Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Eternal Unity of the Jewish People

One of the most significant and divisive events in the modern era is the advent of Reform Judaism. It was the result of the enlightenment period which allowed Jews to pursue studies outside the walls of the ghetto. Exposure to these studies and the harsh conditions of the Jewish people led them to challenge traditional Jewish thought and to redefine Judaism – and what it entails.

This event that took hold largely in an enlightened Germany and eventually caused Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch to bolt from the Jewish establishment which had been controlled by the Reform. He called it Austritt. He believed that the Jewish people cannot be led by those who would redefine the eternal truths of the Torah based on convenience and influences foreign to Judaism. He therefore insisted on leaving that community and setting up his own.

This attitude was carried forward in our day by Rav Aharon Kotler who forbade any interaction at all with heterodox movements.

Since Rav Hirsch’s time many other non Orthodox movements have arisen that have challenged traditional Judaism. The most prominent – the Conservative Movement – made the claim that they are Halachic. And yet their Halachic ‘leniencies’ allowed actual Chilul Shabbos D’Oraisa. And they allow theological ideas that are deemed heretical by Orthodoxy.

Without getting into how they justify their claim to be Halachic - suffice it to say that the Conservative Movement is perhaps a greater danger to traditional Judaism than Reform is. In the past the average Jew saw it as Halachic (as advertised) and as centrist (standing in the middle between Reform on the left and Orthodoxy on the right). They chose it because they see it as far more compatible with contemporary culture and values.

Rav Kotler must have therefore felt that it was more important to draw this line in the sand than ever. He had a ‘take no prisoners’ approach. Even the slightest interaction with any heterodox leader was seen as tantamount to granting them legitimacy. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) agreed with this assessment. Nonetheless he felt that on matters of public policy for the greater good of all Jewry, interaction was permitted - as long there was no theological discussions. I’m told by some of the Rav’s close Talmidim that Rav Kotler so disagreed with him on this issue that he virtually ostracized the Rav for it. This created a rift that the Talmidim of both carry forward to this day.

As a result we have become a people divided. Although heterodox leaders would love to interact with their Orthodox brethren in a spirit of unity - albeit with theological differences - Orthodoxy continues to insist on separation. At least at the Rav’s standard. (Although some in the extreme left wing of Modern Orthodoxy have broken ranks with their Rebbe and have had theological debates and even joint services with them! While their intentions are good, they have gone too far in ignoring the very thing that Rav Hirsch, Rav Kotler, and the Rav have feared: the legitimization of heterodox movements.)

However as far as the mainstream Orthodoxy is concerned - this separation has led to the Jewish divisiveness of our time. Which is very troubling to me. While I completely understand why we must continue to reject heterodoxy – at the same time I find it sad that we can’t somehow unite as Jews. There are many areas where we could work together in common purpose. Like support for Israel. Or for making life better for the Jewish people. Or even to make the world a better place in general – Tikun Olam. Or perhaps the most important area which we have in common - preserving Judaism.

A few years ago Rabbi Yosef Reinman, a Charedi Rav out of Lakewood Yeshiva tried. He had somehow befriended a Reform rabbi and they wrote a book together describing their irreconcilable differences and yet showing they could still be friends and work together in common goal to preserve the Jewish people… appealing to those who are unaffiliated or about to ‘jump ship’ and abandon their Judaism altogether. And there are a lot of Jews in that boat.

This was indeed one of the unintended consequences of the Reform and Conservative movements. By making Judaism easy to observe by either rejecting all ritual or virtually ignoring the importance of it - they essentially stripped it of all meaning – turning it into a social justice movement. Such movements need not be Jewish. Social justice is a common good for all of mankind. There is no need to be Jewish at all.

Rabbi Reinman was pressured by Charedi rabbinic leaders to withdraw his book and end his book tour with that Reform Rabbi. He submitted to their wishes. That ended any chance he had to improve his relationship with fellow Jews who were secualr. By his own admission he was reaching out and painting a more positive picture of Orthodox Jewry. And he was supported in this ‘Kiruv’ effort by his good friend the Reform rabbi who co-authored the book.

Why would a Reform rabbi support the Kiruv work of an Orthodox rabbi?

As I said - one of the things that heterodoxy has in common with Orthodoxy is that they want to preserve the Jewish people. They want to stop the attrition. That’s why the Reform movement has done a 180 and now embraces ritual.

And the Conservative movement now regrets its infamous ‘Psak’ permitting driving to Shul on Shabbos. They realize that by removing things that make Judaism Jewish they have in effect contributed to the attrition. In fact if I understand correctly their branch in Israel the Masorti are fairly observant. Except for some problematic theological differences – in practice I’ll bet one could hardly distinguish between a Masorti Jew and a Dati Jew.

Nonetheless it remains important to know exactly what Judaism is. Who defines it? That is where the devil is - in the details. Heterodox movements still want to define Judaism in ways that are completely unacceptable to Orthodoxy. So it is important to continue to reject their legitimacy.

How is it then possible to achieve any semblance of unity if we are divided about the very definition of what we want to unite around?

What is Judaism? This is a question asked by Marc Erlbaum in a Jewish Exponent op-ed. From the article:

I was fortunate to be one of 50 participants invited to a two-day retreat last month called "The Conversation." Sponsored by The Jewish Week, a New York weekly, the annual program is an opportunity for a diverse group of Jews from across the country to come together to discuss Jewish issues. There is no agenda other than communication and creating bonds between segments of the Jewish community that are rarely in contact or in concert.

Mr. Erlbaum did not say whether he was Orthodox but from his words I suspect that he is. If that’s true - was he right in attending? Or did he cross the line and in effect tacitly legitimize heterodoxy by his presence? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do think it is a positive step to have dialogue with your brethren. Not every contact should be seen as recognition. I believe Rav Soloveitchik was right. There are circumstances that would allow interaction. Interaction breeds understanding and acceptance. And that can ultimately save Jews for Judaism – a goal all denominations aspire to.