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Thursday 26 July 2007

Until ignorance divides us

Until ignorance divides us
By Yair Ettinger
Last Friday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received three guests in his
office, all with the double-barreled title of rabbi and professor: They
are well-known scholars among American Jews and fairly well-known in
Israel: Rabbi David Hartman, who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in
Jerusalem and is associated with liberal Orthodoxy; Rabbi Arnie Eisen,
the chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological
Seminary (JTS); and Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union
College (HUC), the Reform Movement's rabbinic seminary.

Far from the discriminating eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, the earth
beneath the prime minister's office did not tremble when Olmert
addressed each of his conversants as "rabbi" and devoted time to those
who would like to find loopholes in the wall put up by the rabbinic

The three found in Olmert a favorable view of initiatives to "increase
Jewish identity among Jews" in Israel and abroad. They declined to
elaborate on the content of the meeting, but a talk with Rabbi Ellenson,
one of the most influential leaders among American Jewry, indicated
which way the wind is blowing

During his visit to Israel, Ellenson had a hard time getting over the
depressing impression made by senior Israeli figures a few days before
his departure from the United States at an international gathering of
university presidents. On Saturday night, he related, a rabbi recited
havdalahh [marking the conclusion of Shabbat] for all the participants,
and Ellenson noticed the Israelis. "One of them, the president of a very
large university in Israel, told me he had never seen such a service and
never even heard of its existence."

He was greatly saddened, said Ellenson. "I hate the word ignorance, I
prefer to be more gentle, but I know that's how it is. What does it mean
that an intellectual doesn't know what havdalah is? How would you
describe it? And he is not the only one among the Israelis."

Since 2001, Ellenson has been the world president of HUC, and is leading
the Reform movement alongside Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the
Union of American Hebrew Congregations. During those years, the movement
has become more Zionist and also more halakhic [following Jewish law],
processes that are associated with Ellenson, who is unique among those
who have led the Reform movement in that he grew up in an Orthodox home.
The smiling man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, even tells biting
jokes about Reform Jews that he heard in his father's home in Virginia.

Halakha is also his area of academic expertise. In the 1970s he wrote
his doctoral thesis on Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, the founder of the
Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Germany in the 19th century. Today he
continues with searches of rabbinic rulings and the responsa of Orthodox
rabbis from the 18th century to those to date and he writes on Rabbi Zvi
Hirsch Kalisher, a leading Polish rabbi in the 19th century and one of
the harbingers of religious Zionism; Rabbi Haim David Halevy, who was
the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and other rabbis. The common
denominator of these rabbis is the halakhic solutions they offered for
resolving the tension between tradition and modern life in a wide
spectrum of areas. "It's not that I always identify with all their
responsa, but I appreciate the efforts they made to cope with the
challenges of the time," says Ellenson in Hebrew, which he prefers to
use here. "I see them as a model and an example for me."

He noted that his choice of rulings by Orthodox rabbis is important not
just for him personally; he leads a movement that defined itself by the
rejection of Halakha. "There is also a symbolic importance for the
Reform movement that there is someone who can represent them in these
areas as well. Usually people don't expect to hear a Reform rabbi
quoting from Rabbi Haim David Halevy."

Ellenson is now writing a book with Dr. Danny Gordis on rabbinic
responsa on the issue of converts.

Apart from the annual seminar for rabbis held earlier this month by the
Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Ellenson had a busy schedule in
Israel, including a meeting with some 100 Reform rabbinical students
studying at HUC in Jerusalem and an appearance at the Jewish People
Policy Planning Institute's conference in Jerusalem last week. At a
session on identity and demography, experts presented data indicating a
decline in the number of Jewish people due to assimilation.

When he took the floor, Ellenson chose to quote in English (the language
of the discussions) from letters written by Orthodox rabbis in the 19th
and 20th centuries.

"In 1864 there were people whose mothers were Christian and whose
fathers were Jewish, and the question arose as to whether halakhically
speaking, a lenient approach should be taken to their conversion and
make circumcision and ritual immersion enough for them to be considered
Jews," said Ellenson. "The rabbi of New Orleans forbade it, but at the
same time, sent a query to European rabbis: what should the Jewish
people's policy be on such questions.

"Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher wrote to him that not only is it permissible,
but also in his opinion it is a mitzvah to convert such children. He
wrote: 'Sometimes even sinners in Israel do mitzvot.' According to
halakha, there is an obligation to circumcise them. Rabbi Kalisher did
not consider them Jews from birth, but Jews from 'holy seed' and he
wrote: 'who knows, perhaps Torah sages will spring forth from them.'

"In my opinion, it's important to address this," continued Ellenson.
"Because we are facing the challenges of intermarriage abroad and also
in Israel, there are many who immigrated from Russia and the
establishment doesn't recognize their Jewishness. How does it help the
Jewish people to reject those who wanted to be a part of the Jewish
people? The halakhic definition is too narrow. People complain all the
time about the shrinking Jewish people, and at the same time build walls
to bar people, instead of encouraging them to join the Jewish people."

Ellenson is not disturbed by the fact that most Orthodox Jews, and not
just the rabbinic establishment, would reject such converts for the
purpose of marriage, for example. "In the modern world, perhaps it is
possible that there will be a shared enviroment for the entire Jewish
people, and at the same time the methods will differ. We don't live in
the Middle Ages, when the Jewish community was really halakhic. Today
things are different, there is a variety of streams in the Jewish world.
If we look at the reality of the Jewish people in our time, we see that
whoever is part of the Jewish destiny is part of the Jewish people as a
whole," he says.

Before the conference participants, Ellenson also mentioned Rabbi
[Joseph] Soloveitchik and his famous essay distinguishing between "a
covenant of fate" and "a covenant of destiny": "Most Jews in the world
would not agree with it today, but there is a covenant of fate. Jews who
are willing to immigrate to Israel and be part of the Jewish people, who
pay taxes, who defend the state in the IDF, who identify themselves as
Jews, what benefit would be gained by the Jewish people if we don't
accept them? Rabbi Kalisher's responsa is very relevant and can guide us
in our era."

The Reform movement in the U.S. is expanding its borders and accepting
more and more people from "holy seed" who identify as Jews, as well as
homosexuals, into the rabbinate, but a no less interesting process,
seemingly contradictory, is also taking place within the movement as
more and more Reform Jews are seeking to redefine their Jewishness by
relating to Halakha more seriously.

"We see increasing numbers of people wearing skullcaps and being careful
about Shabbat and kashrut observance," said Ellenson. "Men and women are
more interested in Halakha and want to observe Halakha. In my eyes, this
is a positive phenomenon." In the U.S., he says, people of all religions
are trying to get closer to their heritage. "You could call it
tribalism," he says.

And what about ignorance? Is there ignorance only among secular Israelis?

"Apparently ignorance exists throughout the Jewish world, and that's the
line that connects to all the streams of Judaism, in a negative sense.
There is ignorance throughout the Jewish world, and it must be fought.

"The problem is that in the U.S. if people don't have knowledge about
their Jewishness, then the connection to Israel will also be cut in a
few more generations. That is our mission, to teach modern Torah. There
a lot of people who neglect Judaism and don't know anything about it.
They associate Judaism with ultra-Orthodoxy because they see something
authentic in it, and in the meantime they can abandon Judaism. They
think it can't contribute anything to their modern world. There is
relevance to Judaism, we have principles and values that can guide
people in the modern era."


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