Weathering The Pluralism Wars


Two leading rabbis, one Conservative and the other Modern Orthodox, called for alliances between their movements last week, even while strongly criticizing the other’s views on pluralism, conversion in Israel, and the chief rabbinate there.Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a leading voice of the Conservative movement, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, engaged in a spirited dialogue Feb. 11 before an overflow crowd at Lincoln Square Synagogue, the Manhattan congregation Rabbi Riskin founded more than three decades ago. And while they disagreed sharply on a range of issues, each heralded the opportunity to share a platform and called for more such debates.And debate they did as Rabbi Schorsch criticized the chief rabbinate in Israel as “dysfunctional, even destructive,” charging that it “mishandled” the Russian and Ethiopian immigrations in ways that could have “catastrophic” results for Jewish unity. He said that up to 200,000 Russians living in Israel, who are not Jewish by any standards, are denied the “basic human right” of marriage within the state, which only permits religious weddings.

“It’s an embarrassment that the religious establishment prefers that these people go abroad to marry, encouraging the violation of religious law,” said Rabbi Schorsch, who asserted that only 21,000 weddings were performed by the rabbinate last year, 5,000 fewer than 20 years ago, despite the fact that the population of Israel had doubled in the interim.He called on the Modern Orthodox movement, epitomized by Lincoln Square, to join in a campaign to “curb” the authority of the Israeli chief rabbinate, and to establish a “level playing field” where no one denomination holds sway over others. That is true pluralism, he said.Rabbi Riskin, noting that he was “deeply offended” by Rabbi Schorsch’s charges, defended the chief rabbis as sensitive to the concerns of the Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, though acknowledging mistakes were made.

He stressed that the chief rabbis are elected by the Knesset, not the ultra-Orthodox community, and that most Israelis want to maintain the standards that will insure the unity of the Jewish people.Pluralism, Rabbi Riskin said, “does not have to mean that everyone is equally legitimate in the eyes of everyone else.”

Rather, it means disagreeing without losing respect, he said.He called the Conservative and Reform movements “partners, not enemies,” in the fight against assimilation and apathy.But he insisted that all conversions in Israel must be done according to halacha, allowing one Jew to marry another, or “that would be the end of the state.”To Rabbi Schorsch, the end would be to favor one denomination over another, which he called “playing with fire.”Significantly, both rabbis sought to appeal to the other’s movement for coalition building. Rabbi Schorsch said that the Conservative movement is aligned politically with the Reform but religiously with the Modern Orthodox. “We need to create a new center of gravity to bring together the halachic movements,” he said. “Our homes is here, not there.”

By contrast, Rabbi Riskin faulted the Conservative movement for “the terrible mistake” of aligning itself so closely with the Reform on the conversion issue. He said that Israelis see no distinction between the two liberal movements, which they associate with performing mixed and single-sex marriages.Rabbi Riskin urged the Conservative movement to accept and embrace the Neeman Committee proposal, endorsed by the Knesset, that would establish joint conversion schools, to be taught by rabbis from all three streams. He said he would like to start such a school in Efrat and invite Rabbi Schorsch to lecture there. These schools, he said, would be lenient in their approach to potential converts and could “preserve Jewish unity for many years.”Rabbi Schorsch insisted that the chief rabbinate had rejected the proposal of the joint schools, though he later told this reporter that “the situation was still fluid” and that no decision had been made by either the Conservative or Reform leadership to formally withdraw support for the establishment of the conversion schools.

Government advocates of the program are hoping that the liberal groups will not let the chief rabbis’ recent attacks on their ideology prevent them from participating in the schools, which they predict will go forward, with or without the blessing of the chief rabbis.Rabbi Schorsch said he was encouraged that public opinion in Israel is turning against “the intransigence and insularity” of the chief rabbinate, and believes that “the government cannot tell us who is and who is not a Jew.”

Rabbi Riskin said the chief rabbis have been as helpful as possible in dealing with difficult halachic issues regarding conversion but that, like most institutions, they are resistant to change. He said progress can be effected, though, by prodding the chief rabbinate as he did.

Several years ago, he said, he appealed to the Supreme Court after the chief rabbis would not allow the training of women for an advocacy position in the religious courts. The court ruled in favor of the women’s program and at the time of the first graduation, Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau attended the ceremony, Rabbi Riskin said, and publicly apologized for not endorsing the program at the outset.“That takes guts,” he said.

Rabbi Riskin cited Hillel, the Talmudic rabbi known for human compassion, as the source of the concept of being accepting of potential converts. Rabbi Schorsch quoted the same Talmudic passage, pointing out the instruction to be “gentle, like Hillel.” Unfortunately, he said, the chief rabbinate today operates in the spirit of Shammai, the more stringent Talmudic colleague.

Rabbi Adam Mintz, the rabbi of Lincoln Square and moderator of the discussion, had opened the evening with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, who was much beloved for his overarching love of all Jews. “That which unites us,” Rabbi Kook wrote, “is far greater than that which divides us.”

That message was difficult to remember at times during the course of the ensuing discussion, but both protagonists agreed afterward that all sides in the religious debates need to focus on points of commonality, or the schism will surely deepen.