A tale of two religions
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 30, 1998
Without the ability to compromise, to overlook slights, and to value the innate differences of other human beings, meaningful interpersonal relations are impossible. Thus our Sages counsel the cultivation of a soft and pliant nature. Overlook the faults of others, even the wrong they do you, they counsel, so that God will be similarly forgiving in examining your failings.
That compromising attitude, however, applies only to that which belongs to us - e.g., our honor or our money. But one has no right to compromise with respect to his neighbor's property, and even less concerning that which belongs to God.
The Torah is the heritage of every Jew, but it belongs to no Jew. Neither the greatest scholar nor the most ignorant boor has the right to abrogate or alter a word of the Torah. When it comes to explicating God's Torah, Truth, not peace, is the ultimate value.
It is dedication to Truth alone that explains the unified rejection of the Neeman Committee's findings by leading rabbis across the spectrum of Orthodoxy. From the national religious world to that of the yeshivot, from the Hassidic courts to the Sephardi world, all spoke with one voice to declare: The Reform and Conservative movements are falsifications of Judaism.
The point made by the rabbis is both simple and incontrovertible: Clergymen who reject the Halacha should be not be charged with responsibility for preparing converts for a halachic conversion. Conversion is the means of acquiring citizenship in the Jewish nation. Just as one who wishes to become an American citizen must undergo a rigorous screening process and swear fealty to the laws of the land, so too one who wishes to join
the Jewish people must declare his or her allegiance to the laws of the Jewish people: the Halacha. Those who deny the binding force of Halacha cannot possibly train converts for acceptance of Halacha.
Israel recognizes 16 different Christian denominations as separate faith communities. Yet both in practice and theology, those denominations are far closer to one another than halachic Judaism is to Reform and Conservative.
Between halachic Judaism and the heterodox movements it is almost impossible to find any point of commonality. In any court of law, it would be possible to state a cause of action for trademark infringement against the Reform and Conservative movements for appropriation of the name Judaism.
As outrageous as that statement will be to some, it is freely admitted by the more honest in the Reform and Conservative camps. Alexander Shindler, past president of the American Reform movement, put the matter succinctly: 'Either you accept Halacha or you are outside. We have chosen to be outside." W. Gunther Plaut, a leading Reform thinker, has stated clearly, 'neither God nor Torah can be considered as universally
commanding sources for Reform Halacha." Jacob Petuchowski, the leading Reform theologian, likens Reform to Pauline Christianity in its rejection of Law and its desire to return man to his state prior to the Revelation at Sinai.
Earlier this week, the head of the Beit HaMidrash located at Hebrew Union College openly proclaimed on Mabat his intention to continue performing same-sex 'commitment" ceremonies. That decision (like everything else in Reform Judaism), he said, is left to the conscience of the individual rabbi by the Reform Rabbinical Council of Israel. At the Reform movement's recent convention in Dallas the fare was non kosher, and the reading of the Haftorah was cancelled so that Eric Yoffie could give a longer speech on the importance of learning Torah, defined as reading four books a year.
Conservative thinkers are less open about their rejection of Halacha. Yet they have made the Revelation at Sinai something so amorphous as to deprive it of all binding force. No longer is the Torah the Word of God, but rather Divine inspiration, in which 'divine and human elements are inexorably bound up,' in the words of Seymour Siegel, long-time professor of theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Sinai is no longer the defining event in world history, but a mere opening conversation.
Against the Torah's repeated insistence on its own immutability, Conservative theologians argue that our religious obligations change according to their ability to express and evoke our faith, and that those commandments for which the Divine purpose is no longer evident may be allowed to fall into obsolescence. The Almighty God, in their view, is incapable of giving us a set of laws valid for all times and places.
'So long as a [Jew] is serious about his responsibility and concerned about his Jewishness,' writes Siegel, 'he is doing the right thing in the sight of the Lord." Try, however, to find one verse in the Torah in which God says, 'Do whatever you want, as long as you are sincere." Conservative Jews have fully internalized the theological message that Halacha is not a binding system of Divine Law. According to the movement's recent self-study, 76% believe that one can be religious without observance.
And they act on that belief. Less than a quarter even light Shabbat candles (as opposed to 70% of Israelis); less than 15% keep kosher homes (as opposed to more than half of Israelis). Nearly 70% of recently bar or bat-mitzvahed Conservative youth - the age at which the majority end any formal religious training - see no problem with intermarriage.
Conservative Jews differ from Reform Jews not theologically but in their slightly greater taste for religious ritual. But both movements have far more common with one another than with Halachic Judaism, as their leaders freely acknowledge in the recent Commentary symposium on American Jewish belief. Both are democratically driven from below by an unlearned laity.
Responding to Conservative criticism of Reform's unilateral adoption of patrilineal descent, Alexander Shindler taunted his critics by saying that it usually takes the Conservative movement about 10 years to follow suit, as in the case of ordination of women. And indeed, 69% per cent of Conservative Jews - whose families are equally torn by intermarriage - today support adoption of patrilineal descent.
Perhaps most relevant for the conversion issue is the recent finding that 69% of first-born children of Conservative converts marry non-Jews. And the figure among Reform converts, 30% of whom continue to celebrate Xmas, is surely higher yet. In short, these movements have failed to provide their converts with any meaningful attachment to Judaism, certainly none capable of transmission to another generation. What possible reason is there to believe that they will be more successful with Russian immigrants raised in a completely atheistic society, whose desire to convert today is in the overwhelming majority of cases prompted solely by convenience?
It is not the medieval rabbis but our world-wise finance minister who has stuck his head firmly in the sand and failed to confront reality. Neeman has been betrayed by the lawyer's habit of thinking that for every problem there is a legal stratagem. In so doing, he would vitiate all content from conversion and reduce a process that is supposed to be a reprise of our ancestors' acceptance of Torah at Sinai into a set of empty
Better the wisdom of the rabbis, who dare to speak the truth, than the arid formalism of clever lawyers.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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