U.S. rabbi joins Israeli debate on definition of Judaism Head of seminary warns split could spawn violence

April 17, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a sign of growing tension between some Orthodox Jewish groups and non-Orthodox Jews, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary called yesterday for "dismantling" Israel's chief rabbinate and ending donations to groups that oppose the recognition of non-Orthodox movements in Israel.

In a letter mass-mailed to Conservative rabbis and major Jewish organizations, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch also warned that a recent declaration by a small group of Orthodox rabbis could, even unintentionally, create a climate conducive to violence by one Jew against another.

Schorsch referred to a March 31 declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, which said the Reform and Conservative movements were "not Judaism" and urged Jews to avoid the movements' synagogues.

The union's statement drew wide opposition, including criticism from the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation's largest Orthodox rabbinical group.

Schorsch's letter, sent to 1,500 members of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly and to such organizations as the United Jewish Appeal-Federation, comes at a time of friction between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements, as well as between the non-Orthodox and the Israeli government, over the issue of Orthodox rabbinical control of religious life in Israel.

The founders of Israel gave Orthodox rabbis authority over religious affairs, including marriages, divorces and conversions, supervised these days by a chief rabbinate that includes a large religious bureaucracy.

But in 1995 the Israeli Supreme Court opened the door to a greater role for non-Orthodox rabbis by ruling that Orthodox conversions were not required for an Israeli to be registered as a Jew.

While the Reform and Conservative movements comprise the vast majority of religiously affiliated U.S. Jews, they are a minor presence in Israel, whose population is divided, about 4-to-1, between secular and Orthodox Jews.

On April 1, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted to reverse the Supreme Court's ruling, by granting preliminary approval to a bill that would give Orthodox rabbis sole authority to conduct conversions in Israel.

The vote outraged Reform and Conservative leaders, who said that in rejecting a pluralistic view of Judaism, the parliament threatened Jewish unity.

Reactions by Jewish leaders to Schorsch's letter were divided.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a large Orthodox organization with ties to the United Torah Judaism Party in Israel, said Schorsch was engaging in "shameless political posturing" by suggesting that the Union of Orthodox Rabbis' declaration could contribute to an atmosphere violence.

He noted that the union stated that it regarded Reform and Conservative Jews as no less Jewish than those in Orthodox synagogues, even though it viewed those movements' teachings as outside historic Judaism.

He also objected to Schorsch's proposal to dismantle the chief rabbinate and its courts, saying that to do so would risk allowing different definitions of Judaism to take root in Israel.

"They say they want what they call religious pluralism," Shafran said, adding, "In less kind terms, anarchy."

Speaking for the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, Rabbi David Hollander called the letter "a terrible, shocking, groundless indictment."

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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