Monday, June 08, 2009

Reports of 'death' exaggerated

Reports of 'death' exaggerated

Posted by Rabbi Michael Marmur

I have been absent from this column for months, working hard to deal with the challenges facing my institution, which is struggling along with just about every other institution in the world in the current economic atmosphere. What might have sparked me back into life in the blogosphere were the reported comments of Rabbi Norman Lamm, predicting the imminent demise of the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.

I have no idea, incidentally, if the very venerable Rabbi Lamm really said the things attributed to him in the Jerusalem Post article. Whoever did concoct the notion that non-Orthodox Judaism is on its last legs is guilty of an extreme case of wishful thinking. The truth is that there is ample and powerful evidence that a Judaism of meaning aimed at those for whom Orthodoxy is untenable, unpalatable or impossible is more urgently in demand today than ever before. What are suffering are many of the national institutions, the infrastructures of the movements and the seminaries. The prognosis offered in the name of Lamm is similar to concluding that since people no longer buy vinyl records, music is going out of fashion. The challenge for my institution, the Hebrew Union College, and for others like it, is to embrace a sustainable model of excellence in teaching and learning. Reform Judaism isn't dying - it's changing. That's what we Jews do best.

In any case, I had decided that reports of my extinction were not enough to shake me out of my torpor. Instead, it was two events in Israel which have roused me from my unseasonal hibernation. The first was the landmark decision of the Supreme Court regarding the validity of Reform and Conservative conversions. The decision represents an historic acknowledgement that there is more than one way to convert to Judaism. One of the great ironies of Jewish life in Israel is that the most pure and pious examples of conversion have been found in non-Orthodox circles. Those who choose to come to us have done so with no assurance that process would yield any benefits, and yet they decide to enter into a serious intellectual, experiential and spiritual commitment. Some politicians will do all they can to ensure that this decision is not carried out in the field. In the week in which the Book of Ruth is read, I hope that the just decision of the Supreme Court will be upheld.

The second story which prompted me to re-enter cyberspace is extremely grave. A law is being prepared which will outlaw the marking of the Nakba on our Day of Independence. If you are caught doing this, so the promulgators of this law want to establish, you may be subject to up to three years of incarceration.

Now for the last 25 years I have celebrated Independence Day as a citizen,with the traditional blend of pride, concern and indigestion. Whoever thinks that the way to preserve the values of a Jewish and democratic state is to clap you in irons if you think differently is (in my humble opinion) seriously in need of help. This is a hallucinatory proposal with dire results. I am curious to see if it is intended to apply it to opponents of the Zionist State from within the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. It probably won't be, but even if a policy of equal opportunity intolerance were to be employed, I would oppose this law. It is wrong, dangerous, counter-productive and no good will come of it. It does not protect our State, but it sullies the independence we are meant to be celebrating.

Right - I got that off my chest. Now back to my College's serious challenges, pausing only to remind our "well-wishers" that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of Liberal Judaism are exaggerated. What matters far more than inter-denominational triumphalism is the moral state of our State. Banning political protest will only bring darkness. Instead, we have to try and build a society in which Jews and Arabs can find the space they need, the rights they deserve, and the justice they crave. When we get there, that will be an Independence Day worth celebrating all year.