Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism

Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism


Howard Adelman

The mentality of Orthodox radical opponents of Reform is not that you are either with us or against us. Rather the point is that, as long as you do not challenge our (the orthodox) sacred mission, whatever else you do and however atheistic or indifferent you are to religion, you are not a threat. You live beside but not fundamentally in opposition to the holy spirit. But if you question whether God is on our side – on the assumption that God does indeed take sides in such arguments – whether “we” are the holy bearers protecting the word of God, then you are a heretic and Reform institutions and rabbis should be shunned by the Orthodox community. For the argument is about which segment of Judaism embodies holiness. Secular Jews do not claim to be holy so they are no threat; cooperation with the secular world is fine. But if one claims to be Jewish in a religious sense, but you are not halachic Jews in accordance with minimal requirements by the Orthodox, then that is beyond the pale.

For what is at stake for these spokesmen of Orthodoxy is the most important matter of all – the salvation and redemption of the Jewish people. Secular Jews may work towards that redemption through Zionism even if their intention is not to advance towards a religious redemption. Unconsciously, “they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah.” They retain a spark of holiness. Reform Jews, however, claim to offer a different path to redemption or, even worse, advance themselves as religious Jews while ignoring the whole task of redemption. They have deliberately chosen to extinguish that spark of holiness. They are despoilers who undermine both God and the Torah as God’s holy word. Better to ignore the claims of Torah than offer interpretations that disavow its essential holiness.

The secular merely do God’s work indirectly. Reform Jews are evil and undermine God’s word. They are “like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism.” The limb must be amputated to save the body politic of Judaism. For Reform offers an alternative religious route that denies Oral Law as a source of religious legal authority. Reform is heretical because it plunders Torah without revering it and “uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos.” In the Reform movement, man, not Torah, defines what is true and what is good. Reform “denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments.” There can be no truck with the devil, no compromises or cooperation, though this does not apply to individuals, only institutional efforts to gain even the slightest entry in Israel and gain legal and public legitimacy.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

The issue is not which movement does or does not embody holiness, but rather Orthodoxy insisting this is what is at stake. In contrast, Reform argues that the law of the land, the law of a secular state should not be used to adjudicate such a debate or even confirm that this is what is at stake in the debate. My argument is that the Orthodox are truly following in the steps of Moses in defining heresy, in defining who and what embodies holiness, in defining who are the elect of God, and most importantly, insisting that this is the debate while the opposition insists it is about arrogance, about quashing other views, about a failure to listen, about usurping political and legal authority to advance one’s position using spurious arguments that distort the nature of the debate.

Though this debate may seem like a family or in-tribe argument, I suggest, especially in light of my reading of Korah, that it has wider implications. What follows is an article by Rabbi Baruch Efrati distributed by Arutz Sheva in preparation for a forthcoming conference on Reform and Israel. It puts forth this Orthodox position. After that brief paper, I include two very different responses to my interpretation of Korah. Tomorrow I will return to discussing BDS and its intellectual roots.

Op-Ed: The critical difference between the Reform Movement and secular Jewry
Arutz Sheva has received a position paper written for the Zion and Jerusalem Conference to take place next week on the topic of the Reform Movement and Israel.
Published: Tuesday, July 05, 2016 7:38 PM

Rabbi Baruch Efrati

Translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky
In contrast to the words of individual rabbis who called on Israel to cooperate with the Reform Movement, our message is a call to stand firm and declare, in the immortal words of the Prophet Isaiah “Your plans will not be realized nor will your words be upheld, because G-d is with us.”

Let us explain our stand on the matter.

Historically, G-d fearing Jews approached the Zionist Movement in one of two ways. Some turned their back on the Zionists because most of the new movement’s adherents were not religious. They placed prime importance on negating anything secular, thereby protecting their communities, but also ignoring earthshaking Jewish national developments. Rabbi Kook, zts”l, did not respond that way, but sought to join the Zionists, to be involved and try to raise the spiritual level of our people, of every sector, by imbuing their endeavors to return to Zion with an aura of holiness.
Rabbi Kook spoke and wrote often on the uniqueness of Israel and on the obvious and revealed Redemption that was taking place before his eyes. Non-observant people of integrity, he said, do not come here to be free to lead a decadent and erring way of life, but because unconsciously, they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah. Ideological secularism is being revealed in confused souls whose hidden inner desire is the light of the Almighty, the light they lacked in the exile before our nation’s coming back to life here. The secular world is one of impurities. but in its depths there is a spark of holiness that keeps it alive – and that allows the appearance of the true Jewish soul to come to the fore.

This viewpoint led Rabbi Kook to have faith in the tikkun that the secular Zionists would experience, and, he believed that even those most adamant in their antagonism to the Torah would return once the vibrant and holy light of the Torah was apparent to them – and in the end, they would contribute much to the revival of G-d’s Word in Israel. We believe in the Almighty Who has stretched out His hand to redeem His people, he said, and all the vicissitudes of Israeli culture are attempts to reach spirituality, to search for the grandeur of a G-d without limits – and will, eventually, lead to tikkun.

In contrast to Rabbi Kook’s loving and empathetic approach to the non-observant Israeli, he castigated the Reform Movement vehemently in his writings, and wrote the following letter to American Jewry, which he saw as fated to disappear because of the activities of this movement:
B”H, The Holy City of Jerusalem (may it be rebuilt speedily in our time), 1922
To our brothers, to the beloved and holy congregations in the United States of America and Canada, may G-d protect them, those who seek to keep the word of G-d, believe in the heritage of Moses, the Written and Oral Law, G-d’s Covenant with the people of Israel: Greetings to you from the Holy Mount of Jerusalem.
My dear Brothers,
The state of true Judaism as it is upheld by the faithful in your midst has been brought to my attention and it breaks my heart. The despoilers have come, those who have destroyed the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and are even now are causing many to abandon the G-d of Israel and His eternal Torah – They, the inventive Reform leaders to whom many, even from within the faithful religious camp have been drawn unwittingly, uproot the foundations of the world that are intertwined with the basic principles of Torah and Judaism.

And these cracks are in the wall of sanctity, evidenced in the words that are publicly uttered, the actions that leave their mark on entire congregations, including the way synagogues are constructed and what customs they follow – and they go from evil deed to evil deed, one sin leads to another, destruction brings on more destruction, to the point where they have laid their hand on the holy mesorah, in place from the beginning of time, that mandates separate prayer sections for women and men.

We know what happened to the first despoilers who began destroying and abandoning the original Jewish tradition and heritage, we know what happened to them, that almost all of them are lost to the people of Israel, having left the faith along with their offspring. Many of them have been swallowed up without a trace by the non-Jewish world, and those who have not yet been lost are like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism. Our eyes see this and are filled with longing for them, while the best of them regret the sin of their fathers once they see the spiritual ruin that it spawned.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.
Why did the sainted Rabbi Kook have such a vastly different attitude to Reform Jewry than the one he evinced towards secular Jews? Why didn’t he seize the opportunity to call for cooperation with the Reform Movement the way certain rabbis do today? Why did he refer to them using sharp names such as: “despoilers,” “destroyers of the vineyard,” “wreckers,” “uprooters of eternal foundations,” “instigators,” “cut off from the house of Israel,” “atrophied limbs in the body of the people” – epithets that the rabbi never used in describing anyone except the Reform Movement and Jews who converted to become heretical Christians?

The answer is crystal clear. The secular world and the observant world live side by side. The non-observant have chosen wrongly, the Rabbi felt, but they are open to tikkun because of the light spilling over from the religious world existing beside them and their sacrifices for the Jewish people. The secular Jewish world does not want to take over the religious world from a theological point of view, but to live beside it – hence, the possibility of influencing that world, listening to its hearts’ desires, elevating its holy sparks to their heavenly source. The secular are actually non-observant Orthodox, they do not present an alternative organized religion that turns transgressions into an ideology intended to take the place of the Torah. They have not invented a made up religion but are in the midst of a process where secularism is withering and faith is blossoming, as one can see over the last few years in which there is constant strengthening of ties to Torah, baruch Hashem.

In contrast, the Reform Movement has a “progressive” ideology that wishes to exchange the Oral Law’s G-d-given message. It does not wish to ask questions about the Torah but to create a religious empire of its own. It has an organized theology that grants legitimacy to transgressions and turns them into religion. There is no possibility of living side by side, but a battle over who will lead the nation. Our dialogue is thus one between enemies, not lovers. It is either we or them, the holy or the ritually impure and their ideological rebellion against the Oral Law.
Isaiah describes idol worship as gaining strength because it justifies man acting according to his baser desires. When a man bows to idols, he is really bowing to himself and his desires, turning his sins into an ideology and sanctioning them a priori as religious activities. Idols were always lascivious or murderous in their design, and an example of this is Ashtor, a nude female holding weapons of war and symbolizing lust and bloodshed. The idol is really the worshipper himself, he alone decides what constitutes ethical behavior with no heavenly agent above him. The lust for idol worship is so pervasive, that people would sacrifice their own children to prove their loyalty, but really succeeded in proving that they were true to their basest instincts and not to a Supreme Being who restrains and sets limits for human behavior.

The Reform Movement originated in a form of heresy that wished to establish a new religion based on plundering that which is holy. It is a model that does not speak of raising one’s level of purity in order to accept the Torah, but uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos (some of whose beliefs are beneficial to man in themselves). It does not sacrifice children, but it sacrifices G-dly values in the same fashion, and that is just as grave.

The Reform Movement wishes to accomplish exactly what its name says, to effect a critical change in the foundations of Torah, putting man in the center to define truth and falsehood, good and evil. It denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments. Its goal is not to strengthen efforts to achieve a higher plane, as Israel’s non-observant Jews do, but to lessen and remove the sanctity of Jewish tradition. It does not believe that Jews are the Chosen People and wants the world to unite, as do the Christians, under one faith – that of belief in man, his desires, his wants. The Reform Movement is against a biological definition of the Jew, instead emphasizing his personal feelings and self-definition.
This is not Judaism.

Confronting this heresy, there are no compromises and no cooperation. Just as no one would join forces with the man who steals his wife and wrecks his home, so there can be no joining of forces with a movement that wishes to do the same to our home, the State of Israel, to our Jewish identity, to our Torah-true values.

As I have written before, this movement made a strategic decision to infiltrate the State of Israel from the United States and to change the balance of power in Israeli society so that the religious world would not continue to be a place of commitment to mitzvot and the guidance of Heaven, but, become, instead, a folkloristic tradition. The movement donates large sums of money to yeshivas and other organizations and it is hard to stand strong in the face of this temptation, so that one can already discern their devious influence on rabbis and concepts in the religious Zionist world.

This has to be the rule: i
Individual Reform Jews are our brothers and we will welcome them warmly as part of the Jewish people (those that actually are Jewish), and we are prepared to explain their mistaken view of Judaism to them if they wish to listen. However, we will wage an everlasting war against their ideological movement, a war that does not affect our relations with individual members There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

Two shining luminaries, the High Priest of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and the High Priest of Religious Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Hakohen Kook, were unequivocal about this issue and came out strongly against legitimacy and cooperation with this misguided and destructive movement. At the same time, they told us to love every Jew. We, their students and the students of their students must grasp the folds of their garments and not swerve from the path of our Torah, even if we have to pay a high price – literally and figuratively – for our principled stand.

What now follows is a selection of two responses to my commentary on Korah, including my reflections on them.

Comparing Moses to Kim Jong is inexcusably offensive and misses the whole point of the Korah narrative, showing he was wrong and Moses was right. For if Korah’s doctrine had prevailed, Moses’ project would have been aborted then and there. The teachings of monotheism would have been checked. For if these tribes already are the holy people of Yahweh, no further reforms are necessary and no further struggles need to be waged. This Moses cannot accept. He knows that the people have a long way to go; and he fears they may never get there if instead of hallowing themselves through the new teachings, they look upon themselves as already holy. (See Buber,Moses,p.190,in Irving M.Zeitlin, Ancient Judaism: Biblical Criticism from Max Weber to the present).

Thanks very much for the feedback. It is greatly appreciated.

Of course, the point of the narrative is to show that Moses was right and Korah wrong. But on what basis? Due process? A fair hearing? Further, Korah’s protest was not about the project itself, but about how decisions were being made, and, even more, about the attitudes behind them, even if behind it all there was a deeper challenge. If the argument is made that Korah stood for a reactionary position in insisting that the people were already holy and, therefore, did not have to undergo further change, that is a separate argument. I merely read the text as asserting that all of holiness is not embodied by the top leader but shared to some degree by the people. It is not about perfection having been achieved. I said in my blog that I was not favouring Korah’s argument or the way he challenged Moses. What I argued is that the challenge was deformed and Korah was subjected to a kangeroo court.

As for the substance of the issue – the holiness of the people – I would consider that Korah, in arguing that the people were holy, was not so much proclaiming an accomplished task as insisting on a form of populism, a reference used to oppose Moses’ assuming all power through reference to a higher authority rather than in his own name. Populism, of course, is a frequent way of challenging authorities and has its own problems. Even if Moses had done that fairly and with consideration, it would be another matter. But Moses dealt with the matter through distortion, escalation and, as another reader noted (see below), by displacing responsibility. The true richness of the text comes through in that, while history is written by the victors, there is no real effort to whitewash Moses. He is on display with all his faults.

What happened to Korah and his fellow protesters was indeed worthy of Kim Jong-un. I, obviously, do not care for idolizing heroes in Jewish history or rationalizing their actions in terms of the future justifying a drastic action in the present that goes beyond the pale, which I have a sense Martin Buber did, but such an analysis would require a separate examination than the one I provided.

A very different response follows.

From the perspective of a non-religious, agnostic reader, who is largely ignorant of the contents of both the Torah and the Bible but eager to learn from the learned so as to become a better person: This situation reminds me of more contemporary vertical hierarchies where people on the ladder hide behind the higher up when it comes to assuming individual responsibility: “I am just a simple administrator and executor of the Board’s wishes. If you don’t like what I am doing, you are in effect criticising the leadership above, not me. They had put me into this position, it was their choice, ask them if you have questions regarding their decisions.”

Moses does not engage at all in a discussion of Korah’s points (like a good manager would do), he immediately escalates the issue to the Board. This is cowardly authoritarian move, disrespectful to Korah, who after all has all the human qualities to get promoted into the same leadership position. Moses hides behind the Board’s authority, and “tells on” Korah’s move to them, without trying to solve the disagreement at the level where it was raised. He does not at all assume leadership, appropriate to his position, but places all the responsibility onto the higher-ups. Plus, Moses attempts to silence Korah and his followers by “threatening” them to tell on them to the “boss.” In this move Moses acts like an ass- kisser, sure in his belief that the “boss” will take his side, regardless of the fairness or unfairness of the situation. As if that was not in poor enough judgment, Moses tries to divide (and further intimidate) the followers of Korah. It is to their great (and wholly unappreciated by subsequent interpreters) credit that they do not cave, despite the tremendous potential (and, as we know, ultimately actual) repercussions.

Like any ass-kisser, Moses first tells on them, and then quickly “pleads” to the boss to save the “wrong-doers” in order to present his role in this whole scene as squeaky clean. First he had explained his actions as the “boss” made him do it, then as the “rebels” forced him to report their move to the authorities. Nowhere does Moses claim that it is his sovereign decision to act the way he acts because, e.g., this is the ethically right thing to do. Is he aware of his ethical wrongdoing in his heart of hearts? Most cowardly, authoritarian ass-kissers seem not aware. “The Fuhrer made me do it!” is how far their justification of their acts go. Moses is all too banally human after all, which does not excuse, only explains his actions.

What is more disappointing is god’s response. He simply takes the ass-kisser’s word for it and “reorganizes” the company with mass lay-offs, and that without severance pay: he just gets rid of it all, never asking himself whether his choice in appointing Moses and Aaron to top managers was the right one in light of the situation and Moses’ cowardly role in it. He also does not check individual participation in the alleged rebellion: all must go: a tyrannical move. Like all tyrants, god does not tolerate dissent. If we read this under the unshakable belief that god is always right then there is nothing more to add…

If we read it however as a negative case study for bad management in a business course it all makes sense. After all, not leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land right away (milk and honey notwithstanding) upon reports of this being a high-risk undertaking on account of the powerful and hostile locals was not a bad move after all. It may be deemed as the decision of a low-risk taker; nevertheless, it could have been explained and discussed and the other leads’ opinion asked and maybe put up for vote. But all that was not done: the Israelites remained in a fully dependent child-like relationship with the authority at that time, where discussion, not to mention dissent were not tolerated. This may have been a realistic depiction of leadership of the times when the text was conceived, in which god was created in the image of well-known human characteristics and dynamics. The question is: have we evolved at all since that time?


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