Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

The impact of Secularism on the one hand, and the strictness of Orthodoxy on the other, make the prospect of rabbis determining the criteria of Jewishness less appealing

The question of authority is broad and complicated, but one aspect stands out and merits special attention. That is, the erosion of rabbinical authority to determine one’s Jewishness or lack thereof.

The erosion is two-fold: first, there has been a general erosion of the belief that rabbis should define Jewishness; and second, the more specific reluctance of Jews to accept the authority of rabbis other than their own.

General erosion is to be expected given that for many Jews the religious component of Judaism is currently not the most dominant in the way Jews think about their Judaism (See previous chapter). If rabbis mainly represent the religious component of Judaism (and in many ways they do) and the religious component is not the most dominant in how Jews think about Judaism,132 then some decline of rabbinical authority in defining Jewishness is to be expected. “The problem is that the definition of Jewishness has moved beyond Halacha,” said a participant in Atlanta, “so when using Halacha as a guide, it will inevitably lead to alienating Jews who do not conform.”133 The only country where JPPI participants ranked rabbis as the most authoritative arbiters of Jewishness was Israel (and not a surprise, as the share of Orthodox participants in Israel was much higher than in other countries).134

A much more common element of the erosion of rabbinical authority is the phenomenon of Jews demanding recognition of the power of “their” rabbis as legitimate arbiters of Jewishness while expressing reservations about the legitimacy of “other” rabbis. The overall effect is that “rabbinical” determination is increasingly irrelevant for those searching for a broadly accepted understanding of Jewishness, and makes the findings of rabbis irrelevant for those who do not identify with the worldview of these specific rabbis.

This is especially pronounced in arguments over the Orthodox establishment’s rabbinical authority in Israel, and their exceedingly stringent conversion standards.135 Again, discussion of the Orthodox worldview is two-fold: first, is how the Orthodox establishment views non-Orthodox definitions of Jewishness; and second, how the non-Orthodox (and also some of the Orthodox) view the Orthodox rabbinical establishment and the impact its definitions have on other Jews.

On one hand, there is the uncompromising demand by Orthodox rabbis (and some JPPI participants) for all Jews to accept the Orthodox interpretation of Jewishness. “At some point, there will be no other option but to declare that Reform Jews are not Jews,” said one participant in a Dallas seminar Haredi Jews.136 Leaders of Israel’s Haredi parties have said similar things in the past, fomenting rage among many other Jews, especially in the Diaspora.137 In JPPI seminars with both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews participating, the views of Orthodox members were annunciated, albeit less bluntly. “Judaism is defined by Torah,” an Orthodox participant in a Baltimore discussion said in response to a suggestion that Jewishness is now a cultural phenomenon rather than a religious one.138 A participant in Cleveland hinted at a similar understanding of the hierarchy of Jewishness by suggesting that “people who get serious about Judaism will do an Orthodox conversion after they’ve done a non-Orthodox conversion.”139

JPPI’s Dialogue survey of participants clearly shows that Orthodox Jews tend not to accept the legitimacy of non-Orthodox rabbis. When asked to agree\disagree with the statement “A conversion by a Reform/Conservative rabbi is legitimate,”140 the majority of Orthodox Jews did not agree (a majority of Israeli participants also did not agree).141

A conversion by a Reform/Conservative rabbi is legitimate

(percent of respondents who chose this response by religious affiliation)

These outcomes comport with several findings of JPPI’s Pluralism survey of Jewish Israelis,142 in which all Orthodox groups ranked Reform Jews at the bottom when asked about the level of contribution of various groups to Israel’s well-being. This approach of many Orthodox Jews, especially and bluntly so in Israel, has generated anger among non-Orthodox Jews. “Some people view Judaism as Orthodox. It is important to show people that there are many more aspects to Judaism,” one young Dialogue participant said.143 Yet amid this anger, there is a marked difference between the way Orthodox Jews refer to the religious authority of non-Orthodox rabbis and the way non-Orthodox Jews (Reform, Conservative, secular etc.) refer to the religious authority of Orthodox rabbis. While Orthodox Jews often question the legitimacy and authority of non-Orthodox rabbis – non-Orthodox Jews rarely question the legitimacy and authority of Orthodox rabbis, even when complaining about their perceived rigidity, arrogance, and disrespect of other world views.

This difference is significant and points to what some consider inequality of power. The Orthodox see themselves as having the authority to grant or deny legitimacy, the non-Orthodox see themselves as petitioning legitimacy.

Naturally, non-Orthodox leaders and rabbis vehemently reject such a notion. A Conservative rabbi in a Dallas seminar said he “no longer cares” about what the Orthodox think of him and his peers.144 Similarly, a non-Orthodox rabbi in Chicago said, “It is time for us to stop chasing after legitimacy of Orthodox norms, especially norms of the Israeli Orthodox who have no clue about what is happening here.”145 In various public statements, articles, and interviews, Reform and Conservative leaders and their supporters have made the argument that they have little interest in a seal of approval from the Orthodox.146

JPPI seminars showed that the quest for legitimacy – accompanied by frustration with the Orthodox rabbinical establishment over its refusal to grant such legitimacy is still common among non-Orthodox Jews.

“To be a Jew there are, and there must be, only two ways: through the womb or through conversion done by the different denominations,” a Salvador, Brazil participant said.147 In a Melbourne seminar: “There was serious concern about Jews being accepted as Jews in the Diaspora but not in Israel – that is creating a situation in which Israel is separated from the rest of the Jewish world – a homeland for the Orthodox community.”148 The “question of Israeli acknowledgement of the diversity of religious expression is critical, we need to find a road to acknowledge if not honor,” a Philadelphia participant said.149

As JPPI documented in its 2014 Dialogue report, complaints about the dominance of Orthodox Judaism in Israel are widespread and common in the Jewish world.150 But displeasure with an Orthodox reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of non-Orthodox rabbinical determinations of Jewishness extends beyond the question of Israel.

The impact of all of these sentiments relegate into absurdity the general idea that rabbis could agree unanimously in defining Jewishness (as, some might argue, was the case in the past, at least in setting the criteria for conversion). Rabbis are the arbiters of the religious aspect of Judaism (in many cases, denominational religiosity) – the part most Jews say is the least important to them. Many rabbis currently hold positions that emphasize the differences between Jews rather than their commonalities. Hence, many Dialogue participants seem to prefer that authorities other than rabbis (“self-definition” or the “community”) make the rules concerning the contours of Jewishness.