Reform Leader Says Some Orthodox Jews in Israel Are Trying to ‘emasculate’ the Law of Return

There are certain elements in Orthodox Jewry in Israel that are flouting halacha and trying to “emasculate” the Law of Return, one of the world’s leading Reform Zionists told delegates to the recent World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Convention here.

Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, the founding president of ARZA–the Association of Reform Zionists of America–unleashed a stinging attack on certain Orthodox branches for trying to “disenfranchise” Reform Judaism in Israel and around the world.

Gittelsohn, now rabbi emeritus of his Boston congregation, told delegates at a session set aside for Reform Zionists that the Law of Return, which automatically makes Jews citizens when they immigrate to Israel, is being “flagrantly violated day by day” by much of Orthodoxy in Israel.

“Twice a year, virtually without exception, a bill is introduced in the Knesset to redefine who is a Jew. They have been introduced and defeated” with the help of non-Orthodox groups, Gittelsohn said.

In February, the Knesset defeated such a bill, introduced by religious parties, by a 61 to 47 vote. The bill sought to redefine Jewish identity to exclude anyone converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi.

CITES TWO EXAMPLES

Gittelsohn cited one example of how the Law of Return is being abused: He recalled the case of Shoshanna Miller, a Colorado woman who was converted by a Reform rabbi. The process took many years and when she finished, Miller became a part-time teacher at the synagogue as well as a part-time cantor.

But when she made aliya, her application was turned down by Yitzhak Peretz, Israel’s Interior Minister and leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, because her conversion was not recognized as valid. Funds from the treasury of the WUPJ are being used to fight the case, Gittelsohn said.

“These (ultra-Orthodox) are fanatics who insist every aspect of life in Israel be governed entirely by religious law, but they never stop flagrantly flouting civil law for their own purposes,” he declared. “We shall continue to protest the emasculation of the Law of Return.”

Gittelsohn said the plight of Ethiopian Jews is another example. When thousands of Ethiopians arrived in Israel last winter after being airlifted, Israel’s Chief Rabbis said they weren’t halachic Jews because they had been isolated from Judaism for thousands of years. The Orthodox community had insisted on their “conversion.”

SAYS REFORM JEWS HAVE THREE OBJECTIVES

Gittelsohn said Reform Jews have three objectives, the first being the fight for recognition as a authentic Jews “not only in Israel but everywhere. If Orthodoxy succeeds in delegitimizing us in Israel, they will succeed everywhere else. We shall assert our credentials as non-Orthodox religious Jews.” Second, Reform Jews want to “protect the purity of traditional Judaism. Yes, you heard right,” Gittelsohn said. “There are times Reform are purer interpreters of halacha than the Orthodox. Despite their authoritarian pretensions, the Orthodox don’t always understand halacha.”

Third, Reform Jews want a State of Israel “of which we can all be proud,” free of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who Gittelsohn called “the ultimate vulgarization of Judaism.”

THE DANGER OF EXTREME ORTHODOXY

But he emphasized that Orthodoxy in itself is not an enemy of Reform Jews. “We have the highest, utmost respect for true Orthodoxy. We oppose only those who undermine and distort the positions they ostensibly uphold.”

When a bus carrying schoolchildren collided with a train last summer in Israel and 22 were killed, Interior Minister Peretz reportedly said the accident was divine retribution for the desecration of Shabbat. “That’s the kind of Orthodoxy we unalterably oppose,” Gittelsohn said.

If fanatical Orthodoxy in Israel is not countered, he warned the country could become “just another narrow, medieval fiefdom.”

The WUPJ is the umbrella group for the world’s 1.4 million Reform, Liberal and Progressive Jews. It’s 23rd international convention was held in Toronto, marking the first time it has convened outside Israel or Europe. Over 250 delegates from 20 countries attended.

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