Sunday, December 29, 2013

Oren: Israel must recognize all forms of Judaism or risk alienating US Jews

Oren: Israel must recognize all forms of Judaism or risk alienating US Jews

'We call ourselves the nation-state of the Jewish people,' says recently returned Israeli envoy to the US. 'Now let's live up to it'

David Horovitz
David HorovitzDavid Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The [More]

Israel must recognize the legitimacy of all forms of Judaism, emphatically including Reform and Conservative Judaism, or it will alienate those movements, the just-returned Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said in an interview.

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Oren, who in October ended a four-year stint as Israel's envoy in Washington, DC, said it was all well and good for Israel to describe itself as "the nation-state of the Jewish people" — a formulation, now routinely used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which Oren said was adopted on his recommendation — but "we've got to stand behind it. Now we've accepted the formula, let's live up to it."

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Oren warned that "if Israel does not work to make itself the nation-state of all the Jewish people, and be truly pluralistic and open about this, then we risk losing these people."

The former ambassador was commenting on the current state of US Jewry and its relationship with Israel.

Asked, first, about the impact of the settlement enterprise on Israeli-Diaspora ties, he said certain Jews were troubled by the expansion of settlements, and others were "dissatisfied we're not building more and faster… I had as much opposition from the American Jewish right as I did from the American Jewish left," he added, "for being in favor of the two-state solution. For effecting the moratorium [on settlement building] in 2010. For prisoner releases."

Oren described the American Jewish community as being "similar to what many physicists say is occurring in the universe — that it's expanding and contracting at the same time. So the American community — read the Pew Report — they're contracting through intermarriage and assimilation. However, at the same time, there's a strong kernel of the American Jewish community, not just Orthodox, but also Jews who've gone on Birthright, who are more connected Jewishly and more connected to Israel, and that's expanding… So if you look down the road, 20 or 30 years from now, the American Jewish community may be smaller, but it could also be more Jewishly identified and more connected to Israel."

At the same time, he warned, "on the constriction side, you have not only Jews who are disaffected because of Israeli policies, but also because the State of Israel doesn't recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism."

He said the only thing that all the rabbis he met with agreed upon — be they Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — was their opposition to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which doesn't recognize even most US Orthodox conversions today.

More broadly, he said, Israel needed "to recognize all forms of Judaism. We have to recognize the roles of those movements in Judaism within different life-cycle events in Israeli life. We risk alienating them. The amazing thing about the Reform movement is that, after so many years of not being recognized by the State of Israel, they remain so pro-Israeli. That to me is extraordinary."

He could not be fully confident, he said, that this would last forever. "I'll sit with American Jewish Reform and Conservative leaders who care passionately about Israel," Oren said. "But they'll say to you: I can't tell you how hurtful it is that the State of Israel doesn't recognize my form of Judaism. It is the worst pain when you say something like that. It's something we have to address as a society if we are to remain the nation-state of the Jewish people."

The ex-ambassador's comments came two weeks after Netanyahu became the first prime minister to address the Union for Reform Judaism's biennial US gathering. In a speech via satellite to the event in San Diego, Netanyahu said "Israel is, and it must continue to be, the homeland of the entire Jewish people, the entire Jewish people. That's the place where all Jews — including Reform Jews — experience nothing less than 'audacious hospitality.'" He added that he was "committed to doing everything in my power to ensure that all Jews feel connected to Israel and to each other."

The Times of Israel's full interview with Michael Oren will appear later this week.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Rabbi David Lerner in the Times of Israel: "The Death and Life of Conservative/Masorti Judaism"

The death and life of Conservative/Masorti Judaism

DECEMBER 2, 2013, 5:58 PM

David LernerRabbi David Lerner is the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004. He also serves as chair of … [More]

The obituaries have been written, the plot has been opened and the tombstone is being carved. But before we complete the burial of the Conservative Movement, maybe we should give it another look. Let's be sure that the patient is actually dead!

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While there is no doubt that the percentage of American Jews who claim to identify with the movement has dropped precipitously (41% in 1971, 38% in 1990, 26% in 2000 and 18% in 2013), numbers do not a movement make.

But numbers are facile, so let's begin there. The number of Conservative Jews who were truly affiliated with the movement was an inflated statistic throughout the 20th century. Most Jews who joined Conservative shuls did not join because they agreed with the movement's practice or ideology, but rather out of convenience: it was the perfect rest stop between the Orthodoxy of their parents and what would become the Reform and unaffiliated Judaism of their children and grandchildren. It fused enough tradition to feel authentic with comfortable English sermons, family style seating and decorum that compared nicely with the norms of their Protestant neighbors.

That said, no matter how great or poor the rabbi, the synagogue, or the Ramah movement, they could not compete with the greater forces of assimilation.

The current move to extremes, to polarization, in so many areas of life from politics to religion hasn't helped either. That has strengthened the religious streams on the perimeter, but not the vital center. Extreme positions, by their nature have more fire and brimstone, clearer and less nuanced ideologies that prove attractive to larger numbers in our increasingly fractured societies; though passionate moderation is what the world actually needs.

Now, don't get me wrong, the Conservative movement has plenty of problems. Its institutions have been poorly run by leaders and administrators who were more interested in maintaining their own turf than in deeper issues of meaning. Ineptitude and ideological divisions hurt many of its organizations including most noticeably, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.

Its branding is weak and confusing. The time may have come to adopt its Hebrew name and call it Masorti (Traditional), as it is known in Israel and the rest of the world beyond North America. While the numbers are small, the loss of some of its most committed young people to Orthodoxy has been demoralizing. The 1950 driving teshuvah allowing driving to shul did not help build Shabbat communities where members could walk to each other's homes, sharing meals and spontaneous interactions.  However, the post-war move to suburbia was probably inexorable.

When we look beyond numbers to big ideas, the movement's success has been remarkable.  Its focus on Hebrew and traditional rituals has been picked up by Reform and other liberal movements. Its halakhic egalitarianism is being emulated by modern Orthodoxy today. It continues the support of Israel that has been a hallmark since the movement's founding; Reform and Orthodoxy now emulate that position. Its focus on academic excellence and intellectual honesty has been picked up by hundreds of Judaic studies departments around the country. Its approaches have bred institutions founded by graduates of Jewish Theological Seminary, its premier educational institution.  Although not officially part of the movement Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, Kehillat/Mechon Hadar and IKAR are among its products.

Some have criticized the movement for its recent decisions about egalitarianism and welcoming gay and lesbian Jews, and even claimed that these decisions are the cause of the movement shrinkage. These decisions are not the result of focus groups and surveys, they are not made to bring in the biggest numbers, they are attempts to decipher what God and our halakhah dictate for us in this time and place, knowing what we know today.

We know that women and men both bring great gifts to this world and they are fundamentally equal ("zakhar u'nekeivah bara otam – male and female God created them" Genesis 1:27). Therefore, egalitarianism is what the halakhah requires of us.

Thus, while I participate on some level in davening in an Orthodox synagogue or a Reform temple because of my commitment to am yisrael (the Jewish people) and ahdut ha'am (the unity of the Jewish people), in neither do I feel as if I have fulfilled the halakhah completely. In one, I often miss essential parts of the traditional davening experience and in the other, I have evaded my responsibility to implement our tradition's mandate regarding the status of women.

To share why I feel the way I do, let me tell you some of my Jewish journey. I grew up as an observant Conservative Jew – the son of a Conservative rabbi and a JTS professor. Even my maternal grandparents were highly educated Boston-born shomer ShabbatConservative Jews. I was given a strong Jewish education at Conservative and Orthodox day schools.

Like many teens, I drifted away from traditional Jewish practices like prayer and Shabbat. When I left for college, I celebrated my first Shabbat by turning on all my electronic devices (my computer, TV, stereo, video game machine) – something that was forbidden in my home growing up. I was free.

Much the wiser, over that Thanksgiving dinner, I told my parents that "it was too bad you both became Jewish educators. You both went to great schools – you could have become lawyers or business people. Don't you know that all religions were made up by people and they are all the same?!"

My parents were good – they just kept on chewing and didn't react to my provocations.

Sure enough, in the course of the next year, I became involved more and more with the strong Orthodox community on my campus. When I returned the following Thanksgiving, I told them over dinner that I didn't feel that their approach to Judaism was correct. In fact, I turned to my mother who davens each morning in tefillin and told her "Ema, don't you realize that what you are doing is an anathema to God!"

Again, my mother and father did not overreact; they kept on chewing.

Over time, I realized that I did not have all the answers and spent more time listening. I always loved the power of Jewish community and was drawn to our people's traditional practices, but, at the same time I was taking philosophy courses and struggling to bring these two arenas together.

The summer before my senior year, I studied with Rabbi Neil Gillman who offered me a powerful synthesis of how to approach what I considered two separate realms. He enabled me to understand that my personal practice was not at odds with a modern theology and a historical understanding of the tradition.

I could pursue ritual and halakhah, even if the metaphor of the Book of Life did not work for me.

I believe in the power of our tradition and the learning of science. The world can be created in 7 days, 7 Divine days which are equivalent to 13.8 billion years. I believe in the power of the halakhah which has produced a most intense and comprehensive legal system that offers me the deepest insights into how to live a moral, ethical and meaningful life.

I believe in the power of observance and rituals which root me in my connection to God, Torah and Israel. I believe in Jewish peoplehood, which places our people and the State of Israel in a preferred status.

I believe in history, logic and science and while I often engage in superstitious behavior (usually watching sports games), I know the limits of magical thinking. I believe in our evolving understanding of morality within halakhah – which means that thankfully, our tradition's approach to new situations like intermarried Jews and gays and lesbians has changed in light of today's knowledge, creating a more open and moral Judaism.

I believe in the transformative power of prayer – engaging in our thrice daily regimen. I believe in finding the most creative ways to present our people's ancient wisdom. I believe in serious engagement with kashrutthat roots me in an ancient system of eating, even as it evolves to include new ideas like banning veal because of how the animal is treated.

I believe that Judaism is the most powerful way to live one's life.

I believe in the experience of learning – an intellectually honest approach to all of our texts that can stand up to scrutiny in any academic setting, but never blunts their influence. I believe in hesed – acts of love that are woven into the life of Jews and our narrative and rituals only serve to reinforce that.

I am an egalitarian halakhic Jew.

That's what makes me a Conservative Jew.

Today, Conservative Judaism is turning a corner, ready for a fresh and new presentation. The future is already in place: a generation of men and women who bring new ideas and commitment. It needs a package that is as dynamic as its underlying ideals and ideas. It needs a smile and a positive outlook.

My community, Temple Emunah, is not the only Conservative shul where from twice daily lay-led minyans through High Holy Day services, from pre-school through 55+ we support each other and the world, while we enjoy learning, connecting, eating and sharing together. It is an honor to serve as their rabbi.

There is no doubt that Conservative Judaism's ideology is solid; its challenge remains creating enough strong communities. In that area, it needs to emulate Orthodox Judaism and its sense of community.

Will it be the largest Jewish movement as it was for most of the 20th century? While anything can happen, probably not.

Will it continue to offer the most compelling, the most authentic responses to the intersection of tradition and modernity? There is no doubt that it will.

Will there be challenges as the community ages and older shul merge and close? Will there be painful decisions to be made about priorities, as funding contracts? Will there be tough competition from other movements and the overwhelming forces of assimilation? Sure, but I am happy to pit its ideology, its moral grounding, its openness, its fierce commitment to observance, its fidelity to mitzvot and its honesty against anything else I have seen.

Maybe instead of a funeral, it's time to study harder and plan for a Bat-Mitzvah.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Channukah & Thanksgiving: It's Complicated

Channukah & Thanksgiving: It's Complicated
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Much has been made of the overlap of Channukah and Thanksgiving this year, a convergence that will not occur again for over 79,000 years. 
On the one hand, the meanings of the days are similar:
  • Channukah is a story of Jewish rededication, the Maccabees reclaiming contaminated sacred space, marking God's miraculous intervention in the military and ritual lives of our ancestors. 
  • Thanksgiving is an American story of bounty, gratitude expressed by formerly persecuted minorities, blessed to find home again through miraculous arrival.
But both these also narratives require of us, as American Jews, deeper and clearer thinking. Both holy days contain more within their stories than meets the eye, more than their ritualized re-tellings readily offer. The commonalities of these hidden, darker strata are also striking, perhaps even shocking:
  • Channukah is a serious challenge to the modern Jew, as comfortable (if not more) living as a global citizen than being seen as a Jew. Channukah's notion of the "contamination of Jewish sacred space" is a code-phrase for Jewish assimilation, the natural dynamic of a Jew engaged in society, where the politics of identity easily make particularism uncomfortable. Only through the fanatic zealotry of the Maccabees, including the murder of fellow Jews who identified strongly with Greek custom, did the Channukah story occur. 
  • Thanksgiving marks the Pilgrims taking of a land from its native inhabitants, one formerly marginalized group marginalizing another. Thanksgiving's celebration of "bounty and gratitude" forgets the Puritan's zealotry and their slaughter of those who already inhabited the "new" world. Only through the Pilgrim's fundamentalist world-view did the original Thanksgiving story take place.

The Maccabbees and the Puritans were zealots. Their violent thoughts and actions left a muddied legacy for Jews and for Americans. And, gevalt, my friends. We're both. How befuddling our sacred narratives can be!


What, then, are we to make of these days, these cold, dark days with contested, twisted narratives? How are we, as complicated modern Jews, to light our lights? What illumination pours through our windows into the world?


A popular Channukah song goes as follows:


"We have come to banish the darkness. / In our hands is light and fire. / Every one is a small light. / But together we are a mighty fire. / Out, darkness! / Run away before the power of light!"


Are we called, in the name of our cherished heritages, to shine brightly? Without a doubt. 

  • Being a Jew is a beautiful gift in the world. Being an American is a blessing. Both come with weighty obligations, which are their very best parts.
Must we learn from our troubled pasts to never again deny others the brightest light of all: their dignity?  Without a doubt. 
  • Being a modern Jew requires the ethical use of necessary and hard-earned power, constant vigilance to stand in solidarity with the world's most vulnerable, remembering the oppressed stranger we've frequently been in history. Being a modern American means bearing responsibility - doing Teshuvah - for enduring American social policies and processes that have much in common with Puritans. An American wields the most noble of our nation's sacred ideals at no one's expense.

Can we be Jews in the world, proud and particular, and at the same time Global Citizens, pluralist and present? Let's see if we can.


I think we've got that kind of Jewish power just waiting to be harnessed for the common good.


May this Channukah and Thanksgiving truly banish darkness, bring bounty, cultivate gratitude, and challenge us to see the light in others' eyes.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fwd: Chancellor Arnold Eisen Says "L'Chaim!" to Conservative Judaism

Dear JTS Community,

Following the publication of this year's Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project report—and the uproar that has since followed—I would like to offer my personal perspective on the current conversation.

I am addressing the questions raised and the challenges facing our community in an article on the Jewish Week website today and in its print edition on Friday, November 29. "Let's Drink a L'Chaim to Conservative Judaism" is both a personal statement and a message from JTS: we're here, we're learning and growing, and there's still a lot of work to be done.

Your thoughts on this essay, the new Pew report, or the current climate in the Jewish world are most welcome.


arnold eisen signature 2
Arnold M. Eisen
The Jewish Theological Seminary

Forward to a friend.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

David Wolpe on Ha'aretz: "Conservative Judaism: Not dead yet"

Conservative Judaism: Not dead yet

We all have a stake in renewing an intellectually honest and Torah-rooted Judaism that does not turn its back on the world.

By  Nov. 20, 2013 | 2:45 PM
'We all have a great stake in keeping liberal Judaism alive.'
Conservative institutions are looking for ways to revitalize the movement and make it more appealing to young Jews. Photo by United Synagogue / JTA Photo Service

Deaths are more common than resurrections and therefore safer to predict. The demise of Conservative Judaism is widely and confidently pronounced. No one seems buoyant about its prospects, given the clear signs of seemingly terminal sclerosis. But before we pen another 'requiem,' as was done by my friend and colleague Daniel Gordis ['Requiem for a Movement' in the Jewish Review of Books], it is worth keeping several things in mind.

First, the rise of Orthodox Judaism is to be expected. As the old Yiddish phrase has it, Jews are like other people only more so. In an age when literalist faith is surging in Christianity and Islam, Jews too can be expected to turn religiously rightward. But sociological trends are not invariable laws. Fifty years ago, people were assuming the end of Orthodoxy. Now they are predicting the dissolution of liberal Judaism. For millennia Jews have been forecasting the end of Judaism – as Simon Rawidowicz reminds us in his classic essay, "Israel the Ever Dying People." There are many and serious reasons to be worried about Conservative Judaism, but the power of prophecy was long ago snatched from us. The future's greatest delight is confounding the present.

Jews are not walled off from others. Amidst all the discussion about internal dynamics, remember that what happens to us has as much to do with the future of the lands in which we live as it does with our own communal arrangements. If you had asked a Jew in Germany in the 1930's about the future of the community, the skill of its leaders and Rabbis would have meant far less than the political storms that were stirring. Larger patterns or sudden crises can redefine faith communities.

Moreover, when the Jewish community mobilizes its resources it can accomplish astonishing things. I remember Elie Wiesel saying that when he began his career he hoped to help accomplish four impossible things: Creating a State of Israel, keeping alive the memory of the Shoah, freeing Soviet Jewry and maintaining Jewish continuity. The first three, he said, have astonishingly been accomplished. It is a little early to assume we cannot do four impossible things because we have thus far only ensured three.

We all have a great stake in keeping liberal Judaism alive. Jews from the liberal movements run the vast majority of the organizations, tirelessly seek to push the political process, lobby, fundraise and teach among non-Jews as well as Jews. Everything from AIPAC to Federations is the creation primarily of non-Orthodox Jewry. There are many and notable merits to the Jewish religious right, but widespread communal involvement has not been among them. A turn to wider involvement would be laudable, (though singularly implausible in the Yeshiva world) but such an opening will bring with it many of the challenges that Conservative and Reform Jews know all too well.

Then there is the simple question of truth. The intellectual power of modern biblical scholarship, of historical study, of science, is undeniable. Accepting computers and vaccines while disdaining carbon dating is intellectually schizophrenic. Sooner or later the traditionalist world will have to grapple with the power and implications of modernity. When it does, Conservative Judaism will be there, resources in hand, to help people contend with the meeting point of ancient traditions and contemporary innovation. When today's yeshiva student happens upon an old copy of "Origin of the Species," or learns more about ancient semitic societies, he will fall into the sturdy netting of Schechter and Heschel.

Daniel Gordis speaks about the mistakes the Conservative movement made along the way. He believes, with a considerable degree of justice, that it was so enchanted with the modern world that it largely abandoned the quest to create meaning in the lives of its adherents. The quest for meaning has not ended and it is not a function of numbers alone. There is a systolic/ diastolic movement to life. That which wanes today can wax tomorrow. Even the thinning out of ritual observance, for example, perhaps the most pointed indicator of Jewish decline, is not unidirectional. Some traditions, such as mikveh and pre-burial tahara, or purification of the body, have seen an upswing in many non-Orthodox communities as their poignancy has touched Jews previously unacquainted with the practices. A renewed understanding of the rapidly changing world and our place in it, can help revitalize institutions, spark intellectual inquiry, and reinvigorate a Judaism that does not turn its back on the world.

I am a Conservative Rabbi and the child of a Conservative Rabbi. Our successes were legion and our failures great. Liberal Judaism built remarkable institutions, summer camps, school and others, produced fine leaders and scholars and still saw many of its most gifted products abandon us. This is partly in the very nature of a free and mobile society. Shlomo Carlebach used to say, if he meets a student who says he is a Protestant, he knows he is a Protestant; if he meets a student who says he is a Catholic, he knows he is a Catholic. If he meets a student who says he is a human being, he knows he is a Jew. Utopian universalism is an intoxicating drug and has pulled many from Jewish moorings. An intellectually honest and Torah-rooted Judaism can be a potent counterforce, however. I witness its life changing possibilities every single day.

Israel should care deeply about the survival of Reform and Conservative Jewish continuity. Orthodox Jews too, should care, if we want to avoid a Jewish world that is insulated and unable (or uninterested) in influencing the larger world. You cannot be an or lagoyim (light to the nations) if you insist on being an or haganuz (hidden light). It is time to rise above triumphalism, lament and resignation. The proper response to the declining numbers is not a dismissal or a burial but call to action - put aside the sneers and the shovel and pick up a shofar. We have people to wake and work to do.

David Wolpe is Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @RabbiWolpe

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶

Friday, October 11, 2013

[Note: The power of WOW is that it was born from a diverse group without ideological consistency, evolved into an Orthodox tefilah group, and is now a group of powerful women who represent the vibrancy of the entire Jewish world. For this we all should be very grateful! - RMC]

[Note: The power of WOW is that it was born from a diverse group without ideological consistency, evolved into an Orthodox tefilah group, and is now a group of powerful women who represent the vibrancy of the entire Jewish world. For this we all should be very grateful! - RMC -


Women of the Wall Vote to Lead the Jewish People towards Change: Three Equal Sections at the Western Wall

October 7, 2013 / by  / 1 Comment / Filed under BlogIn Our Own Voices
Anat Hoffman, "We are not leaving the women's section right now and we reserve the right to prayer freely as a public holy site. However, we are prepared to be the catalyst and leaders of building a new, equal third section for all Jews to pray and celebrate at the Western Wall. When that is completed to our satisfaction, we will pray there."
After going through a comprehensive and emotionally trying decision-making process, Women of the Wall's multi-denominational Executive Board has voted in vast majority to create a future in which, under the right conditions, the women's prayer group would pray in an equal and fully integrated third section of the Kotel. The new area will be governed not by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz but by a board of Jewish leaders, including equal representation of women, who value women's prayer and reject all forms of violence. The process to create an equal, third space for prayer at the Western Wall will be lengthy and Women of the Wall maintain that until all of their conditions and specifications are met for the third section, women's prayer stays where it belongs: in the women's section of the Western Wall.
Hoffman said, "It is with great pain and sadness that we began to consider this new strategy, but we must be agents of change.  We have decided today to stand on the tips of our toes to look into the future. We must rise above our internal conflict in order to build the future we want for our daughters."
A far cry from the area known today as "Robinson's Arch", Women of the Wall have a very clear vision of the potential future. This vision includes but is not limited to: one entrance and one national plaza for all three sections, as well as full equality between the three sections- from budget to topography. A space where women are allowed to govern and lead, where girls can read Torah freely and celebrate their bat mitzvah with great joy and pride, the new section promises to reflect the makeup and spirit of the Israeli people and the Jewish people. Women of the Wall continue to demand change from Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who will have to loosen his grip in order to share the holy space. Likewise, the women have required change of themselves, to lead the charge for this vision.
While the conditions for this process are still being hashed out among the group and will be presented within the week to the Prime Minister's Commission led by Avichai Mendelblit, the wheels have indeed been put in motion for the women to take their rightful seat at the architects table, to create a national space for Jewish and Israelis to pray free from persecution and religious coercion.
For twenty-five years Women of the Wall has continued to fight for religious freedom and women's rights at the Western Wall. As Women of the Wall, our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.
Press Contact: 
Shira Pruce
Director of Public Relations
Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶