Room for Pluralism in Israel
I would like to share with you a recent circular, written on official State letterhead bearing the imprimatur of the Chief Rabbinate, In the letter, Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar expresses “sorrow” and “terrible pain” over IRAC’s victory in the courts that will allow the State to fund the wages of fifteen Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel (as it has thousands of Orthodox rabbis ever since the establishment of the State).
In this letter, which led to a conference attended by over 130 Orthodox rabbis, several members of the Knesset, and two cabinet ministers last month in Jerusalem, Rabbi Amar also asserts that the honor of Heaven was “defiled” by these decisions, and identified Reform and Conservative rabbis as “uprooters (‘okrei) and destroyers of Judaism…” Rabbi Amar concluded, “Woe unto us that in our day such haters of Israel have raised their heads” and that the State has come to recognize these “destroyers of religion as clergy.”
The by-now tiresome polemic in which Rabbi Amar engages does nothing more than repeat accusations and insults that Orthodox leaders have been hurling at the Reform Movement for two hundred years. Yet, despite the condemnations and threats from men like Rabbi Amar, millions of Jews have opted for modern expressions of Judaism. Even in Israel, there are quite a number of people who find Reform and Conservative approaches to Judaism as articulated by Reform and Conservative rabbis to be more authentic, meaningful, and sane expressions of Judaism than those that are put forth by Rabbi Amar and his colleagues.
The recent rulings of the Israeli courts and the Attorney General recognize this truth by offering financing to Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel. In so doing, they embrace the pluralistic reality of Jewish life as it is now lived in Israel and throughout the world. This is only just.
To be absolutely clear, I am not opposed in any way to the right that Rabbi Amar or any other rabbi has to express pejorative views of Reform and Conservative Judaism. However, Rabbi Amar unfortunately possesses political power and authority. The circular he wrote was sent out and paid for by the State. In addition, Rabbi Amar does not hesitate to employ all the resources provided by the State to wage a campaign to annul these recent rulings and decisions that have expanded Jewish religious freedom and expression in Israel.
He writes and acts as a public employee with the power and prestige of the Jewish State behind him. This is problematic. His actions indicate that the entire institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel – its functions and its powers – needs to be revisited. The Jewish State needs to continue to act so that pluralistic expressions of religious Judaism can all have their just place in the Israeli sun.
Rabbi David Ellenson is the President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.