Jewish Journal


May 10, 2001

Learning From the Debate


Rabbi David Wolpe keeps the hundreds of "Exodus letters" he's received in two piles on his desk: for and against. And given the still-swirling controversy over his speech on Pesach, even he is surprised that the grateful and congratulatory letters outnumber the negative ones 20 to 1.

The past few weeks has seen a rumbling of exchanges, some more civilized than others, some more public than others, over the Los Angeles Times' Column One article that cites Wolpe's first day of Passover sermon saying that archaeological evidence refutes the accuracy of the biblical account of the Exodus.

Now, with a few weeks between themselves and the initial reaction, local leaders are beginning to take a step back to try figure out why this speech seemed to take so many by surprise, and why the sense of betrayal -- on both ends of the ideological spectrum -- was so visceral.

Certainly, much of the enormity of the reaction has to do with the fact that it raises questions, and therefore highlights the differences, about how we define ourselves as Jews. The community has been forced into the unsettling position of having to bypass the customary niceties about what we have in common and has instead shined a bright light on the very basic differences about what we hold to be true about God, Torah and each other.

And that bright light seems to be most unforgiving when it illuminates what we believe about each other.

The dividing lines are certainly murky, and hardly drawn neatly among the denominations. But what has been revealed is at best a supreme ignorance or inability to understand, and at worst a contempt for one another's beliefs.

For many Jews, the belief in the divinity of every word in the Torah is the cornerstone of faith. Their strong reaction should not have been surprising.

Though the idea that the Torah's truths are eternally meaningful if not literally factual is at the very foundation of Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism, even many within those movements were appalled to hear it stated so forcefully on the first day of Passover.

The controversy has brought into the glaring light what is often in the shadows of interdenominational conflict: the idea among the Orthodox that the liberals are apikorsim, heretics who undermine the foundations of the faith, and the idea among liberals that the Orthodox are intellectually dishonest and unwilling to encounter "the real world."

These notions have been both explicit and implicitly revealed during the past few weeks in conversations, lectures and especially letters, articles and ads in The Jewish Journal.

"What could have been -- what can yet be -- an opportunity for maturity for the Jewish community becomes a moment of divisiveness and polarization," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom.

The incident has threatened to rip a gash into what is always a delicate weave of divergent ideologies in this multifaceted community.

Some quiet efforts are under way to exercise damage control, including meetings between Wolpe and rabbis of various denominations. These meetings have been closed to the press, so mostly what the public has seen is the conflict.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, an Orthodox rabbi who has been at the forefront of strengthening interdenominational relationships, remains optimistic but agrees that this could be a setback.

"It moved these ideas out of the realm of each person's personal struggle and into the realm of stark dividing lines," said Kanefsky, rabbi of B'nai David-Judea.

But, he added, "In the end we're always going to need each other, and unless we do something calamitous, we are always going to be one family. At a time when there is great strain within a family, the worst thing to do is to let it fester and deepen through pulling away from each other," Kanefsky said.

Several years ago, he got involved with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California in putting together "Meeting in Torah," an evening of interdenominational study that for the past few years has attracted hundreds. Kanefsky urges the community to attend the next Meeting in Torah on Wed., May 16, when the topic will be "The Many Faces of Moses, Servant of God."

"I think the very best approach when there is a crisis is for the rabbis to sit down together and to talk -- not to turn to ads, not to solve problems and address issues in a war of words," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis.

That war of words escalated when several prominent Orthodox rabbis took out an ad in The Jewish Journal condemning Wolpe's message, even comparing the assault on memory to Holocaust denial.

Rabbi Meyer May, president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of California and a co-author of the ad, said a public response was necessary since Wolpe's message was disseminated so widely by the Times.

"The truth of the matter is no one looks for opportunities to point out differences that exist within the Jewish community," May said. "Sometimes, however, the seriousness of the subject matter requires a response."

For one thing, the Times article didn't give space to traditional views, leaving many people with fundamental questions.

"Once you question or leave room to doubt the single most important core experience of the people, then everything else falls like a deck of cards," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who co-authored the ad.

Adlerstein and others believe the message was especially harmful for the large contingency of Persian Jews who are members at Sinai but do not necessarily hold by, or even know, the basic tenets of Conservative theology.

"The Iranian Jewish community came with a very deep belief in God, in Torah, in tradition," said Rabbi David Shofet of the Persian Nessah Educational and Cultural Center, adding that Persian Jews have a "pure emunah," or unquestioning faith in God. "[Wolpe] shattered that emunah, he shattered that belief, and it was very hard and heavy for many of them to accept."

A group of about 20 Persian and Sephardic rabbis have circulated a letter in English and Farsi to their community, refuting Wolpe's assertions and encouraging them to hold on to their faith.

But Wolpe says there is another side to the Persian story.

"I have gotten literally scores of positive, grateful -- even tearfully grateful -- reactions from the Persian community," he said. "They are not univocal." One supportive letter, published in The Journal, came from Jimmy Delshad, a Persian-Jewish community leader and president of Sinai Temple.

Wolpe believes his message can strengthen the community's viability when it is inevitably exposed to American culture.

"That story would have been on the front page of the Los Angeles Times if a rabbi had spoken or not," he said. "Do you want them to be armed with an understanding from a rabbi about what this means, or do you want them to be religiously defenseless when they hear it from a professor at UCLA?"

That message is what motivated Wolpe to speak on the subject. In a follow-up question-and-answer period the day after his speech, Wolpe told his congregants of finding out these theories only when he started rabbinical school.

Shielding lay people from this information is to treat them like children, rather than intellectually capable adults, he said.

"Rabbis who do not read the Torah in a literalist way have been shy or scared or embarrassed to pronounce upon their beliefs," he told The Journal.

Wolpe said that many people have approached him to say that his message reopened Judaism for them because it has presented an alternative approach.

"All those who are trying to shut off this dialogue are shutting out those Jews," Wolpe said.

Jonathon Ament, who teaches American Jewish Studies and Modern Jewish Sociology at the University of Judaism, says that the gap between what rabbis learn at seminary and what the people know lies at the heart of the reaction to his speech.

"You've always had historically in America various denominations with their official elite doctrines that have been promulgated by the rabbis and the theologians, and on the other hand you've had the 'folk' -- the people at large who have their own folk religions, their own rituals and symbols and myths," Ament said.

He contends that that holds true across the denominations and that people don't necessarily want to see that change. "The bottom line is a lot of American Jews want to have some God they can pray to even if it rationally doesn't make sense. They still need to have myths they can cling to to form their identity," Ament said.

Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation, said that most people in his congregation -- whether they agreed with the content or not -- said they especially would not want to hear such a message in shul on Pesach.

"People come to shul on the first day of Pesach really wanting to get caught up in the affirmation of the significance of the holiday and the rituals they've experienced,"not intellectual debate, Rembaum said. While inspiration was Wolpe's intent, the real message of his sermon may have been lost, he added.

"What frequently happens when people give challenging sermons is that many people in the congregation are swept away by the challenge and don't listen to the response to the challenge that is within the sermon itself," Rembaum said.

Schulweis, like Rembaum, stands behind the content and intent of Wolpe's speech.

However, he said, "I think the discussion belongs in a different venue, ideally in a lecture hall when the rabbi would have a chance to sense the unease and respond to it. People would have been freer to ask questions," Schulweis says.

But Wolpe contends the message needed to reach 2,000 people, not the 20 who might show up to a class.

In fact, Wolpe seems to have succeeded beyond his imagination in getting thousands of people to confront the issue and crystallize their beliefs.

Wolpe says his only regret is the pain it has caused people. For him, the experience has been "painful, wonderful, invigorating, confirming and tremendously important," he said. "And if anyone would like to know, I'd say it again."

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