Thursday, August 2, 2012

Two-minute Torah: The Lord is One, But are We?

As many of you know I grew up as a Reform Jew. At the point in services when we would recite the Shema, which appears in this week's Torah portion VaEtchanan, the rabbi would call on us to rise (Reform Jews generally stand for the Shema) and recite "the watchword of our faith.' My brother, who is almost five years younger than I, misheard this phrase as "the wash word of our face" which at least had some internal logic to it. Of course, it became impossible for me to keep from laughing inside whenever the rabbi would recite that phrase.

There are many ways to translate the Shema but let us for the moment stick with the most common translation. "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Notice that this verse which is often called the most important prayer in Judaism is not in fact a prayer at all. Prayers are addressed to God. This verse talks about God but it is in fact addressed to the people of Israel.

The Lord may be one but the people of Israel are certainly not. Two years ago a “Conversion Bill” was introduced in the Israeli Knesset which would formally grant all power over conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate -- effectively denying the right of non-Orthodox converts, and their descendants, to make aliyah and gain Israeli citizenship. An outcry from Diapora Jews has led so far to a delay in passing this proposed law. A commission was set up shortly after to study the issue “for six months” and has still not produced its recommendations. In the meanwhile, however, new procedures have been implemented giving the Israeli Chief Rabbinate control over recognition of Orthodox conversions outside of Israel. So for the time being if you are a Reform or Conservative convert you can still make aliyah and get an Israeli identity card which says you are a Jew. But if you are an Orthodox convert, unless you were converted by one of the very small number of American rabbis the Israeli Chief Rabbinate considers sufficiently stringent, you cannot.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has announced he will retire in 2013 and they are trying to figure out a process to name his successor. The problem is how exactly to do that. While Rabbi Sacks is often called the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, he is in reality the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue. (Yes, in the UK the “United Synagogue” is the umbrella body of modern Orthodoxy, not of Conservative Judaism as it is here. Solomon Schechter brought the idea for the name over with him when he moved from Cambridge University to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.) Which means that Rabbi Sacks is actually the Chief Rabbi of those who agree to accept him as the Chief Rabbi.

Who do not accept him as the Chief Rabbi? Let’s enumerate the groups: first, the Federation of Synagogues which is a more stringently Orthodox body than the United Synagogue. Then there are the Sephardim, who point out that they got to England first. Then there are the Reform, the Liberal (two different movements in the UK), and the Masorti (Conservative). All of these bodies reject the authority of the Chief Rabbi and many reject the concept of a Chief Rabbinate at all. And yet, the perception of the non-Jewish public in the UK is that the “Chief Rabbi” is head of all Jewry in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Anglican Church or the Cardinal of Westminster is the head of all Catholics in the UK.

So the raging topic in British Jewry is how to select a new Chief Rabbi. Should the groups which don’t accept his authority still have a say, since they are impacted willy-nilly by how the Chief Rabbi is perceived in the larger world? Should there be a Chief Rabbi at all? Or maybe more than one?

Everyone is in favor of Jewish unity but mostly when we speak of unity, we mean “everyone else should be more like we are.” The fact is that we are not one, and any attempt to formulate a universally-acceptable definition of Jewish identity, belief or practice is going to fail. On its simplest level, the Haredim will never recognize a Conservative convert as a Jew, and we Conservative Jews will never agree to a definition which leaves more and more of us (including my own wife and daughter) defined as non-Jews. What is needed is a way for us to respect and honor our differences, and to work together even when we do not agree.

1 comment:

Ari Sherris said...

One “way for us to respect and honor our differences, and to work together even when we do not agree” is consensus-decision making. Were the representatives of the various institutions/streams of Judaism to first agree to consensus-decision making on matters of importance (e.g., choosing a Chief Rabbi, presenting a recommendation to the Israeli Knesset on conversion) and begin the process, the prospects of unity might brighten up. However, even this possible solution is a can of worms if the institutional powers from the various streams of Judaism view differences as irreconcilable. Still hopeful that negotiation and compromise through consensus building might be a pathway to unity, perhaps one step back from consensus-decision making might be necessary. I’m thinking that if only the powerbrokers from each stream could agree to go into change workshops there may be a chance that a shift towards unity might come about. Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey of Harvard University offer these to institutions that seek to overcome stumbling blocks. Their workshops are based on their theory and research. They have honed their model since the 1980s. For the latest publication on their work see (Kagan, R., Lahey, L. 2009. Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization).

Ari Sherris, PhD
Teachers College, Columbia University