A Reform Jew Speaks Out

This open letter by a Reform Jew to his co-religionists (rejected by non-Orthodox publications) is a heartening demonstration that opinions vary within the ranks of all groups embroiled in the controversy over pluralism in Israel.

On the face of it, the desirability, even the need, to establish religious pluralism in Israel is a given.  The state of Israel is a democracy.  How then, can Jewish freedom of religion be denied?  How, morally, can one religious movement in Israel — the Orthodox — hold a monopoly over the performance of marriages, conversions, burials and all other religious functions, thereby withholding these rights from the rabbis of the Reform and Conservative movements?  Something is clearly amiss here.

Or is it?  Will the realization of pluralism be good for the State of Israel and the Jewish people?  Because the State of Israel is not a mirror image democracy of the United States, but rather a democratic Jewish state with a theocratic dimension, Israel has one official religion — Orthodox Judaism — practiced and lived daily by a million of its citizens, and observed in some measure by all of its Jewish citizens.

Enter pluralism, should it come to pass, and Israel will no longer have Orthodox Judaism as its official religion, and the underpinnings of our ancient foundation will begin to crumble as the authenticity of our religious claim to the Land is eroded and challenged.  The challenge will come mainly because of the selectivity of our Reform and Conservative movements, which have excerpted from our Torah, those parts which they consider meaningful and appropriate.  The argument, by those so disposed, is that if you can pick and choose from the Torah, discarding some elements, then who is to say that our Deed to the Land of Israel cannot be discarded, as well.

No one can predict the practical importance or effect of the realization of pluralism in Israel, should it come to pass.  But it can be said, with certainty, that the result will be a weakening of our historic claim to the Land, and all that that implies.

For example, might the advent of pluralism have negative implications with regard to our precious Law of Return, which gives any Jew, anywhere, the right to emigrate to Israel, as a full citizen?  The foundation of this right is our recorded Deed, attested to by God, in covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, described in detail in our Torah.  The authenticity of our Deed is under constant challenge by much of the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant movements, who subscribe to “Replacement Theology,” which discards Jews and Israel as irrelevant, having been replaced by Christians and the Church.  These groups pass off the State of Israel as nothing more than a geographical entity.  Such theological sleight-of-hand might strike some as whimsically offensive, but it has been, and is, prevalent in Christian doctrine, and, indeed, paved the way for the Holocaust.

Now in the same vein, we have the Palestinian Authority promoting revisionist versions of the Bible, contending that the Jews have no claim to the Land of Israel, denying an ancient presence, and claiming even that Jesus was not a Jew, but a Palestinian.  This venom is spewed forth over the Palestinian Authority’s internet sites, with the clear political purposes of severing the Jews’ historic ties to the Land of Israel — the underpinning, not only of the Law of Return, but of our very claim to the Land.

Whatever contempt and resentment some of us might feel toward the Orthodox for their abuse of power in Israel, and their medieval garb — which, incidentally, most of us react to as quaint when worn by the Amish — we must acknowledge that it is only the Orthodox who effectively contradict the false, revisionist Christian and Arab claims.  Because the Orthodox accept, and live by our Torah as it is written, they are a living testament to the authenticity and uninterrupted continuity of our history in the Land from time immemorial.

It can be said with certainty that the pursuit and potential realization of pluralism in Israel will spark a Jewish religious war the likes of which will parallel that which led to the destruction of the Second Temple, and the dispersion of our people.

As if these considerations are not enough to set aside the pursuit of pluralism at this time, consider that Jewish continuity here at home is under siege, and cries out for the undivided, undiluted, concentrated focus and attention of our Reform and Conservative movements, which has not been forthcoming, because of the diversion of what is, in truth, an internecine “foreign” war from which no winner will emerge — Orthodox, Conservative or Reform — and from which the casualties will be enormous.  The casualties will be, we, the Jewish people; all of us.

Have our rabbis and Jewish leaders asked themselves if the pursuit of pluralism at this time is good for the Jewish people and our State of Israel?  It seems not.

Sometimes things that seem so clearly desirable on the face of it, are not unmitigated blessings.

Robert Israel Lappin

Swampscott, Massachusetts


The writer is a member of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, and past president of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, MA.

And More…

Received via e-mail:

Unlike some Orthodox Jews in Israel, I am proud of my Conservative and Reform roots, and I am also proud of the fact that I had the opportunity to participate in many Havurah and Reconstructionist learning opportunities as I was making the decision as to where I would wind up religiously.

I am also proud of the fact that the Israeli government recognizes and participates in the funding of 62 Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist shuls in Israel.

That is real pluralism in action.

Tragically, however, each of these movements are spreading the word that they cannot function in Israel.

It is one thing for Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements to conduct a lobby that calls for their rabbis to be allowed to perform marriages and conversions in Israel.  They will of course run into the problem that their own movements in Israel will not recognize standards that at times allow for same-sex marriages, interfaith marriages and recognition of patrilineal descent.

It is quite another thing to use a dishonest and tendentious disinformation campaign, which is convincing good Jews all over the world that a decision has been made by the Israeli government to withdraw recognition from Reform or Conservative Judaism.

The fact that the Conservative and Reform shuls function freely in Israel with Israeli government licensing and partial funding is simply not known.  Their methods that these movements have used to demonize Israel as if it has disenfranchised non-Orthodox Judaism have been less than appropriate.

The most blatant example was the full-page ad taken out in every major Jewish paper in North America that claimed that Israel recognized 16 branches of Christianity and would not recognize anything but Orthodox Judaism.

Is there someone with a conscience within the Reform or Conservative world who is willing to speak up on this matter and clear the air?

David S. Bedein, MSW

Media Research Analyst

Jerusalem, Israel

This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.
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