Nearly a year ago, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and a scholar of demographic trends, put a challenge to a former student.
Jews around the nation are deeply involved in interfaith initiatives, Wertheimer noted. But they avoid involvement with their own religion’s different movements, letting ideological differences get in the way of conversing with each other over issues dear to each. Do something to mend that divide before the gulf is unbridgeable, he urged Stuart Altshuler, a JTS graduate and rabbi of Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat.
Last month in a display of professional collegiality that is unusual for most communities, seven Orange County rabbis from across the ideological spectrum jointly collaborated in a pluralistic dialogue. Or as one panelist summarized, "How do we stack the deck differently?"
About 50 people attended "Torah & Israel: A Community Conversation" on a rainy Sunday at Chapman University. The event was sponsored by the college and the American Jewish Committee, of which Altshuler is a board member.
The only denomination without a representative was the Reconstructionist movement. Arnie Rachlis of Irvine’s University Synagogue had a previous commitment.
At the outset Altshuler, who served as moderator, said that his aim was to unite the Jewish community through knowledge about its diversity. What emerged was the nearly galactic theological distance between the Orthodox spiritual leaders and rabbis from the other movements. In all, Israel got little attention, overshadowed by generally cordial but sometimes testy interchanges over topical issues such as conversion, identity and equality.
Elie Spitz, a Conservative rabbi from Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, and Michael Mayersohn, a Reform rabbi, described Torah as a human creation whose interpretation continues to evolve through history.
David Eliezrie, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi, emphatically described Torah as God’s word manifested in the physical world.
"Torah is the goal post. We don’t believe in moving the goal posts," he said.
For some people, such differing interpretations are unacceptable, said Allen Krause of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. "It’s never been a problem for me to have uncertainty."
"We’re all trying to blend tradition with modernity," said Stephen Einstein of the ReformCongregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley. "Today, the lines are not as clearly drawn."
Yet, the delineation was evident on other topics, such as the rabbis’ explanation for allowing or disallowing mixed seating.
"Prayer is an extremely challenging activity," said Joel Landau of the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, where women sit behind a glass-and-wood partition, or mechitzah. The opposite sex is a distraction, he said.
Spitz agreed that praying exclusively with men creates an unself-conscious environment. "But separate is not equal," he said, noting that the all-female Radcliffe Institute never achieved the prestige of all-male Harvard University. "What trumps distraction is the greater sense of equality that honors women."
And what is a justifiable change in Jewish law?
"There is no red line; everything in Torah needs interpretation," Spitz said, noting that "an eye for an eye" is not interpreted literally. "Nothing in Torah is obvious."
And while interpretations are bound by precedent, topics on women, music and homosexuality are areas where the law tends to change, he added.
So who is a Jew?
"I would beg the non-Orthodox rabbis to go along with the Orthodox because it’s so divisive," said Lauren Klein, a member of the audience and self-described as "very, very Reconstructionist."
"We ought to have one standard where we can agree who is a Jew," said Einstein, noting that the Reform movement splits with the Conservative in accepting as Jewish a person born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.
"The Orthodox think they are the only authentic Judaism; the rest are something else, an expression of Judaism."
"If we’re going to let those on the right be gatekeepers, hundreds of thousands [of people] will be excluded," Einstein said. "The Orthodox standard isn’t prevalent."
"Where others see dangers," added Mayersohn, referring to converts and others born of non-Jewish mothers, "I see richness."
Eliezrie disagreed. "By setting different standards of identify, you have chaos."
"Today in Israel, this issue has reached the boiling point," Einstein said. "Whatever happens there will happen here."
Noting the strengths of each denomination, Altshuler concluded, saying, "We all have contributions to make."