Rabbi Avi ShafranThe writer is the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America. He is also a contributing writer to Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought and opinion.
It isn’t every year that news reports about Agudath Israel of America’s annual dinner make the pages of media like the Forward or The New York Times. This, however, was one such year.
The reason for the attention was the heartfelt and stirring speech delivered by the Novominsker Rebbe, shlita, the Rosh Agudath Yisroel (head of the organization), at the gathering. And the fact that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio chose not to contest the Rebbe’s words.
Rabbi Perlow spoke to the issue of organized deviations from the Jewish mesorah (traditional halakhic practice as passed down from generation to generation, ed.), a topic that is timely because of the insistence of the latest such movement on calling itself “Open Orthodoxy,” rather than summoning the courage to find an independent adjective for itself, as did the Conservative and Reform movements of the past.
Over the past century or two, the term “Orthodox” in the Jewish world has been synonymous with full affirmation of the mesorah – including most prominently the historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus); the fact that the Torah, both Written and Oral, was bequeathed to our ancestors at Mount Sinai; and that Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov (the 3 Patriarchs) actually existed – concepts that prominent products or leaders of the “Open Orthodoxy” movement are on record as rejecting.
The reporters missed the real story. That a clarion call had been sounded to all Jews ...who recognize that the Torah is true...
Yet, the “Orthodoxy” in the group’s name has misled various Orthodox congregations across the country to assume that there must be truth in that advertising, and to engage the services of graduates of the “Open” movement as rabbis. And so, the Rebbe apparently and understandably felt it was important to, in effect, proclaim a strong and principled “caveat emptor,” so that any potential buyers of this particular bill of goods will beware of the fact that the product is dangerously defective.
And so he invoked the sad examples of the other heterodox movements, which, while they seemed once upon a time to offer the promise of Jewish fulfillment and a Jewish future to some undiscriminating Jews, have, the Rebbe lamented, “fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation” and are on the way to being “relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history.”
A rather unremarkable if unfortunate truism, that. But, at least to the two newspapers, it seemed to be news (“Orthodox Rabbi Stuns Agudath Gala With ‘Heresy’ Attack on Open Orthodoxy,” gasped the Forward headline) – at least combined with the fact that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio spoke after Rabbi Perlow’s remarks and chose to not address them. It couldn’t have been much of a dilemma for him, as an elected official (not to mention one presumably not expert in Jewish theology), to decide whether or not to mix into a religious issue.
The New York Times columnist who wrote about the rabbi and the mayor is Michael Powell. If his name elicits a sour taste, it’s because it was he who, only last month, wrote an egregiously unfair column about the East Ramapo School District’s “Orthodox-dominated board” that “ensured that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars for textbooks and school buses.” Those books and buses, of course, are mandated by law for all New York City schoolchildren – even Orthodox ones. He has written a number of other columns that touch upon – and not in a positive way – hareidi communities, including a long cynical magazine piece about Satmar back in 2006.
What further upset Mr. Powell was Mr. de Blasio’s praise for the Agudah as a movement, and for its executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, with whom he has worked for years and who, he said, “is someone I deeply respect and listen carefully to.” Bad enough, the writer seemed to be thinking, that the mayor didn’t stand up for the cause of kefira (denying Torah-true Judaism, ed.), but did he really have to express admiration for an Agudath Israel leader?
Mr. Powell clearly has an “Orthodox problem.”
That’s unfortunate. Still, a columnist has the right to be biased, unfair and even offensive. What even a columnist may not do, though, is offer his readers errors of fact.
Rabbi Perlow did not, as Mr. Powell reports, offer a “shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews.” The Rebbe simply reaffirmed Orthodox Judaism’s insistence that heterodox theologies – ideas and beliefs, not people – are incompatible with the Judaism of the ages. Anyone who knows the Rebbe, or any of the manhigei hador (current Rabbinic leaders), knows that they have only love and concern for all Jews, no matter how misled these Jews may be by their religious leaders.
The reporters missed the real story. That a clarion call had been sounded to all Jews – hareidi and otherwise – who recognize that the Torah is true and that our mesorah is real, to address the deceptive attempts to convince Jews that ersatz “Judaisms” and even “Orthodoxies” are something other than capitulations to the Zeitgeist.
The mayor may have understood that. Or just, wisely, recognized that he had no expertise to engage the issue of the meaning of Judaism.
Would that Mr. Powell had followed his example.
Also appeared in Cross Currents