COMMENTARY: Tensions abound between religions’“head shed"and local offices

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee).

UNDATED _ Business leaders complain constantly about the tension often existing between the home office of an international enterprise and its local representatives. The complaint is always the same: the"head shed"people proudly claim they have the global view while the area offices, no matter their size, are chastised for a local myopia causing them to lose sight of the"big picture." But the locals have a different take on the matter. They argue the home office is either unable or unwilling to understand the unique situation of the locals. They argue that in order to survive and prosper, some creative adaptation and innovation is necessary, even desirable. The traditional methods and procedures prescribed by headquarters are not always effective out in the provinces. As a result, distinctive responses are needed to meet the new realities.

The current American visit of the Christian Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, is a graphic reminder that a similar stress filled relationship is also at work among Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism.

Orthodox Christians are delighted the Patriarch, headquartered in what is now Istanbul, has been warmly welcomed by important sectors of American society, including visits to the White House, the U.S. Congress, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Cathedral, and several prestigious universities.

But the patriarch's high profile visit has also raised critical questions for Orthodox church members in America. Are they Orthodox Christians who happen to reside in the United States? Or are they part of a new emerging Orthodoxy with its own unique characteristics developing in America? What is the appropriate relationship between Orthodox Christians in the U.S. and their 250 million co-religionists who live in places like Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Serbia, and Romania?

In what ways does the Patriarchate in Istanbul shape the spiritual lives of Orthodox in this country? Above all, will the older Orthodox generation succeed in transmitting their tradition to American-born children and grandchildren who live as a religious minority in the friendly sea of an alluring American culture?

Not surprisingly, these same kind of questions resonate among many Jews and Roman Catholics. Are the adherents of all three groups merely living in a permanent diaspora (a Greek word, by the way) where the key religious decisions are made for them in the home offices of Constantinople, Jerusalem, or Rome? Or are they, as devout people of faith, spiritually at home in America, and sure footed enough to shape their own special religious identities?

Many public opinion surveys conducted in the U.S. indicate Catholics deeply revere the pope and the papacy and respect the moral values proclaimed by the Vatican. However, many of this country's Catholics seem to go their independent way in such matters of personal life as divorce, birth control, and religious observances. Is there an American Catholic Church or is it a Catholic Church that is in, but not of, America?

And the Jewish community, which was almost physically destroyed during the Holocaust and which exerted extraordinary collective energies on behalf of Israel, is now going through its own bitter"diaspora-home office"debate.

Is an American Judaism now emerging that has non-Orthodox groups as full participants? The Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches claim to be authentic expressions of Jewish life in the American diaspora, but are they really illegitimate movements that must be vigorously opposed by Orthodox Jews?

Orthodoxy claims it must be the only form of Judaism legally recognized in Israel, the Jewish nation. In such a formulation, is there any space for a"big tent"approach to Jewish life that will include everyone who seeks to enter?

These questions take on added significance because within a decade Israel, and not the United States, will be the largest Jewish community in the world. This demographic fact will dramatically alter the relationship between Jerusalem, the Jewish home office, and American Jews.

The well publicized tensions currently existing have created fears of a fragmentation of the Jewish people, and some leaders even predict a permanent schism resulting in two distinct Jewish communities.

In such a scenario, one segment will look to Israel's Orthodox Judaism for leadership, and a second segment will be led by the American-based Reform and Conservative movements and will seek independence from the religious authorities of Israel.

Will the head office of Jerusalem and the Jewish diaspora avert this nightmare? They better, because the stakes are high, and because history and the world are watching.