The Politics of Religion


I have never met Rabbi Avi Shafran (see his Op-Ed piece). We have spoken on the telephone occasionally, and I can report that he seems civil, reasonable, almost courtly. A gracious man. On the basis of those conversations, I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt — that is, to assume he is being neither disingenuous nor cynical in his essay “Common Sense and Common Ground.”

But that presents me with an even greater problem: How do he and I communicate with each other?

Shafran displays a tendency to pass off opinions as though they were facts — most notably about what leads to Jewish unity, and what causes disunity. (Following the Orthodox path and adhering to halacha, as the Orthodox define it, is the correct answer for unity; embracing a multitude of different standards is the culprit when it comes to disunity.)

Again, these are opinions, not facts, and not particularly rooted in accuracy. For example, the Orthodox control religious life in Israel, as the Reform and Conservative movements have made only small (though growing) inroads. But we are hardly witnessing what I would call Jewish unity there. Some Israelis must fly to Cyprus to marry. Others have a serious problem with burials. Still, others are outraged that most haredi young men are relieved of the national responsibility of military service.

The Haredi rule religious life in Israel–one standard. But it is difficult to ignore or deny that Israel is torn by internal religious conflicts.

Nor is there evidence in the United States that, should we silence or disenfranchise those Jews who do not embrace one Jewish standard, all would be well. My opinion, based on history and observation, is that one Orthodox faction would simply turn against another as the competing religious interest groups narrowed.

In fact, it is just as valid to hold the opinion that multiple standards serve as a way of keeping Judaism alive in America; the pluralism means that Judaism is more diffuse, less authoritarian and more accessible. And, of course, it also leads to renewal for some Jews by choice.

Think for a moment of Jewish life in the United States if Shafran’s single standard were to prevail. There would be Jewish unity (perhaps), but probably consisting of somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of today’s total Jewish population. That is somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 people. The likelihood is that most of those Jews would be separatists, which is their right, and would be perched outside of the broader American culture. Most likely, they would be marginalized.

What about the rest of us? We would probably be allowed to call ourselves Jews, but would have to cede religious authority (i.e. power) to Rabbi Shafran and his colleagues, all in the name of Jewish unity. The situation would be untenable — just as it has become in Israel.

There is, I fear, a kind of misplaced and unconscious self-righteousness present. I am speaking not only of Shafran but of those critics who berate The Jewish Journal for playing politics here, while they are only concerned with religious truth.

This past week, the criticism had to do with our reporting on the violent behavior of Orthodox Jews toward Reform Jewish men and women at the Wailing Wall recently. I was lectured by friends and strangers who telephoned. “Perhaps 100 were involved. But what about the 900 who didn’t yell obscenities, who didn’t hurl fecal matter,” I am asked. “Where are they in your story?”

I answer, with some dismay, what about them? What about the 900? Or what about 90, or even nine? Did they try to prevent the acts of the minority? Did they intervene? Remonstrate? Did they place their bodies between the 100 and the objects of their wrath? Not that I am aware. I have always believed that not to act is a form of action. So where were the others, the well-behaved, the decent? They have not made themselves known or heard. I make no brief here for Yossi Sarid and others in Meretz or of intemperate political remarks from Reform and Conservative leaders. But there is still silence from Rabbi Shafran’s corner.

Well, not exactly silence. The fault lies not with the Orthodox, writes Judy Gruen (see Letters, page 3). When entering a church or a mosque, wouldn’t the Conservative and Reform Jews be respectful, remove their shoes, follow the prevailing custom as polite and respectful guests, she demands. Of course. But in this instance, they saw themselves as Jews at a Jewish place of worship, not Jewish guests at a Moslem holy place. If we are to see ourselves as Jewish guests in this religious setting, then what in fact is our relationship to Israel and Orthodox power?

And what actually is required or demanded of us in the name of Jewish unity? — Gene Lichtenstein