Published in The Jerusalem Post on November 2, 1997
The Reform movement provided us with a fascinating political drama last week, and came out behind. Their US leadership delegation, here to pressure the Netanyahu government and the Orthodox, was forced to eat humble pie, and provide the Neeman Committee with another three-month extension.
But the real story behind the scenes, gleaned from conversations with almost all members of the committee and their political patrons in the broader religious world, is the overwhelming breakthrough already achieved by Neeman in intra-denominational Jewish relations, and the deal on the table.
“Do you think that Rabbis Simha Meiron, Eliyahu Ben-Dahan and Nahum Rabinowitz would be party to a discussion about a national conversion college, with a Reform and Conservative role, without the ‘hechsher’ of the Chief Rabbis and other Torah giants?”, one of the leading Neeman committee members asks me. Meiron is former supervisor-in-chief of the rabbinical court system, Ben-Dahan is the current top official, and Rabinowitz a respected Rosh Yeshiva. “Have you noticed that none of the big Rabbis, from Ovadia Yosef through Aharon Lichtenstein to the Gerrer Rebbe and Eliezer Menachem Shach have come out and demanded: ‘stop what you’re doing!’”, says this very orthodox figure.
Here’s the story. “The unalterable Orthodox opposition to any dealings with these renegade religious streams has been tempered by an awareness that Jewish history is at a turning point, and that we have one last chance to bring them back into the community fold. We’re at the brink of a sectarian schism akin to the breaking-away of Christianity or the Karaites from the Jewish body politic”, explains another orthodox committee member. “Patrilineal descent, and Reform-sanctioned intermarriages and same-sex marriages have led us to a point of no return. Either we jointly agree upon a new Jewish ‘gold standard’ in Israel for matters of identity, broadly anchored in halacha, or the final break is at our doorsteps”.
“We’re trying to pull back from the abyss of total divorce as a people – which is the consequence of failure here,” says another senior religious authority closely tied to the committee’s work. “It’s like what happened with the nascent Hasidic movement 200 years ago; on the verge of excommunication from Jewish people-hood, they pulled back from the precipice and accepted certain halachic standards of behavior”.
What this means is that the orthodox may overlook radical Reform ‘innovations’ abroad, such as rabbi-priest weddings, if in Israel halachic standards in marriage and conversion are adhered to – even if the converts have studied with Reform teachers, and Conservative ‘religious figures’ lead an orthodox-supervised wedding ceremony.
“This in no way entails any Reform retreat”, avers the Reform representative on the committee, Rabbi Uri Regev. “Our movement in Israel has never sanctioned intermarriage or the like”. “We’ll accept certain community-wide guidelines if indeed we are treated as brothers and our community role is respected”.
Sounds good. But other yeshiva leaders quietly term all this “just smoke and mirrors”. “The conversion idea can’t work”, one sadly explained to me. “Where’s the “* kabalat ol mitzvot * ” (acceptance of the yoke of halachic practice)? The convert will know enough to pass an Orthodox board but then will drive to his Temple on Shabbat. That’s not a kosher conversion”.
Neeman and his team nevertheless remain obstinately optimistic. “There’s a balance of terror at this historical moment – fear of an ultimate and permanent separation and of being blamed for it – that gives us the chance to suggest ways of coexistence as one people into the future”, explains Bobby Brown, Netanyahu’s advisor on Diaspora Affairs and the committee’s astute coordinator.
As far as things have come, there are stumbling blocks ahead. Here’s what to watch for over the coming months:
- ‘Exclusivity’: A new buzz word, coined by the ultra-orthodox, which would require the Reform and Conservative movements to agree that the new guidelines for conversion and divorce in Israel be adhered to in all cases, and that no recognition, even civil, would be granted to those ceremonies which deviate from the standard.
- Religious Councils and the Prayer by the Kotel: By mutual agreement, the committee’s mandate has been broadened to deal with these matters too, complicating the picture. Without agreement here as well, the package will fall apart. Watch for a decision to altogether cancel the local religious councils. The Kotel remains a problem.
- The Political Left: Meretz and Labor played a role in convincing the reform delegation to back down last week. Dedi Zucker explained to them that the consequence of breakdown in the process was new ‘coercive’ religious legislation, the ultimate evil in his eyes. Will the left back a Reform-Orthodox deal that provides for industrial quiet on the legislative and judicial sides, even if it involves solidifying halachic standards?
In the meantime, we should all pray for silence. At this point, the best thing that Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Amiel Hirsch and other Reform leaders meeting this week in Dallas, can do — is stay out of the limelight. Quiet agreements have to be reached, and each has homework to do in getting their respective hard-liners bought into the process.