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Humility and Truth vs. Orthodoxy’s Quest for Special Status

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An article reporting in detail on the recent visit to Israel of a delegation of Orthodox leaders from the US appeared in the Israeli newspaper “Makor Rishon” on Friday, March 2. Makor Rishon is an Israeli newspaper with a strong Jewish-Zionist orientation, and while its reader base is modern Orthodox, many Israeli opinion makers, both religious and non-religious, read it. Makor Rishon reported that  the visiting delegation received direct access to Israel’s political leaders, including the Prime Minister, President, and the Ministers of Treasury, Education and Justice. The leader of the delegation used this access as a platform for attacking the Reform and Conservative Movements. Below is a response, appearing in Makor Rishon on Monday, March 7, written by Prof. Yossi Turner, Associate Professor of Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute.

Tzvika Klein recently published an article in Makor Rishon in which he told of a delegation of American Orthodox Jewish leaders who came to Israel. The aim was to convince the Israeli government that it (Orthodox Jewry) is the only representative of American Jewry worthy of its consideration.

Shlomo Verdiger, who was presented as the delegation’s head in the article, is quoted as justifying this demand by saying that Conservative and Reform Jews “don’t come to Israel” while “we send our children to Yeshivot and Midrashot” and “some of them live here for extended periods, which brings a lot of money into the Israeli economy”. “We”, he continued, “are involved politically, come to Israel for vacations during the Jewish holidays, make investments and even purchase apartments”, while “they (the other streams) are somewhere else. They support BDS and J Street (the left-wing American Jewish lobby that favors a two state solution).”

As a Jewish Zionist from the depth of his soul and an ordained rabbi, who is involved in all of the contemporary streams of Judaism; as one who made Aliyah from the US 39 years ago; and as a scholar who’s been researching and teaching the various facets of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish culture in Israel and the diaspora (past and present) for many years, I have a suggestion to make to Mr. Verdiger. I suggest that when speaking about the needs of Jewish existence, he show more humility, be more respectful of the truth and be wary of basing his world-view on stereotypes.

Firstly, the claim that Reform and Conservative Jewry support BDS, or that there is some resemblance between J Street, an organization that supports a two-state solution and BDS, that has many members and supporters who reject the idea of a Jewish state, is simply not true. Likewise, the claim that Conservative and Reform Jews do not visit Israel is a blatant lie.

Moreover, Verdiger’s pride in the fact that Orthodox Jews purchase apartments in Israel while they continue to live in the US is contemptuous and hurts those Jews who actually live in the Jewish State. Is he unaware that when diaspora Jews buy apartments in Israel, without actually living in them, it contributes to the rising cost of housing for Israelis? Does he not know that this is a form of exploitation that  exacerbates one of the country’s most difficult social problems while making life that much more difficult for the very same Jewish-Zionist population that actually lives in the country, and who, unlike diaspora Jewry, bears direct responsibility for all aspects of life in the Jewish state?

All in all, the attempt to curry favor with the Israeli government by negating the importance of other Jewish groups represents an arrogant and selfish approach that totally obliterates the value of Jewish solidarity. It is nice that that Orthodox Jews from the US send their children to study in Orthodox frameworks in Israel. This, however, contributes nothing to the development of relations with the people of Israel, as Verdiger seems to claim, but only with groups that are already similar to them.

One must always admit to the degree of truth found in the positions of one’s adversaries. So I too must admit that there is some truth in Verdiger’s statements. Orthodox Jewry ascribes great importance to Jewish symbols, probably more so than do Conservative and Reform Jews in the US. But symbols of identification are one thing, living as an actual member of the historical Jewish people is another.

Zionism was not created, and the State of Israel was not established, as mere symbols. Nor were they meant to serve any particular group within the Jewish people. They were meant to serve the needs of the Jewish people as a whole. Zionism is first-and-foremost an ongoing creation. It is the means through which the Jewish people creates and sustains itself as a people in the face of continuous challenge and difficulty. In its approach to Jewish peoplehood, Orthodox Jewry joins with other groups as part of the problem and not the solution.

Interestingly, the non-Orthodox groups in modern Jewry understand the concept of peoplehood far better than the Orthodox do. True, there are processes of assimilation at work among Conservative and Reform Jews, but the Orthodox too have forgotten what it means to be part of a people. Orthodoxy is guilty of assimilation in so far that it, together with other groups in the post-modern period, rejects the possibility of real human solidarity with those that differ from it, and turns its back on the need for mutual commitment and dialogue between the various components of the Jewish world in order for Jews to continue to exist as a people.

Indeed, it is not only the Orthodox that has forgotten what it means to be part of a people. Many others have forgotten this as well. The pitiful attempt to achieve a special status through institutional recognition on the part of the political establishment in Israel, instead of working together with all the groups that comprise the Jewish people, is but one example.

Did I mention humility? Mr. Verdiger, perhaps you should forget your attempt to be recognized above the groups whose legitimacy you contest, and be satisfied with being accepted as an equal partner. If Orthodox Jewry does, indeed, wish to be considered an equal partner in the continued existence and development of the Jewish people, it should, along with other groups in Israel and the diaspora, endeavor to forge a covenant among all Jews that will express the unique contribution of each group in the context of an ever-changing reality.


Professor Yossi Turner is an associate professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies