American Orthodox rabbis are ambivalent about Western Wall controversy
American Orthodox leaders have a message for their non-Orthodox friends: Take a deep breath.
When Israel’s cabinet voted twice to further empower the country’s Charedi Orthodox religious establishment last month, Reform, Conservative and non-Orthodox Zionist leaders were outraged. They cancelled meetings with Israel’s prime minister. They gave an on-camera statement with an Israeli opposition figure. They launched lobbying efforts in Jerusalem. They accused Israel’s government of “betrayal.” They threatened legal action. One lay-leader said she’d stop flying El Al, Israel’s national airline.
These leaders have decried the June 25 votes to suspend the agreement to expand the Western Wall’s non-Orthodox prayer area and to advance a bill that gave Israel’s Chief Rabbinate more power over Jewish conversions. This week, leaders have also criticized the rabbinate’s so-called “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis it does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants to Israel.
But when it comes to the supposed crisis swirling between Israel and U.S. Jewry, America’s most prominent Orthodox organizations have remained mostly quiet. The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, two umbrella American Orthodox bodies, both told JTA they are not commenting on the matter. The RCA will be meeting with the rabbinate next week regarding the list of rabbis, having received assurances that the “blacklist” may have been misconstrued.
And while some modern Orthodox rabbis have criticized Israel’s actions, they have not called for retaliatory action against the Israeli government. Others sympathize with what they see as the Chief Rabbinate’s defense of traditional Jewish law.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox leader, was sympathetic with his non-Orthodox colleagues — up to a point. “I’m disappointed in the modern Orthodox for not responding strongly, because of the divisive effect that this has on the Jewish people,” said Lookstein, the rabbi emeritus of Kehilath Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “And I am concerned about some of the overreactions of liberal groups who are calling for all kinds of boycotts and actions on the part of American Jewry to punish Israel for these decisions. That kind of response will be more dangerous than the actions of the Israeli government itself.”
Haredi Orthodox Americans, meanwhile, insist that the Jewish communal organizations criticizing the rabbinate do not speak for them. Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told JTA that the Chief Rabbinate is a “bulwark” against eroding and multiplying standards for Jewish observance and identity. Shafran views the rabbinate as a regulatory agency for Jewish matters along the lines of the Food and Drug Administration.
“If Israel is to retain a Jewish identity, it is essential for her to have a single set of standards determining who is a Jew and what is a Jewish marriage or divorce,” Shafran wrote to JTA in an email. “Were a constitution to impose multiple standards for such things, it would lead to plethora of ‘Jewish peoples’ – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and others. That would spell disaster for both Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.”
Shafran feels warnings of an Israel-Diaspora crisis are overblown. Non-Orthodox Jews, he wrote, are largely disengaged from Israel, while Orthodox Jews — who frequently visit, agitate for and study in Israel — are generally not bothered by the recent decisions on the Western Wall and conversion.
“The Rabbinate’s policies have alienated some non-Orthodox Jewish leaders and some of their followers, to be sure, but the American Jewish community, if seen in aggregate is not greatly concerned about Israel,” Shafran wrote. “The vast majority of American Jews who care deeply about Israel (and visit and send their children there) are the Orthodox, who are not alienated at all by things like the recent controversial decisions.”
All three elements of the controversy — the Western Wall, conversion and the rabbis’ list — do affect Orthodox Jews. The conversion bill — which has been shelved for six months — sought to strip legitimacy from private Orthodox conversions in Israel. The list of rabbis included a range of Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox leaders. And under the Western Wall deal, the Women of the Wall prayer group agreed to move its services from its current meeting place in the Orthodox women’s section of the site — a frequent flash point between feminists and haredi Orthodox — to the expanded non-Orthodox prayer space.
Even so, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida criticized Jewish federations for opposing the Israeli government’s actions so vocally. By weighing in on the debates, he said, the federations are supporting Reform and Conservative Jews at the expense of the Orthodox.
His local federation, in South Palm Beach County, shared on its website a statement from its national umbrella group criticizing Israel’s actions on conversion and the Western Wall.
“I’ve been very disappointed by the federations’ reaction,” he said. “I understand why Reform and Conservative would be using their organizations for advocacy on this issue, but federation is supposed to speak for all of the community. They’ve become an advocacy arm for the Reform and Conservative by taking up this issue of conversion.”
Goldberg added that non-Orthodox leaders should be cautious in criticizing the Israeli government, especially when some admonish J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, for criticizing Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians.
“It’s a dangerous precedent for Jewish organizations in America to be protesting the decisions of the democratically elected government of Israel,” he said. “Many of the same people who have no tolerance for J Street trying to interfere in the government of Israel are trying to do so themselves.”
Some Orthodox clergy do sympathize with non-Orthodox leaders. Maharat Ruth Friedman, who serves as vice president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox rabbis’ organization, said she felt the Chief Rabbinate’s actions were exclusionary and harmful to the Jewish people. She said, however, that her organization was not planning any protest beyond a statement of disapproval.
“I do not see the Rabbinate as a partner in furthering the spiritual growth of the Jewish people,” said Friedman, who emphasized that she was speaking for herself and not in an official capacity. “This sends the message that religious authority is about control and exclusion. That’s the opposite [of the] message we want to send to the Jewish people.”