Over the years, Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, the largest Reform synagogue in New Jersey, has been on the receiving end of public criticism for a variety of reasons.
As a newly-arrived rabbi in the late-1960s, I learned how our Temple was upbraided because our members were supporting fair housing practices in the Westfield area. Then we opposed a church-like Christmas pageant in the public high school. (A federal judge upheld our cause.)
In the 1970s, the national media reported that prior to a visit of Vice President Spiro Agnew to our community, Agnew’s advisers were unhappy about our opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I was proud of these critiques. They demonstrated that we stood for important principles. In the spirit of the Hebrew prophets, my teachers and mentors taught me that our task as rabbis is to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. As our rabbinates mature, most of us learn that if everyone loves everything we do as rabbis, we must be doing something wrong.
But one day my synagogue was criticized for reasons that reflected more on the insensitivity and parochialism of the critic than on the reality of Temple Emanu-El or the Reform movement of which we are proud members.
In 1989, six members of the Israeli Knesset visited our synagogue and appeared to enjoy the experience, including Shabbat dinner at our home. Yet the next day, one of those parliamentarians, Reuven Rivlin, unleashed a venomous attack on us and our style of worship. In an interview on April 19, 1989 with Yediot Ahronot, the popular Israeli daily, he described his Shabbat experience in this way:
“I was completely stunned. This is idol worship and not Judaism. Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism. Total assimilation. Their prayer is like a completely Protestant ceremony.”
Earlier this month, the same Reuven Rivlin was elected by the Knesset to become president of the State of Israel, succeeding the venerable Shimon Peres.
The year 1989 is a long time ago. And President Rivlin has hopefully learned a few things.
Let’s hope that he has learned that Judaism is not a monolithic faith. We are and have been throughout our history a pluralistic people. The rabbis of the midrash taught that this diversity began with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, they suggest, embraced differing concepts of God.
Fast forward to the American Jewish experience. Our community has flourished because we embraced a diversity of thought reflected in the teachings of Rabbis Isaac Mayer Wise, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and Joseph Soloveitchik, to mention a few who helped shape Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Judaism respectively. Our Jewish federation movement has thrived because the various streams of Judaism work together and respect each other.
Surely President Rivlin knows that Israel itself has been built by secularists (Theodor Herzl), socialists (David Ben- Gurion), Orthodox leaders who believed in outreach (Rav Kook), liberal religious leaders (Anat Hoffman), and a vast array of immigrant communities whose beliefs and practices differed dramatically from one another (Yemenites, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Americans, and dozens more).
Let’s hope that President Rivlin has learned that calling fellow Jews idol worshippers and describing the practices of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious community in the United States, as “Protestant” is demeaning for any Jew, and beneath a member of Knesset.
I am hopeful that President Rivlin understands that if we are to be strong we must respect our fellow Jews, and if we are to survive, we Jews must be a united people.
We have reason to be optimistic. Speaking shortly after his election victory, Rivlin stated that he would represent “all the citizens of Israel — Jews, Arabs, Druze, rich, poor, religious and less religious. From this moment, I am no longer a party man but everybody’s man, a man of all the people.”
I join with the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Douglas Sagal, in extending an invitation to President Rivlin, on his first trip to the United States, to attend a Shabbat service in Westfield and to address our congregation. Now wouldn’t that be a brilliant statement affirming the pluralistic character of the Jewish people? Wouldn’t that be a dramatic contribution to the strength and unity of the Jewish people?
We promise the president a warm welcome and a Shabbat experience that will lift his spirit.