President's Message

A Primer on Pluralism

By Mandell I. Ganchrow, M.D.

Pluralism is a  sensitive topic that has generated intense,  passionate debate, yet basic information about its origins and ramifications has been scarce.  I would therefore like to devote this column to a “primer “ on pluralism.

What is “pluralism”?

The United States of America is a pluralistic society,  a secular country that guarantees freedom to every religion and ethnic group, thus enabling all Americans to thrive. Without pluralism, the American Jewish community could never have prospered to the extent that it has. While America was originally founded on belief in God and the primacy of religion, if this country were to be created today, I believe the Congressional sessions would not begin with a prayer, nor would the words “In God We Trust” be minted on our currency.

Indeed, I would suggest the America of today is a religion-neutral country. While religious neutrality may work well for a country, it dooms a faith. How can we be neutral of  mitzvot?  How can we be neutral on the 13 principles of faith as defined by Maimonides?  How can we be neutral on conversions, gittin or “alternative”  lifestyles?  While we have lived with a pluralistic approach in America, it is with the realization that Torah miSinai is not the religion of our country.  To introduce “religion-neutral” Judaism in Israel as an acceptable alternative to what already has been a 50-year commitment  to authentic Judaism is a destructive folly that we cannot accept.

What is the role of the Chief Rabbinate?

The position of Chief Rabbinate dates back to the British Mandate in Palestine. When the State of Israel was founded, the Chief Rabbinate became an instrument of the government, with the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Chief Rabbis elected by a national electoral college.  The Chief Rabbis serve all of  the people of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate’s authority extends to include one standard of kashruth in the army as well as issues of personal Jewish status such as  marriage, divorce and conversion.

What is the “status quo” in Israel and what are its origins?

In 1948, then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion understood that the survival of a Jewish State depended upon some sort of compromise between conflicting political, religious and nationalistic forces;  a compromise that would be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of citizens. Ben Gurion solicited answers to the “Who is  a Jew?” question from Jewish intellectuals representing varying levels of observance. They almost unanimously concurred that the Orthodox standard should be maintained so as not to divide “one people.”   Ben Gurion was a renowned secularist with a pragmatic appreciation of the fact that secular Judaism will never secure our people as one.  In short, a pluralistic-based theology will divide and not endure.

The status quo had been successfully maintained until a recent case was brought before the Israeli Supreme Court by an individual who had been converted outside Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi. The Supreme Court ruled that it would accept conversions done outside Israel by a non-Orthodox beit din to be valid for the purpose of registration as a Jew with the State, provided the individual previously was part of a Jewish community outside Israel.  However, the Court would not accept as valid a conversion that was done for the purpose of an individual moving to Israel immediately upon his or her conversion or a conversion done through a non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel.

This status quo endured until last year, when cases were again brought before the Supreme Court asking for approval of Reform and Conservative conversions performed within the State of Israel.  The Supreme Court stated that although it was prepared to respond, and that it might indeed rule that such conversions were valid, the Court believed that since this issue has such far-reaching consequences, the Knesset was urged to legislate. If the Knesset refused, then the Court would be prepared to act.

To proceed with the status quo — or  to create an ever-changing, self-defining standard — is the issue that we now address.  It is the proposed enactment of  status quo as law that the Reform and Conservative leaders have been trying to prevent.  Their ultimate goal is for their leadership to achieve equal status with the Rabbanut.  The recent appointment of the Conversion Commission, under Chairman Yaakov Neeman,  is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to resolve this dilemma.

Is  Orthodoxy trying to delegitimize Reform and Conservative Jews?

No!  All Reform and Conservative Jews born Jewish, or converted halachically, are Jews. Halachah requires that the prospective convert accept ohl malchut Shamayim,  the conviction to live a life based upon accepting the yoke of servitude to God and His mitzvot.  The 613 mitzvot  are not a pick-and-choose smorgasbord. Torah observance dictates an “all-or-nothing” approach to enter the Jewish nation. It is far from pluralistic — but  it is this unswerving loyalty to Torah law that has secured our existence for over 3,000 years.

Do Conservative Jews accept all Reform conversions?

Interestingly enough they do not; and it is quite difficult to understand how Conservative leaders can ask Knesset to validate Reform conversion, when they themselves do not accept all Reform converts as Jews. Conservative leaders in Israel were also critical of the recent marriage of two women performed by a Reform rabbi in Eretz Yisrael.  Nor does the Conservative movement accept patrilineal descent. I am certain that no matter how pluralistic the Reform leaders may be, certainly they would not consider Messianic Jews as part of the Jewish people.  In short, an approach in which one considers oneself Jewish with a self-defined baseline, while “pluralistic,” leads to the destruction of the Jewish nation.

Don’t Reform  and Conservative Jews represent a large percentage of Israeli and world Jewry?

Reform and Conservative Jews together represent  a statistically insignificant  percentage of Israeli Jewry.  While most Israelis do not consider themselves Orthodox, they recognize the authenticity of Orthodoxy .  The local lore is that if asked, the average Israeli  would respond, “The synagogue I do not go to is Orthodox.”  Outside of North America, while non-affiliation is rampant, there are few who identify with the Reform or Conservative movements.

Why have so many American organizations entered the pluralism fray?

Primarily because the Reform and Conservative leaders are claiming that they are being delegitimized. The organized American Jewish community, however,  is far from united on the pluralism issue.   The Council of Jewish Federations has endorsed pluralism.  When the American Zionist Movement passed a resolution favoring religious pluralism, the Orthodox members, including the Religious Zionists, Amit and Emunah, suspended their participation. As a result, there are now efforts to rescind that motion. The Presidents’ Conference, NJCRAC and AIPAC have wisely refrained from any involvement in this divisive issue.  The UJA recently announced that it will no longer use the terms “pluralism” or “religious pluralism” in its lexicon and the Jewish Agency has also removed these terms from its resolutions.  Many of these  changes were effected due to our leadership.  

Isn’t pluralism important for Jewish unity? Can’t Jews get along?

Religious pluralism and Jewish unity are not synonymous.  Despite the fact that core differences exist between Jews, Jewish unity requires that we look for shared principles and work together in these areas, rather than try to delegitimize anyone. Religious pluralism, in this context, implies that one party, namely the Orthodox, must compromise its core principles, and thereby delegitimize the institution of the Chief Rabbinate.

In our meetings with Israeli leaders, we have constantly reiterated that  while we disagree vehemently with Reform and Conservative leadership on pluralism, we still endeavor to work together in the many areas of concern to all Jews, including assimilation, intermarriage, anti-Semitism and anti-terrorism.

How has the Orthodox Union proactively dealt with the pluralism issue, both here and in Israel?

We have remained engaged while not compromising our principles.  Rabbi Raphael Butler, the Union’s executive vice president, met with Israeli journalists to discuss the Orthodox position and testified before the Neeman Commission on conversion.  I have had the opportunity to testify before the Knesset Law Committee concerning the Conversion Law. We are in close contact with many Jewish organizations as well as the media, presenting the Orthodox point of view.

Why do we continue to work with Reform and Conservative leaders on other issues while the pluralism question remains unresolved?

The Union’s leadership feels it is imperative that all Jews keep the lines of communication open and search for a common ground. One example  of joint effort is the Memorial Foundation, which handles German reparations to Holocaust survivors and/or their families, where all Jewish organizations, from Reform to  World Agudah, work together.

We must also remember that there are many Jewish communities throughout the world, and especially in the United States, where the success of institutions, such as the mikvah or chevra kadisha, requires communal cooperation.  We must not allow our disagreements to harm Jewish institutions or our response to Jewish needs.

What practical lessons have we learned from dealing with this issue?

The Reform and Conservative movements have devoted a great deal of time, energy and resources, both here and in Israel, to make this a very public issue.  For example, during the current World Zionist Organization membership campaign, Reform leaders spoke of a $2 million fund to register one million Reform Jews.  At the closing of the campaign, only 150,000 registrations, from all denominations combined, were received. This weak response only underscores the fact that despite an active leadership, the Reform and Conservative movements do not have a strong grassroots network.

Why don’t the Reform and Conservative movements have more members in Israel?

1)  They have a low aliyah rate.  Most of the olim from the United States are Orthodox.

2)  Most Israelis reject Reform and Conservative Judaism as an American creation that has no place in Jewish life in Israel.  It is by definition a galut response — a diaspora  phenomenon.

Is there anything that the Orthodox community can do to help the situation?

This is  the ideal opportunity for us to mobilize world Jewry and galvanize our efforts.  We must always avoid chillul Hashem and comport ourselves with dignity as we try, to the best of our abilities, to present our point of view without rancor. We must renounce inappropriate behavior and rhetoric coming from any source.

Shouldn’t the State of Israel consult with Reform and Conservative leaders before making changes in the Conversion Law?

Did the Reform leadership consult with Israeli religious and political leaders before instituting patrilineal descent, deciding to perform intermarriages, ordaining lesbian rabbis or any of the other changes that endanger the future of Am Yisrael? 


In my opinion, we must continue to be a part of the Klal, primarily through umbrella groups, yet still maintain our resolute stance on all issues of Torah and mitzvot.  Rather than withdraw from local federations such as UJA, we must become more involved. The giving of tzedakah should not be based on political considerations.

We must differentiate between the professional/religious leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements and their laity.  We should have no illusions of convincing the leadership that patrilineal descent, non-halachic conversions, intermarriage, alternative life styles and marriages done in conjunction with non-Jewish clergy threaten Jewish survival. However, we must not abandon our  commitment to unify Am Yisrael by reaching out to their grassroots members  and bringing them closer to a Torah way of life.

This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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