Orthodox Rabbi Talks of Splitting Jerusalem, Faces Backlash

By Rebecca Spence

Published October 31, 2007, issue of November 02, 2007.
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Los Angeles - When a prominent Orthodox rabbi broke ranks with the official Orthodox line last week and called for an open discussion of the division of Jerusalem, the backlash was swift — though not entirely unexpected.

Yosef Kanefsky, senior rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, is no stranger to controversy, and when Orthodox leaders rushed to condemn an opinion piece he wrote for the October 26 edition of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, he was unruffled by the response.

Headlined “An Orthodox Rabbi’s Plea: Consider a Divided Jerusalem,” the piece called on Jewish leaders to approach the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference scheduled to take place in Annapolis, Md., with an open mind, especially on the question of Jerusalem.

“I wanted to stimulate conversation and discussion, and I think I have,” Kanefsky said in interview with the Forward. “I knew that this is a point of view that’s not usually expressed in public.”

The discussion he sparked was so robust, in fact, that it made it into the pages of the Los Angeles Times, which ran a story on Kanefsky’s opinion piece on the front page of its October 28 “California” section. A thread of more than 100 comments streamed into the Jewish Journal, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America submitted a rebuttal for publication.

“These are extremely difficult thoughts for me to share, both because they concern an issue that is emotionally charged, and because people whose friendship I treasure will disagree strongly with me,” Kanefsky wrote in his article. “And also because I am breaking a taboo within my community, the Orthodox Zionist community.”

The 44-year-old Kanefsky, a former associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — a New York congregation led by Orthodox maverick Avi Weiss — said that what led him to take action were recent efforts to have Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert keep the possibility of a divided Jerusalem off the table during peace talks. Kanefsky said he learned to speak out from Weiss, who is known for advocating liberal positions that often put him at odds with the Orthodox establishment. For example, both Weiss and Kanefsky allow women to read from the Torah in their own prayer groups.

Daniel Korobkin, a West Coast representative for the Orthodox Union and a personal friend of Kanefsky’s, noted that given his training with Weiss, it is not surprising that Kanefsky follows the religiously liberal positions that are consistent with Weiss’s so-called Open Orthodoxy. What is different about Kanefsky, Korobkin said, is his take on geopolitics.

“His political positions are not necessarily aligned with liberal Orthodoxy or with his teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss,” Korobkin said. “Rabbi Kanefsky not only takes a liberal religious worldview, but he does the same thing with his politics.”

The immediate past president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Kanefsky is active in Jewish circles well beyond the confines of the Orthodox world. According to the executive vice president of the board of rabbis, Mark Diamond, Kanefsky is well known for his interdenominational work, including bringing together rabbis from all the movements for Torah study.

Some Orthodox leaders, despite their vocal disapproval of Kanefsky’s message, downplayed the impact of his opinion piece. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said the fact that Jews have different opinions on things is “nothing new.”

“Rabbi Kanefsky is certainly not the only person who has this view, and he’s entitled to it,” Weinreb said. “But we disagree with much of what he is saying.”

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