/ / /
haGalil onLine -

Search haGalil


Newsletter abonnieren
Bücher / Morascha

Koscher leben...

Aktiv gegen Nazi-Propaganda!
Jüdische Weisheit
Archivierte Meldungen aus den Jahren 1995 - 1999

Keeping the Jewish People alive!

1 July 1999 / 17 Tamuz 5759


WUPJnews: What should Progressive Judaism's chief goal be world-wide in 1999?

Rabbi Hirsch: 1926, 1999, 1850, 2050, 3000 - Keep the Jewish People alive. That's the goal. That's the goal of the Zionist Movement, that's the goal of the Reform Movement, that's the task of all of us. There are different ways of keeping the Jewish People alive. When the Reform Movement came into being, they had one question: There was tremendous assimilation; there was conversion to Christianity; the new vistas of opportunity were open. And they had one issue before them: How are we going to keep the Jewish People alive? So they proposed that the essence of Jewishness was religion. And since the Jews were now becoming equal citizens of the society in which they lived, the way to keep the Jewish people alive was to redefine Jewishness into a faith, and to either diminish or eliminate altogether the folk dimensions, the peoplehood dimensions of Jewishness. That's why, in these early days, they opposed the Zionist movement.

The Zionist Movement was confronted with the same issue. Nineteenth century. Assimilation. Intermarriage. How do you keep the Jewish People alive? And they said that the way to keep the Jewish People alive was to bring them back to their own home to establish a Jewish homeland and to restore Jewish sovereignty. The two views were in total conflict - they were diametrically opposite ways of keeping the Jewish people alive. I think that there was validity in both views. The reality, though, is that given the developments, the historic events of the twentieth century - Hitler, the Holocaust, the establishment of the state - the view of the Zionists, the way to keep the Jewish People alive, to restore their national consciousness in a land of their own, proved more efficacious than the Reform approach.

So the Reform Movement had to readjust; given the historic events which had occurred, the Reform Movement had to become a part of this great drama of the restoration of Jewish national sovereignty. We have now integrated that. Without the Jewish People there is no Jewish faith; without the Jewish faith there is no Jewish People. Unless the state becomes an instrumentality which reflects the totality of the Jewish People; unless the state is a home for all Jews; unless all Jews feel at home in the Jewish state - Israel won't be the home for all Jews. So now we've come full circle. At the end of a century of Zionism, you've got the same problem: How do we keep the Jewish People alive? The next century, in my opinion, is going to be a century where the Jewish state also has to assume responsibility for keeping the Jewish People alive. That which makes the state different from all other states is its relationship to world Jewry. That which makes world Jewry distinct from all other faiths is its relationship to the State of Israel.

The World Union has a major role in Israel. The fact that maybe there's only one percent of the Jewish population of the State of Israel which is identified with the Liberal Movements doesn't mean that we're not important. We represent the Diaspora in the eyes of the Jewish population. The American movement, without close ties to Israel, will become an American-Protestantized sect. We represent the synthesis between peoplehood and faith. Faith by itself cannot last, particularly in an age when Jews don't believe.

WUPJnews: I didn't connect my question about Progressive Judaism's goal world-wide to Zionism, but you went straight to it. Is Zionism the linchpin?

Rabbi Hirsch: Yes. That's why we moved the international [World Union] headquarters here. Without the ties to Israel, the Reform Movement was on its way to being, just what I said - a Protestantized American sect. The very fact that we are in Israel serves as a counter-balance to the trend in the Diaspora to identify as a religion only, which was the way the Reform Movement was going in the early twentieth century. There were so many Jews in the 1920s who were converting to Unitarianism that they began to say, "Jewnitarians." There were so many Jews who became active in the Quaker movement that they began to say, "Some of my best Jews are Friends." What stopped that process was the identity with the Jewish state, with the Zionist Movement, with the Holocaust and so forth. If, as a result of the developments that we all know about [as well as] the demographics and the sociological factors at work in American Diaspora society today, there is a distancing from the state and all that it symbolizes in terms of Jewish Peoplehood, that trend will start all over again.

Conversely, the State of Israel is going in the direction of "k'khol ha'amim, like all other states." What distinguishes the State of Israel from all other states is its relationship to Jewish tradition and to world Jewry. The move of the World Union to Jerusalem was, in my opinion, the most important, historic decision that's been made in the last half century by the Reform Movement, more important than any resolutions, Columbus Platforms or Pittsburgh Platforms or anything else, because it was action. It was not only a leap of faith, it was a leap of action.

We have a formula which is a difficult formula to sell.  The Orthodox formula is a very easy formula. The Orthodox say God commanded, and this is what you have to do. What is written has to be done. In Israel they say this is "Medinat haYahadut." Herzl called it in his book, in the Hebrew translation, "Medinat haYehudim." The Orthodox would have it be medinat hayahadut, a state which is governed by an authoritarian interpretation of Jewish law. It can't work.

We represent, both in Israel and around the world, a liberal approach. The liberal approach is, by far, the most radical approach in the eyes of the Orthodox. Why do the Orthodox, for example - not only here but in Russia and all over, in the States, in Great Britain - why do they fight us so much when side-by-side they don't bother about the completely unreligious Jews? Why is it easy for them to relate to secular Jews - who don't practice Jewish tradition - and yet oppose us? Because they recognize us more than we recognize ourselves. They recognize us, realistically, as a major threat. We don't even recognize our promise, what our potential is! They recognize it more than we do. Why? Because they understand that if somehow or other there exists in this society, and in other societies, a valid premise for the existence of a liberal movement, then that undermines not only their monopoly, it also undermines their theology, their ideology - that there is only one way: their way.

The Orthodox way at best can attract only a small number of people. It's a fact. Where do all the Reform and Conservative and secular Jews come from? They come from a group that basically was repelled by, alienated by, indifferent to Orthodoxy. Otherwise, everybody would still be Orthodox. Why isn't everybody Orthodox? And why don't the Orthodox give a darn about the fact that there are secular Jews and they are such great allies with them? Because [the secular are] not a threat to them. They don't give a darn about [the secular's] religious values. They care about us. Why care about us? They care about us because we threaten them. We threaten their monopoly.

WUPJnews: What should Progressive Judaism's chief goal be in Israel right now?

Rabbi Hirsch: We have two major goals. We have tremendous, positive changes symbolized by the struggles in the courts and by the legislative process. A decade ago the fight was over conversions performed abroad by rabbis abroad. Today the fight is over conversions performed here. Thanks to the Orthodox opposition, everybody in Israel now knows we're here. The secular Jews haven't necessarily recognized us, but the Orthodox have. Every Orthodox Jew has recognized us. We're here.

WUPJnews: You're here and you make noise.

Rabbi Hirsch: And we make noise. And we're building our institutions. But we can't continue to rely only on making noise.  The reality is that, whereas we have to use the tools which are available in a democracy to try to win our rights - and these tools are the courts and the legislature - in the final analysis, our impact will be measured not by court victories or the capacity to prevent legislation, but from how we impact on the lives of people. And the impact on the lives of people will be determined by the institutions we build, the programs we develop, the leadership we develop, and the number of people, and their character, who can affect the lives of Israelis Jewishly. That's where this society comes in because the direction in which this society is going is, on the one hand, a distancing of itself from Jewish values, and on the other, what I call the "unholy alliance" between political extremism and religious fanaticism. The truth is, we have to cultivate a need (it may not be a felt need - maybe we have to create the felt need) for Israelis to search for Jewish values. I don't delineate between Jewish and democratic values. So that's what we're doing: We're putting up kindergartens, we're putting up schools, we're putting up community centers, we're putting up synagogues, we're putting up these buildings here on the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR, we're building kibbutzim.  We've done a lot in 25 years. Look what we've done.

WUPJnews: What about withholding financial support as a weapon?

Rabbi Hirsch: Withholding support from the UJA?  I'm adamantly opposed to it. Wholeheartedly opposed. That's not our way.

WUPJnews: Lately there have been calls not to support Knesset members...

Rabbi Hirsch: Those are two separate issues.  First of all the issue of the magbit [UJA]. The purpose of the magbit has been to concentrate on bringing Jews to Israel through aliya, on absorption, and on building institutions that the government is not able to build. Anything we do that undermines the capacity of the Jewish People abroad to play a role, to be involved in the upbuilding of Zion, is deleterious. It doesn't work. I have yet to meet the Jew who says "I'm going to stop giving my hundred thousand dollars to the Federation in New Jersey; I'm going to give it to you." Haven't met him. Maybe he exists but I haven't met him.

The issue of not contributing to the campaigns of Knesset Members with whom we disagree: First of all, I don't know how many people actually contribute to the campaigns of Knesset Members - there are laws against it, but if there are people who do that, I approve of that wholeheartedly. Why should you contribute to the political campaign of somebody who doesn't agree with you? However, I disagree with those who say we shouldn't welcome them into our synagogues. I don't believe that's in keeping with the democratic process. If somebody disagrees with you, you don't talk with him? I don't like those statements that came forth from New York, issued by both Conservative and Reform rabbis, who say, "We will not provide a platform for people with whom we disagree." I believe in providing platforms for people with whom we disagree. We're supposed to be pluralistic. We pride ourselves on our democratic virtues. If you don't meet with people with whom you disagree, how are you ever going to change their minds? If you don't provide them an audience and question them and criticize them, how are you ever going to impact on them?

Back to Tradition

WUPJnews: How do you feel about the efforts within the American movement to return Reform Judaism to tradition?

Rabbi Hirsch: I believe in it. I believe in a return to tradition. It's related to this problem, are we a religion or are we a People? I'll give you an example. I was very active in the civil rights movement and I remember on the march from Selma to Montgomery in the sixties. The Christian clergy had collars to show that they were Christians. Some carried crosses. What were the Jews going to do? So we decided we'd put on kippot. Why? Because it was a Jewish symbol. There were rabbis that participated in that march who, in their synagogues, would never put on a kippa. But walking on the street from Selma to Montgomery, they wore a kippa! What's wrong with a kippa? The kippa was not just a religious symbol, it was a national symbol.

Not riding on Yom Kippur - no Jew in Israel rides on Yom Kippur. What is it, a religious motivation? It's part of the national milieu, a cultural milieu. Many observances, which in the Diaspora come to be contracted into a definition of ritual - religious ritual - in Israel are basically manifestations of Jewish national consciousness. Therefore, I'm all for tradition. I don't know anybody in Israel, for example, who doesn't participate in a seder. People who claim they are not religious go to a seder. You go to the kibbutzim. Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim - there's not a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz that doesn't have a seder and yet they claim they don't believe in God. What is that, a religious thing? No, it's the seder, which is our celebration of the concept of freedom, which we gave to the world. The seder is a national symbol. How can you be a Jew without having a seder?

So I'm all in favor of, wherever possible, finding as many frameworks in which to reinvigorate Jewish life. Kashrut, for example. They talk about kashrut. I'm all in favor of kashrut. It's not a coincidence that every one of our institutions here, that we're responsible for, observes kashrut. At Beit Shmuel we have a mashgiach. I went to great efforts to make sure that we'd have a facility for netilat yadaim. I think that Beit Shmuel was the first Reform building ever built with a special facility for netilat yadaim in the history of the Reform movement. I said I don't want a little tin cup with a tin can, like they have in Hechal Shlomo [the building housing Israel's Chief Rabbinate - ed.]. I want the most beautiful - it cost us over $10,000 - I want the most beautiful netilat yadaim in Israel. Which we have. Why? Because I want to make sure that our facilities first of all welcome all Jews, including the Orthodox, and, secondly, that we encourage people to return to tradition.

WUPJnews: Even at the risk of alienating certain people who have been attracted to Reform or Progressive Judaism because of its more modernistic outlook, and less emphasis on ritual?

Rabbi Hirsch: That shouldn't be the price, because the question is, how do you go about educating? I believe in conflict. I love conflict, ideological, intellectual conflict. [It's] the way to make social progress. The whole [idea of the World Union] coming to Israel [in 1973] was a conflict. When I became the director of the Religious Action Center - we went through two years of controversy before the Movement agreed to establish the Religious Action Center. I feel grateful that I've been on the cutting edge of major issues in Jewish life. You might say that my life is a tale of three cities - Washington, Moscow and Jerusalem. And everyone of those things was involved in conflict. In every instance we won people over. If Rabbi Richard Levy and others in the States talk about a return to tradition, that's great. I'm all in favor. But the question is, have they used the right techniques? Have they thought about the right way to sell people on their ideas? And what's wrong with it?

Not everybody is forced to do it. We're a liberal movement. Those who are influenced will observe, and those who aren't influenced won't observe. Nobody's forcing them to do it. I adamantly disagree with those who say that there is anything in Jewish tradition which is Orthodox - in my opinion, a Reform Jew can keep kosher, not ride on the Shabbat or on the holidays, wear a kippa, wear a tallit, daven every morning, and he's a Reform Jew. What's the difference between Reform and Orthodox? The Orthodox do it because "as shteit geschrieben" - God tells them they've got to do it. And this is the way. It's unchangeable, it's immutable. We do it because we find meaning in it. And if a Reform Jew finds meaning in keeping kashrut, praying every day, putting on tefillin, wearing a tallit, not riding on Shabbat or the holidays, he does it because he understands why he's doing it. He's a Reform Jew. Don't make him an Orthodox Jew. It's not WHAT you do, it's WHY you do it which determines whether or not a person is a liberal Jew.

WUPJnews: In more than a quarter of a century as executive director of the World Union, what do you think your greatest success, contribution, has been? Yours personally - Dick Hirsch's.

Rabbi Hirsch: The first is in getting the movement to agree to move here, which was a controversial issue at the time, because people said, why should we go to a place where we don't have any rights, where we suffer disabilities. My point was if you don't come here, you will never get your rights, because Israel itself was established by a fait accompli. It wasn't that the United Nations established Israel - the United Nations agreed to the partition plan after the Jews had already built up the country. You've got to create facts. So to sit back and watch the gladiators fight in the arena was a non-starter. We had to be part of this process. I wrote an article which was very controversial in 1969 where I stated that Israel is Broadway and the Diaspora is off-Broadway. You can't imagine how many letters of protest and meetings I had on that statement. I believe it. This is where the action is. This is where the destiny and character of the Jewish People are going to be determined. So we have to be here. To carry out the metaphor - if you're going to sit in the upper balcony and watch the actors on the stage, you're not involved. It's the cheap way out. You're buying a ticket. You're not a participant. So the first thing was to move here.

The second thing was to join the World Zionist Organization of the Jewish Agency because about that there was also great controversy. The point I made was that you can't come to Israel and not join the Zionist movement, despite the fact that it's politicized and corrupting. So I said, to move to Israel and not join the WZO/Jewish Agency was like bringing the bride to the chuppa and not putting a ring on her finger. You've got to put a ring on her finger. You've got to do the acts which symbolize marriage.

The third thing has been building institutions. You've got to build institutions. Had we been members of the Zionist movement before the state was founded, like Mizrahi - Mizrahi was only a small percentage of the Orthodox, it was always a minority of Orthodox - but had the Reform Jews gotten together - the minority of Reform Jews were Zionist - and participated in the upbuilding of Zion, the Zionist movement, I think the whole history of Israel would have been different. Our history as a movement would have been different. So now we're playing catch-up ball, and it's not easy. But we have to do it. We have to build institutions - schools, synagogues, community centers. I used to use the phrase, Our task is to root ourselves in the soil and the soul of the Jewish People. Unless we root ourselves in the soil of the Jewish People, we can't root ourselves in the soul of the Jewish People.

[But] successful is a relative term. Successful you've got to put in quotation marks. I feel grateful that what started out as a very small minority has expanded. We've got people now. We've got professional staff. We've got people who are committing their lives to the rabbinate. I feel very grateful. I first accepted the position of [executive director of] the World Union in '73. In 1972, the total annual income of the World Union was $78,000.  Total! (Not including my salary.) You take a look at the kind of money we're dealing with [now] - not that money is important, it's a reflection of importance, of significance, and buildings are statements - we've made statements. We're here. And we're recognized - we're sitting around the table of Jewish life. To carry out the metaphor, we're actors on the stage. We're not audience.

And the same thing applies in [the former Soviet Union]. Had it not been for Bella and me - in this instance my wife plays a critical role - we wouldn't have a movement today in Russia. We went there first in 1969. We went there again in '87, '88, and every year thereafter. We brought in missions. All to start the movement in Russia. Whatever we [now] have - it's a little difficult to measure the impact we have; we have almost 50 groups in [the FSU] - it's very gratifying. Incidentally, in many of these areas, the way to "sell" our leadership was to involve them. To bring missions to Russia is the way of encouraging people to support you. To bring people to Israel is the way to encourage people to support you. To show them what you're doing. When I first started talking about [the need] to build a movement in Russia, everybody was opposed. The Israelis said, "What are you doing? You're taking money away from us?" At the time, we didn't have any money to give to the Israelis.  "You don't have enough for the rabbis' salaries, now you're building a movement in Russia?" Our own staff said that. So I said, "You know what, come with me." So I brought our key staff. I said, "Come with me.  You'll see what it is." And they became great enthusiasts. I think that's quite an achievement.

One of the problems with our liberal movement is, because they concentrated on the faith dimensions of Jewishness, they weren't concerned with what was happening with the fate of the Jewish People, as a people, abroad. The danger in the United States is that the movement is liable to become "America Firsters." We have to serve as a counter-force for that. That's why I say that our success is not related only to what we have done and the lives we've impacted upon. It's also that we've impacted on the rest of the movement. What would the world movement be today if we weren't centered in Israel? What would we argue about? We wouldn't be involved in any controversy. What would be the controversy? We'd be fighting over what? How can you fight if you're not here? You pass a resolution - who gives a dam about a resolution? Resolutions are not as important as resolute action. Faxes are not as important as facts. To send a special delivery message is not as important as having messengers to deliver the message here. That's the gist of what I feel good about.

WUPJnews: Where have you failed?

Rabbi Hirsch: I had a lot of aspirations. First of all, I thought we'd have done more. I aspired to do more. I thought we'd have more rabbis, more congregations, more financial support. One of the aspirations that I haven't yet achieved - and I don't think I will, maybe the next generation will do it - I want to unite all of the liberal religious forces. I wanted to make a dramatic statement. There's no justification whatsoever for separate movements - Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox.

Modern Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, as far as I'm concerned, are the same, because the issue today is that we're in struggle for the soul of the Jewish People, and the struggle is between those forces who reject the secular world and those forces who accept the secular world and recognize that you have to adjust, that somehow or another you have to compromise. The test is how do you become a part of the world and yet apart from the world? How do you keep your Jewish identity dynamic and at the same time live in a secular, democratic society? The Orthodox way is not the way because the Orthodox way at best will only appeal to a small segment. We've seen it. So somehow or another there has to be another way.

There were a lot of other failures - though I wouldn't call them failures. I would call them "an inadequate fulfillment of aspirations." It's too extreme to say "failure" or "success." Those words don't fit my mentality. I never failed - I did not meet all of my aspirations. I antagonized a lot of people in all of this. It wasn't easy to live with me. Incidentally, one of my key virtues, I think - I've been involved in a lot of controversies but I personally never internalized them. I never was angry at the person with whom I disagreed. I always tried to concentrate on the issue. That wasn't, unfortunately, always true of all the persons with whom I was engaged in controversy, because the average person in many instances can't separate disagreement on an ideological or programmatic issue from personal disagreement. I've been involved in instances where people have had to be removed from positions or transferred from positions. There are a lot of turf problems which are partly ideological, partly institutional and partly individual. In every struggle that you have, every movement, you have a combination of these three factors. It's a question of money, for example. Where do you put your money? The Leo Baeck school thought that all the money should go to the Leo Baeck school. That's the most important thing we have to do. I didn't say it wasn't important, but if all we had was the Leo Baeck school, what would we do as a movement?

I, too, did it once - the most important thing we could do was establish a kibbutz. I think I spent a third of my time when I first came here trying to build a kibbutz. Some people said, no, the kibbutz movement is on its way out and you're going to plant your settlements in the Arava, so what do we need that for? We ought to concentrate all our efforts building congregations. So my view always was it's not a question of "either/or," it's a question of "both/and." The key thing is, do you have a person who's willing to do the work? No idea is a worthy idea unless you have somebody who's going to implement it. Charles Beard, in one of my favorite phrases, said, "Thought without action is futile. Action without thought is fatal."  I say, "Action and thought together are fertile."

WUPJnews: You've been a congregational rabbi and an organizational person. What would you say to someone entering the Reform/Progressive rabbinate about his or her future? Where can a person do the most?

Rabbi Hirsch: If I were to express gratitude, it would be that I've always had a position which made me get up early in the morning and run to the office. I feel grateful for that. I've always had a position where I'd lie awake at night many times: Why didn't I do this, why did I do that? What am I going to do tomorrow? I'm always running. I was 24 years old when I was ordained; many of the people who were in school with me came to school after the war. Many of them had already been in the university and the army. I was 10 years younger than people who were ordained with me, and many of those people retired at age 65. So some of my close friends in the rabbinate, people with whom I went to school are 80 years old, 85 years old, and they retired at 65. I take a look at my friends and am grateful that I never retired! And I don't intend to retire now. Maybe I'm hyperactive. Maybe that's a physiological characteristic. But if I have regrets, it's that I haven't done as much as I thought I could do. Browning wrote, "A man's reach should always exceed his grasp, or what is Heaven for?" My reach has always been long. I think I've had vision. If it's an idea whose time has come, you still need people who are going to make it their "mifal hachaim [life's work]." So the World Union has been my mifal hachaim.

Another thing I'm grateful about is wife and family.  We've inculcated in our children our values. Every one of our kids is a good Jew. Every one is a learned Jew. Every one speaks Hebrew fluently. We spoke only Hebrew to our kids in Chicago - I think that when they were born, ours was the first Reform Jewish family that spoke only Hebrew to their children. There's a wonderful phrase in Chazal in the Talmud: B'zchut banim avoteihem mitkabdim. Our children perpetuate our values. Our children are our immortality. I give Bella most of the credit that our children are good Jews, good citizens. The most important institution a person builds is his own family. It's more important to me than all my other achievements. By far the most important achievement is producing children who perpetuate your own values.

wupj.gif (4291 Byte)

WUPJ E-mail -
WUPJnews editorial questions -

Wochenabschnitt Dr. Zwi Braun zum Wochenabschnitt Pinchas:
[Starke Frauen] - [Nicht unterkriegen lassen]

haGalil onLine - 07-99

Die hier archivierten Artikel stammen aus den "Anfangsjahren" der breiten Nutzung des Internet. Damals waren die gestalterischen Möglichkeiten noch etwas ursprünglicher als heute. Wir haben die Artikel jedoch weiterhin archiviert, da die Informationen durchaus noch interessant sein können, u..a. auch zu Dokumentationszwecken.

Spenden Sie mit PayPal - schnell, kostenlos und sicher!
Werben in haGalil?
Ihre Anzeige hier!

Advertize in haGalil?
Your Ad here! ist kostenlos! Trotzdem: haGalil kostet Geld!

Die bei haGalil onLine und den angeschlossenen Domains veröffentlichten Texte spiegeln Meinungen und Kenntnisstand der jeweiligen Autoren.
Sie geben nicht unbedingt die Meinung der Herausgeber bzw. der Gesamtredaktion wieder.
haGalil onLine

haGalil - Postfach 900504 - D-81505 München

1995-2006 © haGalil onLine® bzw. den angeg. Rechteinhabern
Munich - Tel Aviv - All Rights Reserved