Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

For the past two weeks, I have explained that it is forbidden to impose boycotts on the leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements, and this prohibition involves collective pikuach nefesh, as the Netziv said: “Like swords to the body and existence of the nation.” On the other hand, the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael applies to all Jews, and indeed because we have a fundamental debate on the foundations of faith and Torah with them – we must balance the reproach with public expressions of brotherhood.

For too long we have not met. Oceans separated us. The longing intensified. Thank God, we now are able to meet.

In opposition to my view, some argued that all the Gedolei Ha-Dor, the leading sages of the previous generation – including Rabbi Soloveitchik, the Chief Rabbis, and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook – instructed to boycott their leaders, i.e., not to meet with them publicly,or afford them honor. This is simply false. Since these issues touch on two existential foundations – Ahavat Yisrael and its unity, and the truthful ways of studying Torah – I will make an effort to explain things correctly.

Our Teacher and Guide, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l

Rabbi Eliezer Waldman shlita, the head and founder of Yeshiva Kiryat Arba and one of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s prominent students, read what I had written and the responses of my critics, and told me he was deeply shocked by the latter, and wished to support me and my position. He said that he was occasionally invited to speak with Reform communities and participate in panels with Reform clergy, and he asked Rav Kook whether or not to attend. Rav Kook replied that if they wished to listen I must certainly speak with them, and even added that after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State, the Reform had begun a positive process of coming closer to the values ​​of the nation and the land and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem to prayers.

Years after Rav Kook passed away, Rabbi Waldman once again consulted with Rabbi Avraham Shapira ztz”l and also the Rishon Le’Tzion Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu ztz”l, and they both thought it appropriate to attend public meetings with them.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Fundamental Attitude

The position of the great rabbis of America is especially important, as they were personally familiar with the Reform communities and delved into this issue. In his well-publicized manner, Rabbi Soloveitchik divided between brit yi’ud, (covenant of destiny) in which partners are those faithful to Torah observance, and brit goral, (covenant of fate), in which all Jews are partners, including the Reform.

In his opinion, issues of halakha should not be discussed with the Reform, but on issues broadly agreed upon and related to all Jews – it is desirable and even obligatory to cooperate with them (Ish Al Ha’eidah, pp. 180–183). Not only did he meet with them publicly and respectfully, but for decades until his passing, he was a key partner in the umbrella organization of Jewish congregations in America, the Synagogue Council of America (SCA) founded in 1926, which was comprised of two Orthodox organizations, two Conservative, and two Reform.

The Orthodox organizations were the UOJCA (The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, later referred to as the OU) and the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America). Rabbi Soloveitchik was the head of the RCA halakhic committee, and many of the other participants in the organizations were his students from Yeshiva University. These two organizations remained within the umbrella grouping even after the opposition of Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Kotler (in 1956), and this continued until after the passing of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

A Wonderful Letter in its Depth and Precision

An enlightening educational fact is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s friendship with Conservative Rabbi Joseph Shubow, whom he appreciated for his spiritual work as a Conservative community leader, and did not avoid calling him Rabbi. As part of their friendship, Rabbi Soloveitchik was invited to sponsor and participate in an event honoring Joseph Shubow at the Conservative Temple Bnai Moshe. His letter of reply to the invitation is instructive and worthy of study, and as he wrote, it was written after much thought to accurately express his complex position, which contains deep wisdom, derech eretz, precision, good heartedness, and humility. Thus he wrote to Philip Fleischer, President of Temple Bnai Moshe:

“I cherish my long association with Rabbi Shubow and I consider him a dear and distinguished friend whom I hold in great esteem because of his many talents and fine qualities. It is self-evident that if the dinner were being given only in honor of Rabbi and Mrs. Shubow I would consider it a privilege to serve as one of the sponsors.

“On the other hand, however, this reception, to my regret, will also serve as an occasion to celebrate the completion and dedication of the new temple. Let me say unequivocally that I do recognize the importance of this new house of worship for the Jewish population of Brighton as a means of communal organization and unification. I also appreciate the unselfish efforts on the part of the members and leaders which make such an undertaking possible. Their pride in having attained their goal is fully warranted. You in particular have manifested a strong sense of community awareness and devotion for Jewish causes for which you should be congratulated.

“Yet, all this does not justify my serving as a sponsor of a dinner at which the dedication of this temple will be celebrated since the latter will, in all probability, have a mixed seating arrangement which is in my opinion not in consonance with our time-honored Law. The requirement for separate seating is almost a truism in our religious code and I have neither the right nor the desire to sanction either by word or by silence a departure from this tradition. My presence at the celebration or the appearance of my name as a sponsor would be tantamount to a tacit approval of mixed seating (in the synagogue), a thing which would greatly disturb by conscience. Therefore, after I had given the matter considerable thought I arrived at the unavoidable conclusion that my role in connection with this affair would prove to be absurd, so I respectfully decline.

“I wish to impress upon you that my words are not to be interpreted in the sense of criticism or censure. I am not a preacher by nature and I have never tried to convert others who are committed to a different philosophy to my viewpoint. I write this letter with a sense of deep humility explaining to you my feelings on the matter. I hope that you realize and fully understand my position and appreciate my hesitance in accepting an honor which would be in direct opposition to my inner convictions… Please convey my best wishes to Rabbi Shubow and his wife, and wish them many years of joy and happiness” (Ish Al Ha’eida, pp. 165-16).

This letter was written in 1954, when Rabbi Soloveitchik was already considered one of the leaders of Zionist Orthodoxy in America, and the rabbi and teacher of hundreds of rabbis who served in the Rabbinate.

Rabbi Yisrael Porath ztz”l

There is further evidence of Rabbi Yisrael Porath ztz”l (1886-1974). This verification is important as it represents the yeshiva of Maran Rav Kook ztz”l, as Rabbi Porath was one of the great Torah sages of Jerusalem, a friend of Rabbi Charlap and Rabbi Frank, and one of the most distinguished disciples of Rav Kook.

In 1922 he was called to serve as a Rabbi overseas. When he took leave of Rav Kook, given that the Rav viewed him as a great and faithful talmid chacham, he asked him to write an introduction to Talmudic tractates, as part of the fulfillment of the vision of Torah study as cited in “Hartza’at HaRav.” Rabbi Porath fulfilled Rav Kook’s exhortation, and wrote seven volumes of introductions to the Talmudic tractates, called “Mavo’ ha’Talmud.” His great-grandson, Rabbi Yaacov Idels shlita, lives in our community of Har Bracha. He brought me the book about Rabbi Porath, ‘Mishkenotecha Yisrael,’ and I will quote from it, facts of his leadership in relation to the Reforms (pp. 82-85).

The Meetings and Respect for Reform

“The path Rabbi Porath chose was not a path of war or disrespect. In his usual manner, Rabbi Porath acted with an extraordinary combination of firmness and moderation. Thus, a year after his arrival in Cleveland, he delivered a series of lessons on the difference between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. In a newspaper publication about the planned lessons, it was written that Rabbi Porath states that the lessons will not be critical, but will deal with the question of the true difference between the different streams…..”

Thus, when Abraham Friedland, perhaps the most important educational figure in non-Orthodox Cleveland Jewry died, Rabbi Porath was among the eulogists.

Admittedly, rabbis from the haredi Telz Yeshiva, despite respecting Rabbi Porath as the Rabbi of the city, did not view his good relationship with the Reforms favorably. Once, after Rabbi Porath attended a conference with a representative of the Reform community, one of the haredi rabbis phoned him. “The Rebbetzin, who heard that the voice from the other side of the line was talking angrily, and that Rabbi Porath seemed uncomfortable, asked him at the end of the conversation whether everything was okay. Rabbi Porath answered: ‘This is a conventional war, not a nuclear one.’”

“A special relationship developed between Rabbi Porath and Abba Hillel Silver, perhaps the most important Reform rabbi in Cleveland and one of the most important in America in his generation … The relationship formed was a bond of friendship, founded on the two rabbis’ being zealous Zionists, and perhaps the relatively conservative-religious roots of Abba Hillel Silver, also contributed to the relationship.

“In addition, Abba Hillel Silver donated about $500 toward the expenditures of the Talmudic books ‘Mavo’ ha’Talmud’, and even sat on the book’s donation committee.

“In 1958, when the Jewish National Fund decided to plant a forest in honor of Rabbi Porath, Abba Hillel Silver was the keynote speaker at the ceremony … Rabbi Porath along with the Rebbetzin attended the funeral of Abba Hillel Silver.

“The good relations and great appreciation the Reform community had for Rabbi Porath led them to consult with him at times on matters of halakha…” and in the book, examples are even given of their consideration for him.

The Rishon Le’Tzion, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim

This was also the position of the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim ztz”l, who was especially appreciated by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook. His son, Mr. Moshe Nissim, former Minister of Finance and Justice, read my remarks and requested to voice his support for my position. He affirmed that his father, as Chief Rabbi, occasionally held meetings with representatives of all streams of Judaism. with his staunch position that completely rejected the Reform, he was of the opinion that no group of Am Yisrael should be boycotted.

He added that every Shabbat in his father’s house an open kiddush was held, in which Conservative and Reform leaders (and, of course, even distinguished personalities and groups from Israel and abroad) regularly participated. He mentioned, for example, Professor Moshe Davis, founder of the Institute of Contemporary Judaism at the Hebrew University. In conclusion, he said his father “believed that no Jewish representatives should be boycotted.” “This is the truth, and the truth must be made public.”

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.