Orthodox head of ADL in Israel defends pluralism in visit to S.F.

Among his Orthodox rabbinical colleagues in Israel, Rabbi David Rosen is not always a popular man.

Simply put, Rosen is an advocate of religious pluralism. Many of his colleagues are not.

"They don't understand me very often and they think I am rather dangerous," said the British-born Rosen, who is director of the Anti-Defamation League's Israel office. "That has to do with the fact that I come from the 20th century, of which I feel a part and feel comfortable in. They might not."

Rosen, an articulate, spirited man with a thick British clip, stopped in the Bay Area earlier this month as part of a U.S. tour. In an interview, he didn't mince words when it came to describing his frustration with elements of the Orthodox rabbinate.

"They live with a mentality which assumes that monopolies and power are justification," said Rosen, who himself was educated in the "ultra-Orthodox" Mir and Ponevez yeshivot and from 1979 to 1985 served as chief rabbi of Ireland.

The mentality, he said, assumes that "`the more I have control, the more I am right.' We know in the modern world that's a fallacy. In the modern world, coercion is always counterproductive."

The threat to the Jewish future, Rosen believes, does not come from non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, but from what he calls "the vacuity of Jewish identity."

"The more options there are to deepen one's Jewish identity, the greater the variety in the marketplace, the healthier and better that is for Israel and, I believe in the final analysis, for Orthodoxy," he said.

Of course, Rosen acknowledged that the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is far from monolithic.

"If we were to take chief rabbis of major cities, it would be a spectrum of viewpoints — those who really think I am doing important work and others who really think I am very dangerous."

Rosen's work with the ADL centers on several areas, including fostering interfaith understanding and cooperation between the country's different religious communities and between Arabs and Jews.

ADL Israel also serves as a resource for fostering improved understanding and stronger relations between the United States and Israel. The Jerusalem-based office maintains contact with the ADL's national headquarters in New York and 30 regional offices across the United States.

It was in this capacity that Rosen visited this country for the third time this year. Listening to American Jewish concerns about religious pluralism, Rosen stressed that the religious-secular schism in Israel is nothing new. It's just that diaspora Jewry is waking up to it in a new way.

"When they were living in a fantasy world, they could avoid it," he said. "Living in a fantasy world is not healthy. To discover the reality of Israel is a necessary learning process."

Such a process, he hopes, will produce an educated diaspora Jewry committed to strengthening Israeli institutions that promote pluralism, women's rights and a civic society.

Rosen has worked with the ADL since 1988, when he was appointed as the ADL Israel office's director of interfaith relations. He was subsequently made ADL's liaison to the Vatican and now serves on the Permanent Bilateral Commission of the State of Israel and the Holy See that negotiated the normalization of relations between the two.

In fact, he recently returned from the Vatican, where he attended a meeting of the International Jewish Committee for Inter-Religious Consultations. It represents world Jewry in its relations with other world religious bodies.

Among topics discussed at the meeting was a recent Vatican document that acknowledges individual Catholic guilt in the Holocaust but absolves the church as an institution of complicity. The document disappointed many Jews.

Rosen believes some of that disappointment has to do with timing.

"If the document would have come out 10 years ago, it would have been incredibly significant," he said. "But because in the meantime, the pope has made statements which have been further advanced, there is a degree of disappointment."

Still, Rosen does not downplay the document's importance. "It serves as a bulwark against Holocaust denial. It goes out to 900 million Catholics around the world. So it's certainly not a document without significance even if it hasn't met all expectations."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.