Sunday, June 01, 2014

Rabbi Perlow’s Overlooked Comment

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow
Last night (…or technically this morning at 12:15 AM CDT) I was a guest on Zev Brenner’s radio program Talkline. I was joined by Mark Meyer Appel, founder and president of The Voice of Justice, an organization described by its website as one that serves ‘special needs children and their families, victims of domestic violence; and/or child abuse’.

First of all I would like to thank Zev for inviting me to participate on his talk show. This is not the first time I have been on Talkline and each time it has been a very pleasant experience.  I’m not sure if that program has been archived yet but if it has and I get the link to it, I will post it.

The subject was the ongoing controversy with respect to comments made at the Agudah banquet  by Agudah Moetzes head, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow about Open Orthodoxy and Heterodox movements. I had supported Rabbi Perlow’s views on this subject and have expressed similar views in the past. I stand by what I said despite some pretty harsh criticism by friends to my left. Which I fully expected.

It is interesting to note that much of the criticism of Rabbi Perlow’s remarks came from his own Charedi constituency. It revolved - not around his actual views -  but around the need to bring it up at that venue at this time. Mayor Bill de Blasio who attended the banquet spoke after Rabbi Perlow and made no reference to his remarks. The New York Times and other news media took issue with the lack of any mention of what they perceived to be a slight by Rabbi Perlow of vast numbers of Jews in the Conservative, Reform, and Open Orthodox Movements.

In response, Agudah officials were quick to point out (correctly in my view) that Rabbi Perlow has no animus at all to these Jews and in fact the opposite is true. He loves every Jew regardless of what they believe. The same is true for me.  His criticism was reserved for movements that allow Kefira into their midst. Not individuals.

The attack against Mayor de Blasio is completely misplaced. It is not within his purview to criticize doctrine of any religion, including his own - his personal views notwithstanding. Having been baptized a Catholic I’m pretty sure that he does not agree with the doctrines in his former church on issues like abortion, contraception and gay marriage. It would be highly inappropriate and even disrespectful to bring that up at a banquet that the Catholic Church were to host and where Cardinal Dolin might speak about the Church’s policy about these issues.  It is not the place of a public official to comment on religious issues. Especially when the issues can be so easily misinterpreted by the mainstream media.

Nonetheless there were many in the Charedi world who expressed the view that Rabbi Perlow should not have brought this up since it did generate some bad press. That was in fact Mark Appel’s view.

I can underdstand why many people may feel that way – especially now with 20/20 hindsight. I too wondered about that. But as I said in an interview published on VIN:
“I am not going to second guess or criticize the Rebbe,” said Maryles.  “I am not in a position to criticize someone of his stature but as a leading rabbi in America, he has a right to speak out.”
Those who read my blog regularly know me well enough to know that I am not shy in my disagreements with anyone when the Hashkafos that I learned from my own Rebbeim inform me to do so.

There is another issue that should be raised by Rabbi Perlow’s comments.  He said something in passing that should not be ignored by anyone, including the very Moetzes that he heads.

From the Forward:
(Rabbi) Perlow said that the threat posed by the Conservative and Reform movements had largely passed. “They’ve become oblivious, and they’ve fallen into the pit of intermarriage and assimilation,” he said. “They have no future, they almost have no present.”
While this was in part what the media protested, I believe they completely misunderstood that comment. Rabbi Perlow was no doubt reacting to the Pew Report survey that showed a high intermarriage rate outside of Orthodox Jewry. I don’t think it can be denied that these movements are in trouble. In fact the leaders of these movements have acknowledged the problem themselves. Rabbi Perlow mentioned this to point out that the new dangers are coming from within - in the form of Open Orthodoxy.

I do not think it should be overlooked that  Rabbi Perlow now admits that hetreodox movements are no long the danger they once were.  He is right about that. The dangers they once posed to Orthodoxy were real in the American ‘melting pot’ mentality of the 1st half of the 20th century. The fears of being seen as legitimizing them were very real.  And it was the reason for the strong prohibition of interacting with them in any way. Even Rav Soloveitchik opposed any participation with them theologically.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman
I have mentioned this many times before. Several years ago, a Charedi Rav from Lakewood by the name of Yaakov Yosef Reinman befriended a Reform Rabbi and - together - they wrote a book about their relationship. They began a book tour to promote the book. Both men agreed that they would make their positions with respect to the theology of the other very clear at the outset so that no one would misconstrue their friendship, book, and book tour as granting legitimacy to the other.

But the Agudah Moetzes - adhering to the policy set by Rav Aharon Kotler that rejected any participation with heterodox rabbis whatsoever because of the appearance legitimization - subsequently asked Rabbi Reinman to stop the book tour.

Rabbi Reinman agreed but expressed his regret that he no longer would be able to reach out in positive ways to Jews with which he would have otherwise never come into contact. A feeling he got from the one appearance he made on that book tour.

As can be plainly seen from Rabbi Perlow’s comments - there is obviously no longer any real danger of legitimizing these movements. There is little chance that any Jew will be turning to the Conservative movement because of what Rabbi Reinman did. I’m not saying that we ought to be doing what Open Orthodxy does. I am opposed to the kind of joint theological appearance between Orthodox rabbis and heterodox rabbis that Open Orthodoxy has embraced. 

But at a time when these movements are hemorrhaging members; and at a time where Reform now embraces ritual (even if only in non obligatory ways); and at a time where Conservative Judaism looks at a Jew becoming Orthodox  as a victory; it is time to re-think Rav Aharon Kotler’s edict. It was perhaps needed then. It is not needed now and is counterproductive.  

We need more Rabbi Reinmans - not less. We need to reach out to Jewish populations where they live – which is mostly outside of Orthodoxy. They do not come to us. We must go to them. We need to meet them on their turf. I believe that Chabad has long ago realized this. They have far more interaction with heterodox rabbis than the rest of Orthodoxy does. If we want to know how to reach out to vast numbers of Jews, we ought to take a page from their playbook.

Rav Aharon Kotler’s edict has set the pattern for the Charedi world for decades. But it is not inviolable. It was perhaps right for its time. But the times now demand a different response. And now that Rabbi Perlow has acknowledged that the times have indeed changed, it would be well worth reconsidering their old approach. A good start would be to rescind their ban on Rabbi Reinman’s book and book tour. Who knows how many Jews he will reach if only given the chance.