The numerous sessions devoted to improving Jewish marriages and family life held at the recent Rabbinical Council of America convention reflect the pressing issues of our community as well as the efforts of the rabbinical organization to address them. In fact, a glance at highlights of the program of this year’s RCA convention, compared to that of the same rabbinic organization some 50 years ago yields some fascinating similarities and differences. How have Orthodox concerns in America changed?
Rabbis Talk in May, 1948
In the summer, 1948 edition of Orthodox Jewish Life (the publication of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America) Rabbi Morris Max, then executive vice president of the RCA, wrote an article about the 12th Annual RCA Convention, held in New York City in May of 1948.
In “The Rabbinical Council Looks Ahead,” Rabbi Max reports that the convention was “permeated with a consciousness of the historic proclamation of the State of Israel, with a deep concern about its future security and with an understanding of the effect it will have upon Jewish life in the Diaspora.” He details a session devoted to “The Effect of the Jewish State upon the Galuth,” in which Rabbis Joseph H. Lookstein, David De Sola Pool and Leo Jung participated. Among other points made was the historic and practical impact on American Jewry of Hebrew once again becoming a living language in a Hebrew-speaking state. In addition, Rabbi Jung reminded the convention that the daily observance of mitzvoth, anywhere in the world, serves as the [spiritual] Haganah of Israel.
Notwithstanding the pride and triumph of that moment, the rabbis were greatly aware of the challenges of the American Jewish experience of the day, and the sessions held reflect these concerns.
There was much anticipation of a new Hebrew prayerbook with a modern English translation, which it was hoped would become the “official” siddur for all American Jews. [Philip Birnbaum’s Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem was, in fact, published in September, 1948.]
There was obvious pride in the pioneering work of members of the rabbinic Kashruth Commission in conjunction with the OU. In the same issue of Jewish Life, a two-page “Kashruth Directory,” appeared, listing 87 products, 61 of which were OU certified. The rest were reported to have “responsible rabbinic supervision.”
Report on the Halachah Commission
Religious questions had been received from Jews all over the United States to be answered by the commission. Shailot of the day included whether Jewish law permits contribution of one’s eyes to an eye bank (prefaced by an explanation of new medical procedures that occasioned the question); and whether or not one can use “an electric dishwasher” for milk and meat dishes.
Stress was placed on conveying to congregants the importance of a mohel performing brit milah, “which unfortunately in some communities has gone over into the hands of the physicians.”
Rabbis Talk in May, 2000
The focus of American rabbis has broadened to include worldwide concerns and endeavor. Sessions delineating models of effective leadership and exploring issues facing the world Jewish community were well attended.
Far from the euphoria of May, 1948, today’s RCA soberly discussed the “new Israel” with its attendant problems. Yoram Hazony, author of The Jewish State: the Struggle for Israel’s Soul addressed the group on the practical impact of post-Zionism on Israeli education, law and politics. Again reflecting a sense of worldwide responsibility, the convention considered the question: “Does the Diaspora rabbinate have a role in healing Israel’s divided spirit?”
Proper brit milah is no longer the challenge, but keeping families together has taken on increasing importance. Solving problems regarding agunot, researching halachic grounds for divorce, and the difficulties in today’s marriages took center stage. Discussions concerning the crucial need to prepare couples for marriage resulted in a resolution calling on each and every rabbi to coordinate and encourage a pre-marital program appropriate to his community.