Reform and the limits of acceptance

There is a basic problem with the Reform Movement's outlook on Judaism. Rabbi Amital zt"l, of Har Etzion Hesder Yeshiva, considered a moderate, explains. And he refers specifically to LGBT issues.

Menachem Ben-Mordechai,

Judaism Menachem Ben Mordechai
Menachem Ben Mordechai

If someone draws a circle and calls it a square, that does not obligate others to agree. If the purveyor of false geometry insists on legitimacy, opposition becomes necessary.

MK Bezalel Smotrich was recently in the news for describing Reform as a “fake religion” with invalid conversions. This extends Rabbi Yigal Levenstein’s statement last month that “the Reform movement is not a Jewish movement.” 

There are observant Jews who might view these assessments as “divisive.” If so, they would do well to look at how Reform has defined itself; for this is where the division began.

It is one thing for people to violate mitzvot. It is quite another to form a movement that rejects the duty to obey mitzvot. Reform is historically the latter, stating in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885:  

"We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation...We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state."

Reform likewise claimed in the Columbus Platform of 1937, "Being products of historical processes, certain of its [the Torah's] laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth." The movement subsequently couched rejection of Torah in the language of autonomy: "Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” (“A Centenary Perspective,” 1976)

Accordingly, defenders of Judaism through the generations have taken stands against Reform’s fundamental misrepresentations. Rabbi Alexander Kohut, for example, wrote in 1885:

"...not everyone should be condemned who cannot observe all the laws with equal fidelity—taking for granted, however, that he acknowledges the binding character of the Law. Only he who denies this, who rejects on principle the validity of the Mosaic-rabbinical tradition, thereby banishes himself from the camp of Israel, writes his own epitaph: 'I am no Jew, no adherent to the faith of my fathers'...A Reform which seeks to progress without the Mosaic-rabbinical tradition is a deformity—a skeleton without flesh and sinew, without spirit and heart. It is suicide; and suicide is not reform. We desire a Judaism full of life."

On the issue of inter-denominational unity, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik stated in 1954:

“…it is my opinion that Orthodoxy cannot and should not unite with such groups which deny the fundamentals of our weltanschauung. It is impossible for me to comprehend, for example, how Orthodox rabbis, who spent their best years in yeshivot and absorbed the spirit of the Oral Law and its tradition, for whom Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, Rav Mosheh Isserles, the Ga'on of Vilna, Rav Hayyim Brisker and other Jewish sages are the pillars upon which their spiritual world rests, can join with spiritual leaders for whom all this is worthless...From the point of view of the Torah, we find the difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism much greater than that which separated the Pharisees from the Sadducees in the days of the Second Commonwealth, and between the Karaites and traditionalists in the Geonic era...Too much harmony and peace can cause confusion of the minds and will erase outwardly the boundaries between Orthodoxy and other movements."

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein maintained his father-in-law’s affirmation of tradition. "As shomrei hadat and mahzikei hadat,” he wrote in a 2010 essay, “we have a sacred duty to protect and enhance the purity and integrity of Torah as we received it from our masters and as we are committed to transmitting to our successors.” While rejecting “vitriolic antagonism” and hoping for “the prospect of binding reconciliation” with heterodox denominations, Rav Lichtenstein ruled out what Reform wants most:

"We cannot give our ideological rivals that of which they are most desirous—the inherent equalization of religious and secular ethics, on the one hand, and, in the mode of eilu v’eilu, the recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism as full-scale versions of Torah, on a par with traditional mesorah. Such legitimization would emasculate the epicenter of Orthodoxy.”

What practical effects result from this stance? Rav Lichtenstein gave as an example:

“Some of the positions espoused by the Orthodox community and its leadership, which breed resentment among its opponents, are not, strictly speaking ‘theirs,’ at all. Rather, they constitute application of halakhic norms to concrete situations. Disqualification of parshiyot of tefillin written by a Reform sofer is, indeed, discriminatory. But the decision to enact it is no recent innovation of Hungarian rabbis—or of their current Israeli or American counterparts—desperately fending Neological encroachments. It is nothing more than the implementation of the Rambam’s dictum—based, in turn, upon Talmudic sources—that ‘Only one who is commanded regarding the tying and believes in it may write’ , which leaves little, if any, latitude for poskim, even should they prefer leniency.”

An especially powerful summary of Reform’s offensiveness comes from what might be an unexpected source: Rav Yehuda Amital zt"l. Commonly described as a “moderate” in the camp of left-wing Religious Zionism, he wrote in 1997:

Rav Amital: Moreover, 'for three sins of' the Reform movement, 'and for four I shall not bring them back' (cf. Amos 1:3-2:8): for marrying Jews to non-Jews according to the law of Yisrael, as it were; for performing ceremonies together with Christian ministers; and for instituting marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples
"We reject outright the path of the Reform movement. What is especially offensive is its perversion of authentic Judaism. From this perspective, Reform Judaism is worse than secularism, and we have some harsh things to say about their move away from the central foundations that are identified with historical Judaism and with Jewish tradition. Moreover, 'for three sins of' the Reform movement, 'and for four I shall not bring them back' (cf. Amos 1:3-2:8): for marrying Jews to non-Jews according to the law of Yisrael, as it were; for performing ceremonies together with Christian ministers; and for instituting marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Even if these phenomena do not characterize all Reform rabbis, they have not been banned by the movement. 'And for four I shall not bring them back:' for undermining the genealogical system by adopting the principle of patrilineal descent, which determines the Judaism of children according to the father. This is especially grave in view of the chasm that it creates within the Jewish nation–a chasm that is irreparable."

Like peace and love, acceptance is no absolute good and has limits. Judaism is not the theological equivalent of an ice cream shop where beliefs are flavors without moral distinction. Our tribal past shows that tradition does support diversity, contingent upon a shared dedication to Divine norms. In Rav Amital’s words:

"We nullify ourselves in the face of His great exaltedness as our Creator and as our Father, because of whose abundant love we are called His children, and upon whose loving-kindness we rely in every step that we take. Thus, there arises within us a feeling of absolute commitment to God, to obey Him and accept His commands as self-evident, and to do whatever finds favor in His eyes."