Jewish World Review Jan 12, 2000 / 5 Shevat, 5760

Friendly words from a surprising place

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THERE IS SOME HOPE now that two young Jewish girls in Italy who have been the focus of much of the Orthodox Jewish world's attention in recent months may yet be removed from the custody of their non-observant father -- reportedly a convert to Christianity -- and perhaps even returned, as is their wish, to their observant Jewish mother in Israel.

The startling decision of a juvenile court in Genoa that awarded the father, Moshe Dulberg, custody of the girls and severely limited the youngsters' contact with their mother and other religious Jews has been overturned by a court of appeals. While the new ruling is based on technical jurisdictional grounds and so its full import is not yet fully known, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Econophone Among the many groups have become actively involved in the effort to "rematriate" the girls are Agudath Israel World Organization, Am Echad, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Orthodox Union, and the Conference of European Rabbis. Another prominent figure whose voice was added to the chorus of protest deserves particular mention, and credit: Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of his movement's Religious Action Center.

According to a report in the Anglo-Jewish weekly, Forward, the Reform leader described as "extraordinarily troublesome" the Italian juvenile court's evident determination that an Orthodox life would be detrimental to the girls' welfare, and decried its "assumption that Orthodox Judaism is a cult that is not deserving of the respect of the court and the protection of international religious freedom treaties."

Indeed, among the evidence entertained by the Italian court was testimony by a psychologist who asserted that Orthodox Judaism views "exploitation of and cruelty to minors as legitimate... and perverted behavior as normal." At the same time, the court refused to allow testimony about Orthodox practice and belief from former Israeli Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman or several Orthodox rabbis.

Trakdata The court's decision, now thankfully overturned, also expressed its concern that the girls' observant mother not be allowed to "influence" her daughters, and set rules about their interaction with their mother that not only ignored their declared love for her but seem designed to undermine it. The mother was granted only minimal visitation rights, and all personal meetings between mother and daughters were to be in a place designated by the father, in the presence of someone designated by him; he was also permitted to tape all phone conversations between his daughters and their mother.

Rabbi Saperstein's inclusion on the list of those expressing outrage at the court's apparent bias against Orthodox Jews and Orthodox practice is particularly laudable, welcome and heartening.

It is also somewhat surprising, because negative characterizations of what the world calls Orthodox Judaism - what for several thousand years until fairly recently was called simply Judaism, without any prefix - have emerged on more than one occasion from an assortment of leaders of the movement Rabbi Saperstein represents.

Several years ago, for example, the then-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Simeon Maslin, was not waxing sentimental when he described "bearded men in black caftans and women wearing sheitels (wigs)... [who] pray rapidly in a sing-song Hebrew, pore over the Talmud in segregated yeshivot, buy their meat and fowl from glatt kosher butchers (ostensibly a higher degree of kashrut) and generally reject modernity." (Reform Judaism, Summer, 1996).

Nor was his intent unclear when he went on to ask how "a reasonable person [can] be anything but repelled" by such Jews' "need" to "out-pietize each other." For good measure, Rabbi Maslin decried shechita as a "painful method of slaughter," the requirement of a religious divorce as "utterly insensitive to the dignity and status" of women, and ridiculed Orthodox Jews for daring "to pray, at the dawn of the 21st century, for the reestablishment of the sacrificial cult."

More recently, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' current president, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, decried what he christened "ghetto Judaism" --- which he defined as the belief that Jews "should be secluded in our own communities concerned only with our own learning and observance... that our connection with the outside world should be a utilitarian one..." And lest anyone misconstrue his mark, he went on to identify it as having long existed "in Williamsburg and Borough Park."

Rabbi Yoffie has also made reference, in other contexts, to "utterly fanatic ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who are becoming more extreme every day" and has accused "the ultra-Orthodox" of having "abused Torah for their own selfish purposes and brought it into disrepute." While those latter comments might have been more politically than religiously motivated, such distinction is likely lost on those predisposed to disdain religious Jews as a group.

Sentiments like those voiced by Rabbis Maslin and Yoffie have had, unfortunately, a profound effect on their intended audiences - Jews who might be persuaded to support Reform efforts, in particular to change Israel's religious status-quo. But they might also have had an unintended but not insignificant ripple effect on the larger world. Reform Judaism, after all, is an impressive, glossy publication mailed to 310,000 addresses, not all of them Jewish homes, and the national and international press routinely provides broad coverage to Reform leaders' remarks. And the full effect of negative rhetoric is sometimes not evident until it is reflected back, grotesquely magnified, from other, sinister, fun-house mirrors.

And so it is deeply gratifying on several levels to note Rabbi Saperstein's recent stance and remarks. And deeply stirring to imagine that they may signal a retreat on the part of the Reform leadership from the anti-Orthodox excesses of its past. Such a change, especially on the heels of Reform movement's recent and much-publicized acknowledgment of the importance of traditional Jewish practice, could bode well indeed for the Jewish future.

For just as expressions of contempt for Jewish tradition and its adherents can drive Jews away from both, respect for what lies at the roots of all Jews can only help foster movement in the opposite direction.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is American Director of Am Echad, an international organization promoting Jewish unity. He may be reached by clicking here.


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© 2000, Rabbi Avi Shafran