply the same rigid standards to myself. I’m grateful for the reminder.