|THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH RABBI
RICHARD G. HIRSCH, MARKING HIS RETIREMENT AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE WORLD
UNION FOR PROGRESSIVE JUDAISM.
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
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
WUPJnews: What about withholding financial support as a
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
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
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
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
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
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