Rabbi Emanuel Feldman
Once again American non-Orthodox Jews are upset with an Israeli government decision — this time about denial of Western Wall space for Reform-Conservative prayer. Once again the old shopworn clichés are trotted out: Diaspora Jewry is being disenfranchised.
Cut away the underbrush of bromides, and puzzlement emerges. For example:
The Conservative-Reform concern about praying at the Wall is odd, given the fact that they have historically offered more obeisance to the teachings of the NY Times than to the teachings of the siddur. Not to mention the odd interest in prayer emanating from secular Jewish organizations whose connection to davening is, at most, rather tenuous. To get so agitated about prayer is admirable, but one is unaware of any great concern for prayer by the non-Orthodox. One is unlikely to find daily minyanim for Shacharis, Minchah and Maariv at one’s friendly neighborhood Reform temple. As for Shabbat morning, without bar mitzvahs, Conservative and Reform temples, unfortunately, are virtually empty of worshippers. With their own adherents hardly focused on davening, the sound and fury about how they might pray at Judaism’s holiest site is mystifying. (Question: Would modern Catholics dare insist that the Vatican change its prayer protocol for the Sistine Chapel?) Are there possibly considerations other than the holy yearning of the Jewish soul for communion with its Maker?
Another buzz-slogan: the Wall belongs to all Jews, but non-Orthodox Jews are being denied the right to pray there. Strange. Thousands of individuals pray daily at the Wall. Every single Jew — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular — is welcomed. Ah, but the Conservative-Reform leadership wants to conduct prayer services in their own way, in contravention of Jewish law and of millenia-old Wall practices — services that replicate their American temples, sitting next to their wives and girlfriends. (So far, no demand for organ playing.) Obviously, the Wall rabbis vetoed this and then the inevitable Pavlovian reaction: These are benighted haredim who oppose “equality.” But how is maintaining classic Wall policy an attack on gender equality?
The puzzlement continues with another shibboleth: Denying space for non-halachic prayer insults and disenfranchises Diaspora Jewry. Let us overlook disenfranchising the Shulchan Aruch, and publicly insulting the democratically elected prime minister of Israel, and shamelessly asking non-Jewish Congressmen to pressure Israel. Let us, instead, objectively parse the banality. Diaspora Jewry is insulted? The non-Orthodox community intermarriage rate is 70 percent; their youth disassociate themselves from Israel and barely identify themselves as Jews. Disenfranchised? Surely not the non-Orthodox Jewry that, through no fault of their own, knows no Hebrew, rarely attends synagogue, observes no mitzvos, is at best indifferent to Israel, and needs a GPS to find their way through a Jewish prayerbook. Surely this Diaspora Jewry — the above is not a caricature but a tragic reality — loses no sleep about how best to daven at the Wall.
The Conservative movement is being abandoned? Their United Synagogue recently voted to permit non-Jews to become full members of their synagogues. Their flagship Jewish Theological Seminary recently joined liberal groups before the Supreme Court in support of transgender public school bathrooms — in the name of “human dignity.” Some Conservative synagogues grant aufruf aliyos and public mazel tovs prior to an intermarriage (See Commentary Magazine April, ’17) Who is abandoning whom?
The tumult created by non-Orthodox leadership drowns out the sad reality that they are — there is no other word — moribund. It is tragic that the Conservative movement — despite the sincere few who try valiantly to maintain halachic standards — lost 33 percent of its membership in the past 25 years. Reform has lost a similar amount, but artificially pads its rolls with intermarrieds and non-Jews. Neither group retains its young. Within a generation, according to impartial studies, non- Orthodox Jewry will have sunk beneath the waves of intermarriage, tragically taking millions of Jews with them. (Forward Daniel Gordis, June 21, ‘17). The secular Jewish media need not bemoan the “deteriorating relationship” between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, because other than the Orthodox, there will soon be no Diaspora Jewry with whom to have any kind of relationship, deteriorating or not. Can it be that, beneath the facade of prayer, all this noise is an attempt to regain lost legitimacy by transferring their failed product to Israel?
The ship is sinking. The lifeboats are beckoning. But instead of addressing the disaster that looms ahead, they expend resources on meaningless PR platitudes for a section at the Wall where they can conduct non-halachic prayer for non-praying Jews.
No wonder we are puzzled.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 668)