I was very surprised to read the The Times of Israel headline last week that the joint Schechter Institute/Jewish Theological Seminary conference on “The State of Israel and the Jews of North America: How Can we Bridge the Gaps?” went “up in flames.” That is not what Tracy Frydberg wrote in her article, nor is that what transpired last Monday.
The day-long conference held at the Schechter Institute campus in Jerusalem to a standing-room-only crowd, and watched by many Jews throughout the world on the internet, was the largest and most successful academic conference held by the Schechter Institute since it was founded in 1984.
Yes, there were disagreements between Rabbi Benny Lau and the other speakers at that particular session of the conference, but the point of the conference was dialogue. You do not dialogue with those you agree with; you dialogue with those you disagree with. That is precisely why, in addition to professors from Schechter and JTS, we invited outside experts from other streams in Judaism, such as Rabbi Lau, MK Rachel Azaria, and Natan Sharansky.
In light of The Times of Israel’s misleading headline and telegraphic summary of what I said, I think it is important to share the four main points I made at the conference.
Israel-Diaspora tension is nothing new
First, it’s important to note that Israel-Diaspora tension is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. Talmudic literature contains quite a few descriptions of the tensions between the sages of Israel and Babylon. Resh Lakish said to a sage who had made aliyah from Babylon, “I hate you” Babylonians, because you should have made aliyah en masse in the days of Ezra, instead of making aliyah as individuals now (Yoma 9b). Similarly, Hillel the Elder was called “foolish Babylonian” by a group of Israeli Jews on the road (Avot deRabbi Natan, ed. Schechter, p. 55).
On the other hand, some of the Jews of Babylon sound like some Diaspora Jews today. They expressed their local patriotism by trying to give Babylon the same status as the Land of Israel. Specifically: Some said that their exilarch is a direct descendant of the House of David and has a better pedigree than the patriarch in Israel. Others said that the Divine Presence dwells in the synagogues of Hutzal and Shef V’yatev and that the synagogues of Babylon were built from the ruins of the First Temple. Rav Yehudah said that one who makes aliyah from Babylon to Israel transgresses a positive commandment (sic!), and that one who lives in Babylon is considered as one who lives in Israel, while others said one who is buried in Babylon is considered as one who is buried in Israel.
Unity, NOT uniformity
Second, even though Judaism has always been in favor of unity, it has never been in favor of uniformity. On the one hand, our classic sources stress the importance of unity. The prophet Ezekiel prophesied that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel would be reunited (37:16-22), like two sticks being “joined together in your hand…”
This is also stressed in Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber, Nitzavim, pp. 48-49): “If one takes a bundle of reeds, will he be able to break them at one stroke? But if he takes them one by one, even an infant can break them. So too you find that Israel will not be redeemed until they become one bundle…”
On the other hand, our sages taught that pluralism is essential when studying Torah, among people, and within Jewish law.”There are 70 faces to the Torah” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13:15-16). “‘And like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jeremiah 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so may one biblical verse convey many explanations” (Sanhedrin 34a).
Moreover, “our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Jews, say: ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets’ — for the mind of each is different from that of the other, and the face of each is different from that of the other” (Berakhot 58a).
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:2, ed. Venice, fol. 22a) establishes pluralism in Jewish law: Moses wanted God to give him a clear answer to every question. God replied that the sages in every generation must debate every issue and decide by majority vote what to do. Indeed, this is what the sages did.
Thus, the State of Israel has the difficult challenge of striving for unity, without coercing uniformity.
Conversion, as a case in point
My third point: The topic of conversion is a prime example of the halakhic tension between the Jews of Israel and those of North America. Beyond the various political issues, this is primarily a halakhic disagreement. Many Modern Orthodox rabbis, all Conservative rabbis, and many Reform rabbis follow the normative and lenient halakhic position found in Yevamot 47a-b: when a person comes to convert, you try to dissuade him.
If he replies “I know and yet am unworthy,” he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments… He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments… And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so he is informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment… Kibel [if he accepted/consented], he is circumcised forthwith… As soon as he is healed, arrangements are made for his immediate immersion [in a mikveh], when two learned men must stand by his side and instruct him in some of the minor commandments and in some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects…
This baraita, from the second century or earlier, was quoted or paraphrased by Maimonides (Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 14:1-6), the Tur (Yoreh Deah 268) and the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 268:2).
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is now a Haredi or ultra-Orthodox institution, follows a different, far stricter, talmudic source (Bekhorot 30b):
Our Sages taught: …if an idol worshipper came to accept (lekabel) the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him. R. Yossi b”r Yehudah says: Even if the exception be one of the minutiae of the Scribes (i.e., the sages).
Even though all of the major medieval codes of Jewish law ignored this passage, it was revived by 19th-20th century ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who wanted to reject most would-be converts.
If the Chief Rabbinate and Haredi rabbis want to follow this very strict approach to conversion for their own constituents, that is perfectly fine. That is part of the halakhic pluralism described above. But, during the past 20 years, they have imposed the uniformity of their very strict approach on all potential converts in Israel and on all converts who make aliyah. Worse, they no longer recognize most of the Orthodox conversions conducted in North America! Since 2008, the Israeli Rabbinate recognizes only 15 Orthodox batei din, composed of 40 specific rabbis. This stringency is without precedent in all of Jewish history.
The solution of kehillot/communities
This situation of coerced uniformity leads me to my proposed solution: Let us move from a centralized Chief Rabbinate that has no precedent in all of Jewish history (it was set up by the British Mandate in 1920) to a system of parallel Jewish kehillot/communities, which existed for the past 1,900 years, both in the Land of Israel and throughout the Diaspora.
During the talmudic period in the Land of Israel, there was an Alexandrian synagogue in Jerusalem and Babylonian synagogues in Tiberias and Tzippori, which followed their own customs. Rabbi Zeira (ca. 300 CE) was a famous talmudic Zionist, as it were, who made aliyah, and yet — as Prof. Avraham Goldberg has shown — he continued to follow Babylonian customs, though he was in Israel. In the talmudic period, there were differing local laws and customs in Judaea and the Galilee; and there were local Jewish communities which simply followed their own local rabbi.
This pluralism of parallel Jewish communities continued throughout the Middle Ages. Benjamin of Tudela reports that in Cairo, ca. 1170 CE, there was an Israeli synagogue where they completed the Torah reading in three years and a Babylonian synagogue where they completed the Torah reading every year, yet members of both synagogues got together to celebrate Simhat Torah every year.
This tradition of parallel Jewish communities continued in Algiers, Padua, Venice, Verona, Hamburg, London, and elsewhere. Jews lived side-by-side and followed their own traditions regarding kosher slaughter, bigamy, levirate marriage, and the writing of Gittin (Jewish writs of divorce).
Many years ago, I thought that we could reach unity in Israel — a halakhic consensus regarding conversion and other major halakhic issues. It is clear today that this is not possible; there are too many halakhic approaches and the Chief Rabbinate simply wants to impose uniformity. But halakhic pluralism is not the exception in Jewish history; it is the norm. I therefore believe that we should return to the pluralistic kehillah model that served us well in talmudic times in Israel, and throughout the Diaspora until today. Indeed, there are already five conversion courts in Israel: the Chief Rabbinate, Haredi, Modern Orthodox (Giyyur Kehalakhah), Conservative, and Reform. The State of Israel should simply recognize reality and recognize the conversions of these different batei din which represent different Jewish communities.
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is the president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., Jerusalem.