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Galilee Diary: Rabbis II

Galilee Diary: Rabbis II

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

I have indeed removed them far among nations and have scattered them among thecountries and I have become to them a diminished sanctity [or small sanctuary]in the countries whither they have gone...
-Ezekiel 11:16


Rabbi Isaac says "a small sanctuary" refers tosynagogues and houses of study... -Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megilah 29a


One of the most interesting challenges facing us as we think about therecruitment and training of Reform rabbis in Israel is the difference betweenthe synagogue in the Diaspora and the synagogue in Israel. Consider:

  • In Israel, Hebrew is the spoken language; the prayerbook, the sermon, the Torahreading are all in Hebrew, and every child who attends public school can readHebrew fluently.

  • In Israel, even the "secular" public schools arenot only conducted in Hebrew, but teach Bible and Jewish history and even someJewish philosophy.

  • In some ways here, the state replaces the Jewishcommunity of the Diaspora (e.g., by providing Jewish education, kashrutsupervision, etc.); but even where it doesn't, people live in Jewishcommunities, hang out with Jewish friends, have to look pretty hard to findnon-Jews to date - all without a connection to a synagogue. Community centersare busy with cultural, youth, and athletic activities that reflect on a basiccultural level their Jewish identities.


In other words, the synagogue here has a fairly minimal role in formaleducation, culture and communal life, and is to a large extent limited to beinga house of prayer, and a venue for adult study. The local Orthodox rabbi isoften a government employee who serves the local synagogue which is primarily ahouse of prayer and adult study - and he fulfills the traditional role of mainlyan authority on Jewish law, a teacher of adults, and "spiritual counselor" (i.e,chaplain). He often is not the person who leads prayer, a function shared bymany competent members of the community.

Reform synagogue culture isdifferent, and our rabbis are different: while our rabbis, too, are spiritualcounselors and teachers, their main role is often not legal authority, butrather prayer leader. The interesting question for me is: is this enough? Giventhe different nature of Jewish life here, should we perhaps be thinking ofdifferent models of rabbi - rabbis whose rabbinates are more integrated intopublic life - as public school principals, journalists, professors, evenpoliticians? While there is certainly a need for congregational rabbis here, Iwonder, if we really want transform Israeli society, if that should be the only- or the main - game in town...

Moreover, in the past ten years or sothere has been a flowering of "Jewish renewal" communities - mainly expressed inlarge gatherings of un-synagogued Jews who define themselves as "secular" butwho enthusiastically participate in neo-Chassidic style Kabbalat Shabbat andholiday services in community centers and even on the Tel Aviv boardwalk. Theseare explicitly not Reform congregations. But what are they? And the people whotake a two-year training course (at a "secular" Jewish study institute) to beleaders of such congregations - are they rabbis? Will their congregants treatthem as rabbis? Does it matter? Should we try to co-opt this incipient movement?

We used to complain that Israel was polarized between Orthodox and"secular," but at least then we knew where we stood. Now as options for Jewishidentity and affiliation are multiplying, defining a Reform Jew gets morecomplex and interesting.

Published: 12/08/2009

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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