Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress, concluded his organization's 13th annual American-Israel Dialogue here with a call for "heightened awareness of the growing polarity that separates observant from secular Jew."
He declared that "we need a new understanding that those who follow the Halacha (Jewish law) are not mere obscurantists, and that those secularists committed to civil rights are not necessarily unconcerned with Jewish survival."
The Conservative rabbi stressed that "only if we discuss Jewish social policy together, only if we learn to talk to each other and not only among ourselves, will we be able to confront and overcome the internal differences within the Jewish community that may well pose the greatest danger of Jewish survival today."
During their four days of discussion on the symposium theme - "The Rights of the Individual in Halachie, Israeli and American Law" - the 35 legal scholars, rabbis and community leaders who took part attempted to carry out Rabbi Hertzberg's suggestions.
Law professor Irwin Cotler of MeGill University in Montreal, stated that "civil liberties in a Jewish state are no less important than in a secular country like the United States, but they are not identical."
"Israel was founded as a state for Jews," he said. "As such, it has a legitimate claim on its secularists to respect Jewish values - although they need not observe them - in the same manner that the religious community must permit - even if it does not respect - nonreligious behavior."
According to Cotler, "in a Jewish state there is a civil liberty called Jewish sensibility; this liberty must be respected if the state is to retain its Jewish character and if the cause of freedom is to remain alive."
Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohn told Dialogue that the Halacha (Jewish law) has become a subject of "contempt, ridicule and hatred" in Israel.
This has come about, he said, through the imposition of Halacha in matters of marriage and divorce. Cohn said that "too many Israelis fail to see the beauty of Halacha."
"People see only the hardship and suffering that result from the curtailment of fundamental human rights when Halacha determines the family relations of those who do not wish to be bound by it," he asserted.
Convarvative Rabbi Siucon Greenberg, former vicechancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who now lives in Israel, called for "new interpretations to Halacha that would be true to Jewish impulse toward university and human equality."
He warned that "if the Halacha can be exploited by husbands demanding payments of thousands of dollars in exchange of granting to their wives the right of divorce, then Halacha is doomed to death."