Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the well-known head of Har Bracha Yeshiva and author of the Pninei Halakhah series of books, recently took part in a public "getting acquainted" panel session with a "Rabba," the term for a woman who is a spiritual leader in the Reform Movement. He is quoted on Arutz Sheva as saying "Boycott Reform movement? No reason for it."
In my humble opinion, his good intentions notwithstanding, Rabbi Melamed's erred in taking part in the meeting and should refrain from doing so again.
Religious Zionist Jews, can feel close to the secular public in many ways, while at the same time we are engaged in a pitched battle against the Reform and Conservative Movements,
In this article I will attempt to explain why we, Religious Zionist Jews, can feel close to the secular public in many ways, while at the same time we are engaged in a pitched battle against the Reform and Conservative Movements, although not with their individual lay members.
Let us go back to the beginning. Historically, G-d fearing Jews approached the Zionist Movement in one of two ways. Some turned their back on much of the Zionist Movement's return to the Land of Israel because most of the movement's adherents were not religious. They placed prime importance on negating anything secular, protected their communities that way, but also ignored earthshaking Jewish national developments as well as the cultural and religious upheavals facing the Jewish People.
Rabbi Kook and secular Zionist pioneers
Rabbi Avraham Yitschak HaKohen Kook, zts"l, the iconic Torah luminary and leader of Religious Zionism, and eventually Israel's first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, differed with the mainstream rabbinic response. He sought to join the Zionists with love for all of Israel, to be involved and to try to raise the spiritual level of those in every sector by imbuing their endeavors to return to Zion with an aura of holiness.
Rabbi Kook spoke and wrote often on the uniqueness of the people of Israel and on the obvious and revealed Redemption that was taking place before our eyes. Non-observant people of integrity, he said, do not come here to lead a decadent and erroneous way of life, but because unconsciously, they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah. Ideological secularism is the shelter for confused souls whose subconscious desire is the light of the Almighty, the light they lacked in the exile before our nation returned to life in its land. The secular world is one of impurities. but in its depths there is a spark of holiness that keeps it alive – and that will, with time, allow the true Jewish soul to come to the fore.
The Torah of Eretz Yisrael is the antidote for spiritual rebellion, he wrote. The unique qualities of Eretz Yisrael help those who dwell in the land clarify their thoughts and progress, however slowly, towards true teshuva.
This perception led Rabbi Kook to have faith in the tikun that the secular Zionists would experience. He believed that even those most adamant in their antagonism to the Torah would return once the vibrant and holy light of the Torah was apparent to them - and that in the end, they would contribute much to the revival of G-d's word in Israel. "We believe in the Almighty Who has stretched out His hand to redeem His people," he said, viewing all the vicissitudes of Israeli culture as attempts to reach spirituality, as a search for the grandeur of a transcendental G-d - that would, eventually, lead to tikun, even though this would not be a linear process.
Rabbi Kook and the Reform Movement's leadership
Rabbi Kook's vehement castigation of the Reform Movement and its leaders– although not its lay members– in his writings stands in sharp contrast to his loving and empathetic attitude towards non-observant Israelis. He wrote the following letter to American Jewry, which he presciently saw as fated to disappear because of the anti-Torah measures of the Reform Movement:
B"H, The Holy City of Jerusalem (may it be rebuilt speedily in our time), 1922
To our brothers, to the beloved and holy congregations in the United States of America and Canada, may G-d protect them, those who seek to keep the word of G-d, believe in the heritage of Moses, the Written and Oral Law, G-d's Covenant with the people of Israel: Greetings to you from the Holy Mount of Jerusalem.
My dear Brothers,
The state of true Judaism as it is upheld by the faithful in your midst has been brought to my attention and it breaks my heart. The despoilers have come, those who have destroyed the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and are even now are causing many to abandon the G-d of Israel and His eternal Torah – They, the inventive Reform leaders to whom many, even from within the faithful religious camp have been drawn unwittingly, uproot the foundations of the world that are intertwined with the basic principles of Torah and Judaism.
And these cracks are in the wall of sanctity, evidenced in the words that are publicly uttered, the actions that leave their mark on entire congregations, including the way synagogues are constructed and what customs they follow – and they go from evil deed to evil deed, one sin leads to another, destruction brings on more destruction, to the point where they have laid their hand on the holy mesorah, in place from the beginning of time, that mandates separate prayer sections for women and men.
We know what happened to the first despoilers who began destroying and abandoning the original Jewish tradition and heritage, we know what happened to them, that almost all of them are lost to the people of Israel, having left the faith along with their offspring. Many of them have been swallowed up without a trace by the non-Jewish world, and those who have not yet been lost are like an atrophied limb festering in the nation's body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism. Our eyes see this and are filled with longing for them, while the best of them regret the sin of their fathers once they see the spiritual ruin that it spawned.
Why was Rabbi Kook's attitude to Reform Jewry so uncompromisingly different from the one he evinced towards secular Jews?
Rabbi Kook: Just as no one would join forces with the man who steals his wife and wrecks his home, so there can be no joining of forces with a movement that wishes to do the same to our home, the State of Israel, to our Jewish identity, to our Torah-true values.
Why didn't the undisputed leader of Religious Zionism seize the opportunity to call for cooperation with the Reform Movement the way certain rabbis do today? Why did he refer to them using sharp words such as: "despoilers"" "destroyers of the vineyard," "wreckers," "uprooters of eternal foundations," "instigators," "cut off from the house of Israel," "atrophied limbs in the body of the people" – epithets that the rabbi never used in describing anyone except for the Reform Movement and Jews who converted to Christianity?
The answer is clear. The secular world and the observant world live side by side. Non-observant Jews have chosen wrongly, the Rabbi felt, but they are open to tikun because of the light spilling over from the religious world beside them and their sacrifices for the Jewish people. The secular Jewish world does not want to take over the religious world from a theological point of view, but to live beside it – hence, the possibility of affecting that world, listening to its hearts' desires, elevating its holy sparks to their heavenly source. Secular Jews are actually non-observant believers he felt, and they do not present an alternative organized religion that turns transgressions into an ideology intended to take the place of the Torah. They have not invented a religion, but are in the midst of a process where secularism withers and faith blossoms, as one can see over the last few years in which there is constant strengthening of ties to Torah, baruch Hashem. Secular Israelis can live with what our lives of Torah and Tradition entail without trying to replace them with a new religious creed.
In contrast, the Reform Movement has a "progressive" ideology that wishes to exchange the Oral Law's G-d-given message. It does not wish to ask questions about the Torah, but to create a religious empire of its own. It has an organized theology that grants legitimacy to transgressions of Torah and turns them into religion. There is no possibility of living side by side, but a theological battle over which religion is to guide the Jewish homeland.
Isaiah describes idol worship as gaining strength because it justifies man's acting according to his own desires. When a man bows to idols, he is really bowing to himself and his desires, turning his sins into an ideology and sanctioning them a priori as religious activities. The lust for idol worship was once so pervasive that people would sacrifice their own children to prove their loyalty, but actually only succeeded in proving that they were acting on their basest instincts and not serving a Supreme Being who restrains and sets limits for human behavior.
The Reform Movement originated in a form of heresy that wished to establish a new religion based on plundering that which is holy. It is a model that does not speak of raising one's level of sanctity in order to accept the Torah, but uses ideological terms to lower the level of Torah in order to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos (some of whose beliefs are beneficial to man). It does not sacrifice children, but it sacrifices G-dly values, and that is no less deleterious.
In contrast to the secular population, the Reform Movement wishes to accomplish exactly what its name says, to effect a critical change in the foundations of Torah, putting man in the center, exchanging the Oral Law for man's inventions. Man is to be the source of religious authority and not the Torah. Reform Jews deny G-d's revelation through prophecy and the Temple, deny the eternal life He has planted within us. The movement's goal is not empowering a higher level of being, something the secular world can relate to, but lessening the level of sanctity in Jewish tradition
Reform theology does not believe that Jews are the Chosen People and wants the world to unite, as do the Christians, under one faith – that of belief in man, his desires and his wants. The Reform Movement is against a biological definition of the Jew, instead emphasizing his personal feelings and self-definition.
Confronting this heresy, there are no compromises and no cooperation. Just as no one would join forces with the man who steals his wife and wrecks his home, so there can be no joining of forces with a movement that wishes to do the same to our home, the State of Israel, to our Jewish identity, to our Torah-true values.
The Reform and Conservative Movements and Israel
As I have written before, the Reform and Conservative Movements made a strategic decision to infiltrate the State of Israel from the United States and to change the balance of power in Israeli society so that the religious world would not continue to be a place of commitment to mitzvot and the guidance of Heaven, but, become, instead, a folkloristic tradition. Reform Jews donate large sums of money to yeshivas, including haredi yeshivas, and other organizations in Israel making it hard to stand strong in the face of their leaderships' attempts to be accepted as a result. One can already discern signs of their subtle influence on rabbis and concepts in parts of the religious Zionist world.
The following has to be an implacable rule: Individual Reform Jews are our brothers (American Orthodox Jews meet Reform Jews in the workplace, in their families and in other venues, and will consider that statement self-evident) and we welcome them warmly as part of the Jewish people (those that actually are Jewish, that is, as approxijmately 50% of Reform congregants are not halakhically Jewish by now - and the number is growing), and we are prepared to explain their mistaken view of Judaism to them if they wish to listen. We see that among them are those who do return to the true Judaism and we welcome them with love. However, we will wage an everlasting war against their ideological movement, a war that does not affect our relations with individual members There is no way to justify granting the Reform or Conservative Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal or public legitimacy, in the State of Israel.
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik's attitude to Reform and Conservative leaders
In 1954, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik zts"l wrote a 10-part series of columns for the Yiddish daily, Tog Morgen Journal. The second column in the series was titled "On Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox Movements" and is about the subject of this article, delineating his view of the parameters of interaction between Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis. Nathaniel Helfgot, who edited the book of selected letters and communications of the Rav, where the English translation of the column used here can be found, writes that "these became the guiding principles for modern Orthodox lay and rabbinic institutions in the following decades.".
Below are quotes from the Rav's article (note: readers are urged to read the entire riveting and enlightening article):
"When we are faced with a problem for Jews and Jewish interests toward the world without, regarding the defense of Jewish rights in the non-Jewish world, then all groups and movements must be united…any friction in the Jewish camp may be disastrous for the entire people…In the crematoria, the ashes of the Hasidim and pious Jews were put together with the ashes of the radicals and atheists. And we must all fight the enemy, who does not differentiate between those who believe in G-d and those who reject Him.
"With regard to our problem within [the Jewish community],however, our spiritual-religious interests such as Jewish education, synagogues, councils of rabbis – whereby unity is expressed through spiritual-ideological collectivism as a Torah community, it is my opinion that Orthodoxy cannot and should not work 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 Maimonides, Rav Moshe Isserles, the Gaon 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…The fundamental differences in ideology and observance make such cooperation impossible. 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 and the Sadducees in Second Commonwealth times…and between the Karaites and traditionalists in the Geonic era...
"…In this respect [regarding Halakhah] the Reform movement conducts itself in accordance with its ideals and its resolve. It does the same as the Christian apostle, Saul of Tarsus, did in his days. It rejects the Halakhahand its performance of commandments entirely and selcts the universal ethical principles of the Torah…we know at least where we stand and we can identify our opponents. When the Conservative Movement, however, speaks of the Halakhah, we are unable to perceive what kind of Halakhah it means: The Halakhah of Rabbi Akiva, Rav Ashi, the Rema, or a new kind of 'halakhah' which was invented at the conferences of the Rabbinical Assembly where Halakhah is, by the way, very convenient and very modest in its demands? Against this kind of confusion Orthodoxy wages a battle, for it sees in it a very great danger.
The Mapai realied that if it wants to avoid a schism in the ranks of Jewish family life it must transfer the authority on the laws of marriage into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate…
"If this new 'halakhah' should begin to meddle in laws of marriage which not only affect the individual in our time but also the halakhic status for countless generations to come, then a bitter struggle will develop…I hope that the representatives of the Conservative camp will act just as carefully [in America] as the atheistic Mapai did in Israel. The Mapai realized that if it wants to avoid a schism in the ranks of Jewish family life it must transfer the authority on the laws of marriage into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate…
"Two things I should like them to remember: first, with regard to this question there is no difference of opinion in Orthodoxy (listing the different groups such as Mizrachi and Aguda, ed.)…Second, Orthodoxy has yet much strength which should not be underestimated... "(End of quotes from the Rav's article).
A similar approach but one that is even more extreme against any connection with representatives of the Reform or Conservative Movements, appears in tens of Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zts"l in his Igrot Moshe, halakhic decisions accepted by all Orthodox Jewry in the USA.
These rabbinic luminaries dealt with the two movements on their home turf and knew them well. As we have seen, Chief Rabbi Avraham Hakohen Kook, in Israel, came out strongly against legitimizing this misguided and destructive movement. At the same time, the three great rabbis told us to respect and love every Jew.
They did not do what Rabbi Eliezer Melamed did and not for lack of opportunity. In point of fact, Rabbi Eliezer usually discusses his halakhic decisions repeatedly, thereby creating a philosophic preface for them. One gets the impression that his decision preceded the philosophic prefacing and did not include consultation with venerable senior rabbis on this issue, despite its being one of such great import. There seems not to have been a period in which longterm and short term pros and cons were considered before this error in judgment became a publicly known fait accompli.
The rabbi embarked on a new and dangerous road, one that could bring the greatest spiritual enemy of Halakhah into the State of Israel's consensus. As Rabbi Yaakov Ariel said upon being asked about meetings with Reform leaders, after hearing of the publicized meeting Rabbi Melamed held with a Reform "Rabba": "Reform Jewry wishes to attain legitimacy, we must not give it to them. Their religion is not that of our holy Torah."
May it be G-d's Will that we all recognize our errors - that would be to our credit - as sanctifying G-d's Name is a greater deed than defamation of His Name
Rabbi Baruch Efrati studied in Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and serves as a rabbi in Efrat. He is a prolific and much-read writer on Torah issues and heads the "Derech Emunah" (Way of Torah) movement of young Israeli Orthodox rabbis.