The Fury of Orthodoxy

by Simeon J. Maslin

"As darkness covers the earth, the Reform and Conservative sects that are the destroyers of the religion are trying to dig their nails into the Holy Land and receive recognition so that they may be counted among the streams of Judaism, God forbid. We hereby pronounce da'at Torah (with the authority of the Torah) that it is inconceivable to grant them any recognition whatsoever, and it is forbidden to conduct any negotiations with the destroyers who counterfeit the Torah and bring about assimilation and the destruction of Judaism in the Diaspora."

This pronouncement was issued last January by several of the most distinguished leaders of Israeli Orthodoxy in response to the demands of Reform and Conservative rabbis that the individuals they convert to Judaism be so recognized by the Israeli government.

Ratcheting the conflict over who is a Jew to a new level, one of the Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition introduced a Knesset bill in the fall of 1996 stipulating that only those converted under Orthodox auspices be registered as Jews. The initial approval of this bill (three separate votes are required for final passage) provoked such outrage in the American Jewish community that Netanyahu invited the American Reform and Conservative rabbinic leadership for an urgent consultation in Jerusalem. Caught between the political clout of his Orthodox coalition partners and American Jewry, Netanyahu appointed a blue-ribbon commission charged with creating an instrumentality that would enable the government to register converts "in a manner satisfactory to all parties." After seven months of intense negotiation, the commission chairman, Finance Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman, issued a report proposing the establishment of an institute for the instruction of converts involving Reform and Conservative instructors along with the Orthodox. The Ne'eman Commission report, however, was rejected out of hand by the Orthodox authorities, though the actual conversions would have remained exclusively in their hands.

Why did the Orthodox leaders respond with hostility, employing such epithets as "destroyers of Judaism"? What moved the comparatively moderate Sephardi chief rabbi, Bakshi Doron, in a sermon two summers ago to compare Reform Jews to the ancient Israelite renegade, Zimri (Numbers 25), who deserved summary execution? And what motivated the Union of Orthodox Rabbis to proclaim in April 1997 that all non-Orthodox interpretations of Judaism are "not Judaism at all, but another religion"?

A clue to understanding the underlying motivation of these attacks can be found in the words of the late Rabbi Moses Sherer, who served for many years as president of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel. In explaining his organization's intense hostility to Reform and Conservative Judaism, he stated, "[P]roponents of classical Judaism are fighting...a defensive war--against Jewish assimilation and intermarriage." The ultra-Orthodox see themselves as the defenders of the Jewish people in a milchemet mitzvah, a divinely commanded war. Such a war, according to halachah (traditional Jewish law), permits the suspension of the rules of normal conduct among the opposing factions. Involvement in a milchemet mitzvah even justifies the desecration of the Sabbath, which explains the ardor of those religious zealots in Jerusalem who throw rocks at passing automobiles on the sacred day of rest.

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Even more revealing than Rabbi Sherer's invoking milchemet mitzvah to describe the struggle of Orthodoxy against Reform and Conservative Judaism is his characterization of his own camp as the "proponents of classical Judaism." Ironically, these so-called proponents of classical Judaism came on the scene in the first century CE as the opponents of the previous classical Judaism; today's Orthodox were yesterday's reformers!

The Judaism to which the Orthodox lay exclusive claim--the rabbinic Judaism fashioned by such Pharisaic sages as Hillel and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai in the first century--was the product of a revolution against the priestly, aristocratic guardians of the Torah known as the Sadducees, who rejected the notion that worship conducted by ordinary Jews in houses of prayer might substitute for the priestly sacrificial cult of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees, the proponents of "classical Judaism," refused to accept as sacred any law not recorded in Scripture.

Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees accepted the supremacy of the Torah, but the Pharisees also recognized the halachic authority of an "Oral Torah," interpretations of the sacred Torah text by a chain of sages going all the way back to Moses at Mount Sinai. These interpretations, the Pharisees claimed, had equal legal validity to the "Written Torah." The Pharisees argued, for example, that "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand" (Exodus 21:24) is not to be taken literally; what the Torah actually prescribes, they said, is carefully weighted monetary compensation in personal injury cases. The Pharisaic sages modified and even abrogated Torah laws that they considered untenable in their days. Hillel, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and other early rabbis had the courage to enact takkanot (legislative decrees) that made it possible for the Jews of their generations to retain allegiance to the Torah, even when they turned the clear meaning of a text on its head. One takkanah, issued by Hillel, rescinded the sabbatical cancellation of debts, which had been decreed explicitly by the Torah (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Seeing that the people were transgressing the law by refusing to make loans they knew would be uncollectible in the sabbatical year, Hillel established the prosbul, a legal procedure that empowered a court to collect for the lender (Mishnah Shevi'it 10:3).

Ironically, the revolutionary Pharisaic sages of antiquity, who utterly destroyed the literalist Sadducees, are heroes to the Orthodox today. Yet what the Pharisees had the foresight and the chutzpa to do in their time--preserving allegiance to the Torah by interpreting it to meet contemporary needs--is what some Orthodox authorities condemn today with the invective of a holy war.

The early rabbinic sages knew very well that the "Oral Torah" they taught diverged from the Torah of Moses. But the liberal, interpretive process they invented preserved the Torah as a vital force for generations. Interpretation and innovation enabled Judaism to survive the forces of assimilation in pagan, Christian, Moslem, and secular societies since the days of Hillel. It was the Pharisaic sages who introduced daily prayer services as an alternative to the Temple cult, so that if the Holy Sanctuary were destroyed, the synagogue could sustain and preserve Judaism. When, in fact, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Sadducees disappeared, but Judaism survived. Ironically, with the passage of time, the once revolutionary, progressive Judaism of the Pharisees was transmuted into the new "classical Judaism"--i.e. Orthodoxy.

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In Israel the increasing imposition of Orthodox standards on public life has produced a bitter antagonism among secular and liberal Jews. On the eve of the celebration of Israel's 50th Independence Day last May, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to protest the kind of religious censorship that impelled the prestigious Batsheva Dance Company to withdraw from the independence festivities. Addressing the assembled throng, Meretz Party chairman M. K. Yossi Sarid said: "We are united against the fanatic haredi establishment that is coming down on us. We say to them: Get off our back.... If we are coerced, we will fight and we will win!" The situation was exacerbated less than two weeks later when Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the leading authority of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy, attacked the highly honored Israeli Army by declaring that "...there is a complete prohibition on going to the army, and it is necessary to die for this...."

Some moderate Orthodox Israelis have come to recognize the danger inherent in this tinderbox situation and have joined with secular leaders on such projects as "A New Covenant on Religion and State," offering concessions to bridge the chasm between the minority Orthodox and the secular majority. But unless the major spokesmen of Israeli Orthodoxy declare unequivocally that democracy and individual rights are essential to Judaism, Orthodoxy will go the way of the Sadducees.

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There is at least one positive outcome of the Ne'eman Commission report: secular Israelis are becoming more aware of non-Orthodox religious options. In a triumphal mood on its 100th anniversary earlier this year, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America commissioned a Gallup Poll intended to demonstrate conclusively that Reform and Conservative Judaism are unknown and unwanted in Israel. When asked whom they would prefer to have officiate at life-cycle ceremonies in their families, 42 percent of Israelis opted for Orthodox officiation (i.e. the status quo); a surprisingly high 32 percent chose Conservative or Reform; and 26 percent either did not care or chose none-of-the-above. As Rabbi Uri Regev, the Reform movement's representative on the Ne'eman Commission, observed, "They [the Orthodox] have certainly provided us with the ultimate proof that...the public is..awaiting the reality of a free market of religious ideas, with equal status for all."

Will Orthodoxy be able to survive the reality of a free market of religious ideas in the 21st century? I doubt it.

In yeshiva study halls today, young Orthodox men study and admire the chidushim (new interpretations) of the Pharisees and their successors with absolutely no appreciation of the fact that it is precisely that process of innovation that has kept Judaism alive. Taking their cue from a great Hungarian halachic authority of two centuries ago, Rabbi Moses Sofer, they insist that "chadash asur min ha-Torah--innovation is forbidden by the Torah."

Orthodoxy is, of course, not monolithic; not all Orthodox leaders are hostile to change. There are some brilliant and courageous modern Orthodox rabbis who do attempt to respond to the challenges of modernity. Some of the best thinking in the area of bioethics today is emerging from Orthodox quarters. Some Orthodox rabbis have recommended leniency in conversion requirements. Some have voiced sympathy for the attempts by Orthodox women to conduct their own services and to teach Torah (but not to be counted in a minyan). Some have joined forces with Conservative and Reform rabbis in calls for a "Bill of Rights" for Israeli citizens. But theirs are lonely voices. Moderates within the Orthodox camp have surrendered the field to right-wing militants who smear them as "haters of God." It takes extraordinary courage to be a lenient interpreter within the ranks of Orthodoxy today.

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For the Torah to survive it must grow. The mystics of old taught: "There are seventy faces to the Torah" (Zohar and Midrash). Some of those faces existed in antiquity, at the time of Moses, King David, the prophets, and Hillel. Others appeared among the marvelously creative Jewries of Babylonia, Spain, and Poland in their golden ages. Still others carried the scars of expulsions, pogroms, and the Shoah. And there are the faces of the here and now, for we too are compelled to confront the challenges of our contemporary world, as the Pharisees did, with both veneration for sacred tradition and the courage to innovate.

A vibrant, living Judaism must declare unequivocally that women have absolutely equal status with men, religiously and civilly. It must insist that birth conveys no special privilege or caste and that it certainly cannot be an impediment to marriage. It must insist that a child instilled with a love of Judaism by a father and a non-Jewish mother and raised as a Jew should be considered a Jew. It must recognize that every generation is capable of responding to the voice of God. As the old Union Prayerbook put it: "Thou hidest not Thy light from any generation of Thy children that yearn for Thee and seek Thy guidance."

Reform Judaism is not alone in the struggle to keep Judaism alive and meaningful for future generations. The Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements are also involved in this sacred process and, like Reform, are subject to the inflammatory invective of those who, like the Sadducees of old, see themselves as the inflexible guardians of Torah-true Judaism. Rigidity is not the Jewish way; it is "...not Judaism at all, but another religion."

Will the progressive, interpretive Judaism of today's non-Orthodox movements be adequate for our Israeli and American great-great-grandchildren? No! One day our late-20th-century Judaism will become "classical Judaism," dry bones in urgent need of the breath of life. But when that day arrives, we can hope that the spirit of Pharisaic reform will assert itself yet again. The Torah will be revived for a new generation, and it will live on as Israel's eternal "tree of life."

Simeon J. Maslin is the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, PA. He, along with UAHC President Rabbi Eric Yoffie, participated in the meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that resulted in the formation of the Ne'eman Commission.

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