Rabbi panelists spar on who is a repository of Torah

What a difference a week makes.

The first installment in the forum "Am I a Jew or Am I Jewish" offered a positive consensus of what it means to be a Jew. Although the rabbinical panelists represented movements ranging from Chabad to Renewal, they were in accord: Being Jewish, they agreed, requires living a Jewish life and having a Jewish soul.

With arguments raging over semantics as well as Semitics, the second week's event dished up a lot more attitude.

First came an announcement that Rabbi Eliahu Shalom Ezran of Magain David Sephardim Congregation refused to be on the same panel with any rabbi from Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue with many gay and lesbian members.

Later an audience member demanded that the panel address conversion issues, even though it was clearly not on the agenda at last week's event, sponsored by Open Circle, the Young Leadership Division of the American Jewish Committee.

By the evening's end, the audience was in revolt in the Koret Board Room of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation building. And one rabbi was railing at another over who is the "repository of Torah."

"I had a hard time figuring out what this is about," began Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom.

He was not alone. For the most part the presentations were vague and meandering.

Beginning with a tale of a man infatuated with a princess leaving the mikveh, Lew segued into his own youthful infatuation with Buddhism.

Before yielding his remaining minutes to the other two rabbis, he talked about needing a spiritual discipline, which he eventually found by living according to halachah, Jewish law.

Rabbi Martha Bergadine of San Francisco's Sha'ar Zahav, a Jew-by-choice who is one year out of Hebrew Union College, talked of growing up in a Midwestern secular Protestant family. When her older sister became a fundamentalist Christian, Bergadine decided that wasn't for her. When she met the man who was to become her husband, she started exploring Judaism.

"Judaism was a religion that made intellectual sense," said Bergadine. "What happened snuck up on me. It turned out I was a religious person.

"My soul had been at Sinai," said Bergadine who described her conversion as an affirmation of what had always been there. "It was like I had returned."

For Bergadine and her husband, who is also a rabbi, the past year has been marked by the birth of their daughter, moving, a death in the family and their ordinations. With a growing awareness of the preciousness of time, Bergadine says she prays with her 11-month-old daughter, has more conversations with God and tries to sanctify the mundane.

Rabbi Ahron Hecht, who heads the Lubavitcher Chassidic movement's Richmond Torah Center in San Francisco, focused on the heavenly and the holy.

"Being a Jew is joyous, fun, exhilarating," he said. "A Jew is a creature of heaven and earth. We're totally heavenly in a human body."

Looking at life in terms of acts of holiness, Hecht asked rhetorically, "How do we encounter God?

"God is everywhere. God is within you," replied Hecht who talked about God becoming one with the Jewish people through their neshamah or soul.

"Get in contact with that neshamah. That's Yiddishkeit."

In response to a question from the audience, Hecht said he would like to erase all labels dividing Jewish movements.

"It doesn't make a difference what you call yourself," said Hecht. "It's what you do."

Then the excitement started.

An audience member said since only his father was Jewish, he went through conversion and wondered about a Judaism that would cut him off. The moderator stopped him, saying the conversion issue was off limits.

The audience protested.

"I don't think you should blow him off that way," yelled one woman.

Finally at the urging of another woman, the moderator allowed the man to continue.

"Can the difference in Jewish movements be resolved as to what is a Jew?" he asked.

"I agree with almost everything Rabbi Hecht said," began Lew. "I would like to do away with labels. None are right. All are wrong. None expresses the wholeness of the Jewish spirit without the others. Each of us are utter failures."

Lew compared the three major Jewish movements to characters in "The Wizard of Oz": "one without a brain, one without a heart and one without a soul.

"It's not much of a person without all three." He then theorized that by standing alone, the Jewish movements were in danger of going bankrupt.

"I can't understand how a rabbi can say Judaism is bankrupt," Hecht said, suggesting that perhaps Lew didn't belong in the rabbinate. "I do not think Judaism is bankrupt. It is the wealthiest reservoir of holiness on earth."

He then took on the issue everyone was primed to avoid. Referring to the kosher wine served that night, Hecht said it was acceptable to everyone. Non-kosher people won't get sick from drinking it and those who keep kosher can drink it.

"What standards should you observe [in conversions]?" asked Hecht. "A standard everyone can believe in…more inclusive."

"I didn't say Yiddishkeit is bankrupt," said Lew, his voice rising. "I said the movements are about to get bankrupt. You distorted history. Orthodoxy came into existence at the same time as Reform, the 19th century. You've created the illusion of existing before the others."

Lew charged the Orthodox movement with putting a glass case over Judaism, trying to freeze it in time and saying, "We're not playing anymore."

"You are not the repository of Torah," yelled Lew.

Afterward, program organizer Elizabeth Mizrahi put a positive spin on the rabbis going nose to nose. One of the purposes of the event was to celebrate Jewish diversity and unity. Just getting Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to debate controversial issues made the forum a success, she said.