Sunday, September 17, 2017

An Open Plea to My Cousin, Elana

R' Binny Mendel Maryles
Elana Maryles Sztokman is family.  Her grandfather, Dave Maryles – a pioneer of Agudath Israel of America, was my father’s first cousin. I never actually met Elana. But I know her family quite well. Her great grandfather Binny Mendel Maryles (my father’s uncle) was the family patriarch and helped raise her father, aunt and uncles after her grandfather, David died too young from Leukemia in the 1950s. The Chicago branch of the family felt very close to Binny Mendel . He spent many a summer at our home in Toledo.

All of this happened long before Elana was born. While this may not be entirely relevant to this post, I thought a little family history is in order as a preface to what I am about to say.

I have always admired Elana - even when I disagreed with her. She has never been reticent to express her view no matter the personal consequences to herself. Which often included harsh criticism in the form of name calling by self styled Orthodox ‘keepers of the gate’ (to use her words).   As an Orthodox feminist she suffered some pretty abusive language from some pretty nasty people. Which served no purpose at all.

Even though I disagreed with her, I never questioned her motives. As a feminist she felt that egalitarianism  was the only way towards men and women being treated fairly in this world. Women are entitled to the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities in society as men. Only when that was achieved would  women realize their full potential as human beings. She believes that until that happens women will continue to suffer at least some degree of degradation.

I actually agree with her to a large extent. Where I part company with her most is in the area of Judaism. As I have said many times, egalitarianism is not the goal of the Judaism. The goal is to do the will of God as expressed in the Torah and interpreted by the rabbis thoughout the generations…. including our own.  While there is much overlap between the sexes in how we accomplish that, Judaism nonetheless sees different roles for us. This is anathema to the feminism of our day. Which Elana places on a very high plane.  That is why she accepted becoming the leader of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance).  And thus (for example) sees a woman becoming a rabbi as a egalitarian right.

What I never expected, however, is that she would seek to become a Reform rabbi. This is what she has announced she is about to do on her website, as reported by the Forward.

I have been reluctant to write about this because of the great respect I have for her parents. I do not want to hurt them, and I’m not sure how they feel about it. But with all the publicity surrounding this, I feel I must express how I feel about it. 

I am saddened! I cannot imagine her illustrious grandfather, having anything other than the same reaction – only that as grandfather  - a much stronger one. 

Ironically - last week’s Mishpacha Magazine had a hard hitting editorial by editor in chief Rabbi Moshe Grylak. He explained why he is so opposed to the Reform Movement. While I do not agree with everything he said, I do agree with the vast majority of it. Reform Judaism  wasn’t seen by its founders as a  movement equal to Orthodoxy. There was no Elu v’Elu. The founding fathers of Reform opposed Orthodox Judaism and tried to eradicate it. Quoting from the editorial
I recommend that you read Professor Jacob Katz’s book, A House Divided. Read about the early leaders of the Reform movement, the spiritual forefathers of those who are now demanding recognition of their legitimacy as a minority stream of Judaism in Israel, and how they persecuted the small remnant of Jews in their communities who clung to their faith in the Torah.
Read about how they joined forces with their local governments to stamp out every remaining kehillah of the Orthodox minority. How they silenced every voice raised in opposition, how they squelched every attempt to live by the Torah and its commandments. With their coercive, strong-arm tactics, they forced their new order on everyone within their reach and made a mockery of their own slogans and sermons about the right to be different, each according to his belief.  
Rabbi Gyrlak’s motive for writing the editorial was to explain specifically to those of us that are Orthodox and yet sympathize with Reform’s  ‘live and let live’ attitude why he is so adament in his opposition. These sincere but misguided (in my view) Orthodox Jews  argue we should just give in to their demands in that spirit. Here is why he says we can’t: 
What the Reform movement is demanding in Israel would require me to acknowledge that there is room in Judaism to deny the Divinity of the Torah and the obligation to fulfill mitzvos. They want me to agree that this is a valid Jewish outlook. Yet if I say I agree with that, I am proclaiming that the Torah is not of Divine origin. Obviously, my belief and theirs cannot coexist under the name of Judaism.  
Now it’s true that today’s Reform movement has ‘reformed’ itself again and now encourages observance rather fighting it. That point was overlooked by Rabbi Grylak.  But it doesn’t matter with respect to the primary argument’s he made.

Which brings me back to Elana. To join Reform Judaism as one or their rabbis is not only joing the movement. It is becoming a leader in it. Even if she remains observant (which she plans to do) to accept and be a leader of a movement that denies everything she believes in is a contradiction to the basic tenets of Judaism that she surely must have studied in her Jewish education. She is joining a movement that her parents, grandparents and great grandparent s fought against. By joining the Reform Movement she is saying  that their version of Judaism is as valid as that of Orthodoxy but better in the sense that it is more welcoming - and a far better place for feminists like her: 
(T)he Reform movement is the only (best) place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities! 
Her experiences thus far have been very positive – describing the Reform rabbis that have been advising her in glowing terms – with the following admission:   
I am no longer interested in making "commitment to halakha" the be-all and end-all of my Jewish identification. I don't believe that the discussion about how to be Jewish should be about law. I think it should be about ethics, morality, and spirituality. 
While I agree that ‘ethics, morality, and spirituality’ are important facets of Judaism, Jewish law is paramount to our belief system. As important as ethics, morality, and spirituality are, they are not exclusively Jewish traits. Without Jewish law, there is no Judaism. At most you will have Jewish culture – which changes with the wind.

As we are about to enter Rosh HaShanna which begins the Aseres Y’Mei Teshuva, (10 days of repentance)  I would ask my cousin Elana, to re-consider her choices. Please please don’t do this. I ask you to reflect on your family and your heritage. The negative repercussions may be far greater than you anticipate. And doing this may end up being the biggest mistake of your life.