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A Sad Sermon
Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Sad Sermon

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was too good to last.  The post-attack-on-America spirit of unity and good will, the inspiring altruism and powerful heroism, were all real and are still apparent.  But we have now, sadly, seen some very different things as well.

The first signs of ugliness were the depressing reports of looting at Ground Zero, implying that, at least for some, greed had trumped grief.  Then came an assortment of other opportunists, like lawyers who chased dazed survivors and mourners with visions of lucrative lawsuits dancing in their heads.

In the Jewish world, though, the proverbial cake was handily taken by Rabbi Uri Regev, leader of the Reform movement's Israeli presence, the Israel Religion Action Center.  He decided to co-opt the tragedy that was September 11 for use in his ongoing political battle with those who seek to preserve the Jewish religious tradition in the Jewish State.

In a recent Sabbath sermon at a temple in Cleveland, Rabbi Regev drew an astonishing comparison between what a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News characterized as the "intolerance and hatred which drove Islamic terrorists to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon" and, in the rabbi's words, "our own [i.e. Jewish] religious extremists who feel they have the right to rule other people's lives, spreading the venom of religious fundamentalism."

Rabbi Regev went on to quote Muslim religious leaders who demand that Jews "must be butchered and killed," and to insinuate that similar sentiments are a feature of the very Orthodox, or Haredi, Jewish world.  Haredim, he declared, feel they have "license to get rid of infidels."

His evidence, according to the report, is apparently Haredi opposition to Israel's endorsement of American-style "Jewish religious pluralism." "Israel," the rabbi asserted, "is the only country in the free world where Jews are denied their religious identity. We need to band together to fight religious zealots..."  And then, in case his listeners somehow missed the insinuated imputation of violence, he added "If we don't learn from the September 11 loss of human lives, we haven't learned anything."

Reality Check:  Israel's Haredim advance their interests through such mechanisms as making their cases to the public and participating in Israel's democratic system, not by engaging in violence against their opponents. They express their ideals through prayer, Torah-study, observance of mitzvot, religious outreach and acts of kindness toward others.  They do not seek world domination and do not engage in terrorism.  That such even needs to be said is tragic.

No Jew in Israel, moreover, is prevented in any way from living as a Reform Jew - or as a secular Jew, or as a Zen Buddhist.  The Reform and Conservative movements are entirely free to try to attract Israelis to their theologies and practices and have made great efforts to do so.

Rabbi Regev knows all that.  What irks him, though, is that when it comes to issues of Jewish personal status - marriage, divorce, conversion - Israel has always recognized a single set of Jewish standards: those of the Jewish religious tradition that lies at the roots of all Jews.

Most of Israel's Orthodox community and a sizable portion of its less religiously observant populace maintain that only a single Jewish standard for such things can ensure future Jewish unity, and that the standard should be the one that has served the Jewish people for several millennia.   That, as it happens, is the very purpose of the "religious status quo," Israel's embrace of certain central Jewish values, which has served Israel since the time (and which had the support of) the Jewish State's decidedly non-Orthodox founding father, David Ben-Gurion.

The democratically elected representatives of Israel's religiously traditional citizens sit in the Knesset and, when bills are introduced to alter that "religious status quo," they vote their consciences.  But they have never sought, and do not seek, to coerce anyone to accept Jewish observance.

Rabbi Regev is entitled, of course, to oppose the religious status quo in Israel, even to disagree with an important part of Israel's body politic. He also has the right - though it would hardly seem to befit a religious leader - to be incensed at the fact that others might dare to have a different vision from his.  But he is not - or should not be - welcome to vilify other Jews with whom he disagrees.  By doing so, to the point even of equating them with bloodthirsty terrorists, he places himself beyond the pale.

And all Jews of good will, regardless of their affiliations or levels of Jewish observance, should be deeply saddened at his words and - even more - at the feelings that lie behind them.


[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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