Goodbye to Heterodoxy

Regarding Ori’s question, I reject the forced choices — I think the majority of Jews would join Orthodox shuls without becoming observant. That is option 3. And I think that would be a vast improvement over the present situation.

In South Africa (where I lived for five years) there is no Conservative and only a very small Reform movement. Almost all South African Jews belong to O shuls, though few are observant. When they arrive in the US, many of them find themselves culturally comfortable in C congregations, whose services superficially resemble the services they are familiar with but whose rabbis and congregants are accepting of low levels of actual observance.

In practice — sociologically speaking — the change from O in South Africa to C in America usually results in a very rapid decline in the level of any observance, as well as a greased slide towards intermarriage, since interdating and intermarriage no longer carries any stigma in C congregations. Intermarriage does still have a stigma in South Africa.

Non-observant Jews who are nevertheless connected to an O shul and O rabbi for major life cycle events — girl baby-naming, bris, bar mitzva, wedding, funeral — are fundamentally attached to Judaism in a way that is simply not the case with a Jew who belongs to a “Conform” temple. Conform exists for only one reason — to make Jews psychologically and emotionally comfortable with their total disloyalty to the religion of their forefathers, to ease their conscience when they intermarry or do whatever they please.

The reason I refer to both Reform and Conservative as “Conform” movements is that both exist for the same reason — to help Jews conform comfortably to the prevailing secular ethos of America. Conform does very little to help people stay connected to Judaism, just the opposite.

Plus, as a result of patrilineal descent and Mickey Mouse conversions, the percentage of actual non-Jews in Conform temples is extremely high. Which makes it increasingly difficult and impolitic for any Conform rabbi to say boo about intermarriage.

There is also another factor to consider, and that is the question of, to whom do we owe loyalty? It is true that we owe loyalty to all our fellow Jews and that we want — or should want — to maintain close ties between all Jews, and to make sure that all Jews feel welcome in our community.

But we also owe loyalty to G-d. We do not have the right to falsify the Torah in order to make our fellow Jews feel comfortable. We hate to lose any Jews, we grieve over our fellow Jews who have elected to live in such a way that they will not have Jewish children — but we do have a mesorah, a chain of transmission, that has kept going father to son, mother to daughter, for three thousand years now, since Sinai. And we absolutely do not have the right to be the generation that breaks that chain.

We have an eternal promise (and it has been fulfilled for three thousand years) that the Jewish people will never disappear. The Conform movement has a lot to answer for, since it has done so much to shrink the total number of Jews in America (and in the world). It has helped millions of Jews commit suicide, Jewishly speaking, and that is simply tragic and heart-breaking — and unprecedented in our history. But the fact is, we have to transmit the Torah faithfully, and we rely on G-d’s promise that from a faithful remnant, however small, we can rebuild. We are an eternal people.

When I say good-bye to Jews who have chosen to marry out and to raise non-Jewish children, I say good-bye with a heavy heart. I grieve to see them go, and I want them to know — my door is not locked and will never be locked against them. They are welcome to come home to their people any time. Any time.

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11 comments to Goodbye to Heterodoxy

  • Robbie

    I think we need to clear up a few things about the Conservative Movement, first:

    – Conservative Rabbis are forbidden from performing intermarriages. If they perform one, the are kicked out of the Rabbinical Assembly and effectively no longer in the Conservative Movement. Accepting an intermarried family into a congregation is very different from encouraging intermarriage, as you seem to infer. And, according to official Movement policy, non-Jewish spouses are NOT counted as members of the synagogues.

    – Conservative Judaism exists as a modern response to the stagnation of Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism’s aim is to incorporate Judaism (Halachic, according to its principles) into the modern world. Many people new to the Movement feel comfortable not because of its connection to secularism, but because it approaches traditional ideas with a modern look – especially with the issue of Egalitarianism. (I happen to know quite a few women who could daven circles around many “orthodox” men.)

    – I don’t think that you have a clear understanding of what the liberal movements offer Judaism. While I cannot speak for the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement does have, at its core, the desire to continue the mesorah – albeit with an approach that is for our time – not two hundred years ago, when Orthodoxy was set in stone.

    And in response to your “unlocked door,” we say the same. We invite you to come learn with us, to learn about our approach to Judaism – you may even find something you like.

    Robbie

  • David

    Robbie – I realize that this does not address the crux of your comment, but what does it mean for one person (male or female), to be able to daven better than another person? In terms of carrying a tune? Having kavannah? I’m not sure what that issue has to do with egalitarianism as a concept or a practice. Also, why do you put scare quotes around the word orthodox?

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Regarding Ori’s question, I reject the forced choices—I think the majority of Jews would join Orthodox shuls without becoming observant. That is option 3. And I think that would be a vast improvement over the present situation.

    I admit to being Amero-Centric, as you implied and Habib said. The reason I didn’t think about being non observant and going to an Orthodox synagogue is that I didn’t see it growing up in Israel. Israel has very small heterodox movements and a huge non observant Jewish population which only goes to the (Orthodox) synagogue for Bar Mitzvahs, and maybe on Yom Kippur.

    How comfortable would an heterodox Jew be in an Orthodox synagogue? It’s one thing to be an imperfect Ba’al-Teshuva who is trying to become observant. It’s another to be somebody who is non observant by choice, who wants to pray but is not going to follow Halacha.

  • Toby Katz

    Robbie writes:

    “Conservative Rabbis are forbidden from performing intermarriages.”

    That’s a misleading statement. (1) They wave their magic wands and declare the non-Jew to be a Jew, that’s how they get around it. They demand nothing from prospective converts. And if the non-Jewish partner is not even willing to do a pro forma conversion, they refer them to Reform rabbis or to civil officers to do the marriage, then welcome them to their temples and schools, turning a blind eye to the fact of intermarriage. (2) They won’t actually give the non-Jewish partner shul membership but the Jewish partner will be a member in good standing, no social stigma at all.

    Technically Conservatism does not recognize Reform conversions or patrilineal descent, but in practice they usually turn a blind eye and welcome everyone who is willing to come.

    Nevertheless their numbers are constantly shrinking — the reverse of the situation fifty years ago.

    “Accepting an intermarried family into a congregation is very different from encouraging intermarriage”

    Sez you.

    “And, according to official Movement policy, non-Jewish spouses are NOT counted as members of the synagogues.”

    But the Jewish spouse is. QED.

    “Conservative Judaism exists as a modern response to the stagnation of Orthodoxy.”

    Dream on. “Stagnation”? I invite you to read Eliot Abrams’ book, *Faith or Fear* in which a prominent Conservative Jew admits that the Orthodox have found the key to survival, and recommends that his own movement follow the Orthodox lead.

    If you think American Orthodoxy is stagnant and Conservatism is vibrant, you are living in a time warp — that has not been true since the 1950’s.

    “Conservative Judaism’s aim is to incorporate Judaism (Halachic, according to its principles) into the modern world.”

    C’s aim is to let people do what they want, and enjoy a feel-good Judaism that they choose to call “halacha.” Read the book that was published by the C movement in the 1980’s — *Emet ve’Emunah* (“Truth and Faith”) — which purports to set out what you have to believe to be a Conservative Jew in good standing, and how they arrive at their “halachic” rulings. That book makes it clear that Conservatism is all about obfuscation, and that you can believe whatever you want and be a good C Jew. Don’t take my word for it, read it.

    “Many people new to the Movement feel comfortable not because of its connection to secularism, but because it approaches traditional ideas with a modern look – especially with the issue of Egalitarianism.”

    IOW, because it panders to their prejudices and demands nothing they don’t already want to do

    “(I happen to know quite a few women who could daven circles around many “orthodox” men.)”

    I bet.

    “the Conservative Movement does have, at its core, the desire to continue the mesorah”

    It has the desire to ease people’s conscience and allow them to think they are continuing the mesorah, while actually doing whatever they please. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. What percentage of the C laity keeps Shabbos in even a loosely halachic manner?

    “albeit with an approach that is for our time – not two hundred years ago, when Orthodoxy was set in stone.”

    Set in stone, were we? I take it you have never heard of R’ Shamshon Rafael Hirsch and Torah Im Derech Eretz, or of Sarah Schenirer and the world-wide Orthodox school system for girls, or of Rav Kook and Religious Zionism, or of the Gerrer, Bobov, Satmar, or Lubavitch chassidim, or of Or Sameach yeshiva and the Baal Teshuva movement, or of the Mussar movement, or of the Daf Yomi and Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union. And if we were set in stone, the C movement was set in quicksand.

    “And in response to your “unlocked door,” we say the same. We invite you to come learn with us, to learn about our approach to Judaism – you may even find something you like.”

    Thank you but I have already eaten my fill of that particular feast.

    Frankly I consider simple non-observance to be more intellectually honest than C Judaism. But I will concede this much in its favor: those who belong to C congregations do wish, in their hearts, to formally identify with Judaism. I will give them credit for that — the simple desire to say “I am a Jew.”

  • Toby Katz

    Ori Pomerantz writes:

    “How comfortable would an heterodox Jew be in an Orthodox synagogue?”

    It depends on the Jew and on the synagogue. Outside the big cities (in Chattanooga, for example, where my husband was the rabbi in the 1980’s) many O shuls have a majority of non-observant members.

    Israel has a particular tension between religious and non-religious Jews — for a number of historical reasons — that does not exist, or exists to a much lesser extent, in America. In America, if you want to identify as a Jew, you join a synagogue. In Israel, you just /are/ a Jew, you don’t have to do anything particular.

    I often see Israelis who were totally non-observant in Israel, who never went to shul — then move to the US and end up joining a shul here — as a way to meet other Jews and to identify with the Jewish community.

  • Larry

    Has it not occurred to you (and to so many others on this forum) that some may affiliate with non-Orthodox synagogues not as a means of justifying non-observance, but for a variety of more positive reasons:

    (a) an inability or unwillingness to accept the unquestioned dogmas that are normative in much of the Orthodox world, i.e., a reluctance to shelve one’s intellect in certain critical areas;

    (b) a respect for principles such as a woman’s right to meaningfully participate in the religious life of the community, and a refusal to rationalize or condone what is perceived as a violation of those principles; and

    (c) a disstate for the sort of “us against them” triumphalism that seeks to boost one’s one cause at the expense of that another, this through a constant stream of vituperation and insult, and that is all-too-normative both on this site and throughout certain portions of the Orthodox world.

    What ever happened to judging others on the scale of merit?

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Toby Katz,

    Replying to me, you said: It depends on the Jew and on the synagogue. Outside the big cities (in Chattanooga, for example, where my husband was the rabbi in the 1980’s) many O shuls have a majority of non-observant members.

    In your reply to Robbie, you said:“Accepting an intermarried family into a congregation is very different from encouraging intermarriage”

    Sez you.

    Let me see if I understand this correctly. There are three types of Jews:

    1. Orthodox. Obviously welcome in an Orthodox shul.

    2. Regular non Orthodox. Will be welcome in most Orthodox shuls, in the hope of encouraging greater observance.

    3. Jews who intermarried. Not acceptable, unless they are in the process of fixing it (spouse converting, or getting a divorce).

    Am I misunderstanding you? If not, are there other sins that place a Jew in category 3 rather than 2?

  • Toby Katz

    “are there other sins that place a Jew in category 3 rather than 2?”

    Yes — converting to Christianity or Jews for Jesus

    Intermarriage is a major betrayal. Even R and C used to draw the line at that.

  • DMZ

    Robbie,

    Some of my best friends in college were observant Conservative Jews – people who, if they didn’t daven in an “egalitarian” minyan, would probably have fooled 99% of observers into thinking they’re Orthodox. I had many, many conversations and discussions (and arguments) with them – I _think_ I’m somewhat well-informed about the Conservative movement. And, indeed, I have some respect for their ideas, if not the overall results.

    The real problem is not so much the act of including intermarried couples post-facto, but the fact that when this is a wide-spread practice, it ends up legitamizing intermarriage. After all, if there are relatively few consequences of intermarriage (bubbe gets upset until the maybe-Jewish grandkids arrive), there’s very little incentive for a non-observant Conservative Jew to care about it. If the response was more harsh, people might think twice about it – or realize, in fact, that they are NOT Conservative Jews.

    I’m not arguing for tossing intermarried couples into the street – but when people who _know_ better go get intermarried, and I mean people who were Conservative their entire lives, showering them only with love and acceptance seems the wrong answer. There’s ignorance, and then there’s apathy.

    The main problem I have with the Conservative movement is that the Conservative Bet Din is really a committee to rubber stamp what the lay people want. They put out these interesting rulings, but basically nullify them by citing “minority opinions”, which are generally just what the other side was arguing. The end result is that you can do whatever the heck you feel like, which only lends itself more to the “pick and choose” Judaism that the Reform movement is, and certain parts of the Conservative movement are devolving to.

    And, I’ll be honest: not all of their opinions were terribly honest. The “you can drive to shul on Shabbos, but only in the US” teshuva is so intellectually dishonest, and so easily dismantled, that it’s no wonder they keep the decisions locked away on the website, and not available to the public (has this changed?).

    -DMZ

  • Yaakov Menken

    Larry,

    Thank you for characterizing the Orthodox as limiting their intellect, but bowing to the superiority of Gedolei Torah makes no less intellectual sense than finding a qualified doctor to determine a course of medical treatment. There are plenty of people out there performing do-it-yourself homeopathic medicine, which in most (but by no means all) cases means a treatment that has no more than a placebo effect. Trying to follow Judaism without Torah guidance similarly has a placebo effect — it feels good, but a sick patient is still likely to die. It’s a tragedy in the making.

    I think I can leave it to Mrs. Katz herself to answer your mischaracterization of women in Torah Judaism.

    As for your third point, it’s very funny that you call Mrs. Katz’s post “triumphalism.” She’s quoting statistics. You are more than welcome to compare the tone and tenor of mentions of liberal movements here and elsewhere in the Orthodox world to mentions of Orthodoxy in even the Divrei Torah of Chancellor Ismar Schorsch of JTS, much less the rest of the Conservative and Reform sites. By comparison to that kettle this is stainless steel — and the intent is constructive. No one here is dancing to see the other movements die out. Every Jew lost is a world lost.

  • Larry

    In response to DMZ’s question (comment no. 9, above), Conservative halachic opinions issued by both the US-based Rabbinical Assembly and the Israeli-based Masorti Vaad HaHalacha are available on-line at http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/law/teshuvot_public.html and http://www.responsafortoday.com/eng_index.html.