Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

Following my remarks in the previous column about the loving and respectful attitude towards every Jew, including Conservative and Reform Jews, and about the respect they should be given when they come to pray at the ‘Ezrat Yisrael’ section of the Western Wall, some people asked: What is the limit? In other words, is there no fear that an attitude of respect will give them recognition, and cause a blurring of the Torah position?

Answer: Indeed, there is a sharp debate between us regarding the foundations of emunah (faith) and the Torah, expressed mainly in relation to halakha. The controversy is so great that, according to the rules of halakha to which we are bound, we cannot regard the Reform movement as a faction that expresses the Torah tradition, and consequently, we cannot accept the conversions and marriages that take place according to them.

This position obligates observers of halakha to act wisely and amicably to ensure state-run frameworks function in accordance with halakha. Such issues entail marriage, Shabbat, kashrut, conversion, etc.

This position, of course, greatly insults members of these movements, and causes conflicts between representatives of the religious and Haredi public, and them. Precisely because of this, we must strive as much as possible to make peace with them, to see all the good in them, and search for ways to express the brotherhood, partnership, and destiny we all share.

Welcome them with Respect

Accordingly, we have learned in the Torah that along with the mitzvah to admonish a Jew who has sinned, there is a mitzvah to love him, and not to hate him, as the Torah says: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am God” (Leviticus 19:17-18).

Thus, we see that even when one is compelled to admonish and argue with a person who does not observe mitzvot, the mitzvah to love him and help him remains valid. Not only that, but if we are faced with two people – an observant and a non-observant Jew, and we need to argue and admonish the latter for a sin he committed – if both of them are in need help, it is a mitzvah to first assist the person we admonished so that he knows the criticism is only on the specific sin, however in general, we are loving brothers (see, Bava Metziah 32b; Tosafot, Pesachim 113b, ‘le’kof yitzro’).

If this is the case towards an individual, it is even more so the case towards movements of Jews, since the enmity that may result from this is doubly severe.

The Question Should Be Reversed

However, in truth, it is worth asking those who are not willing to respect the members of the Conservative and Reform movement – what is their limit to the controversy?!

We need to learn from the experience of the Haredim, who failed to put a limit to a controversy, and it is now devouring them from within. My uncle, Rabbi Avraham Remer ztz”l said he heard from Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda upon accompanying him on his visit to the Ponevezh Yeshiva, that Rabbi Kahneman (Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh and its founder) had a great zechut (merit) in building a Torah community, however, a large stain rested on the yeshiva, because its students disgraced two Talmidei Chachamim (Torah scholars), Rabbi Herzog ztz”l and Rabbi Unterman ztz”l (the two Chief Rabbis), and the yeshiva’s response was not harsh enough. They did not set a limit when required to do so, and today, the Ponevezh Yeshiva is absorbed in dispute, disgrace, and Chillul Hashem (Desecration of God).

In the past, they were content to despise only Zionist rabbis, but today the situation is that the majority of rabbis and revered Admorim cannot walk freely in the streets, yeshivas, and synagogues in which members of the opposing camp are present, lest they harm them. This has not yet reached the National-Religious public, but there are “tzadikim” (“righteous”) who want to copy this evil “holiness” to the religious public as well.

In conclusion, in our current state, we must be much more careful about sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and controversy, than about the fear of giving respect to Jews who are not properly Torah observers, and even act adversely towards us.

When no limit is placed on disputes, the road to uprooting derech eretz (common decency) that preceded Torah, and uprooting the foundations of Israel’s Torah and its virtue, is short.

The Custom of Rabbis to Cooperate with Reformers

In the previous column, I quoted my maternal grandfather, the illustrious educator Prof. Yosef Volk z”l, on the Breslau community which was run by all Jews – Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative – all under the leadership of the rabbis. Admittedly, in other communities that were not conducted in complete unity, in general, there was positive cooperation between the Orthodox and the Reform Jews.

Take for example my great-grandfather, the father-in-law of Grandfather Yosef, Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Aryeh Weil ztz”l, HY”D, who served in the rabbinate for about forty years, and in his last twenty years, in the haredi community in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he collaborated with the Reform community in building a mikveh, providing kosher food to Jewish institutions, and expanding the Jewish cemetery. However, to his dismay, the cooperation was minimal, and most of the burden fell on the small haredi community that was required to provide religious needs for many of those who were not of its membership, at the expense of its dwindling coffers. In any case, quarrels were non-existent; on the contrary, there was a true attempt at cooperation, and quite often, it was precisely the religious side seeking cooperation, more than the Reform side.

My great-grandfather was one of the rabbis in Germany who supported Agudat Yisrael, and their position was that as long as they were not hindered from acting according to halakha in their community, they saw cooperation with the rest of the Jews as a positive thing.

This reality is also reflected in the words of our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda, who said that the Gedolei Yisrael (eminent rabbis) did not boycott the Reform, rather, “they cut themselves off from the revival of the nation in Israel,” and therefore, naturally, a disconnect was created (‘Be’Maaracha Ha’Tziburit’ pg.120).

Mesirut Nefesh (Self-Sacrifice) for Torah Observance

For the past month, as part of writing ‘Peninei Halakha’, I have been dealing with the issue of mesirut nefesh, and while doing so, I thought of my grandfather, Rabbi of Düsseldorf, who was murdered for Kiddush HaShem (sanctifying God) in the Holocaust. Even before that, he often talked about the value of Kiddush HaShem.

His nephew said that once, as a child, when the world was still relatively calm, his uncle, Rabbi Weil, visited their home. In order to educate them in Torah and mitzvot, he told them about his grandfathers’ grandfather (the nephews of whom were his fifth generation), who was murdered in the Polish riots for Kiddush HaShem. He also told them about Rabbi Akiva who was killed for Kiddush HaShem. He told the entire story in German, but he said the words “al Kiddush HaShem” in loshon ha-kodesh (Hebrew, the holy language) and in reverence, and as a child, they shook his body to the bone. Grandfather had no idea how far things would go.

The Possibility of Immigrating to Israel

In the year 5696 (1935) my grandparents got married, and immediately afterwards immigrated to Israel. After immigrating and settling in the religious Moshav S’de Yaakov, they sent an invitation to grandfather, who was already over seventy, to join them. In those days, the Nazis were already in power, many German Jews fled to different countries, and the Düsseldorf community dwindled. Grandfather replied that the community still needed him, and that the captain of the sinking ship should leave last. He also wrote in the letter that there is probably no shortage of rabbis in the Land of Israel, but in Germany, there is a great scarcity.

The Night of the Pogroms

Then on Kristallnacht, at five o’clock in the morning, five Nazi thugs broke into Grandfather’s house. He was then about seventy-two years old, and they dragged him out of his room and house, and beat him. They broke the furniture, smashed the beautiful glass and porcelain vessels they would use on Shabbat and holidays, and threw the sifrei kodesh (holy books) out the window. At first, they thought of taking Grandfather with them, but in the end, they changed their minds.

The community was destroyed, the Jews of Germany realized that they must flee, and thus, grandfather joined his daughter Flora, who a few years earlier had fled with her husband to the Netherlands. They rented him a small apartment above their house.

In the Netherlands, his vision began to weaken greatly until he could barely see. Yet, as a diligent Torah scholar and genius who remembered his Talmud studies orally, he did not cease from his routine of study. He would sit all day by an open book, and with the help of his immense memory, learn by heart, and from time to time when he needed to complete a word, he would bring the book closer to a distance of about two centimeters from his good eye, read, and once again, continue to study by memory.

He acted humbly and modestly. In order not to bother his daughter and son-in-law, he learned to manage alone in a foreign land, and with the help of a walking stick for the blind, would find his way. Twice daily he would leave his house – first, for the morning prayers, and later, for the afternoon and evening prayers. After prayers, he would stay to hear a lesson in Gemara, and once when the rabbi accidentally skipped a line, Grandfather raised his hand and remarked politely that the rabbi had skipped it. At that moment, it became clear to his acquaintances that he was an extraordinary Torah scholar who was well versed in Talmud.

Refuses to Hide

When the Nazis, may their names and memories be erased, occupied the Netherlands and began to persecute the Jews, his daughter and son-in-law suggested Grandfather hide. However, he knew that to do so a Dutch family would have to risk their lives, and he did not want this to happen. He further said that he was not more entitled to be saved than the rest of the masses of the House of Israel, and whatever would happen to all, would happen to him as well. Also, out of consciousness of his rabbinical mission, he added that perhaps as a rabbi he would be of help and relief to his brothers in the camps.

In the year 5702 (1942), at the age of seventy-six, he was taken to a concentration camp. With the help of his stick, he would grope his way through the camp, and attend to all his needs. Most probably, there were Jews there who helped him. Every week, a train of Jews was sent from the camp to the Auschwitz murder camp. About a year later, when fate befell him to be sent to the gas chambers, people related that he parted from his companions with a “great, and serious speech.”

Out of his strong faith, he heroically accepted the judgement of Heaven, and in the majesty of devoutness, he went to sacrifice his soul for Kiddush Hashem like his grandfather before him, and like all the holy Jews, of whom it is said, no creature can stand in their presence in heaven.

On the 20th of Marcheshvan, 5704 (1943), he was murdered in Auschwitz al Kiddush HaShem. He merited that all five of his children survived the Holocaust, and continued to keep Torah and mitzvot. His descendants now number over four hundred, living in the Land of Israel and continuing on his path, a path of Torah and Derech Eretz.

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