Right Problem, Wrong Solution

letter-447577_1280

In a guest column in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Murray Singerman argues that “We Jews are too dedicated to defending theological turf.” He suggests that the divisions within Judaism are a major cause of assimilation: “When the decibel level of strident carping drowns out the beauty and positive values of all streams of Judaism, outsiders will choose to remain on the outside, and those on the way out will quickly join the ranks of the unaffiliated… For the sake of the future of the Jewish people, it is time for our rabbinic leadership to reach out to other denominations and find the will to pray together in one sanctuary.”

When I reached the end of the article, I noticed that the author was described as “a businessman in Baltimore.” At that point I scrolled back and noticed his name. I know him primarily through his daughter, who was my wife’s student. This well-written, well-argued opinion piece is only what I would expect — as they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It is unfortunate that what he argues for so eloquently strikes me as a road to nowhere.

You can’t wallpaper over the cracks in Jewish unity. The divisions between the definitions of “Judaism” are far too real, far too serious, and far too wide. And furthermore, he presents no evidence to support his novel assertion that these divisions contribute negatively to Jewish affiliation.

A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem Post published another article with a similar, and what might appear to be an even more ambitious goal: that for the benefit of both the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel, the two should merge. A comparison of the reasoning in the two articles, however, demonstrates that it is the latter which makes the more cogent argument.

The truth is that Rabbi David Forman, of Israel’s Reform movement, is simply repeating a suggestion that he made two and a half years ago. He makes several points to support his case. First, he argues that regardless of the distinctions between their positions at the theoretical level, on a practical level the two movements observe Judaism in almost exactly the same way. To objections from Conservative rabbis that their movement is “far more traditional,” he responds: “my Conservative rabbinic colleagues suffer from a delusion of traditional grandeur.”

For example, one critic responded that the Conservative youth movement (Noam) observes Shabbat and kashrut, unlike the Reform youth movement. All four of my children were active in Noam. If their friends’ and their parents’ religious behavior is any indication, then I can categorically state that — with rare exceptions — the level of the Conservative movement’s members’ personal observance in no way matches the standards of traditionalism that Conservative rabbis pretend to be the case.

Having thus repeated an argument from his previous article, Rabbi Forman then makes what, for him, is a new point: that the Reform movement’s positions of today are destined to be the Conservative positions of tomorrow. While it may be new for him, in reality this burst of insight is over a century old. Shortly after the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 19th century, Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein declared that “in my opinion, the objective of Conservatism and the law of the Radicals [Reform] leads to the same path, the only difference between them is time.” Forman is all too happy to testify to the accuracy of those words:

WHATEVER COMPLAINTS the Conservatives have against Reform changes in the tradition, they eventually follow suit. The Conservative movement followed Reform’s lead by instituting egalitarianism and ordaining women — both in Israel and abroad — despite its once-resolute opposition to such far-reaching changes in halacha. And, in the States, there are cracks in the once impenetrable Conservative wall, with musical instruments used to enhance Shabbat services, the ordination of gays and lesbians, and even some grudging recognition of children of patrilineal descent as Jews.

Would the Conservatives here deny that one of its own rabbis performs same-sex marriages, or musical instruments are played in some of its synagogues on Shabbat? Conservatives, on both sides of the ocean, are fast becoming a mirror image of Reform.

Having made his case that the two movements already behave alike at the practical level, and that the Conservatives are following Reform’s lead on the doctrinal level as well, he then argues that a merger in Israel will pool limited resources now squandered in needless competition. “Why fight over essentially the same constituents by opening competing synagogues in the same cities and towns? Why have two educational campuses?” Acknowledging (with surprising candor) that “the most liberal count of Israelis who consider themselves Reform or Conservative does not exceed a few thousand,” Forman concludes that a merger is the best way for them to have a significant impact — as he concluded his first article on the subject, “working together as one unified movement might, at the least, secure us a place on the religious playing field.”

While most of Rabbi Forman’s article may be repetitive, Rabbi Singerman’s has the far more serious flaw of being simply wrong. He is unable to claim that there are few real differences in the Jewish observances of the average Reform (or Conservative) Jew and the average Vizhnitzer Chossid, much less to bridge the theological chasm that divides them. And worst of all, he is unable to present a demonstrable benefit to be derived from following his advice.

Unable, as I said, to demonstrate a lack of practical or doctrinal differences, instead he attempts to minimize the divisions through exaggeration and even mockery:

Consider these disturbing scenarios: Most Orthodox rabbis would sooner close the doors of their synagogue than permit a Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform rabbi to speak from the pulpit and violate its sanctity with “heretical” non-Orthodox teachings.

Many Reform rabbis will officiate at an interfaith wedding alongside Christian clergy but refuse to stand under the huppa next to a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi and condone a halachic wedding contract of kinyan, or acquisition.

At its biennial convention in 2005, the Conservative rabbinical association debated in earnest whether to expel traditional, non-egalitarian congregations from the United Synagogue’s highly trumpeted, pluralistic “tent of Conservative Jewry.” One rabbi referred to non-egalitarian services as “immoral” and “misogynistic.”

It is certainly true that a Reform rabbi would be a most unlikely teacher in an Orthodox congregation. I’m no fan of translated terms either, but if we are to put the word “heretical” in quotation marks in this instance, then when can the word ever be used without them? And, of course, it’s a two-way street. You’re not going to see Orthodox Rabbis welcomed into Reform congregations to promote the idea that Commandments are mandatory. [Reform will invite Orthodox speakers, but often because they value learning about other religions.]

While I am hardly qualified to make any definitive statements about Reform clergy, those that I know take pluralism relatively seriously. If one of their congregants were to marry a Conservative Jew who wished to have a traditional kinyan during the chuppah, I don’t think it likely that they would refuse. And as for the sentiment that non-egalitarian services are “misogynistic,” I am reasonably certain that Rabbi Forman would affirm with enthusiasm that one will find similar sentiments throughout the Reform movement.

The fact that Rabbi Singerman finds these differences “disturbing” does not entitle him to pretend that rabbis are merely “defending theological turf,” much less “mark[ing] their territory, beat[ing] their chests, [or] bellow[ing] a warning.” These are sincerely held positions of sincere, thinking Jews, and I acknowledge the sincerity of the Reform rabbi’s belief in egalitarianism as I do the sincerity of the observant Jew’s belief in the obligatory nature of Halachah. This is the reality of the Jewish world today. Deal with it.

Singerman then argues that these differences alienate unaffiliated Jews. “When the decibel level of strident carping drowns out the beauty and positive values of all streams of Judaism, outsiders will choose to remain on the outside, and those on the way out will quickly join the ranks of the unaffiliated.”

While I could not dispute this effect if he were accurately describing the reality, I do not believe that he is. Children in cheder schools are not taught the beauty of Judaism with generous doses of “intolerance and fraternal hatred.” When I began studying in Ohr Somayach, I only learned that the Orthodox don’t think a [Conservative] JTS ordination is legitimate because a Conservative co-worker (whose nephew was studying in JTS) told me so. It simply isn’t part of the program.

Meanwhile, I think the case could be made — and at least circumstantial evidence presented — that the opposite is true: that a forthright acknowledgment of our differences works against assimilation. A feminist can reject Orthodoxy but embrace Reform, while one turned off by Hebrew school can do the opposite.

So Rabbi Singerman dismisses legitimate differences, and exaggerates (to some extent) the level of gratuitous intolerance. He then proposes “solutions” which appear likely to do more harm than good.

In 2001, a group of Jerusalem residents created the first Modern Orthodox Partnership Minyan, which seeks to readdress the role of women in the synagogue within the strictures of halacha. As in any Orthodox service, the Partnership Minyan consists of 10 men, separates men and women with a mehitza, or barrier, and uses traditional Orthodox liturgy. Yet it allows women to participate fully in the Torah reading as readers and recipients of aliyot, and to lead certain parts of the service. Female participants deliver sermons and lead classes for the congregation.

He argues that this solves a problem — I think it could be argued that it does the opposite. To me, a minyan of this nature sends the message that “yes, we agree Judaism is sexist, but we’re going to do the best we can with it.” That is a message that hardly stirs the heart with Jewish pride. Why shouldn’t we be honest? The Torah acknowledges — and celebrates — the mental, physical and emotional differences between men and women, and responds accordingly. A friend of mine, living in Passaic, noted that the “women’s prayer groups” sprouting up in his area tend to attract women of a certain, limited age group. Their seminary-educated daughters, by and large, lack interest. While there is an obvious conflict between modern feminism and the ageless dictates of the Torah on this issue, it is not at all clear to me that it is appropriate to even give the appearance of the Torah “giving way.”

Similarly, what he calls “another promising development” within the Conservative movement is something that many within the movement itself now consider a mistake. He celebrates the publication, 10 years ago, of a prayer book “which embraces pluralism and a variety of acceptable approaches… by offering alternative texts.” [First of all, this is within the Conservative movement. Again, does he imagine that Reform Jews from Cincinnati can share the same prayer book with the Vizhnitzers?] I am not finding the quote I’m looking for at this moment, but I recall that at the latest convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, much was said about the decline of the movement being the result of trying to be all things to all Jews, and that their new goal should be a “leaner, meaner” Conservative movement with a more committed core. The prayer book lauded by Singerman isn’t the solution, it’s a symptom of the problem the Conservatives are having.

Real problems demand real solutions. Wallpapering over the cracks won’t make them go away.

Calls for “unity” of this nature remind me of the lesson of the Kotzker Rebbe. He quoted the Medrash which says that G-d consulted with Truth, Peace, Kindness and Charity before Creating the world. Kindness and Charity said that He should Create the world, as people would do both. But Truth and Peace argued against, because they accurately predicted that this world would be filled with falsehood and strife. So G-d, says the Medrash, tossed down Truth, and Created the world.

But, asked the Kotzker, what about Peace? It still argued against creation! The Kotzker, with his typical penetrating insight, offered a solution which is both simple and exceedingly profound:

Without Truth, Peace is easy to achieve.

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12 Responses

  1. YM says:

    A few weeks ago, a story circulated about a Williamsburg Hasid who dropped out of acting in a film because ‘word had gotten around’ and it was made clear to him that he would be ostracized from the community if he continued.

    I thought about this. A person freely chooses to associate with a community, and part of that choice is relating to the standards of that community. In the USA, we have the freedom to move wherever we want and to associate with whomever will have us.

    Some Orthodox communities are monolithic, but others are pretty diverse and accomodate a wide range of practices and hashkafos. If a person feels oppressed in his/her community, the clear choice is to move.

    I think that all education has an element of indocrination, at least to the extent that the teachers/Rabbis have an opinion and/or haskhafa and the students look up to them and desire to be like them.

  2. Noam says:

    Steve- I am not confusing anything. I think you are the one who is confusing your own views of RYBS’s position on WTG, with his actual position, as documented extensively by many including Rabbi’s Dov and Aryeh Frimer in their landmark article in Tradition. (see also the positions of Rabbi Riskin). In fact, you dont seem to care what RYBS thought, you only care about your own interpretation of what he thought, regardless of his actual psak and views on the issue. The reality is that his view was much more nuanced, as any review of the available data can attest.

    Much goes into a decision about a school or seminary, far more than whether they support WTG or not. If people were not concerned about their children coming home with different views of religion(specifically adopting viewpoints and actions assoicated with being ‘more frum’), please explain the popularity of the book “Flipping Out” and why it was neccessary for three eminent rabbis/professors to write it. You could even ask Rabbi Menken why it was neccessary for a shul in Baltimore to change its nusach because all the yeshiva bachurim were coming home and wanted to daven with a nusach that was different from the one they grew up with. Each school tries to imbue(yes, indoctrinate also :-) ) the student with its’ set of values.

    Skokie is is a Torah community that is bursting at the seams with young, middle aged, and some older families, kollels, a yeshiva day schools and shuls with wonderful rabbbonim. It is a community where a WTG is desired and deemed an essential part of a woman’s Avodas HaShem by many(over a hundred on a regular basis). I guess it is a little different from Passaic in one little detail. Or, perhaps if the women of Passaic had the opportunity, they might also come to find that a WTG was desired and deemed essential.

    You also misquoted and misconstrued my words. I did not write “I’m Jewish, you are Jewish and the details that divide us are relatively unimportant.” Agreeing to disagree does not discount the gulf between the two positions. While I realize that any position not advocated by RYBS will never recieve the Steve Brizel seal of approval, his approach is not the only viable option for Modern Orthodoxy. In addition, you don’t know if his approach may have changed with differing circumstances.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    Noam-Passaic is a Torah community that is bursting at the seams with young to middle aged families, yeshivos and shuls with wonderful rabbbonim. It is hardly a community where a WTG is desired or deemed an essential part of a woman’s Avodas HaShem. You confuse being “indoctrinated in school” with following the views of RYBS and his talmidim on this issue. OTOH, there is no doubt that RYBS saw both the German MO of R Eliezer Berkovitz ZTL’s mentors including the Seredei Aish, as well as the Pre War Charedi worlds, and deemed both equally inadequate responses. We are the richer for that decision and the development of MO and the Charedi worlds in the USA. Like it or not, a hashkafa based on “I’m Jewish, you are Jewish and the details that divide us are relatively unimportant” and that is heralded by pluralism and inclusiveness IMO lacks roots in Chazal and Rishonim to the point where Teshuvah is basically discounted as a mitzvah as well as intellectual honesty and sends a message that neither kiruv nor chizuk are important in the long run.

    As far as issues that unite and issues that divide, I would suggest that anyone interested read Julius Berman’s piece in this week’s Jewish Week. It clearly should remind the reader that the heterodox movements moved away from any sense of unity long before MO parents started sending their sons and daughters to study Torah in the Land of Israel.

  4. mycroft says:

    burst of insight is over a century old. Shortly after the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 19th century, Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein declared that “in my opinion, the objective of Conservatism and the law of the Radicals [Reform] leads to the same path, the only difference between them is time.” Forman is all too happy to testify to the accuracy of those words:

    I believe that is the late Milton Himmelfarb who wrote about the 1966 version of the State of Jewish belief Commentary symposium that if one read the all responses without the name or affiliation-one could tell which ones were written by Orthodox and which ones were written by Reform or Conservative.
    For all the differences that get fought about among the various Orthodos groups I believe that there is an interesting message that one can tell by the writing if one is Orthodox or not.

  5. Barzilai says:

    I am honestly confused. Under what definition of “A Religion,” (such that would recognize the difference between Roman Catholicism and Zoroasteranism,) would Reform and Orthodox Judaism be parts of one religion? Only if Judaism is defined as it is by those who dislike us, i.e., as ‘the religious behavior of Jews.’

    Conservative Judaism, as far as I know, espouses a belief in God and in divine inspiration, though, speaking as an Orthodox Jew, it’s attitude toward stare decisis and precedent is lamentable. We have plenty of experience with such movements since the time of the second Temple. But Reform Judaism shares nothing with Orthodoxy other than history, race and fate. With the burgeoning patrilineal and conversion issues, race might soon become problematic as well.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Rabbi Menken confuses anecdote with data.

    In the absence of a Gallup Poll, all we have are our own eyes and ears. It is not at all difficult to make the necessary observations before calling reality into question, should one so choose. It really doesn’t matter what seminary (indeed, wouldn’t women who attend these groups prefer to send their daughters to seminaries that favor them?); the observation remains.

    Noam quickly turns from remarking upon the “indoctrination” of Orthodox girls to suggesting that others avoid “snide comments.” While I agree that snide comments “really don’t further Jewish unity and just reflect poorly on the source,” mine wasn’t one of them.

    My parenthetical remark, far from being snide, rebutted the inevitable comment that you do find Orthodox Rabbis speaking in liberal synagoguges. I, of course, should know, since I’ve accepted several such invitations. I also know what the audiences were and were not receptive to hearing.

    Comparative Religion is a Western value, and liberal congregations — Jewish, Christian and other — respond accordingly. Churches invite Rabbis, while liberal synagogues invite both Christians and Buddhists to teach them how to be more spiritual Jews.

    In this context, the lack of reciprocity is the natural result of different values, and the invitation of an Orthodox Rabbi is truly not very different than either of the foregoing. Yes, we are brethren, but in terms of religious beliefs we have very little in common. Honestly — when was the last time an Orthodox Rabbi was invited to invigorate Reform services?

  7. Anonymous says:

    There are so many demands that the Orthodox community accept and embrace Conservative and Reform practices as somehow legitimate. Then they call us hypocrites for talking about unity and love of all Jews while doing nothing to advance those causes. Herein lies the fundamental error. It is possible to love Jews with whom we disagree; much of my family is Conservative, but I still love them and respect them. We certainly have to right to be disrespectful of other forms of Judaism, and we must not look down on or judge others, nor may treat anyone as inferior. But we do have a right and an obligation to draw certain lines. My husband and I do not attend bar and bat mitzvah celebrations that take place in a Conservative shul- my family does not like this, but we had to draw the line, and be firm about we will not condone. Do we need unity? Yes, but in the form of reaching out to others with love, not through any kind of tacit approval or acceptance of practices that are antithetical to our beliefs.

  8. Ori says:

    Joshua Josephs: The real concern I have is the fact that we will end up eventually with two sets of Jews. Because of the requirements of the Beit Din in Israel, and the burden of proof to prove someone is Jewish. I would much rather see focus on this issue than worry we turn people off by having more than one kind of shul.

    Ori: You don’t see a focus on that because it’s not a solvable problems.

    Heterodox Rabbis are not going to give up on the authority to convert people to Judaism. To do so would be to admit that they are not really Rabbis, and that what they teach and practice is not really Judaism. Some of them may do it if they see real evidence to change their minds. None of them would be swayed by the decisions of the Israeli government, or its officially approved tax supported religious courts. Since most Heterodox Rabbis come from the US culturally as well as physically, the whole concept for officially approved, tax supported religious courts is odious.

    Israel’s religious establishment is exclusively Orthodox and likely to stay that way. Israel’s Chiloni politicians have many issues considerably more important than acceptable of Heterodox conversions. As a result, there is no pressure on Israel’s religious courts to be lenient. I’m pretty sure there is considerably pressure on individual dayanim to be strict.

    We’ll probably split into two peoples, or maybe one people and one anational religion.

  9. Ori says:

    Being Orthodox, most people here might say that our strength is the Torah and that any Jewish group is viable in direct proportion to how well it keeps the Torah. If that is the case then diversity is bad – since it means Jewish groups that diverge from the Torah true standard.

    However, the diversity within the Orthodox world itself belies that fact. It is impossible that Satmar and Merkaz haRav are both correct about Zionism, or that Israeli Charedim and the US Modern Orthodox are both correct on the proper amount of secular studies. Either the Torah is silent on these issues, or it is obscure enough that great scholars are still quite unlikely to get the right answer. In either case, it seems like a good idea to have groups doing both.

  10. Noam says:

    “A friend of mine, living in Passaic, noted that the “women’s prayer groups” sprouting up in his area tend to attract women of a certain, limited age group. Their seminary-educated daughters, by and large, lack interest.”

    Rabbi Menken confuses anecdote with data. Furthermore, if a person has been indoctrinated in school by teachers to think that a certain practice is forbidden, it is not reasonable to think that they will take up the practice. Perhaps a study of graduates of seminaries that do not frown on Women Tefilla Groups would be more helpful.

    I certainly agree with Rav Menken that the differences between Orthodoxy and other groups cannot be papered over. However, the tone of the disagreements and the amount of interaction could certainly be improved. I think the approach of Rav Eliezer Berkovitz is more appropriate in this day and age than that of RYBS. We can emphasize our unity as Jews and agree to disagree on the specifics. That does not mean granting halachic legitimacy to non-Halachic practices. It does mean that we recognize that Jews are trying to serve God in the best way they can. Snide comments like “Reform will invite Orthodox speakers, but often because they value learning about other religions” really don’t further Jewish unity and just reflect poorly on the source.

  11. Ori says:

    Why would any Jew call for unity, beyond a specific issue that requires it? Our strength is precisely in our diversity – whatever happens, there is at least one group of Jews that behaves in the right way to handle it.

  12. Joshua Josephs says:

    I have to agree with Rabbi Menken on this point. I believe Rabbi Singerman conflates two issues and this is too frequently done. He assumes that because someone defends their theology they must do it in a way that leads to people being turned off from Judaism. Legitimate theological differences do exist between the various streams of Judaism and there is no way we are going to get rid of them. I have met plenty of unaffiliated people at Chabad houses all over the country who have more than managed to deal with the fact that davening was led solely by men, and with the use of a mechitzah. The real concern I have is the fact that we will end up eventually with two sets of Jews. Because of the requirements of the Beit Din in Israel, and the burden of proof to prove someone is Jewish. I would much rather see focus on this issue than worry we turn people off by having more than one kind of shul.