What are the Orthodox afraid of?

It would be easy for those of us who belong to the Orthodox community to be angry at the furore surrounding the Big Tent. The organiser, Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, has been forced by the Board of Deputies and the JLC into an embarrassing climb-down over his refusal to invite Progressive rabbis to speak, and has now created an independent committee, including two Progressive representatives, to approve the choice of speakers. The row has probably put paid to his chief rabbinical chances, although he has good credentials and backers.

What, after all, was his sin? He behaved no differently towards Progressives than the Orthodox establishment in the UK ever has, refusing to share a platform with their rabbinical representatives. As Rabbi Guttentag told the JC: "It is a well-known mode of conduct and policy of Orthodox rabbis to seek not to grant rabbinic legitimacy to those who are styled as 'rabbi' but who are leaders of non-Orthodox congregations."

But that was exactly his sin. It may be a "well-known mode of conduct" - in fact it goes much further, extending to the ostracisation of non-Orthodox events and organisations - but it shouldn't be. If we stopped for a moment to reconsider the accepted dogma in the British Orthodox community, we would recognise that this policy of exclusion has been a total and disastrous failure. It is outdated, non-viable, and destructive - not only for the Progressives, but for the Orthodox community as well.

We have only been able to behave this way in the first place because of a historical anomaly. Because of the historic dominance of Orthodoxy here, it controls much of Jewish public life, such as the school system. In North America, where the Orthodox were the last to arrive, they form a minority and control little community infrastructure. The ability to shut out Progressives is not the diaspora norm and, as North America shows, nor is it imperative for an Orthodox community to thrive.

This policy of exclusion has been a disastrous failure

It doesn't even work. Between 1990 and 2010, according to an Institute for Jewish Policy Research study, membership of the UK's central Orthodox synagogues dropped by a third. It dropped by just four per cent for Reform. Can anyone seriously claim that Progressive members doubt their own validity thanks to the Orthodox boycott? That the rest of the British population regards Progressive clergy as inauthentic? Or that there are not Orthodox rabbis, including senior ones, who conduct private friendships and constructive dialogue with their Progressive peers? Who exactly are we trying to convince – other than ourselves?

In every other arena, from politics to the press and academia, we accept that there is a marketplace of ideas. Only when it comes to religion do we try to silence the "opposition" and use force to win the argument. This makes us look immature, intolerant, petty and insecure.

Appearing in the same forum as a Progressive rabbi does not mean that an Orthodox rabbi accepts that the other is "right". We can, indeed we should, agree to disagree in a civilised manner. But it takes a certain amount of confidence in your own arguments to trust an audience to see this - confidence our Orthodox leaders apparently lack.

Orthodox rabbis could even learn a thing or two from the Progressives, perhaps regarding social justice or the environment, without condoning their theology. Why are we so afraid?

Most importantly, the campaign, over decades, to delegitimise Progressive Judaism has made the entire community weaker. We face many challenges together, from antisemitism and attacks on Israel to a rapidly shrinking Jewish population. The other denominations, both to our right and to our left, should be treated as partners, not enemies, if we are to thrive. Instead, our denominational bickering, which has become an unfortunate byword for Anglo-Jewry, has resulted in needless hatred and division, hampering us as a collective.

Exhibit A in this sad indictment is the so-called Big Tent event, which almost became the Half Tent. It stands, dishonourably, in a long list of previous fiascos, including the Jacobs and Hugo Gryn affairs, the Limmud boycott and the JFS court case. Next chief rabbi, please take note.

    Last updated: 10:27am, November 14 2011