To Rivlin and Shafran: No, Judaism never stands still

Published on Haaretz

Rather than joining those Orthodox voices lobbying for an ahistorical, absolutist brand of Judaism, we should deplore Israel’s president-elect’s ignorance of Jewish life today.

In Haaretz recently, Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Yisrael took the opportunity to launch an uninformed if predictable attack on Reform Judaism. This he did by endorsing Israel’s president-elect Ruby Rivlin’s 25 year-old revulsion over U.S. progressive synagogue services that felt foreign to him, asserting that only Orthodox Judaism is authentic. The absurdity of someone who dresses like a 17th century Polish nobleman believing that his particular interpretation of Judaism is the “original one” is almost too comical to bother refuting.

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There is no single Judaism. Judaism evolves, but not necessarily in a linear fashion, responding to internal debates, external cultures and events beyond our control. There have almost always been multiple expressions of Judaism at any given time, their proponents often going to the barricades against each other. Over the centuries, Hasidic and Lithuanian dynasties have excommunicated each other, leading rabbis ordered the books of the Rambam to be burned, and the ultra-Orthodox condemned the nationalist Orthodox over the recent Haredi draft law in terms usually reserved for those who seek the Jewish people’s total destruction. While these schisms can be hateful and destructive, they can also spur creativity.

Rabbi Shafran seems to be lobbying for an ahistorical absolutist brand of Judaism which may sound convincing in his own echo chamber, but hardly stands up to scrutiny. Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy themselves are far from internally monolithic or unchanging. The same heterogeneity and dynamism characterizes Reform Judaism.

Recounted in Haaretz by Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in 1989 Rivlin attended services at two Reform synagogues in America, and was appalled to see men and women sitting together and by the female chazzan, neither which he had seen before. Rivlin called a reporter for the then-largest circulation daily, Yediot Ahronot, to denounce Reform Judaism as “idol worship and not Judaism…a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism…” or in Yoffe’s telling, a religion akin to Christianity.

While I can condemn Rivlin’s cheap use of the media to ventilate, I won’t judge him for his initial visceral reaction to a service that felt foreign to him. I can imagine that a female chazzan, men and women sitting together, perhaps the music or the use of English, all made him feel extremely uncomfortable. It probably didn’t look right to him, because he had never seen it before, and perhaps reminded him of a church service he had seen in a movie.

My first egalitarian service and my first tefilla with a female shlichat tzibbur were also startling to me, and I remember finding it difficult to concentrate. Not because of the dreaded impure thoughts – separation of genders creates far more sexual tension than mixed seating – but because I had never heard a woman’s voice setting the pace for my davening [prayer]. That sense of foreignness entirely disappeared over time, and after some soul searching and study of the halakhic issues involved, I came to embrace egalitarian services not only as acceptable, but as the best possible practice.

Rivlin was and is suffering from a disorder that afflicts some secular Israelis: Grandfather Syndrome. You see it in its purist form when those Israelis choose to have their son’s bar mitzvah aliya l’Torah in an Orthodox synagogue in which they would otherwise never set foot in. They don’t want their Orthodox grandfather to feel uncomfortable at services, or if they don’t have an Orthodox grandfather, they don’t want to offend the spirit of their dead Orthodox ancestors.

Since they care so little themselves – they see Jewish ritual as a farce, quaint, or even as charming, but not of great significance – and since they have been exposed to such a miniscule range of Jewish religious expression, they think Judaism looks like that Orthodox shul they went to for Kol Nidre or some relative’s bar mitvah, or perhaps, their own bar mitzvah. Pretty pathetic for a country founded by pioneers who rebelled against their parents to forge a new reality.

Rehashing the old adage that the synagogue the secular Israeli doesn’t go to is an Orthodox one, as Rabbi Shafran does in the I.I. Rabi anecdote, reflects the same willful ignorance of the spectrum of Jewish religious expression that characterized Ruby Rivlin’s original remarks, and only works to reinforce the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life in Israel. With dozens of Reform and Masorti congregations in Israel, decades of activity by Bina, Alma and plentiful additional non-Orthodox frameworks for studying Jewish texts, weekly television shows hosting non-Orthodox artists such as the writer Yochi Brandes or the actor Dror Keren talking Judaism with or without Orthodox rabbis, this image of polarization between the secular and Orthodox hardly describes Israel’s reality, let alone that of the rest of the Jewish world. Mizrachi Jews, for their part, never fit comfortably into the Orthodox-secular paradigm.

All this being said, I won’t deny there is a demarcation line between those who consider themselves “shomer mitzvot” [observant of the requirements of traditional Jewish religious law] and those who don’t. It is less a solid line than a spectrum, but most Jews know more or less where they stand. But to claim, as Rabbi Shafran implies, that non-halakhic Jews are not seriously engaged with Judaism, or are not authentic Jews, is insulting, inaccurate and self-serving. I would go further, and argue that many non-halakhic Jews follow mitzvot – some different ones perhaps – as much as their Orthodox counterparts, but that’s another discussion.

Twenty-five years ago, a politician name Ruby Rivlin lashed out on the record over an uncomfortable experience he had, and perhaps, to score points with his constituents at home. While advocates like Rabbi Shafran applaud his ignorance and his simplistic denial of Judaism’s multiplicity, these are hardly the lodestones we want for our president-elect.

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