Thursday, August 04, 2011

Judaism - It’s All about Torah and Mitzvos

I have no clue to which Jewish religious denomination Joel Alperson belongs. I’m pretty sure he is not an Orthodox Jew. But in an op-ed he wrote he sure sounded like one.

I do however know to which denomination Eric Yoffie belongs. He is a Reform Rabbi. He is in fact the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. But he too sounded almost Orthodox in a response to Mr. Alperson.

There has been a lot of discussion about the demise of Conservative and the increase in Reform. In both cases there was an acknowledgement of the growth of Orthodoxy. Although the angst about the demise of Conservative Judaism may be premature. It is apparently not borne out by statistics. A recent survey by the Chicago Jewish Federation has shown that the approximate proportions of each group are about the same now as they have been in the past.

Be that as it may, it is no secret that many Conservative synagogues are either closing or merging with others. Despite what seems to be relatively stable proportions of Jews along denominational lines attendance in Conservative synagogues is down. Way down. The Conservative leadership is scrambling to try and figure out ways to reverse that trend. They have even gone so far as saying that they regret permitting driving to Shul on Shabbos and that they should emulate the housing patterns of Orthodox Jews who live close to each other because they all need to walk to Shul on Shabbos. They see living together in one basic neighborhood as a stabilizing and perpetuating factor for Orthodoxy.

Reform Judaism now claims the mantle of the being the largest denomination of American Jewry. But its swelling numbers are deceptive. If we factor out major changes by Reform to the definition of who is a Jew, I wonder if that mantle is really deserved. My personal belief is that its numbers would have shrunken without these changes. But there are other changes in Reform that speak to a more subtle reduction of their numbers - assimilating out of Judaism altogether.

Seeing this proverbial ‘handwriting on the wall’ that threatened to destroy their movement - one of the things that has changed in Reform Judaism is its 180 degree turn away from rejecting Halachic practice. Not that they require it. But they now strongly encourage it.

It is obvious to me that the reason they have done this is to perpetuate a movement that had no outwardly identifiable characteristics and whose members would have certainly blended into the general culture and into oblivion as a Jews.

One of the defining characteristics (if not THE defining characteristic) of both Reform and Conservative Judaism is Tikun Olam – social justice. Indeed this is a Jewish value. But it is not the only one and certainly not the defining one.

So it is interesting to see one Jew, Joel Alperson - who is likely not Orthodox, realize that Tikun Olam, is not the sum and substance of Judaism. And that promoting only Tikun Olam does absolutely nothing to perpetuate Judaism into the future. In an amazing piece of honesty and on target analysis, Mr. Alperson said the following:

This distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., God-based) teachings and ritual experiences inevitably leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose. So Jews increasingly try to find their Judaic meaning in social/political causes (immigration reform, Supreme Court appointments, environmentalism, women’s rights, etc.). Putting aside the merit of the positions taken, let’s be honest: These “tikkun olam” pursuits might feel good and even do some good, but they do little to build Jewish communities.

In contrast he says that Orthodoxy has grown. In particular Modern Orthodoxy has shown that one can be observant of the Mitzvos and participate in the culture. And by being observant they perpetuate Orthodoxy into the future:

Orthodox Jews, for whatever disagreements many non-Orthodox Jews have with them, have grown in number, and not only by sheltering themselves in haredi Orthodox communities. In contrast to the haredi Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox largely swim in the same secular waters as other Jews: They own televisions, use the Internet, attend secular universities, and work and vacation in the secular world.

But they also hold to a religious discipline that they believe is life-improving. They observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and they study Jewish texts in far greater numbers than non-Orthodox Jews. They are more likely to have children, and their children are far more likely to marry Jews and make Jewish homes.

In a separate op-ed the Kipa wearing Rabbi Yoffie takes issue with Mr. Alperson. ( I find it truly amazing that a Reform Rabbi – one who is a leader in the movement - wears a Kipa. When I was a young child living in Toledo, the Reform rabbi - whose very large Temple my father and I passed on the way to our small Orthodox Shul - did not allow anyone in his shul to wear a Kipa. Anyone walking in to his Temple wearing one was asked to remove it!)

Rabbi Yoffie’s response sounded almost Orthodox. Although defending the Jewishness of Tikun Olam and the need to emphasize it (correctly in my view) he actually agreed with Mr. Alperson that Judaism is about more than just Tikun Olam. Here is how he put it:

Jews do not observe Torah in order to survive; they survive in order to observe Torah. And -- this is the key for such students, and for most North American Jews -- observing Torah means much more than worrying only about our own souls.

Observing Torah involves fulfilling a grander purpose. It means taking to heart the words of R. Hayyim of Brisk, the greatest Talmudist of the late 19th century, who defined the rabbi’s task as follows: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.”

Social justice, in short, is required by our religious texts and is inseparable from our religious mission. There is no such thing as a morality that is selectively indignant -- that looks within but fails to look without. And Judaism without ethics, both personal and societal, is a contradiction in terms.

Do we need to study Torah, embrace Jewish ritual and observe Shabbat? Absolutely…

To paraphrase an old car commercial from the 70s –‘This is not your father’s Reform.’ It is truly amazing that Reform leaders are now quoting R’ Chaim! It is even more amazing that they say there is an absolute need to learn Torah and do Mitzvos - including keeping Shabbos!

He also informs us that his own daughter actually belongs to an Orthodox Shul. (He raised her well.) So he seems to be practicing what he preaches. Although he is clearly not Orthodox and obviously sees Halacha in a different way than we do, I can’t help but be reminded of that old Reform Rabbi in Toledo and see how drastically things have changed.

Is there any question that Orthodoxy should be reaching out to Reform Jews? …all Jews? I think Rabbi Yoffie might even support it.