Rabbi Riskin, they are brothers, not partners

Reform and Conservative leaders do not share Orthodox rabbis' goals. And even if you believe they do, the end does not justifuy the means.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer ,

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer  
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer  
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

There is no question that we must reach out with love to our non-Orthodox brethren; displays of animosity and rejection are not the way of the Torah, and they constitute a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name.

But how does one reach out? As Orthodox Jews, we may not do anything that undermines Halakha or Torah values. We therefore reach out by acting with warmth, by extending an invitation to our non-Orthodox brethren to join us in prayer and Torah study, and so forth. We must always be friendly and welcoming to all Jews and to all people in general, whatever their background. Such is the way of the Torah. Kindness, pleasantness and compassion – these are the character traits that we need to internalize and put to use.

I was therefore quite surprised to read Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s responses during a recent Arutz Sheva nterview about the relationship that Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews should have. Rather than explain that Orthodox Jews need to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews with warmth and friendship, while not compromising Halakha or Torah values, Rabbi Riskin took it way, way further, stating:

“I said more than friends - I said partners…"

"The Conservatives and the Reform are not against the Orthodox. And they don't try to get into Orthodoxy in order to change it."

"Just like I want to bring them closer - they want to bring us closer. Our goals are the same… And I emphasize again - even if we don't agree on so many things. We need to respect their goals, which are the same as ours - to draw people closer to Judaism.”

Rabbi Riskin’s words are quite confusing and misleading in terms of the role of the non-Orthodox movements. Now, it is true that these movements and their leaders try to help people retain their Jewish identity, and these movements of course promote a connection with Judaism. But this connection is to a Judaism that is very diluted; it is to a Judaism that rejects Torah Mi-Sinai/the total Divinity of Torah; it is to a Judaism that teaches that one need not keep kosher or observe the Sabbath; it is to a Judaism that ordains openly gay clergy and in many cases sanctions gay marriage; it is to a Judaism that all too often celebrates intermarriage.

Is this the Judaism whose leaders Rabbi Riskin feels are his partners? Is it true that “we need to respect their goals, which are the same as ours - to draw people closer to Judaism”?

Rabbi Riskin then applies this thesis to the current “Kotel Controversy”:

“There needs to be a place for people who are not Orthodox at the Western Wall, near the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. I think they need to feel like they're a part of Israel, and of the Jewish people. If we want to publicly declare that we want only Orthodox people in the State of Israel, or only Orthodox people in a holy place in Israel, I think we're making a very big mistake….”

Whoa! Let’s take a step back. Who ever said that non-Orthodox Jews feel that they are not “part of Israel and the Jewish People”? Who ever said that “we want only Orthodox people in the State of Israel, or only Orthodox people in a holy place in Israel”? These outrageous notions are being promulgated by Reform and Conservative leadership, and have no basis in reality. Rabbi Riskin has adopted a narrative straight from the non-Orthodox political playbook!

Ever since the Western Wall was liberated from Arab hands, it became a locus of prayer for all Jews. No one ever told non-Orthodox Jews that they are not welcome or are not “Jewish enough” to be there, or to be part of the State of Israel. Such accusations are preposterous, and it is sad that Rabbi Riskin has fallen for them.

The current “Ezrat Yisrael” non-Orthodox prayer area at the Western Wall is barely used; it is typically empty, except for when non-Orthodox tour groups gather there. Instead, non-Orthodox Jews who visit the Kotel prefer to bond with tradition and to pray in the main/Orthodox area, deferentially sensing that a higher and more traditional/authentic standard is in place when standing before God in the location of such palpable and awesome holiness.

As I wrote two weeks ago:

“All of us are familiar with the sight of non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, as they cover their heads, separate off to the men’s and women’s prayer sections, and realize that they must be heedful of the heightened and intense level of sanctity of that most special locus. In all of my times praying at the Wall, I not once recall a non-Orthodox Jew refuse to cover his head or demand that his wife pray together with him. It was simply unthinkable.”

Non-Orthodox Jews visit, love and revere the Kotel. It is sad that the leaders of this movement conjured up a set of complaints and a cause that did not reflect reality; it was pure politics.

So too for the Conversion Bill, which only impacts private conversions performed within the State of Israel – the vast majority of which are Orthodox! But American Reform, Conservative and Federation leadership (the last of which is not supposed to be partisan) has presented this to their constituencies and to the press as an attack on non-Orthodox diaspora Jewry, and are now threatening an economic boycott of Israeli interests!

Rabbi Riskin, these leaders are not our partners. Please don’t say that “we need to respect their goals, which are the same as ours - to draw people closer to Judaism”. These leaders are disingenuously pushing a political agenda that will damage everyone, including themselves, as they further alienate their movements from their only live connection to Judaism, which is the State of Israel.

Let us welcome, invite and love our non-Orthodox brethren. Let us draw them near to the warmth of Torah and make them feel at home. But let us not throw away our principles and be party to an effort to harm Judaism and Jews.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer is a member of the the umbrella organization of US Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and of the New York Bar.