Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Jan. 20, 1999 / 3 Shevat, 5759


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Black Hats, Bad Guys

LET ME CONFESS AT THE OUTSET: I'm an Orthodox Jewish fundamentalist.

That seems to be the term these days for those of us who believe in the Divine origin and eternally binding nature of the Torah and who endeavor to comply with the requirements of Jewish religious law (halacha) --- as Jews have done for millennia.

In the eyes and words of some contemporary non-Orthodox leaders, that conviction makes me and Jews like me bad guys.

Admittedly, the men among us tend to favor black hats. All the same, though, we are innocent of the pending charges: That we see non-Orthodox Jews as something other than our brothers and sisters, that we bear them ill will, that we disparage the ideal of Jewish unity.

Those accusations stem largely from our opposition to changes in Israel's "religious status quo," the compromise that Israel's early leaders instituted in order to allow a secular, socialist/democratic system of government to simultaneously exist as a Jewish State.

That modus vivendi has always provided Israelis total freedom of religion, but at the same time accommodated the Jewish religious tradition in limited areas. For examples: A Jewish school system is provided for those opting for it (with secular schools for the rest); the Jewish dietary laws are respected at government-sponsored gatherings and in the military; and traditional Halacha, through the medium of an official rabbinate, is the arbiter of Jewish "personal status" issues -- like marriage, divorce and conversion to Judaism.

That latter accommodation, by virtue of the single standard it maintains for accepting non-Jews into the Jewish people in Israel, has helped prevent the emergence of multiple "Jewish peoples" in the Jewish State for the past half-century.

Israel's need to embrace the Jewish religious tradition's standards for personal status issues is no fundamentalist plot to ensure Orthodox hegemony. It was originally laid out, in fact, in a letter signed by, among other non-black hatters, the Jewish State's "founding father" David Ben-Gurion the secularist who would become Israel's first Prime Minister. He realized that, without a single standard for conversion, the Jewish people "would, G-d forbid, become split into two."

Ben-Gurion's common sense insight -- that Jewish unity is enhanced, not degraded, through the embrace of a single standard acceptable to all -- is no less relevant today than it was when Israel was founded 50 years ago. What has changed is that the leaders of the American-based Reform and Conservative movements have in recent years decided to aggressively attack the single-standard common denominator approach. Their attack has proceeded on two separate fronts: in the Israeli courts, where they have enlisted an activist judiciary in exploiting the absence of express statutory authority for the religious status quo; and in the court of public opinion, where they have attempted to portray Israel as a theocracy controlled by religious fanatics who treat non-Orthodox Jews as second-class citizens.

Bad guys that we "Ultra-Orthodox" are, the Israelis among us dared respond to the court rulings by... well, by doing pretty much what we Americans would do were the U.S. Supreme Court to suddenly determine a lack of adequate statutory basis for a legal protection that had always been assumed to exist. They asked their representatives in the Knesset -- the counterparts of ours in the Congress -- to legislate it back into existence.

An uproar among Reform and Conservative leaders ensued --- and has since intensified. Israeli legislators have been threatened with persona non grata status in American temples, and the Israeli government is being warned of a "break in relations with" (read: "cessation of donations from") American non-Orthodox Jews.

And, just to remind everybody who the enemy was, an advertisement on the op-ed page of The New York Times, not only referred to Orthodox Jews as "fundamentalists," but included words like "hijack" and "madness" to ensure that readers would visualize crazed eyes, kaffiyas and Kalishnikovs instead of citizens appealing to their democratically elected representatives. For good measure, and to ensure the vitality of the old canard about Orthodox Jews rejecting the Jewishness of non-Orthodox Jews, the New Israel Fund, in the large headline of a full-page ad it placed in the same paper (and others), challenged American Jews to "tell the Israeli government exactly what we are. Jews."

Most amazing of all, in the very same breath that they issue calls for multiple conversion standards in Israel -- the surest path to multiple "Jewish peoples" -- the non-Orthodox leaders declare "Jewish unity" their goal.

And, of course, declare us black-hatted bad guys The Enemy, implying that we would deprive Jews of their freedom of belief when all we seek is to have the Jewish State continue to officially respect the standard for conversion that has kept the Jewish people one nation for over 3000 years.

We hope, of course, that the Reform and Conservative laities will neither swallow their leaders' rhetoric nor assume their ill will, that our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters will achieve objectivity and discern the long-term dangers in their leaders' quest for immediate gratification in Israel.

Our prayer is that our fellow Jews will come to understand that true Jewish unity comes not from feel-good diatribes but from foresight; not from hysterical name-calling but from rational stock-taking; not from disparaging the past but from respecting it.


Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America,
the largest grass-roots Orthodox Jewish group in America.

Up

12/10/98: Bringing Wall Street Wisdom To the Quest for 'Jewish-Continuity'
7/06/98: Jaded
7/01/98: Full disclosure

©1998, Rabbi Avi Shafran