A Ray of Light in a Lion’s Den

“Boy, you’re brave,” said the first fellow to approach me at the table after the symposium.

The panel discussion, on Sunday, April 25, was the second time in as many months that I had made a presentation on the topic of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. Back in March, it was a University of Maryland conference on “Israel as a Jewish State.” Sunday’s symposium, sponsored by the Institute for Living Judaism and Hadassah’s Brooklyn branch, was entitled “The State of the Jews in the Jewish State: Religious Pluralism in Israel.”

In both cases, I was invited to present a point of view rarely heard in such symposia, and, by defending Israel’s “religious status quo,” I was in fact a conspicuous minority of one on each panel. Most of my fellow panelists were not shy about attacking the Israeli rabbinate and religious parties, Orthodox Jews (especially haredi ones) and halacha itself.

Thus the man’s comment. He saw me as having entered a lion’s den of sorts. But it was not bravery that motivated me to accept the invitation, nor foolhardiness. I knew I would hear a litany of Orthodox evildoing, imagined or real, from other panelists; my presence wouldn’t change any stump speeches. But the opportunity to place some facts and a different perspective before a group of people who might not otherwise ever encounter them was too important to squander.

The crowd on Sunday was larger than I had imagined it would be; close to 200 people paid an admission fee – modest, compared to more conventional boxing matches – to listen to us panelists. I was the first presenter.

Admitting at the start that tension is created by throwing the monkey wrench of religion into the machinery of a liberal democracy, I noted that, all the same, for Israel to meaningfully aspire to be a Jewish state, there was no way to avoid establishing standards for things Jewish, including marriage, divorce, and conversion.

I recounted the history of the “religious status quo,” David Ben-Gurion’s agreement with the Agudath Israel World Organization in 1947, pledging with regard to “personal status” issues that “everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forbid, the splitting of the House of Israel into two.”

Whatever the yardstick, I argued, if “Jewish State” is to be more than a slogan, and all Jews in Israel are to be encompassed by one Judaism, something must do the measuring for all. And I made the case for halacha as the most compelling choice.

Reasonable people can choose to differ on that, I noted, but asserted that “it must indeed be reason, and not disparagement or distortion, that imbues the discussion.

“Characterizing a time-honored and deeply Jewish standard as something malevolent is regrettable. Overheated and incendiary language about ‘human rights’ and a ‘marriage monopoly’ only serves to stoke ill will and is grossly misleading.”

Inter alia, I explained that the women detained not long ago at the Kotel plaza were purposely flouting a court ruling that their feminist services be held at a nearby Kotel site; and that the separate-seating buses on some Israeli routes had originally been a private haredi enterprise but were co-opted by the state’s bus service. I emphasized that the seating arrangement was voluntary, and that anyone preventing a woman from sitting where she wants on those buses is subject to prosecution.

And I ended by asserting that one can choose to differ with Israel’s Orthodox without vilifying them or their beliefs.

“One can advocate for change of Israel’s marriage laws,” I pleaded, “without characterizing the current ones – those of Jewish society from time immemorial – as violating ‘human rights.’ One can argue against separate-seating buses without invoking Rosa Parks and implying that haredim hate women. One can lobby for different systems of communal standards without holding up young hooligans as representative of the haredi community, or implying that the ‘ultra- Orthodox’ – a pejorative if ever there was one – are ‘taking over’.”

And then I sat back to listen to, well, just about all of precisely what I had said we could do without. (No one, thankfully, conjured Rosa Parks.)

Still, I was comforted by Mr. “Boy, you’re brave.” Not for that comment, but because he went on to say that he had been struck by the contrast between the heat generated by the others and the light he felt my words had cast. And those who followed him in line (and others still, who accosted my wife and me as we made our getaway) were equally kind and appreciative.

Oddly, though, those encouraging words weren’t the high point of the afternoon for me. That would be something that took place during my presentation: I suddenly lost my voice in mid-sentence. Or better, a sound reminiscent of Donald Duck emerged from my mouth.

Which caused the moderator, a kind and considerate man, to rush over with a cup of water.

I was in fact a little thirsty and so, before drinking, pronounced the traditional blessing: “Blessed are You, Hashem… through Whose word everything came to be.”

Then came the truly memorable moment of the afternoon, a ray of light in its own right: Loudly and in unison, the entire crowd pronounced an unabashed, enthusiastic “Amein.”


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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5 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    Perhaps R’Shafran might consider inviting some of the more well behaved panelists to a similar panel at the next Agudah convention?

  2. L. Oberstein says:

    It is so important to present Agudah’s ideas in a way that shows we have brains and are not all raving fanatics. Americans appreciate it when you give them the courtsy of explaining your position in a rational manner. Even if they don’t agree with you, they need to see that your position is sensible.
    The problem is that there is this slippery slope that the Agudah pioneered as far as fighting, that sitting on a panel legitimises the other members of the panel. That position makes any dialogue or debate very difficult since other streams want you to debate their rabbis and we are not allowed to.They take this as an insult and Americans don’t like it when you don’t respect their diversity.
    All of this is as far as religious pluralism is concerned. In current domestic politics, civlity seems to be a lost value, at least on the side I don’t agree with.

  3. David says:

    I join in saluting Rabbi Shafran’s courage, and his presenting a reasoned, rational, sensible, fair and honest defense of the Torah world, dispelling common misconceptions and media distortions. Yirbu kamocha be’Yisrael.

    The problem is, though, that there aren’t “harbei kamocha be’Yisrael.” In Israel especially, the “spokesmen” for the charedi world speak in very offensive, blunt and incendiary language, which contributes to the venom spewed back against us. The charedi world must produce polished, intelligent and well-read figures like Rabbi Shafran who can speak a language that the secular/liberal Jewish world will both understand and respect. I believe this must be made one of the highest priorities.

    On a technical note, aren’t you not supposed to make a beracha if you’re drinking water only to clear your throat, and not to quench your thirst?

  4. rce says:

    This is the exact quote from Rabbi Shafran’s article:
    “I was in fact a little thirsty and so, before drinking, pronounced the traditional blessing…”

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    R. Avi, you are a mensch. That’s what we need more of, the ability to be cool in the face of heat, warm in the face of indifference, and focused in the face of chaos. In short, the difference between a chacham and a golem (see Pirke Avot). I, who could never do it, salute you.

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