Davar Acher

December 13, 2017 by  
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I would like to offer a davar acher to the recent J-wire post, “Religious Liberals: On the Way Down?…asks Professor Bill Rubinstein,” and address some of the unfounded assumptions and claims made by its author…writes Rabbi Nicole Roberts.

Rabbi Nicole Roberts

Let’s begin at the beginning, where Rubinstein wrongly claims that the “aim” of the recent meeting of the Council of Progressive Rabbis and the Council of Masorti Rabbis was “to set out an ultra-liberal political agenda.”  The aim of our meetings, held twice each year, is to discuss matters of religious import to our communities, as well as to support one another collegially and share best practices, so that we can better serve our congregations.  Occasionally, in our proceedings, we determine that it is our religious duty—guided and enjoined upon us by the teachings of our tradition—to take a moral stand on the urgent issues affecting the world around us.  When we do so, the relevant consideration for us is not political party, or any party’s agenda; it is the wellbeing of God’s world and its inhabitants.  We speak from our interpretation of Jewish tradition, which sometimes leads us to different conclusions than those of other movements about what is just and right in the eyes of our Creator.  However, as Jewish literary history well attests, there have always been divergent views resulting from interpretations of the same text and tradition.  We are not being political; we are being politicised, by people who view the world through a polarised political lens, much to the detriment of good relations between people of faith and the blessed diversity of movements to which we adhere.

And yes, we “religious liberals” indeed see diversity as a blessing, and we respect divergent views within our own movements and congregations.  My Progressive shul’s 2015 statement on marriage equality affirms that any personal views which differ from those reached by the rabbis and lay leadership “will be respected as one of many in our sacred community, a congregation in which every person is recognised as having been created b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God.”  We see ourselves as a strong, resilient Temple family, which has been able to withstand differences of opinion between our members because of the higher purposes for which we join together.

What are some of those purposes?  Rubinstein’s assertion that “many members [of Progressive shuls] continue to belong in order to attend High Holy Day services” is unfounded.  A review of my synagogue’s membership applications reveals a host of reasons why our members join, including: community and “friendship,” reconnection with “Jewish identity,” a “religious fit,” education in our Hebrew School, “pastoral” support, our “ruach,” and more.

Notably, one reason members join my shul is to work toward and celebrate b’nei mitzvah.  Rubinstein suggests that our willingness to conduct same sex marriages will eventually diminish the number of “bar mitzvot and normal weddings” (note: the former term is grammatically incorrect, and the latter offensive to us).  To the contrary, our shul’s 2015 statement affirmed its rabbis’ willingness to officiate such weddings and the number of b’nei mitzvah celebrated on our bimah has only grown since, jumping to almost triple what it was in 2015.  We see no correlation.

Nor do we anticipate the “exodus of many members” which Rubinstein claims “is happening already.”  Is his assessment based on the lack of “accurate membership statistics” he claims we are being “secretive” about?  Were he simply to ask, my synagogue’s leadership would happily share that our membership is, in fact, growing, as is Emanuel Synagogue’s in Sydney’s East.  Yes, “fundamentalist Protestant sects” and “Charedi Jews” are growing too; but according to those who analyse such figures for a living (I recommend Robert Putnam, Mark Chaves, and Leonard Saxe), these communities do not necessarily attract more adherents than other denominations; their members simply—on the whole—bear more children.  Reasons for congregational growth and decline generally have more to do with demography than ideology.

And what if our growth and decline in numbers did hinge on ideology?  Is Rubinstein issuing a warning he actually expects religious leaders to heed?  That is, should a community—of any denomination—change its religiously derived, moral stance on issues of the day, simply because that stance may or may not be popular?  To do so would have been unthinkable to the Prophets of our tradition, who suffered for their convictions.  While neither Rubinstein nor I are prophets, I hope we can agree that bending principles to politics is not a religiously sound position.  “Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit” (Zech. 4:6) shall our communities be built and strengthened.

Rabbi Nicole Roberts is the Senior Rabbi at Sydney’s North Shore Temple Emanuel and treasurer of the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.
davar acher‘  –  offer a new and different perspective.


4 Responses to “Davar Acher”
  1. Dr Anna Rosenbaum says:

    I would not get too hot under the collar regarding Bill’s comments. He was also of the opinion that the allies could not have done much for European Jews during WWII because nobody could have envisaged what the Nazis were about to do to them. Moreover, he believed that the Jews themselves were at fault because they should have escaped persecution in time.

  2. Bill Rubinstein says:

    To reply to Rabbi Nicole Roberts: I made two points in my original article – first, that Progressive Jews in Australia were becoming more visible as political activists and more outspoken than a generation ago, invariably taking a stance on the political left. I was a close observer of the Australian Jewish scene when I lived in Melbourne between 1978 and 1995, and wrote several books about Australian Jewry, and I am certain that this observation is correct. My second point was that whenever religious denominations become highly visible as groups of left-wing activists, their numbers shrink dramatically. In the case of American liberal Protestants, the statistics – provided by the denominations themselves – are so striking as to be undeniable. It goes without saying that there are very many differences between Progressive Jewry in Australia and Protestant churches in North America, but there are also many similarities in today’s world. Comments about the actual number of members of the Progressive movement made by Rabbi Kamins and others are unsubstantiated assertions, made without evidence. What is needed are actual and reliable statistics about the number of financial members of the Progressive movement in Melbourne and Sydney at, say, ten yearly intervals in, for instance, 1987, 1997, 2007, and 2017. If such statistics exist (they must, of course) they have never been made public, so far as I am aware. I have simply pointed out the association in America between high profile left-wing activism and decreasing membership numbers, and not claimed that it has occurred here. Over the next year or so, because there is a backlog, there are certain to be many visible Jewish same sex marriages which, if religious, will necessarily take place only in Progressive and Masorti synagogues. It will be interesting to see their effect upon membership numbers. My guess – I could be wrong, of course – is that they will lead to a decline in membership numbers. Liberal Protestant churches in America expected that their outspokenly liberal stances would lose them traditional members, but that, in compensation, they would gain a new non-traditional clientele among college students, political activists, gays, refugees, non-Caucasians, etc. This has simply not happened: the students, activists, and gays are largely secularists, while the refugees and non-Caucasians are largely fundamentalists. This may or may not have parallels here – we shall see.

  3. Monty Pogoda says:

    Same sex marriages are Biblically forbidden. You’re contradicting a Divine law.

  4. Debbie Scholem says:

    Thank you Rabbi Nicole for your wise words and loving support for Kol Yisrael.

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