"Three Movements, One Future: Challenges Facing American Jews"
3 Jewish movements unite to ponder 'single purpose'
By James Lomuscio Special Correspondent
STAMFORD - Focusing more on what unites them than divides them, three leaders representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism met Thursday for a historic, public panel discussion at Temple Beth El.
"This is the first time in history that the heads of three movements have come together under one roof in a public dialogue," said Steven Lander, executive director of Beth El, a Conservative synagogue.
More than 500 congregants representing the three denominations filled the synagogue to hear the discussion titled "Three Movements, One Future: Challenges Facing American Jews," the 24th Annual Harold E. Hoffman Memorial Lecture.
Moderated by Beth El's Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, the panel consisted of David Ellenson, a leader in the Reform movement and president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard M. Joel, president of Yeshiva University and a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community.
"I think just our presence here says what we're going to say," Eisen said. "You have three movements with a single purpose of God, the Torah and the Jewish people.
"We have different paths, and each one of us thinks our path is the best one," he continued, "but we respect each other's path. The Jewish people need all three, and they need us to work together."
Saying the dialogue was a "sacred moment," Hammerman called the exchange of ideas appropriate on the heels of the election of President-elect Barack Obama "as Americans seek to bridge cultural divides to confront extraordinary challenges."
He added that there is no greater time for American Jews to seek common ground, especially with the increasing threats against Israel.
Hammerman began the discussion by asking each panelist what he theologically envied about the others. Ellenson, of the Reform movement, said he envied the intense Torah scholarship and devotion to Israel in the Orthodox movement.
"What Reform Judaism does well is its attention to social justice," said Eisen, of the Conservative movement. "Conservative Judaism hasn't succeeded in highlighting it."
Joel said he envied how the other movements were able to "look at the whole world."
"Sometimes we (Orthodox Jews) think we are the only ones there," he said.
Though Hammerman joked that the three coming together represented a "Kumbaya moment," stark differences came to the forefront. Ellenson said the Orthodox movement's strict interpretation of the Torah kept women in subservient roles, as if it were God's will as opposed to the social conventions of a patriarchal society.
Hammerman joked that sometimes Jews describe the movements as "lazy, hazy and crazy, and I'm not saying which is which," but all agreed their differences should be respected and not ignored to the point of relativism.
"Denominations matter," Eisen said, "but so does transcending them."
By Anthony WeissThu. Nov 13, 2008
Sitting before a packed house at Temple Beth El here in Connecticut, Arnold Eisen, Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor; Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, spoke amicably about the election of Barack Obama, the future of rabbinical training and things they admired about the other movements.
Though such appearances together are rare — the three could not agree as to whether they had ever publicly appeared together previously — the leaders described themselves as friends and seemed to get along comfortably. All emphasized their ability to disagree respectfully.
“We want to symbolize our sense that denominations matter, the differences matter, but so does the transcending of differences,” Eisen said.
“The way they’re talking to each other, I can’t imagine the previous generation [of leaders] talking to each other in this comfortable way,” said Ellen Umansky, a Fairfield University professor of Judaic studies who attended the event.
The friendly atmosphere was possible, at least in part, because the Jewish stream associated with many of the sharpest conflicts — the ultra-Orthodox — was not present for the event.
The evening opened with a discussion of the election of Obama, and the discussion quickly touched upon one key difference between the movements: Ellenson commented that he didn’t think a single one of his students had voted for the Republican ticket, adding, “It’s almost a problem to me.”
“The supporters that David was looking for were up at Yeshiva University,” Joel quipped. But the discussion did not dwell on the political split between Orthodox Jews, who increasingly vote Republican, and non-Orthodox Jews, who are overwhelmingly Democrats — a split that has vexed communal activists. Instead, the leaders spoke about the historic nature of the election and about the notion of linking faith to political activism. They even linked their own appearance to Obama’s talk of national unity.
“Sometimes, Rabbi Ellenson, Dr. Eisen and Richard Joel just being together is a statement,” Joel said. “It’s our way of saying, ‘Yes we can.’”
Later, at the behest of moderator Joshua Hammerman, the synagogue’s rabbi, each leader identified aspects of the other two movements that he envied. Ellenson praised the Conservative and Orthodox movements for their ability to inculcate a commitment to serious Jewish life. Eisen praised the Reform movement for its commitment to social justice, and Orthodoxy for its close relationship to Israel. And Joel, after an uncomfortable pause of several seconds, praised the other two movements for their willingness to act in the world beyond the Jewish community.
When the discussion did turn to differences among the movements, the leaders emphasized the principle of having disagreements while maintaining an open dialogue. Describing himself as a pluralist, Joel explained, “I think a pluralist is someone who is prepared to honor the other person’s right to be wrong.”
Each of the three leaders who appeared is the first picked to lead his institution in the 21st century, and Eisen argued that all three boards made a conscious decision to choose leaders who are pluralists, reflecting the spirit and urgency of the current moment.