A message relating to the American Jewish experience. On September 12, 2004, a special service was held at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York (founded in 1654) to mark the Congregation's 350th anniversary. Since Shearith Israel is the first Jewish Congregation in North America, this occasion also marked the 350th anniversary of American Jewry. Rabbi Marc D. Angel delivered a sermon at the 350th anniversary service, reflecting on American Jewish history through the prism of the experience of Congregation Shearith Israel.
A powerful story of the Jewish spirit
It is a truism that with the Emancipation and the rise of Reform and, later, Conservative Judaism, options for halakhic flexibility became much more limited. In the midst of a battle against the non-Orthodox movements, traditional Judaism retreated into a conservative mold both as a means of distinguishing itself from the non-Orthodox and out of a fear that in an era of halakhic crisis, any liberality in halakhic decision-making could encourage non-Orthodox trends. This latter sentiment was always on the minds of halakhists, even those who did not adopt lock, stock, and barrel R.
Our heritage is rich and vast and we claim that we teach it. But do we truly understand the wholeness of the Jewish people, or is our knowledge really limited and fragmented? Do we, can we, inculcate the concept of Jewish unity in our students? If we as educators are unaware of or disinterested in Jews who have had different historic experiences than we have had, how can we convey the richness of Judaism?
When bombs are exploding and tanks are rolling, it is difficult to imagine peace. When children are taught to hate and suicide/homicide murderers are called "freedom fighters", it is difficult to imagine peace. When all sides list their grievances and do not listen to the grievances of others, it is difficult to imagine peace.
The Orthodox rabbinate needs to do better, much better. Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel is Founder and Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and editor of the Institute's journal, Conversations. Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, he is the author and editor of 26 books, and numerous articles. He is co-founder and co-chairman, together with Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, an association of Orthodox rabbis dedicated to an intellectually vibrant, compassionate, inclusive and open Orthodox Judaism.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has taken a restrictive, hareidi view on conversions to Judaism. They have imposed "standards" that are unrealistic for many would-be converts, and which are not required by the halakha itself. The Rabbinical Council of America has essentially capitulated to the Chief Rabbinate, and is now in the process of establishing regional courts in the U.S. and Canada that will adhere to the extremist opinions relating to conversions.
Some time ago, I was in an airport waiting to board a flight. A young Orthodox Jewish couple was sitting a few rows in front of me. He was wearing a black kippah, and had tsitsith hanging down the side of his black pants. She was wearing a blond wig, long sleeved blouse, and a long skirt. At some point, she arose and took out a pocket prayer-book. She shuckled quite conspicuously as she mouthed the words of prayer.
Question: Does Jewish Law impose a responsibility to prevent criminal action? Does Halakha sanction reporting Jewish criminals to secular authorities? May an Orthodox Jew prosecute Jewish criminals?
God sent the fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people….God said to Moses: “Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live.” Moses made a serpent of copper and placed it on the pole; so that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live. (Bemidbar21:4–10)