November 4, 2009
It’s always unfair to compare one era in human history to another. The sorts of things that people did or believed during some earlier time, are easy targets for criticism by people who live at a later time. All behaviors and beliefs occur within a larger social and historical context, and need to be understood in this light. But extending this understanding to those who came before us doesn’t in any way mitigate our sense of joy and relief upon our realizing how far we have evolved since their days. When it comes to the ability and willingness of Orthodox rabbis to interact cordially and respectfully with non-Orthodox colleagues - although the progress is still uneven – we’ve come a long way, baby.
Many of us can remember the days, a decade or four ago, when Orthodox rabbinic leaders almost uniformly refused to attend Jewish community events at which they would be seated with, or worse, be photographed with Conservative or Reform rabbis. The days when Orthodox rabbis tied themselves into linguistic knots to avoid using the title “rabbi” when referring to their non-Orthodox whatever-they-are. The days when Orthodox young women were denied the opportunity to celebrate their Bat Mitzvah in their shul simply because this would hand a moral victory of some kind to the Conservative and Reform rabbis who had already initiated this practice. Yes, it was a different time. A time when mechitzas were disappearing form erstwhile Orthodox shuls, and Orthodoxy was trying to beat back the reports of its imminent demise. Thank God, we have now come – or are at least coming - to a different time.
Last week I was in Israel, on a trip organized by our local Israeli Consul General. Very purposefully, our group was assembled as an inter-denominational – and multi-gender - rabbinic group, a third of which was Orthodox. . We were brought to Israel to symbolize our unity in our support of Israel, despite our differences in the areas of Jewish religious doctrine and practice. We traveled together, laughed together, were repeatedly photographed together, and pledged to continue to work together in our community on behalf of Israel. Sure we disagreed about things (like J Street, for example), and sure we couldn’t really daven together as a group. But there was never a moment at which we were not a “chevra” of yes, Rabbis, who each in our own way, was serving Klal Yisrael and strengthening the future of the Jewish people. It’s not that our differences are no longer important. It’s just that they we no longer find them threatening. And we will therefore no longer allow them to thwart or undermine all the good that our common passion can bring to Am Yisrael.
I know that many of my Orthodox colleagues have not yet evolved. And while this is clearly not a case in which only the “fittest” will literally survive, it is one in which only the “fittest” will truly fulfill their obligations to the Jewish people. Only the evolved will live up fully to their job description of “Rabbi in Israel”.