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Religion Remains the Bridge -- Not the Obstacle -- to Unity

November 8, 2007 By:
Edward Newman
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The rabbinical head of the British reform movement, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, wrote in Ha'aretz that reform/liberal Jews can "bridge the abyss," and join forces with secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The partnership, he said recently, should be "one forged outside the synagogue and rooted in the ancient Jewish perception that we worship God (believers, nonbelievers and agnostics alike) in the way we live our lives and pursue the good and just."

The rabbi, through multiple anecdotes, highlights his distaste for the negative connotations of religious state authority in Israel and of prescriptive religious requirements for Diaspora Jews. The synagogue, in this formulation, becomes a symbol of obstruction that separates Jews of goodwill and humanitarian impulse from other Jews.

The irony in the rabbi's argument should be apparent to all who hope for klal Yisrael -- "one people" -- as well as the security and well-being of Israel. About 2,000 years ago, Rome destroyed the Second Temple, and with it, Jewish life.

The institution that replaced it -- the synagogue -- was an educational and spiritual invention for preserving the Jewish people. It has succeeded in doing that reasonably well over two millennia. Now, Bayfield sees that institution as an obstacle to Jewish solidarity.

Among the many institutions, both ancient and modern, associated with the continuity and solidarity of the Jewish people, the synagogue still has a more transforming influence than does any other single Jewish institution, past or present. Its genius is its capacity to provide members the psychological space to develop religiously based ties that evoke common responsibility between and among all Jews and, by extension, all human beings.

A revealing anecdote in the Ha'aretz article is that former Israeli President Moshe Katzav did not refer to Bayfield as "rabbi," while current President Shimon Peres does honor him with that title. Another refers to documentary filmmaker Yulie Cohen Gerstel, "who articulated the secularist perception that Judaism equals fundamentalism equals a rejection of the values of democracy, social justice and respect for all human beings."

Like many other Diaspora Zionists, I have spoken with Israelis who are furious with the official role of religious authorities in Israel and of the political influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom do not serve in the Israel Defense Force.

Bayfield and Gerstel, among others, may share a disdain for Israeli religious officialdom and haredim. In doing so, they miss, perhaps intentionally, that the current incumbents of their disdain may not always behave according to prescribed Jewish religious values.

Historic logic reveals that mutual or collective abhorrence and avoidance enslaves minds, and inhibits spiritual and humanistic impulses. The existential threat to Israel is a real and a present danger. The misguided cleavage between secular and religious Jews only serves to divide a people who struggle after 60 years to help develop a modern state.

I have a secular Israeli friend who left his agricultural moshav and became an academic leader at the Technion in Haifa. Like many Israelis, he came to the United States to complete his formal education. He also received some informal Jewish education here, of which he and his wife, children and grandchildren, all living in Israel, are all beneficiaries.

Living here, he was able to observe how American Jews struggle to keep their kids within the Jewish fold. He saw the passion that some Jews felt for Israel and realized that the roots of this passion had a religious basis.

This is a lesson that more secular Israelis, and even many American Jews, need to remember.

My friend, and other Israelis who have been exposed to Jewish Diaspora life, are something of an antidote to those who wrongly and dangerously communicate a Judaism of derision and division, which leads inevitably to self-destruction. As much as many of us may decry the role that the rabbinate has played in Israeli society, those who blithely trash Judaism cannot afford to forget the essential role that it plays in keeping the Jewish state -- and the entire Jewish people -- alive.

Edward Newman teaches Public Social Policy at Temple University, and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

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