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New Dialogue with Chief Rabbis Touted As Important, but Limited

July 9, 1997
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In yet another effort to defuse tensions sown by a controversial conversion bill in the Knesset, Diaspora Jewry and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate have launched a new dialogue.

Given the minefield of Israeli religious politics, some are touting the talk between the Orthodox rabbis and the three major streams as a Jewish diplomatic breakthrough.

They said the rabbis heard the Diaspora’s fears of a growing schism among the Jewish people and a passionate plea for respect and tolerance of differences.

For its part, the rabbinate is downplaying the initiative in what sources say is deference to the sensitivities of its fervently Orthodox constituents.

The rabbis met last week for the first time with members of the Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People of the Jewish Agency for Israel following the agency’s annual assembly.

The meeting came as the divisive conversion legislation — which would formalize the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly over conversions performed in Israel — is on hold amid government-sponsored efforts to hammer out a resolution.

The initiative has created a serious strain in relations between Israel and non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry.

It also has fueled anger and alienation among some donors to the campaigns of the United Jewish Appeal and local federations, which contribute a major portion of the Jewish Agency’s budget.

But in spite of the agency committee’s efforts to bridge the gaps with the rabbinate, it is clear there are limits to the dialogue and that some fundamental differences are irreconcilable.

Chief Rabbis Yisrael Meir Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron issued a statement four days after the meeting, in an apparent response to the intense Israeli media coverage it drew.

In the statement, they said they had reaffirmed their commitment to the unity of the Jewish people.

But in a clear reference to the Reform movement, they set limits to the dialogue, stating: “Negotiations with movements who deny the authority of halachah (Jewish law) would not be constructive or appropriate.”

Said Bakshi-Doron, “Judaism does not need reformation. The only way to insure Jewish continuity is via rededication to halachic principles.”

Kurt Rothschild, an Orthodox member of the committee who is the president of the Canadian Zionist Federation, said that while the rabbis made it clear that “no part of the Jewish people should be disregarded or considered outsiders,” they also made it clear that matters of marriage, divorce and conversion “must remain within the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate.”

Still, Rothschild, chairman of World Mizrachi, an Orthodox Zionist organization, said, “The very fact that such a meeting took place in a courteous manner is an accomplishment.

“Both sides listened to the concerns of each other and stated their case. That is a healthy exercise.”

The members of the committee were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency’s annual assembly, where the issue of the agency’s role in promoting religious pluralism was high on the agenda.

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg said he initiated the meeting to “open a dialogue” between the rabbis and the three major Jewish streams against the backdrop of the crisis over the proposed conversion law.

But the agency’s committee meeting with the rabbis deliberately steered clear of politics and particular solutions to the conversion crisis, participants said, in recognition of the efforts of a separate, government-appointed committee working on a resolution to the crisis.

At the same time, Burg is eager to position the agency as the only world forum through which the rabbinate will sit with leaders of all Jewish streams. In turn, the agency serves the Chief Rabbinate with the political cover to sit with the leaders of the non-Orthodox streams.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz of Highland Park, Ill., president of the UJA Rabbinic Cabinet and a committee member from the Conservative movement, said the meeting, despite its very clear parameters, was constructive.

“It was clear they have problems with some of our religious views,” he said, but “we tried to lower the decibel level on both sides. And there was a willingness to listen.”

“Our committee did not expect to go in and solve issues,” he added. “No one wanted to damage the ability of the [government’s] committee to come to a compromise.”

The dialogue is expected to continue on a regular basis.

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