If I am a Clown and Mentally Ill, So Be It
By Rabbi Stanley Ringler
The articulated reaction of the Haredi Orthodox rabbinical establishment to the recent symbolic achievements of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are angry and pejorative in the extreme. Lest we forget the vituperative character of the comments made about us, mark the following for reference: 1. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement saying it was “against bodies that are called ‘liberals’ or ‘progressive’ that have engraved on their shield the uprooting of the Jewish people from its essence and uniqueness.” 2. M.K. Moshe Gafni stated that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah.” 3. Rabbi David Yosef alleged that the Reform movement “is not Jewish” and its members are “literally idolaters”. 4. M.K. Yisrael Eichler compared the Reform Movement ”to someone who is mentally ill.”
Now, while the stream of insulting allegations have seemingly subsided, these same haredi religious and political leaders have mounted a coordinated legislative and political effort to cancel the modest concessions won by the non-Orthodox movements. Thus, in response to haredi political pressure against the agreement to create a pluralist prayer section at the southern end of the kotel in the Robinson’s Arch area, Prime Minister Netanyahu has invited the United Torah Judaism and the Shas Party leaders to prepare an alternate proposal for consideration. This followed the refusal of the Religious Services Minister, David Azouly to sign off on the government’s agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements. This was hardly surprising given the fact that Azouly is known to believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jewish. And now, Haredi Ministers Yaakov Litzman and David Azouly along with M.K. Moshe Gafni, and with the support of Likud Minister Yariv Levin, have collaborated is proposing a law to enable the Chief Rabbinate to assume administrative control of state funded mikvehs. If passed, this law will enable them to circumvent the Supreme Court decision to allow non-Orthodox religious groups use of local mikvehs for conversion purposes.
In light of the political machinations and religious zealotry of our adversaries, one wonders how members of non-Orthodox movements throughout the diaspora, view these developments? Have they accepted the thinking of the Orthodox as representative of the Jewish state and concluded that they have no stake in Israel’s future?
How does one explain to our own people the sociological and theological differences which define our legitimate belief system in contrast to theirs?
We ought to begin by recognizing that Haredi Judaism is in large part a consequence of the threatening influence of the European Emancipation on Jewish life. The Haredi response to modernity was to emphasize what they believed to be the unchanging character of Jewish thought and life. They approached biblical text as fundamentalists who consider it to be accurate, timeless and authoritative. Their fundamentalism also expresses itself in their conviction that Jewish law, halacha, as codified in the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, must be fully observed and recognized as the expression of the true character of Jewish thought and life.
The fact that the Shulchan Aruch, is anachronistic for most modern Jews is of little concern to the Orthodox Haredi believer. But to imagine, as they do, that all Jews must live an insular existence in the 21st century is to propose that proper Jewish life can only be expressed in medieval terms.
How else can one describe this reality than as one of the great tragedies of modern Jewish life? Moreover, in Israel, it is this minority community of faith which controls nearly all of Jewish life. In this way they are restrictive of the forces of normal social evolution. The consequences are profound.
For example, in matters of kashrut, identity, conversion, marriage, divorce, death, burial rights, etc., Israelis are compelled to function in the face of a kind of spiritual terrorism. Conformance to the authoritative rules of the Rabbinate is obligatory. There are consequences, enforced by law, to rejection of the Orthodox Rabbinate’s authority.
It is also a fact, that for many Israeli Jews, particularly the secular, Judaism is what the Haredim define it to be. While this may account for their antipathy to Judaism, they are, at the same time, accepting as normative, a gross distortion of fact.
In contrast, Reform and Conservative Jews affirm the evolution of Jewish life and we express this in the changing ways in which we think about and practice our faith.
Unlike the Haredi Orthodox, we do not emphasize the minuteu of religious observance (the priestly approach) But rather affirm an integrated Jewish life of the priestly and prophetic.
In modern Jewish thought the prophetic narrative is accentuated by affirming the moral and ethical principles articulated by the biblical prophets. Thus, for progressive Jews, to be Jewish is to strive to live a moral life. To work towards a more just and ethical society. To condemn economic and social inequalities. To fight against racism and intolerance. To affirm the inherent right of all people to life and to help create the conditions which are necessary to ensure social justice. And above all else it is to work to create a world of peace.
We do not reject tradition, we incorporate it, all of it into our understanding of Judaism and Jewish life. We are religiously observant but we recognize that our symbols and practices carry a profound message of human responsibility and commitment beyond our own community. Although it is rarely acknowledged, the rabbinic tradition does speak to a reality beyond that of our own.
“I call heaven and earth to witness that whether one be Gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or free, the divine spirit rests on each in accordance with his deeds.” Yalkut Shimeoni in Judges, Section 42.
As an Israeli Reform Rabbi I recognize my responsibility to act out the principles of my faith in religious observance and social engagement. This is what distinguishes me from Orthodox rabbis. My horizon of responsibility goes beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish community. It encompasses all who live in Israel, Jew and non-Jew alike. And it reaches beyond our own country into the troubled world in which we all live.
In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Heschel also explained that “to us, a single act of injustice is a slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”
If believing and living as I do makes me a “clown” or “mentally ill” so be it. Would that there were many others like me and my colleagues.
Stanley Ringler is an Israeli Reform Rabbi and social activist.