Rabbi Eliezer Melamed doesn’t need me to defend him. After Rav Melamed participated in an online forum with Reform Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur last week, he was strongly criticized in Hebrew both in the hareidi world as well as in the Religious Zionist community.
But as the author of the popular Peninei Halachah series and Dean of the Har Brachah Yeshiva, Rav Melamed is a formidable figure in the Religious Zionist world. A thoughtful, charismatic leader, he fully realized that his action would be met with criticism, and has already articulately expressed the factors that led him to participate in the forum.
Nonetheless, I write, not so much to defend Rabbi Melamed, but to try and address the substance of the critique of his actions, recently articulated on Arutz Sheva in Rabbi Baruch Efrati’s critique of Rav Melamed as well as those of Rabbi Yehoshua Van Dyke and Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer..
Rabbi Efrati writes that, “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.” He then engages in a lengthy assessment of the attitude of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s attitude towards the Reform Movement, as well as that of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, both zts"l..
Rabbi Efrati quotes Rav Soloveitchik’s position against meeting with Reform Rabbis unless there are issues affecting all Jews. The Rav’s attitude – at least the way it was explained to me – was more nuanced than a simple “yes” or “no”. Rav Soloveitchik defined and distinguished between two distinct areas of communal life: those areas of mutual concern and well-being for the Jewish people as a whole, and the areas of halakhah, ritual and spiritual life. In areas of mutual concern, such as fighting antisemitism, the Rav felt that we must work together for the common good, while refraining from engagement in areas of religion and spirituality.
Does appearing on a panel with a Reform rabbi constitute religious engagement? No, but it is also not a matter of common concern. While Rabbi Efrati feels that it is a form of recognition, I disagree. Rav Melamed sat together with Rabbi Horvilleur in order to connect to Jews that he wanted to understand. They did not talk about collaboration in terms of religious practice or about ideology, but instead about the need for broader communal understanding and connection. I also find the argument about “recognition” unconvincing. Sitting with a person, or their leadership, does not mean that you recognize their religious authority. Rather, it means that you acknowledge that they lead a significant group of Jews, a fact that needs no recognition at all.
More than theoretical rabbinical arguments, it seems to me that Rabbi Efrati’s arguments stem perhaps from a lack of understanding of the true challenges facing the Jewish world today – especially in the Reform community in the Diaspora.
The True Enemy is Assimilation
I have spent the last two years traveling to small Jewish communities in Europe and the United States as part of Ohr Torah Stone’s Amiel BaKehilla program, supported by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. We brought Judaism and the power of Israel to Jews of any and every community – be they unaffiliated, Reform, Orthodox.
From my travels it seems clear to me that the battles of the 1950s and 1960s are long over. While the non-Orthodox movements are the still the largest denominations in terms of sheer numbers in the United States, they are also shrinking at an alarming, if not terrifying rate. We are losing Jews to assimilation and indifference in the best case scenario, and hostility and hatred in the worst.
Many, including Rabbi Efrati, place the blame for this reality squarely at the feet of the non-Orthodox clergy, standing at the helm of the ship as Jews jump overboard at a frightening clip, and performing intermarriages, for example.. Again I would argue for nuance, and a deeper understanding of religious reality in the Diaspora.
We can agree to disagree, as Rabbi Melamed does, but still recognize that we must work together to build our collective future.
Today, the greatest threat to Jewish identity in the Diaspora (and in Israel, for that matter) is not the non-Orthodox movements. I would argue quite the opposite! With all the amazing kiruv work taking place, and with Chabad in every hamlet across the globe, when most Jews decide to visit a synagogue, they don’t choose an Orthodox shul. Are the non-Orthodox clergy pushing them away, or helping them maintain their Jewish identity?
We no longer live in a world where Jewish affiliation is a given. When that was true, there was a pitched battle for the hearts and souls of the Jewish people. Today, cultural and religious identity is threatened by a Western ideology that decries any religious or tribal affiliation. This mode of thought considers any religious affiliation – whether Orthodox or Reform – primitive, simplistic, and antithetical to modern life. Watch any current television series and you’ll immediately sense the antipathy and derision towards religious life. It is in this backdrop that Jews are abandoning their heritage in the hundreds of thousands, decimating the non-Orthodox movements around the world.
Today, I don’t believe we have the luxury of viewing non-Orthodox movements – and their leadership – as an enemy. We have a larger foe we must fight together. More importantly, when we engage in that fight, I believe that we actually do more harm than good.
The Power of the State of Israel
One strand of hope that draws Jews closer to their heritage. Today, the State of Israel represents a source of pride and strength that has the power to ignite the souls of Jews around the world. With its incredible accomplishments in technology, health and science, and with its good works around the world, the State of Israel serves as a beacon of pride for so many non-religious Jews.
At the same time, the religious establishment of the Jewish State vilifies the non-Orthodox movements both through harmful statements, turning tens of thousands of Jews away from the State they want to love. Imagine having a sense of connection to Israel, but then reading in the press that officials from Israel’s Ministry of Religion have made harmful statements that alienate your religious leader, or cantor, or your status as a Jew. Would you want to visit here? Would you have a sense of pride? Or would you feel alienated and a sense of revulsion?
I am sure that Rabbi Efrati truly does love every individual Jew, and his criticism is not of individual Reform Jews, but their denomination and leadership. He reminds us that over 50% of Reform congregations are not halakhically Jewish by now. But life isn’t that simple. People see themselves as under attack, and see the State of Israel as the source of that strife. So they stay away, and ultimately abandon any connection to their Jewish heritage.
The Religious Zionist Community Must Change its Tone
Finally, there is the issue of tone.
In the Religious Zionist community today, the word “Reform” is a slur; a label to libel someone deemed irreligious or at least religiously liberal. In my community in Israel, attempts to include women in more egalitarian communal religious activity is decried as “Reform”, articulated with a tone of derision and scorn. Where is the love of all Jews that Rav Kook so proudly promoted?
No one – not Orthodox nor Reform - will win this battle. Instead, our common enemy – assimilation and intermarriage – will continue to claim hundreds of thousands more Jews as we argue over who is to blame.
Let us all adopt Rav Melamed’s wise path of interaction and understanding, rather than trying to wage a “pitched battle” that ended decades ago. We can agree to disagree, as Rabbi Melamed does, but still recognize that we must work together to build our collective future.
Rabbi Reuven Spolter received his Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS at YU and is the Founder of the Mishnah Project which spreads the study of Mishnah through the Mishnah Yomit program around the world. He serves as the Shorashim Coordinator for English-speaking countries for Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar, was Director of Amiel Bakehila, a division of the Ohr Torah Stone network, which sent delegations of educators, lecturers and artists from Israel to Jewish communities around the world. Raised in Silver Spring, MD, Reuven Spolter served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park in Michigan until his aliyah in 2008 when he spent several years as instructor and academic coordinator at Orot Teachers College. Rabbi Spolter lives with his family in Yad Binyamin, Israel.