“I am deeply saddened that someone in his position of authority would talk that way about other Jews,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, this week about comments of Israel’s newly installed Orthodox minister of religious services that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish.
Rabbi Panken was speaking a day after his return from Israel where he welcomed a new class of 150 men and women who will be studying to be rabbis, cantors and educators at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Founded in 1875, HUC-JIR is the academic, spiritual and professional leadership development center for Reform Judaism. Since 1971, it has required a year of study in Israel for its students.
David Azoulay, minister of religious services and a member of the Shas party, said on Israeli Army Radio, as reported prominently in the New York Times: “The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem. I cannot call such a person a Jew.”
“Prime Minister Netanyahu reprimanded him and there are people in my movement calling for his dismissal,” said Rabbi Panken. He said he, too, was for Azoulay’s dismissal as minister of religious services. “He might have personal opinions but to state them in his position is completely, 100 percent inappropriate.”
In a letter to Netanyahu, leaders of the Reform movement in Israel called on the Prime Minister to “declare a government policy that respects all the streams of Judaism in Israel and abroad.” Netanyahu rejected Azoulay’s remarks calling them “hurtful” and said “they do not reflect the position of the government,” according to the Times.
Rabbi Panken said that Azoulay’s stand on Reform Jews is “inappropriate on both the philosophical and the utilitarian levels.” There’s a “much larger majority of Jews around the world who are in the liberal movement than people who are not. To disenfranchise the majority of the Jewish community like this is obscene.”
Also, he pointed to a poll done in Israel “in the wake” of Azoulay’s comments tat found that 12 percent of Israelis “would affiliate with the Reform movement and that’s actually higher than the 9 percent who said they would affiliate with the ultra-Orthodox stream.”
Moreover, as minister of religious services, Azoulay “ought to protect the freedom of every Israeli and every Jew in the world to worship as they see fit and interpret traditions as they see fit.”
Israel, said Rabbi Panken, “should strive for religious pluralism,” not just “tolerance” but a pluralism under which “those who disagree with us should be respected to live lives according to their beliefs.” He said: “I think at the moment we are taking strides backwards from moving towards pluralism.”
He connected the Azoulay situation with police recently preventing a woman from wearing a kippah at the Kotel and also the Ministry of Religious Affairs being allowed by the government to “effectively take control” of the process of conversion in Israel. “Israel should be a Jewish democracy and democracies protect individuals and their rights to exercise religious freedom,” said Rabbi Panken.
Rabbi Panken, who in addition to being HUC-JIR president has taught Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature at its center in New York since 1995, noted that the Talmud “is full of multiple opinions of people who disagree with each other” and provides for “the opposing opinion to be preserved.” This is the “authentic Jewish spirit of pluralism” that needs to be “nourished in the state of Israel.”
He said “I feel for” the Israel government and understands how the new Netanyahu coalition is “tenuous at best” including 13 members of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox political parties.
But this, said Rabbi Panken, who lived in Israel from 1986 to 1987 and has visited the state “50 or 60 times,” should not result in the government “limiting the rights” of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews.