Liberal Jews dont need a hechsher from ultra-religious

If you were an ultra-Orthodox Jew, a haredi, would you recognize the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements?

It's like asking a Republican to recognize that the Democratic Party has merits.

It's like asking the Likud Party to embrace the Labor Party's peace policy.

It ain't gonna happen.

Israel's haredim are grounded in the study of Torah, adhering to Jewish law (halachah) in its strictest interpretations and committed to following Judaism's 613 mitzvot. To them, any Jew who selectively chooses which laws to abide by or which mitzvot to follow is a heretic, plain and simple.

But what do these haredim know of modern-day lifestyles? For the most part, they have chosen to isolate — and insulate — themselves from the broader community, placing absolute adherence to religious laws and customs above all other goals.

Most Jews throughout the diaspora as well as in Israel have chosen to adopt a more liberal religious existence or even a secular life — one that allows them to pursue their own personal and professional aspirations.

No matter how often the haredim call the rest of us heathens, there is little chance that the majority of the world's Jews will ever give up their daily lives to become full-time Torah scholars or live in haredi neighborhoods. While some Jews may decide to become kosher or Shabbat observant, even they probably won't reach the levels of Jewish adherence that the haredim demand.

So why then have the Reform and Conservative movements wasted so much time asking for Israel's haredim to recognize liberal Judaism and allow Reform and Conservative rabbis to perform weddings and other lifecycle events?

Distinguished professor, author and lecturer Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg raised that question in a speech to the leaders of the Reform movement Saturday night during their 64th biennial meeting in Dallas.

"The battle for recognition is a non-starter," he asserted.

Hertzberg, a practicing Conservative rabbi who also holds an Orthodox ordination, said that how the liberal movements practice Judaism "is no damn business" of Israel's Orthodox establishment.

Instead he urged that both the Reform and Conservative movements begin a campaign in Israel to convince the majority of Israelis, who are secular Jews, that Israel needs to separate synagogue and state as America has separated church and state. While Israel is the Jewish state, it doesn't have to be either an Orthodox or Reform Jewish state.

Most Israelis don't understand America's Reform and Conservative movements. There are only a handful of liberal synagogues in all of Israel and they are mostly populated by Americans who made aliyah.

While Israelis therefore may not embrace or even understand the call for Reform and Conservative equality, he said they certainly would support a move to take religion out of political life. Secular Israelis have never liked the idea of the Orthodox telling them when they can go to the movies.

To make such changes in Israeli society would mean changing the country's coalition politics. The system is corrupted because it allows small religious parties to put a stranglehold on the prime minister who needs their support to govern.

But pushing Israelis to change this system makes far greater sense than withholding donations to Israel, as some critics have proposed. We may want Israel to change its policies, but we don't want to hurt the country at the same time.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said it best in his sermon Saturday morning in Dallas. "Abandoning Israel is exactly what the Orthodox parties want us to do because that means leaving the state of Israel to them."

In his strongest statement yet of the movement's intentions, he added, "As Israel approaches it 50th anniversary… we will demand that Israel's government support all religious movements or none at all."

That ultimately puts the battle where it belongs — between the Israeli people and their government rather than between liberal Jews and the Israeli religious establishment.

But America's liberal Jews have to educate Israeli Jews on what it means to separate religion from politics. This is not a clear concept in the Mideast. Those who grew up there would have little understanding of how America's separation of church and state functions — at least most of the time.

For Israel to be the Jewish homeland, it must be a homeland that all Jews, no matter what their religious affiliation, can identify with.

The ultra-religious haredim must be allowed to maintain their traditions, run their schools and practice they religion as they see fit. But they cannot be permitted to set the standards for the rest of Israel or, for that matter, the diaspora.