Taking the First Step
More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews
By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor
One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn't believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.
"This group has a different focus from other attempts," says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. "Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core."
The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians -- all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom, or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.
Rules for Coexistence
Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to "explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the 'other.'"
The statement outlines a code "to govern the way we speak and write about each other."
At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: "Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used."
But, basic as the list seems, "I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it," says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.
Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year's High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender's rabbi, Solomon Rothstein -- a conflict resolution expert -- had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.
With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.
Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.
"I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with," says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. "We're not talking halacha, or debating where we differ. We're trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large."
Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.
For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement's Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.
"I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity," she says. "And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews."
Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in "de-demonizing" the other, as Tendler puts it.
"I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism," says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.
While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.
"The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don't agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants," says Tendler.
The group's next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.
"We don't have to argue about what is women's role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion," says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. "But I think everybody can agree upon v'ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself."
Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism -- and that the unity of the am, the nation, is paramount.
"We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews," Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.
"I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be."