We are Not the Same, and That is Our Strength – Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism.  This blog post is reposted from RJ Blog, the blog of the Union for Reform Judaism. It is a the prepared text of Rabbi Jacobs’ closing plenary address, yesterday, November 13th, at Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly in Baltimore, MD. We encourage you to share this post, and respond to it with comments below.

It’s too simple to think of the world as beginning with our families and ending with those who think, pray, and vote as we do. That isn’t how Jewish tradition views the world, and that isn’t what it means to be part of something larger, more inspiring and more challenging called the Jewish people.

For 15 years, my closest rabbinic friend was Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, z”l, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Scarsdale, an Orthodox synagogue, and chair of the National UJA Rabbinic Cabinet. Born in a World War II Displaced Persons’ camp, he earned his smicha, his rabbinic ordination, from the highest Orthodox authorities in Jerusalem. I was born in New York City and earned my rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Yet with our different backgrounds, training and Jewish practice, we forged unbelievably strong personal and professional bonds.

Eleven years ago, Jake called me all excited. “I did it,” he shouted. “You did what?” I asked. “I persuaded my Orthodox colleagues to move the path of the Eruv in our neighborhood to include Westchester Reform Temple” (where I was the senior rabbi at the time). The Eruv is the symbolic boundary that allows traditional Jews to carry things on Shabbat.

Some of his traditional colleagues gave Rabbi Rubenstein a hard time: “Why,” they chided, “would you include a Reform congregation in the Eruv? They don’t take Judaism seriously.”

“Because that way,” Rabbi Rubenstein explained, “when my members are invited to Westchester Reform Temple for b’nai mitzvah on Shabbat, they can attend more comfortably.” And when members of Young Israel would ask Rabbi Rubenstein if they should attend their friends’ b’nai mitzvah services at our temple, he set only one condition: that they leave their holier-than-thou attitude at home.

I was moved to tears by my chaver’s moving act of inclusion. But some in my synagogue said, “Who cares? The Eruv is an anachronistic relic from ancient times.”

“You don’t understand,” I insisted. “Rabbi Rubenstein extended the boundary of his Jewish world to include all of us. What have any of us done to express that kind of commitment to klal Yisrael?”

So, I ask you: Can we follow Rabbi Rubenstein’s example and extend the Eruv of Jewish commitment to include all those who are unlike us?

We like to say that “We are one.” But this slogan often feels contrived. Being part of one people doesn’t mean that we are the same or that we should be the same. There is great potential strength and power in our diversity.

Loving one synagogue or denomination is not enough. For the past 40 years, the Reform Movement has been the fastest growing theologically liberal religious tradition in America and we have become the largest stream in North American Jewish life – in no small measure because of our openness to the full tapestry of Jews—gay Jews and straight Jews, intermarried and in-married, ritual Jews and cultural Jews. All of us here have been enriched by their gifts, passions and wisdom.

Indeed, this is precisely one of the great strengths of the big communal tent cast by Federation social services and by our Jewish Community Center system. Not every stream can and will draw the Eruvim of our community in the same place. But the lesson is clear: the broader we can draw these boundaries and can find vibrant Jewish experiences that can engage all of klal Yisrael in a richer Jewish life, the stronger the Jewish people will be.

We’re part of something much larger than an organization, congregation or even a denomination.  But we have far to go to achieve Rabbi Rubinstein’s vision of klal Yisrael.  Let me identify three challenges:

  1. Too often we teach our children only to be Reform Jews or Conservative Jews or Orthodox Jews, instead of teaching them just to be Jews. In some of our schools, students learn more about other religions than they do about the ideologies, practices and merits of Jews in streams different from our own. When our children go to college, they often lack the knowledge and skills that would allow them to interact comfortably with different forms of Jewish practice and ideology.   Let us make a commitment to educate our children—and adults—about the core ideas and practices of our community’s varied  streams.
  1. The incivility, divisiveness and corrosiveness of America’s public discourse increasingly threaten to tear our own community apart. Alarmingly, the discourse about differing views on Israel poses a grave challenge to our community. The growing belief that those who do not share my view cannot be ohavei Yisrael, lovers of Israel, endangers our cohesiveness. And how are young North American Jews to think of Israel? What are they to make of those who narrowly define what it means to be a lover of Israel? Here too, we must expand the Eruv of Jewish commitment.  The pro-Israel community must be large enough to include the IDF veteran campaigning for peace on the college campus, the AIPAC activist lobbying members of Congress, the human rights activist protesting unlawful seizure of Arab homes in Jerusalem, the West Bank settler, and the Jew who protests the lack of religious freedom in the Jewish State.When divisiveness is allowed to tear the fabric of our communal commonwealth, it does not serve Jewish values or Israel’s interests.  Israel must not be a partisan issue.  AIPAC warned of this danger during the presidential campaign, and now that it is over, restoring the traditional bipartisan consensus and cooperation must be a communal priority.  Jewish leaders need to be bold and outspoken in restoring civility in our discourse.  Let the warning of the Talmud–that Jerusalem was destroyed because of baseless hatred–speak across the centuries to us today. (B.T. Yoma 9b)
  1. So too, the related issues of women’s rights and religious pluralism in Israel.  So long as Israel remains the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams, the Zionist dream of the in-gathering of the exiles in a Jewish state for all Jews cannot be fully realized.  We just witnessed a vivid example when, Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was arrested and harshly mistreated in jail for the “crime” of wearing a tallis and singing the Shema at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Yes, the Israeli Supreme Court has the authority to restrict the prayer of women and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall. But why is this holy Jewish site run like an Orthodox synagogue? Why can’t there be space and time for both egalitarian prayer and for more traditional forms of prayer at this holy place?

And it’s not just the Kotel. When women are subjected to discrimination at the Kotel, it feeds other forms of discrimination by the ultra-Orthodox against women — on buses and in other public facilities.

And so too the discrimination against non-Orthodox streams.

Weddings officiated by Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized in Israel today, four thousand Orthodox rabbis receive their wages from the state, while only one non-Orthodox rabbi is compensated for serving the non-Orthodox Jewish community. I would fight passionately for the right of Orthodox Jews to pray freely at the Kotel or anywhere else, so I can’t understand why we acquiesce when the rights of non-Orthodox Jews are denied by the Jewish State.

It is time to end this discrimination once and for all. We have greatly appreciated the leadership of the Federation Movement in past fights on “who is a Jew,” as it spoke out for klal Yisrael and for the rights of the vast majority of its constituency and its supporters. This has been an act of courage for klal Yisrael that earned the appreciation of Jews across North America.  But this is a moment that calls for Israel and the world Jewish community to address equality for all streams of Judaism by the government of Israel.

I recognize full well that existential threats to Israel from such enemies as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are surely our most pressing concerns. But that is no reason to minimize the issues of intolerance and the lack of pluralism in Israel.

So who’s going to save the Jewish people: synagogues or Federations? The simple answer is both. Synagogues are not just local tzedakah boxes; they are the primary address for shaping Jewish identity and commitment. Without vital synagogues, Federations will not thrive. And without Federations, the Jewish universe would surely contract, limiting our ability to serve the widest reaches of the Jewish community. Let us, therefore, expand the circle of concern to include both the Jews with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree.

One of my most influential mentors, Rabbi David Hartman, teaches this Torah of pluralism with passion and persuasiveness. One of his favorite insights is drawn from the remarkable wisdom of Tractate Eruvin 21b. After a three-year-long debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, a heavenly voice was heard saying: “Eilu v’eilu. These and these are the words of the living God, but the law is according to Hillel.” But if both Hillel and Shammai’s views are the “words of the living God,” then how come only Hillel’s view becomes Jewish law? The Talmud answers that whenever Hillel presented his position in the house of learning, he would always mention Shammai’s position first. He was so considerate and modest that when addressing students, he would begin by discussing the alternative opinion to his own, and only after showing its plausibility would he defend his opinion. He never taught Torah under the pretense of being the sole possessor of truth. That kind of pluralistic Torah is what we desperately seek to undergird a real sense of peoplehood. We Jews are one, but we are not the same, and that is our strength. Our sustenance as a people must come from being a Jewish community that values many authentic paths to Jewish commitment and multiple ways to love Israel.

In this context, I can’t help but think about Rabbi Rubenstein’s extending his Eruv around our Reform congregation.  Isn’t that how this teaching from tractate Eruvin must be lived? Rabbi Rubenstein and his wife Debbie died in a tragic fire four years ago, but their commitment to pluralism and ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, lives on. They proved in their actions that we have the power to extend the circle of our Jewish responsibility beyond those who think, pray and vote the way we do—to be part of something larger than ourselves. What a beautiful and inspiring people we are when we live the deepest Torah that we know. With such an inclusive Torah as our guide, the Jewish future will be very bright indeed.