Left to right, from top: Dennis Prager, Rabbi Harvey Fields,Rabbi Boruch Cunin and Rabbi Harold Schulweis.
The Year of The Grudge
The dominant stories of 5757 centered around ourcontinual war of words fought over religion, sex, politics andhistory
By Robert Eshman, Associate Editor
Can’t we all just get along? Reviewing the events of the pastyear in our community, the answer seems to be: just barely. For theChinese, this has been the Year of the Rooster. For Los AngelesJewry, let’s call it the Year of the Grudge.
The big stories of the year were not Jew vs. Black, or Jew vs.Gentile, but Jew vs. Jew — a continual war of words fought overreligion, sex, politics and history. At least we can’t be accused ofpettiness.
To help us parse the cyclone, let’s take it by subject:
From late November well into February, the pages of The JewishJournal carried heated arguments over whether homosexuals should beordained as rabbis. The firestorm was ignited by Dennis Prager, who,though no shirker from controversy, must have had no idea what nervehis arguments would drill into. In the Nov. 22 issue (“Homosexuality,Judaism and Rabbis”), he declared that to ordain practicinghomosexuals as rabbis would be “to overthrow Judaism’s historicattempt to channel human sexuality.” Ordaining gays would open thefloodgates, warned the radio talk-show host, and soon we’d face thespecter of bisexual rabbis performing quadruple weddings on bisexualcouples, with two rebbetzins — one of each gender — in tow. OK,maybe we exaggerate his concerns, but not by much.
Faster than you could spell “Limbaugh,” the community was all overPrager. Sixteen local rabbis, including prominent Conservativeleaders, signed a letter, accusing his piece of being “homophobic,poorly argued and cruel.” Then came letters accusing the rabbis ofad hominem attacks. Then more letters from some of the 16rabbis, who said that they objected to the letter they had signedtheir name to. Then Prager again, defending himself. And that’s notto mention the letters from members of the community, swarming toPrager’s defense or eager to pile on. Finally, Rabbi Harold Schulweisof Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom, on Feb. 28, chimed in with abrilliant essay on Torah, compassion and human sexuality — a subtlebody check to Prager’s reasoning and a model of learned discourse forPrager’s critics. Now if only Schulweis had written in on Nov. 22.
For an instant, it appeared that a small group of Orthodoxcongregations would finally pull us together– by teeing us all off.In late March, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States andCanada declared that the Reform and Conservative movements are notJudaism. Some, such as Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi HarveyFields, at first thought the pronouncement — given a misleadingheadline in the Los Angeles Times — must have been a Purim joke. Butit wasn’t, and rabbis from Fields to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’sMarvin Hier railed against an attempt to undermine the very Jewishnotion of critical interpretation. Orthodox lawyer Baruch Cohenlambasted Fields et al. for their misunderstanding. The Union ofOrthodox Rabbis, he explained, did not say that the majority of usweren’t Jews, just that the religion we practiced wasn’t Judaism.That felt so much better.
At home, problems surfaced, or resurfaced. Chabad once again facedoff against the American Jewish Congress and the city of BeverlyHills over the right to raise its 27-foot Agam menorah over SantaMonica Boulevard. This time, Chabad lost.
Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, neatlydivided the Jewish electorate. The Jewish Federation Council’sexecutive board finally came out against it, but only after a raucousdebate.
Jews, however, did come together this year to — of all things –vote Republican, for Mayor Richard Riordan over Tom Hayden.
The news from Israel didn’t exactly help heal domestic rifts.Successive waves of suicide bombings, some of which wounded membersof the Los Angeles community, provoked unanimous grief and outrage.But the search for solutions divided us. Those leaning leftcriticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the settlers forundermining the Oslo peace accords. Those leaning right unleashed achorus of we-told-you-sos and called for Oslo’s ultimate demise.
At the annual sermon seminar, convened for area rabbis, not onecleric presented a sermon in praise of Israel. Beth JacobCongregation’s Rabbi Abner Weiss urged his colleagues to put asidetheir differences on Israel and celebrate its accomplishments. Buteven louder was the silence from more and more members of thecommunity who are turned off to the news from Israel.
Religion and Politics
Two words will suffice here: The Wall. The Orthodox attack onnon-Orthodox women and men holding a prayer service at the WesternWall Plaza on Shavuot and Tisha B’Av provoked outrage at home.Conservative and Reform Jews felt the sting of religious persecutionin, of all places, a Jewish state. And the Orthodox believed that asacred space was used to score political points in the ongoing battleover the religious status quo.
But the hardest hand-wringing was taking place amongIsrael-affiliated fund-raising organizations, who feared that thethreats to pluralism in Israel would shrink donations back home.
Perhaps the problem was that we had, thank God, too few externalthreats to unite us. David Duke, the poster boy of the Ku Klux Klan,visited Cal State Northridge last September and spoke to some 1,100people. But the real drama was all in the pregame show — should hebe invited or not. The speech itself was as dull as anything said inthe mayoral race.
More Rancor, Please
The Jewish Journal did its part to stir the pot withinvestigations into the dire lack of funding of Jewish day-schooleducation; the slightly kooky world of the Kabbalah Learning Center;sex and power among the rabbinate, and stories and Jewish girls andsexuality.
And Schulweis, fresh from reconciling us on the gay issue, openeda new storm front: proselytism. In a passionate essay and sermon, hecalled on Jews to open their arms to potential converts and to moreactively bring non-Jews into the fold, no matter how rent the foldis. Schulweis drew fire for his suggestion, which many critics saidwas un-Jewish (it’s not) or impossible (to be determined).
And now the Good News
It’s easy, amid the fury, to be blinded to what’s right with ourshtetl-by-the-sea. We’ll mention, in passing, the synagogues,schools, clubs, community centers, museums, libraries, havurasand businesses that continue to serve a flourishing community. As ofJan. 3, there were three– three— Jewish theaters in LosAngeles. Also, there was Laemmle’s Jewish Cinema Series, a Yiddishfilm festival, the “Exiles and Emigré” exhibit at the LosAngeles County Museum of Art, and “Too Jewish?” at UCLA’s ArmandHammer Museum.
A conference on “The Jewish Quest for Purpose” drew 550 youngpeople to the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica (150 had to be turned away,to find purpose elsewhere). About 400 youngish men and women showedup for a conference on Zionism last month. The Kosher festival,Jewish festivals in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, thefirst Sephardic festival– all attracted huge crowds to bask in asense of togetherness, no matter how fragile.
In any case, healing may be at hand. On July 2, rabbis fromdifferent denominations met to discuss ways to draw Jews together.And on July 11, the Federation took out a full-page ad in TheJournal, calling on us all to support unity and respect diversity. Inother words, there’s always next year.