Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review July 1, 1998 / 7 Tamuz, 5758

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Full disclosure

THE BIG NEWS out of the recent Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Anaheim emerged weeks before the conclave even began. And it had nothing to do with what would happen there -- but rather with what would not.

What did not happen was consideration of a resolution endorsing Reform rabbis' officiation at "same-sex" commitment ceremonies. Though it had been expected to draw considerable attention from the press and public, a vote on the resolution was abruptly withdrawn from consideration.

Many observers feel the resolution would likely have passed.

For almost two years, they note, the CCAR has endorsed civil "marriage" for same-sex couples. Religious officiation for such unions, according to Rabbi Jerome Davidson, a member of the Reform Ad Hoc Committee on Jewish Sexual Values, enjoys "enormous support" among the Reform clergy. More Reform rabbis than ever are performing such rites, and at least one Reform rabbi --the spiritual leader of Baltimore's largest Reform congregation -- has even been a partner in a same-sex "Chuppah Ceremony".

Why, then, with same-sex relationships enjoying such credibility and fanfare within the Reform rabbinate, was the proposed resolution so unceremoniously jettisoned?

The official Reform explanation is that there was, in the words of CCAR President Rabbi Richard N. Levy, "a very large group in the middle on this issue" who were not ready to vote on it.

Something else, though, was certainly on the minds of many Reform leaders, something that was spelled out in a memo distributed weeks ago to members of the conference's board.

Penned by Reform Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a long-time leader of the effort to help the Reform movement establish itself in Israel, the memo was a plea to not pass the "same-sex" resolution. Were such a measure to be endorsed by the Reform rabbinical body, Rabbi Hirsch wrote, the Reform "demand for rights" in Israel "would be undermined by allegations that we are not an authentic movement, but a separatist movement engaging in 'aberrations' and 'perversions' of Judaism."

Such criticisms, he went on, would be leveled "not only by the Orthodox... [but] by the vast majority of Israeli Jews, whose recognition of our authenticity we do seek..."

Rabbi Davidson, too, though he maintains that the Reform movement in America "must do what is right for... hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians," admits that passage of the resolution would "pose a certain public relations problem in Israel."

The rabbis, of course, are entirely on target about the likely impact in Israel of their movement's endorsement of religious "same-sex marriage". The average Israeli would find it troubling, to say the least. He or she may think "Jewish religious pluralism" an unthreatening concept when it is introduced by a reporter or pollster, but when an understanding of just what the phrase means actually becomes clear, the result will be -- and often has been -- a raised eyebrow and a strong suspicion that some joke is being played.

For, though the fact is often obscured, Israelis are in the end largely "Orthodox".

Not necessarily in practice, of course, (though most do indeed engage in a host of Jewish religious practices that are virtually ignored by most American non-Orthodox Jews). But clearly in attitude. A distinct majority of Israelis not only equate Judaism with the Torah's laws (whether they choose to observe them all or not) but actually affirm, as the much-quoted Guttman Report confirmed, that "the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai" -- the quintessential Orthodox credo.

Which is why they remain so adamantly unimpressed with the American "alternate Judaisms". The Reform movement's attempt to become part of the Israeli religious scene, after all, is nothing new. As far back as 1955, Rabbi Julius Mark, a leading spokesman for the movement at the time, remarked after a trip to the Holy Land that "Israel is ready for a non-Orthodox type of Judaism."

It wasn't then, and it isn't now.

To its credit, the Reform movement has seldom if ever tried to hide its stance regarding Jewish religious law and tradition. If it had any qualms about declaring the laws of the Torah non-binding, about rewriting Jewish prayers or recasting the definition of a Jew, the misgivings never showed. It shouldn't start dissembling now.

As Israel is forced by the American non-Orthodox movements to grapple with the issue of "Jewish religious pluralism" today, it is sad but telling that, simply to avoid losing points in their quest for Jewish authenticity, the Reform leadership is putting its conscience and principles on hold -- feigning disapproval of something it in truth holds dear. Full disclosure of the movement's attitudes and goals, including the full sanction of acts the Torah condemns in no uncertain terms -- come what may in Israel or elsewhere -- is only right and proper.

To do less, to act as if the Reform movement maintains some fealty to the Jewish religious tradition -- or to the Jewish Bible -- when it simply does not, hardly shows respect for truth -- or for the innocent, believing Jews, here or in Israel, who may be seeking it.

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

©1998, Rabbi Avi Shafran