Remarks to Small Congregations Convention Dayton, Ohio -- April 12, 1997
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie UAHC President
I thought that this evening I would share with you a few thoughts about events in the Jewish world during the last five or six weeks. This period has in many ways been the most interesting period in my Jewish life; it sometimes seemed that everyday there would be a new development or a new crisis, each one more extraordinary and outrageous than what had transpired the day before. Sometimes when I awoke in the morning I was seized with a desire to scream out loud: the Jewish world has gone utterly mad.
A week and a half ago, as some of you know, I appeared on CNN with Rabbi Hollender of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, the body that has recently declared Reform and Conservative Judaism to be a fraud. When Rabbi Hollender was escorted into the waiting room in which I was seated, he immediately became agitated. He informed the young woman who escorted him in that he had agreed to come under specific conditions; those conditions were that he would not debate me, he would not appear on a split screen with me, he would not even sit in the same studio with me. He told the producer that if these conditions were not respected, he would walk out. I overheard this exchange, which took place in my presence; at a certain point in the discussion, he turned to me and said: "Nothing personal, of course." Eventually, I was moved to a second studio; his segment was taped first, and then my segment was taped afterward.
Last February, I attended a meeting in Jerusalem of Diaspora leaders and Israeli government ministers, which was chaired by Natan Sharansky. The two ministers of the Orthodox Shas party, including Minister of Religion Suissa, participated; both walked out during the course of the meeting when it became clear to them that Reform and Conservative leaders were present. In a statement to the press the next day, Suissa said that the presence of Reform leaders in the session was sufficient reason for his party to consider leaving the government; he then announced his intention to do everything possible to exclude Reform and Conservative spokespeople from participating in future Knesset and government meetings.
And just when I was certain that our attackers could sink no lower, there appeared - just a few days ago - an editorial in one of the widely read ultra-Orthodox papers in Israel which stated that Reform Jews betrayed the victims of the Holocaust by purposely remaining silent; that after the war they actually rejoiced in the slaughter, using the Holocaust as a vehicle for financial gain; that Reform Jews were farther from Judaism than Moslems, whose adherents at least believe in God; and that Reform rabbis are inflicting a spiritual holocaust on American Jews, motivated by a desire to extract money from those on the verge of assimilation.
What is happening here? What has caused these people to literally demonize us, to turn us - you and me - into the Satans of the Jewish world?
I am realistic about Jewish history; I know that we have always been a contentious people, divided by ideology and religious perspective. Still, we are dealing here with something that, at least in recent experience, is new and shocking. Divisions have multiplied; rancor has replaced civility; and some voices at least seem prepared and even anxious to abandon our traditional sense of K'lal Yisrael - by which I mean our commitment to the totality and the interdependence of the Jewish people. The old Jewish unity, as partial and as fragile as it was, appears to lie shattered, almost beyond repair.
Why has this happened? The answer, I believe, is not difficult to comprehend. When we look closely we see that those who despise us so are those who, literally, still dwell in the ghetto. Those who attack us are the rabbis of Boro Park and Bnei Brak, of Williamsburg and Mea Shearim- rabbis with medieval dress and medieval minds, who cower behind ghetto walls, desperate to maintain what in fact never existed - a pristine Judaism, isolated from the world around us.
And they have failed, of course, utterly and completely. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada comprises a fraction of the Orthodox rabbinate in North America, and in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, despite massive support from the government, still reach only a fraction of the population.
That they should hate us, therefore, should not surprise us. Not only have we succeeded where they have failed, but we represent what they most fear: the affirmation that the Jew is not confined to the ghetto but is a part of the world, responsible both for this people and for all humankind; the belief that the password of the Jew is chesed - kindness, compassion - both to our fellow Jews and to our fellow human beings. It is we who remember and proclaim, after all, that Abraham's prayer to God was concerned with total strangers - the people of Sodom; therefore, as Jews we share in the destiny of our people and in the destiny of the general society.
Judaism is an experience of intoxicating beauty, enriching our lives and inspiring our hearts. It is a rousing experience, this Judaism, cleansing and ennobling the human personality. But it does not point to the ghetto; it does not require that we choose between being a literate Jew and a literate human being. We are the ones who say that Jewish children are teachable in both worlds at the same time, and must do their best to extend kedushah to every niche and corner of the universe.
So this explains why they hate us. And it explains too, I believe, why Reform Jews, and Conservative Jews, responded so angrily to these attacks. Because living behind ghetto walls is not a terribly difficult thing to do. But bringing the great message of Judaism to modern men and women is very difficult indeed. How do you reach today's Jew who has gone astray, lost in his own technological victories and scientific achievements? How do you touch the soul of the modern, sophisticated, and cynical Jew, who sees Judaism as something utterly inconvenient?
This, of course, is the task we have taken on, and the work that you and I do. It is the work of our synagogues. It is why we collect dues, and run Sunday schools, and sponsor adult education. It is also why we support Federations, and love Israel. We are not unaware of the problems, but we continue to heat the Jewish core, in the hope that the heat generated there will radiate in ever-widening circles. And more often than not, we are successful at what we do, connecting the modern Jew - the searching Jew - with a warm and welcoming community.
And I suspect that is why we got so angry. Because the real work of the Jewish community is done by us. Loving the Jewish people, we give of our time and resources to plant respect for Judaism in the hearts of our generation. And while we expect no thanks, at a certain point we are just sick and tired of ugly pronouncements from those who flee from modernity and leave the work to us; we are sick and tired of hearing from these Jews on the margins that our Judaism is not Judaism, and that our rabbis are not rabbis.
Having said all that, let me admit that under other circumstances, our anger would have passed away soon enough. We are not interested in bashing the Orthodox, even the marginal Orthodox who insist on bashing us, and this for the simple reason that we have far too much work to do.
But, when the State of Israel enters the picture, the equation changes. If ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn choose to call us names, it is not a disaster; we are angered, certainly, but the price of pluralism is that even they are entitled to their views. However, when their counterparts in Israel are empowered by law, and that power is not only maintained but extended, then it is impossible to be silent. From the ultra-Orthodox fanatics, we expect nothing; but how do we respond when the Jewish State takes sides in this struggle, when it refuses us both fundamental recognition and respect?
And that is why the fury over the passage of the Conversion bill on its first reading - the bill that denies legitimacy to Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel - even exceeded the fury over the statement by the Orthodox Union.
The Prime Minister and his government do not hate Reform Jews; they do not share the views of the Orthodox extremists in the governing coalition. But they do see the issue as merely an unfortunate political problem, and one that in some measure we brought on ourselves. In a meeting last February, the Prime Minister told me, Jerry Somers and a small group of Reform and Conservative leaders that if we had not challenged the Orthodox monopoly over conversions in the courts, then the Orthodox parties would not have submitted this legislation. In other words, we were responsible. At a meeting this past Monday, the Prime Minister repeated this argument and added another: "We just did not understand the proposed law," he said. "We had misled our Movement. The law would only affect Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, but would have no impact on how conversions done abroad would be seen by Israeli authorities."
To which we replied, with one voice, Reform and Conservative together:
Mr. Prime Minister, it is you who do not understand.
Do you think that we act out of purely selfish motives, that we are only concerned if our own direct interests are affected?
Do you think that we care only for Reform and Conservative Judaism in North America, and not at all for the fate of these movements in the State of Israel?
Do you think that we can be silent when Israel is the only democratic country in the world that discriminates against Reform and Conservative rabbis?
Mr. Prime Minister, we are one people, interdependent in every way, linked by destiny and history. Israel is not simply the State of the Israelis; it is the State of the Jewish people. And you, as Prime Minister, are a leader of the Jewish people. There, please do not misunderstand: if this law passes, your explanations and excuses will carry no weight with the three million Reform and Conservative Jews of North America. They will see this legislation for what it is: a hostile act, directed at Reform and Conservative Jews everywhere, intended to humiliate them and delegitimize their religious movements in the Jewish state.
Did we say it in those words? Yes we did; just those words. And I believe that for the first time, the Prime Minister was listening, and perhaps, just perhaps, was beginning to understand.
I cannot tell you what will happen next. We are insisting that the government withdraw this bill, and that it find some way to register converts who are converted by the liberal movements. We simply do not know if the government will agree. We agreed to have further talks with a Knesset member appointed by the Prime Minister, and the first session took place yesterday. In the near future, we will be able to give you a full report.
I would like to conclude with a few words on what we need to do now.
We need to register every adult member of our congregations to vote in the WZO election, because a massive vote for the ARZA slate will demonstrate the depth of our feeling for the cause of religious pluralism.
We need to convey to the Prime Minister and the members of Knesset our adamant opposition to the passage of the conversion bill.
We need to increase our own support for Reform institutions in Israel, through ARZA and the World Union.
And we need to work with our local Federations, joining with Conservative leaders to request that Federations provide increased direct support to Reform and Conservative programs in the Jewish State. Your role is especially vital here, because it is smaller Federations that have taken the lead in providing this support.
And now let me tell you what we must not do: we must not use recent events as a pretext to distance ourselves from Israel.
Remember the Biblical story: the horrendous sin of the children of Israel in the wilderness was the worship of the Golden Calf - yet that sin was forgiven. But when the Israelites -influenced by the twelve spies - lost faith in ever entering the Land of Israel, that sin was not forgiven, and they were condemned to die in the desert. Since our earliest history, turning our backs on the Land of Israel has meant defying all that we know about Jewish commitment, Jewish thought, and Jewish history.
And remember this: to abandon Israel is to do exactly what the Orthodox parties want us to do - which is to leave the State of Israel to them, and to leave the great majority of Israelis - who are sensible and modern and want no part of extremism - with no Judaism at all.
And this too: to abandon Israel is to take the risk that our Movement - the most creative and dynamic movement on the North American scene - will become a thing apart from the body Jewish - a kind of party, or even sect, rather than a movement within Judaism.
And so we will do exactly the opposite: we will restate and reinforce our connection to Israel, which must remain unconditional, non-negotiable, and utterly independent of any particular government or policy.
But we will not be embarrassed to proclaim that our first priority for Israel - our very first priority - is to bring to Israel a vibrant Reform Judaism that will speak to the religious needs of Israel's people. Our very first priority will be to combat the extremists and the policies of this government - or any government - that offers them support. Our very first priority will be to assert the legitimacy of this great Movement of ours, in Israel and around the world, and to accept absolutely no excuses from those who would deny us our rightful place.
Am I optimistic about the outcome? Of course I am, although some patience will be required. Because Israel is a good country in a bad neighborhood, where the Jews, after 2000 years, are finally on their own. And even though it is a place where occasionally the extremists seem to predominate, it is also a country where, most of the time, the best impulses of its leaders and its people determine the direction of the State.
And - this I firmly believe - those people want the Judaism that we want, that we practice every day, and that our congregations large and small provide:
a Judaism that does not turn away from the life of humankind;
a Judaism committed to the search for the sacred;
a Judaism that teaches us Torah and teaches us hope;
a Judaism that reaches forward to distant days, to a future as bright as any the human mind has ever conceived.
We will not rest until this Judaism, Reform Judaism, is the common possession of the Jewish people, in North America, in Israel, and wherever Jews are found, because on this -and nothing else - the future of our people depends.