Sunday, The Rabbis All Talked


Billed as “a groundbreaking trialogue across denominational lines,” last Sunday’s conversation among three leading rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — was noteworthy for its air of civility. No voices were raised, no fists clenched as the panelists discussed attitudes toward gay Jews, prayer at the Western Wall, conversion, religious divorce and other issues during a two-hour program at Columbia University sponsored by Shvil Hazahav (Hebrew for “the golden rule”), a Modern Orthodox group.That’s not to say there was agreement among the rabbis — Reuven Bulka of Orthodox congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Canada; Richard Levy, immediate past president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis; and Harlan Wechsler, founding rabbi of the Conservative congregation Or Zarua on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. During the discussion, moderated by writer Francine Klagsbrun, they clashed most sharply on issues concerning gay Jews, with Rabbi Levy, who is director of the rabbinic school at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) asserting that the rabbinate is enhanced by admitting openly gay Jews.Rabbi Wechsler disagreed, suggesting the impetus for having gay rabbis was “the right of autonomy and the power of love to define what is ethical.”

He asserted, though, that neither was “central to Jewish decision making, and Jewish law tells me not what I want to do but what God wants me to do.” He added that institutions need to have “the courage to make decisions,” and while acknowledging that “some will feel unwelcome, that’s the price you pay for religious honesty.”To date, the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Rabbi Wechsler teaches, does not accept openly gay rabbinical students.Rabbi Bulka, who described himself as “a passionate moderate” within Orthodoxy, said the issue had not presented itself to him, though he noted he has told individual gay Jews the synagogue is open to all Jews for prayer.On several other issues as well, the debate was more pointed between Conservative and Reform positions, with the Orthodox view more traditional and less flexible. For instance, Rabbi Wechsler called the Reform decision to recognize patrilineal descent “a disaster for the Jewish people” since it undid the concept of Jewish unity with a common definition of who is a Jew. Rabbi Levy said he had opposed the public statement as unnecessary, but asserted the Reform movement had used that definition in practice for a century as a means of including children of intermarriages as Jews.Rabbi Bulka, who agreed with Rabbi Wechsler, said the patrilineal decision was a mistake for the Reform movement because “it may increase the numbers but dilutes the intensity.”

He added that “intermarriage is not the problem, it’s only the end result of raising children who don’t care” about practicing Judaism in a meaningful way.Responding to a question about prayer at the Western Wall from a member of the audience of about 175 invited guests, Rabbi Bulka said he didn’t oppose women’s prayer groups, but would did have a problem with mixed-gender services without a mechitza. “Where do you draw the line?” he wondered.Rabbi Levy said “it’s a long wall,” and there should be room for everyone because the site “belongs to the entire Jewish people.”Rabbi Wechsler said he “loved” praying at the Wall — “I love the people but I don’t like the rules of the shul.” He observed that the reality of prayer there “is determined by who goes there” so that services at the Wall “reflect the demographic reality of Jerusalem” — primarily Orthodox now, but subject to change if enough people of different ideologies were present.On the topic of inter-denominational discussions, Rabbi Bulka tellingly noted that if he were to ask his children whether or not he should participate in forums with non-Orthodox clergy, they probably would say no, so he doesn’t ask them — an indication that many young people in the Orthodox community have more fundamentalist views than their parents.Looking ahead 20 years, Rabbi Bulka predicted that much of the Orthodox community will be on the religious right, Rabbi Levy said he hoped American Jews will be “more dynamic,” involved in Torah study and prayer, and Rabbi Wechsler said he sees “the quality going up and the quantity going down,” adding that “America is a good place to be religious, but much of that religion is very shallow” and in need of “a stronger intellectual base.”

One subtext of the discussion, evidenced from the air of mutual respect among the three participants, was that behind the scenes and on individual practical matters, such as marriage, conversion and divorce, rabbis from the three denominations have some success in working out issues together. But when it comes to putting such efforts on paper or going public with them, the cooperation breaks down because of institutional pressures.The downside of the private cooperation among rabbis, noted Shvil Hazahav founding chair Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, N.J. in an interview after the forum, is that “the public doesn’t know that the private conversations are working.” The challenge, he said, is to create “a sea change of attitudes on all sides.”He called Sunday’s program, an outgrowth of four years of private discussions among about 15 Jewish leaders here of different denominations, an excellent start. Rabbi Goldin said his organization plans to have open public events of a similar nature, as well as discussions on the Internet, and inter-denominational discussions in other cities in an effort “to find more ways to work together through listening to and understanding — not changing — each other.”