Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Are Reform Jews Jewish?

Israeli Religious Affairs Minister, David Azulay (Matzav)
I cannot understand why some people feel that they have to condemn Reform Judaism to such an extent, that they end up lying about them. This is exactly what Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, David Azoulay did. In one of the more outrageous comments I have ever heard from a religious Jew in power, he said the Reform Jews are not Jewish. 

It is fairly common knowledge that this is a lie. It doesn’t matter how non observant a Jew is. It doesn’t even matter if he is a violent criminal or worships Buddha. If one is born of a Jewish mother, like it or not he or she is Jewish! No matter how sinful or how severe their sins are. What makes this comment so bad is that I am absolutely sure that Mr. (Rabbi?) Azoulay knows this. Any Orthodox Jew with even the most minimal education knows it. Especially someone that has been appointed the Religious Minister of the Jewish State.

I understand why he may have made this comment. He is opposed to giving the Reform movement any authority in Israel. Although this is not a popular position in certain circles I actually agree with that. As an Orthodox Jew who believes that Orthodoxy is the only legitimate expression of Judaism, I am opposed to giving any recognition to other denominations.  Orthodoxy views Halacha as binding.  Any movement, like Reform, that rejects the binding nature of Halacha is by definition illegitimate. The gap between Reform and Orthodoxy is so great, that the very definition of who is and isn’t a Jew is at stake.

Orthodoxy has strict definitions of who is a Jew. One is a Jew if they are born of a Jewish mother even if the father is not Jewish. On the other hand one born of a Jewish father does not confer Judaism to their child if the mother is not Jewish.

For a non Jew to become a Jew, Orthodoxy requires require acceptance of Halacha, circumcision (for men), and immersion in a Mikvah. 

Reform definitions  accept patralinleal descent. Which would mean that a lot of people they would consider to be Jews, are not Jews according to Orthodoxy.

Reform conversions do not require any of the above mentioned 3 requirements. If one considers themselves to be Jewish and lives a Jewish lifestyle, that makes them a Jew. Orthodoxy would not consider such a person a Jew. Even if he was observant of all 613 Mitzvos, they would still require a formal conversion.  

Complicating things even further, Reform Judaism does not consider people to be Jewish even when they are born of a Jewish mother – if they do not in any way identify as Jews and lead totally secular lives. They would require such people to convert.

I don’t think it is too difficult to understand why a Jewish State cannot have two sets of Jews where each questions the other’s legitimacy. That would lead to chaos, in my view. A Jewish state should have one universal definition of who is a Jew. As an Orthodox Jew, I obviously support that definition to be the Orthodox one - to the exclusion of all other definitions.

But all of this does not excuse lying about fellow Jews. The ends may be just but they do not justify the means of lying. If one is going to oppose giving the Reform Movement any legitimacy, than one has to be honest about their reasons… and make their case that way. Lying completely undermines credibility.

Nor does it help if one makes hateful and venomous statements about non Orthodox Jews on top of such comments, as Rabbi Moshe Gafni did: 
Haredi MK Moshe Gafni doubled down on Azoulay's remarks, telling the Israeli media that Reform and Conservative Judaism "take the Torah and tear it to pieces, heaven forbid" and are "stabbing the holy Torah in the back." 
It would be helpful if they did not disparage the great numbers of actual Jews that are Reform or Conservative. One can disagree without being disagreeable. Nothing is accomplished with such rhetoric except fomenting hatred of one Jew against another.

What we should be doing is showering all Jews with pure love referring to them as our brothers and sisters. Which of course they are. Even though we see them as erring in how they understand Judaism, that doesn’t mean they aren’t Jewish. Nor does it mean that they are not fine, decent,and ethical people. Ethics are not the sole purview of Orthodoxy. I know some Orthodox Jews that are anything but ethical. Or decent. Or fine! We ought to instead judge our fellow Jews not by how Frum they are, but by their character and by how sincere they are about their Judaism.

Which brings me back to Reform Judaism. Unlike the founding fathers of Reform who rejected all ritual observance - most Reform rabbis now embrace it albeit without considering it a requirement. We ought to be welcoming that warmly.  Encouraging them and applauding the virtual u-turn Reform has taken on observance.

Who is to know where that will lead? It would not surprise me if some serious Reform Jews that want to more fully express their Judaism by increasing their Mitzvah observance would seek out an Orthodox community. There virtually everyone is observant. They might do so – feeling more comfortable in their observance living with Jews that are doing the same thing. Rabbi Azoulay has undermined that path with his hateful rhetoric.

This does not mean we should consider Reform Judaism legitimate – as I explained. But it does mean that incendiary lies like the one made by David Azoulay ought to be condemned as loudly and completely as possible. Which is what I just did.