News this past week about Israel’s willingness to finally provide financial support to the liberal streams of Judaism was considered a victory for them. While it was indeed something to celebrate, I found myself ambivalent about the wisdom of this effort. Israel being an open and democratic society that enjoys freedom of religion ought to extend the same benefits to the liberal movements of Judaism as it does to other faiths. Why should Reform and Conservative Judaism be stigmatized and denied its fundamental rights? On the other hand, the Orthodox rabbinate have had a monopoly on Jewish practice since 1948, claiming that the liberal movements aren’t operating with the best interest of Judaism at heart. Furthermore, they believe that Judaism is defined by an intricate web of Halacha defining us as a people, guiding us from the cradle to the grave and beyond. The liberal movements, the Orthodox contend, do not embrace that system and as such shouldn’t be recognized.
While the Orthodox rabbinic leadership is overstating their case, there is unfortunately something to their claim. It is hard to defend the liberal movements in view of some of their controversial rulings that have created a rift between the orthodox and the reform. Patrilineal descent has become one of the key markers in determining “who is a Jew” for the Reform movement. Since the time of Ezra, as Jews returned from the Diaspora, matrilineal descent was the standard by which offspring were defined as Jews. Inconvenient as this was for Reform Judaism due to the high rate of intermarriage and the need to stem assimilation, they injected patrilineal descent into the mix on par with matrilineal descent as a means of defining one’s Jewishness. In effect, this has created in America a difficult chasm to bridge between Jewish people seeking mates across the denominational divide. This gratuitous ruling on their part hasn’t endeared them to the Orthodox rabbinate. On the other hand, my inner pluralistic, tolerant self believes that Judaism is an organic system, evolving with time and circumstances designed to meet the needs of its faithful. And just when I am convinced that the Reform and Conservative rabbinate should have an equal voice in the religious life of Israel, they muddy up the waters.
A few weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg married a non-Jewish woman, which shouldn’t have made waves since he was brought up and educated in the Reform movement. Oddly, it bothered a Reform rabbi enough to share her thoughts on the pages of a national Jewish newspaper, which surprised me. After all, who but the Reform have been more instrumental in encouraging exogamy? While the rabbi was concerned with Mr. Zuckerberg’s choice of mate, I was more upset with the rabbi’s remarks. Among other things she said, “It would be hard for me to tell a congregant not to date anyone who was not already Jewish…as we all know, many of the most devoted Reform Jews are non-Jews who married Jews…” With comments like that, I can understand why the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is reluctant to share their power with the liberal movements.
On the other hand, co-opting them into the power structure may force them to rethink some of their theology. And perhaps the door is open considering the closing remarks of that rabbi commenting on Zuckerberg’s wedding when she said: We need to urgently re-evaluate the worldview we are inculcating and whether it is in the best interest of keeping our form of practice alive.” Perhaps it is time that the orthodox community in Israel joins this rabbi in rethinking and perhaps transforming Judaism into a meaningful system by which we can thrive as a people.