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If I am a Clown and Mentally Ill, So Be It

If I am a Clown and Mentally Ill, So Be It

Men and women surrounding open Torah scroll and egalitarian plaza at the Kotel

The reaction of the Haredi Orthodox rabbinical establishment to the recent symbolic achievements of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is angry and pejorative in the extreme. Among those weighing in are M.K. Moshe Gafni: “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah,” and Rabbi David Yosef, who alleged that the Reform Movement “is not Jewish” and its members are “literally idolaters.” M.K. Yisrael Eichler compared the Reform Movement “to someone who is mentally ill.”

Although the allegations have subsided, these Haredi religious and political leaders have mounted a coordinated legislative and political effort to cancel the modest concessions won by the non-Orthodox movements. In response to Haredi political pressure against the agreement to create a pluralist prayer section at the southern end of the Kotel, PM Netanyahu has invited the United Torah Judaism and the Shas Party leaders to prepare an alternate proposal.

Haredi Ministers Yaakov Litzman and David Azouly along with M.K. Moshe Gafni, with the support of Likud Minister Yariv Levin, have collaborated in proposing a law to enable the Chief Rabbinate to assume administrative control of state funded mikvehs (ritual baths). This law would circumvent the Supreme Court decision to allow non-Orthodox religious groups use of local mikvehs.

Haredi fundamentalism expresses itself in what they believe to be the unchanging character of Jewish thought. Foremost is their claim to the unchanging universal truths of biblical text, and their conviction that Jewish law, as codified in the 16th century Shulchan Aruch (anachronistic for most modern Jews), must be fully observed.

But to imagine, as Haredi do, that all Jews must live an insular existence in the 21st century, is to propose that proper Jewish life can only be expressed in medieval terms — as if nothing has changed in the last millennium.

This minority community controls contemporary Jewish life in Israel, restricting the forces of social evolution. The non-Orthodox majority Israeli-Jewish population is subject to the authoritarian control of the Haredi rabbinate, compelled to function in a form of spiritual terrorism. Conformance to the rules is enforced by law.

However, Jewish thought and principles have not been frozen in the canons of Orthodox rabbinic literature. The fact that the vast majority of Jews in the world define themselves as non-Orthodox speaks volumes about the evolution of Jewish life.  Reform and Conservative Jews define our faith and practice, both in modern terms of reference, and substantively, with a comprehensive appreciation of classical Jewish thought and principles.

The fundamental difference between Orthodox Judaism and the modern streams of Judaism is the difference between living an insular life of religious observance (priestly practice), as compared to an integrated life of the priestly and prophetic.

In modern Jewish thought, the prophetic narrative is accentuated by affirming the moral and ethical principles articulated by major and minor biblical prophets. For modern progressive Jews, to be Jewish is to strive to live a moral life; work towards a more just society; condemn economic and social inequalities; fight racism and intolerance; affirm the right of all people to life; and create the conditions necessary to ensure social justice. Above all, to be Jewish is to work to create a world of peace.

We do not reject tradition — we incorporate all of it  — into our understanding of Judaism and Jewish life. We are religiously observant, and recognize that our symbols and practices carry a profound message of human responsibility beyond our community. Although it is rarely acknowledged, rabbinic tradition does speaks to an outside reality.

I call heaven and earth to witness that whether one be Gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or free, the divine spirit rests on each in accordance with his deeds.
Yalkut Shimeoni in Judges, Section 42.

Upon three things the world rests, upon justice, upon truth and upon peace. And the three are one, for when justice is done, truth prevails and peace is established.  
Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:2

As an Israeli Reform rabbi, I recognize my responsibility to act out the principles of my faith in religious observance and social engagement. This distinguishes me from Orthodox rabbis. My responsibility encompasses all Israelis, Jew and non-Jew, and reaches outside our country into our troubled world.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: 

Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

...[T]o us, a single act of injustice is a slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.

If believing and living as I do makes me a “clown” or “mentally ill” so be it. Would that there were many others like me and my colleagues.

Adapted from Rabbi Ringler’s original post on RAVBlog: Reform Rabbis Speak.

Rabbi Stanley Ringler is a Reform rabbi and social activist in Israel.

Rabbi Stanley Ringler
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