Monday, June 20, 2016

The War Between the Jews

Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaking at egalitarian section of the Kotel (TOI)
I am an Orthodox Jew. Orthodoxy by definition rejects the legitimacy of heterodox movements. That should be clear for a variety of reasons. Some of which are the following.

The Reform Movement has rejected Halacha and in its early days opposed any observance of it. Today, most of Reform leadership, realizing that the end game to such an approach would mean extinction now encourages voluntary observance of Halacha so as to retain a distinct identity. But at the same time it has diluted the population of Jews in its midst by abandoning how Halacha defines who is and isn’t a Jew.

The Conservative Movement although identifying itself as Halachic (even having a Halacha committee) has nonetheless long ago abandoned any attempt at making its members observant. There are even some prominent Conservative rabbis that have advocated dropping the Halachic label from its movement. Their legitimization of the bible critics’ conclusion that the Torah was indeed man-made (albeit divinely inspired) and written by different people in different eras is completely unacceptable to Orthodoxy.

All of which brings me to the war in Israel. Not between Arabs and Jews. But between Orthodox Jews and the above mentioned heterodox movements. Rabbinic leaders across the board of Orthodoxy have been clear about how Orthodoxy should deal with them. 

Even though there are some minor differences between Charedi leaders and Rav Soloveitchik, all agreed that in matters of religion, we may not engage with them at all. There is nothing that has changed since these Halachic decisions were made. If anything things have gotten even worse. Many Reform Jews may not even be Jews. And there are less observant Conservative Jews now than ever before.

Heterodox leaders are fighting mightily to get a foothold in Israel. They want to gain there what they have lost here. Secular Jews in Israel are for the most part, neither Reform or Conservative. Even those that are anti religious aren’t (and most aren’t). They are secular.  

Heterodoxy’s diminishing numbers if the US is a result of living in a general a culture devoid of Judaism in any meaningful sense. Israel, on the other hand has many Jewish components to it that are a part of every Jew living there. The language of the bible, Hebrew, is their everyday language. Even secular schools in Israel teach Tanach (the Hebrew bible). Most Jews in Israel are at least somewhat traditional – participating in things like Passover Seders and fasting on Yom Kippur.

This is ripe territory for Heterodox movements. These are exactly the kind of Jews they want to embrace… and upon which they want to rebuild their movement. They believe that given the chance they can make the vast majority of Jews in Israel either Reform of Conservative Jews – since their lifestyles already fit quite nicely into their mold.

They have a point. Which is why the Orthodox establishment consider their activities in Israel so dangerous. And why there is a war in Israel and not in the US.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has taken a somewhat different view of this and wonders why we are fighting them so hard. He has said that we should see these movements as partners in Kiruv! That even though Reform Movement was once very anti Halahca, it is now very much pro Halahca in at least a voluntary sense. We should instead therefore be working with them as partners in Kiruv - and not against them.

I could not disagree with him more. We cannot be partners with movements whose theologies are anathema to us.

That said, how we go about that is key. The one thing we should not be doing is what Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar recently did. He commandeered the area at the Kotel that has been reserved for future egalitarian prayer. He put up a Mechitza and held  an Orthodox prayer service. Which of course outraged Conservative and Reform leaders.

Rabbi Amar can be opposed to reserving a place at the Kotel for these movements. But doing things out of spite will only make them more determined and will probably drive many secular Israelis into their corner. Which is exactly what they want. Let us not forget that designating this space at the Kotel for egalitarian purposes was tacitly agreed upon by the Charedi poltical parties. It was a peaceful compromise - a solution worth implementing no matter how distasteful it may have been to Orthodox sensibilities. I don’t see this ending well.

Even though I disagreed with Rabbi Riskin about considering Reform and Conservative Jews our partners, he is not entirely wrong about going to war with them. The opposition should be ideological. And at the same time we ought to pursue good relations with them. It is only debating theology with them that is problematic. Being on good terms has its advantages for Orthodoxy. Because in point of fact many Conservative rabbis – and I believe Reform rabbis as well - consider it a success when one of their members becomes Orthodox. They do in fact think of themselves being in Kiruv.

True they prefer that their influence be towards becoming an active part of their own movement. But I am convinced that many of them are happy when one of their people becomes Orthodox rather than abandoning Judaism altogether. In that sense, Rabbi Riskin is right. And what Rabbi Amar did was – if not wrong then at least counterproductive.

Our ultimate goal should be to convince our brethren of the value and importance of observance. And we don’t do that by alienating those that see that as a positive end themselves (if not the best end). At the end of the day, common sense should prevail. Not zealotry for your cause. Because you can sure win a lot more flies with honey that you can with vinegar.

For more on this issue see Rabbi Yehuda Leonard Oppenheimer's take on his blog, Libi BaMizrach.