Jewish Unity in the 21st Century

By | September 11, 2008

I grew up the son of a Conservative rabbi in the Twin Cities.

The local Orthodox rabbi was not only a member (with my father) of the non-denominational Minnesota Rabbinical Council, he also served as its president.

He cooperated with the city’s Conservative rabbis in supervision of a local bakery to ensure that there would be Kosher bread for the community.

He attended simchas at the area’s Conservative synagogues (not the service, mind you, but certainly the reception) and ate the food that was served there.

He collaborated with my father on conversions.

On at least one occasion, he co-officiated with my father at a wedding.

When I was a student at the city’s Orthodox day school (which was, then, the only game in town) and another student derided my father’s synagogue to another student during gemara class, the Orthodox rabbi dressed him down in front of the whole class for doing it.

Baruch Hashem, the Jewish community in the Twin Cities has grown since I grew up there.

Now, the Conservative community has its own day school, and of course none of them would think of attending the Orthodox one. The Orthodox rabbis in the Twin Cities won’t sit on the Rabbinical Council. They won’t cooperate with the non-Orthodox rabbis on food supervision. They wouldn’t dare be seen stepping foot into a non-Orthodox synagogue. Needless to say, collaborating with non-Orthodox rabbis on conversions and co-officiating with them at weddings are completely out of the question.

Baruch Hashem? Really? Is this a change for which we should be thankful? And did God have a hand in it?

I’ve lived as an Orthodox Jew for almost twenty years. I daven at an Orthodox shul which was formed by the merger of Orthodox and Conservative. Compromises were made. Decades after the merger, there are still a few members who drive to shul on Shabbat; they remain welcome in our community. The motto our shul used for many years, “Where all are welcome,” truly represents the spirit of the shul: if you are Jewish, we welcome you with open arms, without seeing any need to send out spies to find out whether you keep kashrus, shabbos, and taharas mishpocha.

My children attend JCDS, a pluralistic Jewish day school where the largest denominational representation is Orthodox, but where affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish families of all kinds, even (gasp!) same-sex couples, are welcome. To say that compromises are made would be a gross understatement. Successfully maintaining a tolerant, pluralistic community, where everyone respects everyone else and feels respected despite vast religious differences, is not simply a matter of setting it in motion and watching it go. We work at it, all of us, all the time, and without that constant vigilance, it would surely fall apart.

My wife and I looked at Brookline’s Maimonides School and at the Bostoner Rebbe’s school, Torah Academy, before choosing JCDS. The Jewish and secular academics at Maimonides are absolutely superb, probably edging out those at JCDS. The middot of the students and faculty at Torah Academy are also superb, again probably edging out JCDS. But the academics at JCDS are great, and the middot at JCDS are great, and we chose JCDS for the one area in which it is leaps and bounds ahead of the others: achdut — unity — the never-ending quest to find common ground between Jews. It is a choice we have never for a moment regretted.

When I look at the community we have helped to build at JCDS and of which we are an active part, I am proud. I am proud of the commitment that the school, its faculty, and every single family has shown to strengthening the bonds which hold the Jewish people together. I am hopeful that what we are doing will impact not just our school, but the world around us.

And then I take a good, hard look at that world around us, and more often than not, my hopes are crushed.

When we were engaged, my wife and I asked an Orthodox rabbi with whom we had both been very close if he would co-officiate with my father at our wedding. The fact that my father was a Conservative rabbi didn’t even enter the equation. Nope, he regretfully said no because he could not be seen entering a synagogue where men and women sit together during davening.

When my wife and I informed a close friend whose children are at Maimonides that we were considering JCDS, she was appalled. She became increasingly hysterical throughout our conversation, culminating in a declaration that we simply could not send our children to JCDS because it “isn’t a Jewish school.” Fortunately, at that point, her husband had the wisdom to take her firmly by the elbow and guide her away from the conversation. Even more fortunately, she has had the wisdom not to say anything more about it since we joined the school.

These are not isolated cases, and the divisiveness is not limited to individuals. Long after it became clear to anyone with a modicum of common sense that Agriprocessors was engaging in widespread abuse of its illegal immigrant and underage workers, violations of American criminal law, and arguably violations of halacha related to treatment of workers, the Orthodox establishment continued to defend Agriprocessors and continues to resist the hechsher tzedek movement, apparently because it’s unimaginable to them that Conservative rabbis might have a good idea every once in a while about how to use real, honest-to-goodness halacha to prevent chillul hashem.

It would be bad enough if these fractures were only between movements. However, in addition to Orthodoxy nearly cutting itself off from the rest of Jewry, it seems like there is more and more divisiveness even among those who all profess to being Torah-observant Jews.

The son of members of our shul, visiting home from his Israeli yeshiva in his new black hat and coat, informed me that the rabbi of another area shul, a rabbi who is a member of the Vaad Harabonnim of Massachusetts and sits on its beit din and who studied and received semikhah at Yeshiva University, was a Wexner Fellow, studied for three years at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and is widely regarded as one of the finest halachic scholars of his generation, was “not a real rabbi,” and this young man would not think of setting foot in his shul.

Yeshiva University has refused to allow books from certain prominent Orthodox rabbis to be sold at its annual book fair, solely on the grounds that these rabbis are not right-wing enough.

The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is threatening to retroactively invalidate conversions of obviously frum gerim, going back years, on the grounds that it turns out that the rabbis who sat on the batei din for those conversions are now perceived as not Kosher enough. A friend of mine who was converted by one of the most highly regarded Orthodox conversion batei din in the country tells me, only half in jest, that she wakes up every morning wondering whether she is still Jewish. This same Israeli Orthodox rabbinate apparently maintains the position that any rabbi who rules that a women’s tefillah group is permissible is disqualified from serving on a beit din.

All of this reminds me of a disturbing parallel with a modern halachic trend. In recent years, certain rabbis have called upon frum Jews to take on additional stringencies concerning washing and checking vegetables for insects, or shekatzim, stringencies which had never been observed in the past. When asked why, these rabbis have explained that although our ancestors’ observance of halacha was of course adequate, the freedom and scientific advances with which we are blessed in this era make it possible for us to observe the halacha more properly than ever before, and we are of course obligated to enhance our observance in any way that becomes available to us.

I can’t help but feel that, in an era when we are more free to practice our Judaism than at any time since the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, there are those who have decided that some of their fellow Jews are the shekatzim.

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