Sunday, May 21, 2017

Why Rabbi Mazuz's Tirade Against Reform Judaism is Wrong

Rabbi Meir Mazuz - center of photo (Arutz Sheva)
Reform Jews are Jews in every sense of the word. I mention this in light of yet another tirade by Charedi rabbinic leader, Rabbi Meir Muzuz, head of the Sephardi Yeshivat Kashei Rachamim. He has joined the ranks of other rabbis who have said that Reform Jews are not Jews.  

I believe that he knows better. Anyone born of a Jewish mother is a Jew. It doesn’t matter what movement they belong to. It doesn’t matter if they don’t follow Halacha at all. It doesn’t even matter if they are anti Torah. They are still Jews. What is true about Reform is that their movement has redefined what a Jew actually is. Their rejection of Halacha as a mandate for all Jews has spawned new laws of their own that contradict Halacha. 

Like that of patralineal descent. Halacha does not accept a the child of a non Jewish mother as Jewish even if the father is Jewish. Even if he is the most observant man in the world, his offspring is still not Jewish if the mother is not. Additionally if I understand correctly they no longer require any kind of ritual conversion process. If a non Jew starts identifying as Jew and lives his life that way (whatever that means in the Reform movement),they are accepted as Jewish.

So  why the tirade? He was expressing his overall views of the Reform movement citing examples of how callous they were to observing Halacha: citing  their history and  their failures. All in reaction to their current attempts to get ‘a piece of the Kotel’ for themselves. He is adamantly opposed to it and expressed it in a heated  tirade.

Although I agree with him about the Reform movement’s failures, I don’t believe he advances the cause of the Judaism with that tirade.  Most Reform Jews are simply ignorant of their own Judaism. Until recent times Reform Jews did not necessarily lead their lives in any way that is specifically Jewish. Those that were committed to the worthy goals of Tikun Olam and worked hard on those goals were not doing anything specifically Jewish. Tikun Olam is not specific to Jews. Non Jews believe in those same goals and work just as hard as Reform Jews do. (There are also plenty of Orthodox Jews that work towards Tikun Olam.) Tikun Olam is therefore not a distinctive identifier for a Jew.

With no identifying feature, A Reform Jew hardly needed to maintain any Jewish identity. What was the point?  So a few years ago, the movement changed direction. Instead of discouraging the performance of Mitzvos as archaic and unnecessary, they started encouraging them (although not requiring them). As an example, many of their their rabbis started wearing Kipot and their temples started putting up Sukkos for that holiday on their premises. They finally realized that without a distinct way of life, there was nothing Jewish about how they lived their lives. and were therefore losing members.

That is a positive development. And we Orthodox should not only take note of it, but encourage it. This is not the time to disengage with them. We should instead reach out to them – and enlighten the Reform Jew that wants to express their Judaism in the more concrete way of Mitzvah observance. Who better to show them how to do it than the Orthodox Jew? Which is why to this day I lament the kind of outreach attempted by Rabbi Yosef Reinman, a Charedi rabbi who befriend a Reform rabbi and then authored a book together with him. They had one appearance together on a book tour where Rabbi Reinman saw an unprecedented  opportunity for outreach. 

The people he addressed on that tour were unlikely to ever meet an Orthodox rabbi any other way. Imagine the potential… But he was told by the American Charedi leadership to cease and desist from doing that since appearing on the same stage with a Reform rabbi gave the appearance of tacit recognition of their movement. Even though they made clear that appearing together should not be construed as agreement, it didn’t matter to the rabbinic leaders who told him to stop. So he did and lost a tremendous opportunity to reach out to Reform Jews.

Back to Rabbi Mazuz. His tirade has done nothing except make matters worse. This does not mean that we should not oppose Reform attempts at getting recognition. We should. It is in fact not a legitimate expression of Judaism. In my view we are obligated to oppose all attempts at recognition by movements that we see as illegitimate. Which includes opposing Israel recognizing them.  Yes, Israel must accept Reform Jews as full fledged Jews as they should. That is what Halacha requires provided they are born of a Jewish mother.  But a Jewish country should not accept a movement as a legitimate expression of Judaism that denies the Torah’s requirement to follow Halacha.

At the same time, one should not say or do things that alienate them. Which Rabbi Mazuz’s tirade certainly contributed to.

His tirade against Reform was intended for the ears of the Charedi Kenesset members. He urged them to reject any attempt at giving then any portion of the Kotel. The fact that he felt the need to express it  indicates that the Charedi parties are not necessarily on board with him. This is not to say they wouldn’t prefer not giving them anything. I’m sure they would. But at the same time, they realize that giving them a different part of the Kotel will end the controversy and constant conflict that takes place at the Kotel - allowing the Kotel to remain with their traditional Orthodox customs and practices without interference. 

As long as doing that does not include any official recognition of their movements, I support the idea of giving them their own portion of the Kotel. Not only for the above mentioned reasons. But also for the outreach opportunities that will surely arise. There are many indications that a lot of non Orthodox Jews are ready for it. They are looking for a spirituality that has been missing from their lives and we Orthodox Jews can help them find it. 

This is not to say that this will stem the tide of total assimilation that has been the hallmark of Reform Judaism since its founding. That is truer today than ever before. But that should not free us from the task of trying to preserve Judaism for as many Jews as we can. The one thing we should not do is what Rabbi Mazuz did. Because that will not only not help outreach, it will do exactly the opposite and chase them all as far away from us as possible.