On being a Reform rabbi in Israel

By Dow Marmur

Jerusalem (July 13, 2017) – Many years ago British police apprehended an aspiring terrorist who had on him a list of prominent Jews assumed to be potential targets for assassination. Rumour had it that some Jewish leaders were very upset when they found out that they weren’t on the list. Were they not considered prominent enough?

I thought of this when I read the names on the list of rabbis from around the world that the Orthodox rabbinate Israel considers to be unfit. I was not on the list and thus deprived of the company of august professional colleagues in the Diaspora. Should I be upset?

Exponents of Orthodoxy often find it very difficult to concede that you can practice Judaism outside the Orthodox framework out of conviction. They seem to assume that there must be external motives that have nothing to do with faith and commitment. Some personal experiences come to mind.

Exponents of Orthodoxy often find it very difficult to concede that you can practice Judaism outside the Orthodox framework out of conviction.

1. Many years ago, when I was the chair of the Council of Reform and Liberal Rabbis in the UK, I attended a reception in London in honour of the late Israeli Chief Rabi Shlomo Goren. When in conversation he found out where I came from, he wanted to know why a Polish Jew like me is a Reform rabbi. I responded by asking why a sage like him was so prejudiced.

The late Lord Jakobovits, the British Chief Rabbi, witnessed the exchange. Fearing an unpleasant scene, he came to my defense by telling Goren that I was a child in the Soviet Union during World War II. No doubt, he had in mind the halachic category tinok shenishba, a person taken captive as a child who sins inadvertently because he doesn’t know any better.

2. While still working in Britain I was once asked to co-officiate at a marriage ceremony in Jerusalem. Obviously a local “approved” rabbi had to be the one to sign the marriage document (Ketuba), but I’d be allowed to address the bride and groom and perhaps read the document.

I met my Orthodox colleague before the ceremony. When he found out that I was a Reform rabbi, I prepared for an unpleasant interchange. But he knew all about it: I was a Reform rabbi because the pay was good – unlike his. All he wanted from me was salary details.

3. A seemingly Orthodox physician in Jerusalem sent me not long ago for a colonoscopy. His letter of reference stated that I was a Reform rabbi. I asked him afterwards if he assumed that it would show up in my gut. He wouldn’t offer a medical opinion.

If being a Reform rabbi isn’t the result of a messed-up childhood or financial greed, perhaps it’s a physiological condition that afflicts some unfortunate individuals.

I believe that it’s not only Orthodox Jews who hold such views about Reform rabbis. They may not even be particularly shocked about the blacklist. It seems that many so-called secular Israelis, in their disdain for religion, often maintain or imply that the synagogue they will not attend must be Orthodox. I once heard an exponent of secular Judaism tell an audience that he could tolerate a Reform service because it reminded him of community singing in his kibbutz.

Mercifully, despite many obstacles, talented women and men choose to be Reform rabbis in Israel. The Hebrew Union College will soon have ordained 100 rabbis in its Israel programme.

Rabbi Dow Marmur is Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He lives in Jerusalem.

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