Over lunch several years ago, across a table at a Manhattan kosher restaurant from a middle-aged rabbi with a graying beard, large knit kipa and critical opinions about the spiritual life of most American Jews, I told my guest to ‘fess up.
“You can tell me the truth,” I said to Rabbi David Forman. “You’re really an Orthodox rabbi.”
Rabbi Forman — graduate of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, director of the Israel office of the Union for Reform Judaism for 27 years and longtime campaigner for religious pluralism in Israel — smiled.
He’d undoubtedly heard that comment before.
“I’m definitely not an Orthodox Jew,” he said, emphasizing his respect for Orthodox Judaism but listing several philosophical differences between him and Orthodox thought.
But that became my standing joke with Rabbi Forman, who died May 3 last week at 65 in a Dallas hospital, while awaiting a liver transplant.
He visited New York regularly to promote his books, which often read as if the author were an Orthodox scholar.
From “Israel on Broadway: America Off-Broadway” (Gefen 1999): “While American Jews are creating a brand of Judaism that may be legitimate for its own reality, it is creating something that is simply not recognizable to the collective historical experience of the Jewish people.”
From “Over My Dead Body: Some Grave Questions For God” (Gefen, 2005): “Only in a self-contained and self-defined Jewish state do Jews have both the authority and responsibility for all its social, political, cultural, economic, religious, educational and military decisions.”
“I want to stir up controversy among non-Orthodox Jews in America,” Rabbi Forman would tell me. “I want the battle [for Jewish continuity] to be engaged by people from my background.”
His background: a native of Boston who made aliyah in 1972 and was buried near Jerusalem; an actor, and member of the Israeli delegation to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony; a Soviet Jewry, civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activist in the U.S.; a Reform rabbi who kept a kosher home, did not perform intermarriages and blasted many Jews’ “minimalist approach to Jewish life”; a veteran of the Israeli army who served in the artillery corps during the first war in Lebanon; a founder of Rabbis for Human Rights who often criticized actions of the Israeli government and army; a columnist for The Jerusalem Post who used the paper as a pulpit for his jeremiads against injustice wherever he saw it.
“I’m clearly identified with the left,” he would say, because of RHR’s prominent demonstrations against Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes and olive groves. “Politically I’m liberal; religiously I’m traditional,” he added.
“Rabbi Forman was simply one of those people who stood up for what he believed in,” Rabbi Arik Asherman, RHR executive director, told The Jerusalem Post. “There were even occasions when he criticized Rabbis for Human Rights in his column.”
Rabbi Forman’s last column, “Caught in a Bind,” published the week of his death, is an example. He wrote that, “Liberal Jews in the States are so wedded to their ideological positions that the sweeping historical events that have recently overtaken the Middle East seem to have little effect on their mindset.”
The rabbi described a recent speech he gave at a “Jewish religious think tank that serves as a powerful lobby for liberal interests.” Someone asked his opinion about American funding for the Palestinians; the questioner was clearly in favor of “humanitarian aid to the Palestinians” and against Israel’s withholding of taxes collected on behalf of the PA.
It’s not so simple, Rabbi Forman answered — Hamas, which poses a genuine threat to Israeli safety, wields increasing power in the Palestinian territories.
“I could see a discomfort descend over my audience,” he wrote. “They were disturbed that a fellow ideological traveler would raise any objections to what seemed like a slam dunk.
“For me,” Rabbi Forman wrote, “supporting humanitarian causes is not just a matter of moral integrity, but also of moral practicality ... when speaking today from what seems like a position of moral authority may, in actuality, be morally irresponsible, feeding the hand of those who would destroy us.”
Then: “Since Hamas, along with the rest of the Islamic world, is dedicated to wiping Israel off the map, perhaps then, as a moral mandate, Israel should starve the Palestinians ... the possibility at some future date of withholding monies and basically placing a stranglehold on a people that is dedicated to end the Jewish national entity must be considered. After all, there is no higher moral value than survival.”
However, he went on to add that “I still believe, as a matter of Jewish moral rightness, we must release monies that belong to the Palestinians, finding the mechanisms, be it through the World Bank or the United Nations, by which they will not fall into the hands of Hamas or corrupt Fatah officials.”
Rabbi Forman parted from liberal American Jews, he would explain, because he lived in Israel.
Last year, in another Post column, he was equally critical of another group of liberal Jews — 62 rabbis who were participating in a monthly “Jewish Fast for Gaza,” their protest against “Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza” that they said “has resulted in a humanitarian crisis of overwhelming proportions.”
“Have any of these self-appointed spiritual guardians of the Jewish people ever initiated a similar act of identification with innocent Israelis in the south, whose lives and livelihoods were threatened daily by incessant bombings from Gaza?” he asked.
“Perhaps, unlike my diaspora colleagues, having served in Gaza, I can appreciate the context of what is happening,” he wrote. “The fast for Gaza rabbis fail to recognize that Palestinians do not hold a monopoly on pain. There are victims on both sides of the conflict.”
Many supporters of Israel, most commonly in the religious Zionist camp, speak and write like this.
“The chiddush [new element] is that it’s said by someone you’d never expect to say it,” Rabbi Forman told me.
His affiliation was not Orthodox, but his commitment to Jewish survival was very orthodox.
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