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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Rabbis II

Galilee Diary #469, December 9, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

I have indeed removed them far among nations and have scattered them among the countries and I have become to them a diminished sanctity [or small sanctuary] in the countries whither they have gone...
-Ezekiel 11:16

Rabbi Isaac says "a small sanctuary" refers to synagogues and houses of study... -Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megilah 29a

One of the most interesting challenges facing us as we think about the recruitment and training of Reform rabbis in Israel is the difference between the synagogue in the Diaspora and the synagogue in Israel. Consider:

  • In Israel, Hebrew is the spoken language; the prayerbook, the sermon, the Torah reading are all in Hebrew, and every child who attends public school can read Hebrew fluently.

  • In Israel, even the "secular" public schools are not only conducted in Hebrew, but teach Bible and Jewish history and even some Jewish philosophy.

  • In some ways here, the state replaces the Jewish community of the Diaspora (e.g., by providing Jewish education, kashrut supervision, etc.); but even where it doesn't, people live in Jewish communities, hang out with Jewish friends, have to look pretty hard to find non-Jews to date - all without a connection to a synagogue. Community centers are busy with cultural, youth, and athletic activities that reflect on a basic cultural level their Jewish identities.

In other words, the synagogue here has a fairly minimal role in formal education, culture and communal life, and is to a large extent limited to being a house of prayer, and a venue for adult study. The local Orthodox rabbi is often a government employee who serves the local synagogue which is primarily a house of prayer and adult study - and he fulfills the traditional role of mainly an authority on Jewish law, a teacher of adults, and "spiritual counselor" (i.e, chaplain). He often is not the person who leads prayer, a function shared by many competent members of the community.

Reform synagogue culture is different, and our rabbis are different: while our rabbis, too, are spiritual counselors and teachers, their main role is often not legal authority, but rather prayer leader. The interesting question for me is: is this enough? Given the different nature of Jewish life here, should we perhaps be thinking of different models of rabbi - rabbis whose rabbinates are more integrated into public life - as public school principals, journalists, professors, even politicians? While there is certainly a need for congregational rabbis here, I wonder, if we really want transform Israeli society, if that should be the only - or the main - game in town...

Moreover, in the past ten years or so there has been a flowering of "Jewish renewal" communities - mainly expressed in large gatherings of un-synagogued Jews who define themselves as "secular" but who enthusiastically participate in neo-Chassidic style Kabbalat Shabbat and holiday services in community centers and even on the Tel Aviv boardwalk. These are explicitly not Reform congregations. But what are they? And the people who take a two-year training course (at a "secular" Jewish study institute) to be leaders of such congregations - are they rabbis? Will their congregants treat them as rabbis? Does it matter? Should we try to co-opt this incipient movement?

We used to complain that Israel was polarized between Orthodox and "secular," but at least then we knew where we stood. Now as options for Jewish identity and affiliation are multiplying, defining a Reform Jew gets more complex and interesting.

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