Parashas Toldos 5774 -- Judaism in not a Smorgasbord; We are all losers
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 1, 2013
Judaism is not a smorgasbord
Last week's Mishpacha feature on South Africa's Shabbos Project attributed part of its success to the lack of heterodox movements in South Africa. Well, it turns out that those movements may be miniscule, but they are not non-existent.
The South African Progressive Movement issued a statement explaining that they could not endorse or join Chief Rabbi Goldstein's call for all South African Jews to keep a full halachic Shabbos: "Progressive Judaism recognizes that different Jews keep Shabbat differently. For some, Shabbat might include a hike on a mountain, some gardening or skyping with family in London on Friday night. For others, it includes driving to shul, to Shabbat dinner, or to the beach for sunset. For some, it might look and feel exactly as the Shabbat being promoted in the Shabbat Project."
But lest the reader fear that anything done on Shabbat is "keeping Shabbat," Progressive Judaism is quick to reassure, "No, clearly not. Shabbat must be holy, sacred, a day unlike the rest of the week." Whatever one is doing, it seems, it must be restful and accompanied by muttering the words "holy" or "sacred," in keeping with the spirit of the day.
Judaism, in this pluralistic definition, becomes whatever each individual Jew declares it to be.
Nothing could be more destructive to the entire concept of Torah M'Sinai than the idea that mitzvos are just one option on the checklist, and not a binding covenant accepted by the entire Jewish people when they said na'aseh ve'nishma.
The need to combat such a distortion of Torah led to the famous 1956 psak of 11 leading roshei yeshiva, including Rabbi Ahron Kotler and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein banning the participation in the New York Board of Rabbis, whose membership included Reform and Conservative clergy, and participation by Orthodox organizations in the Synagogue Council of America, which included organizations directly affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements. Such participation, the signatories felt, could only serve to reinforce the notion that Judaism is comprised of three separate but equal "denominations."
That psak served as the lodestar of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, long-time president of Agudath Israel, for his entire public career. When an Orthodox rabbi from distinguished lineage participated in a Federation-sponsored conference on Jewish ethics, Rabbi Sherer remonstrated with him for "the unwitting but nevertheless devastating impact on many confused Jews" by giving the impression that the other participants were also "halachic authorities that doctors might consult." Rabbi Sherer frequently referred to the idea that Judaism has "three wings" as the single greatest threat to American Jewry.
THE SAME ISSUE has now arisen in England in connection with participation in Limmud, an umbrella learning platform, which includes among the presenters those identified with Orthodoxy. But Limmud cannot, even under the broadest possible interpretation, be called an Orthodox framework. The program for the upcoming Limmud Conference in December, for instance, contains at least ten presentations that might be classified as abomination advocacy. The program includes, as well, more than a dollop of far Left anti-Israel propaganda, though how its inclusion could possibly increase the Jewish identification of participants is inexplicable.
Limmud is not a new program. What is new this year is that the recently installed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has announced that he will participate. Indeed that participation was a implicit condition for his appointment.
Recently, retired Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks did participate in Limmud prior to assuming his official duties, but in deference to the London Beis Din, then headed by Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, ceased to do so upon taking up the position of Chief Rabbi.
Last week, a Gilui Da'as signed by Dayan Ehrentreu, the Gateshead Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Avraham Gurwicz, the Gateshead Rav Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, and a number of other prominent dayanim, reiterated their long-standing opposition to Limmud. The Gilui Da'as rejected the pluralistic notion of a multiplicity of equally valid definitions of Judaism, and termed the "fundamental bedrock" of Torah Jews "that there is only one truth – the Torah B'ksav and Baal Peh, which is of Divine origin."
Limmud, the statement continued, by advancing the ethos of pluralism "blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo Jewry." The statement concluded by calling upon "any Jew whose heart has been touched by fear of G-d . . . not to participate in any activity which is under the auspicies of Limmud . . . ."
Reaction to the Gilui Da'as came fast and furious. Daniel Finkelstein in the Jewish Chronicle demanded to know "How dare you [i.e., the signatories] call me a pseudo-Jew?" But, of course, no one had called him a pseudo-Jew; which is solely dependent on his mother's halachic status. Rather they had referred to certain beliefs or non-beliefs as "pseudo-Judaism." The difference is crucial.
Finkelstein's confusion of "Who is a Jew" with "What is Judaism" derives directly from his definition of Judaism as whatever any Jew says it is. So by his lights calling his non-practice and non-beliefs pseudo-Judaism is tantamount to saying he is not a Jew.
A group of community leaders, including many identified with the United Synagogue, issued a statement condemning theGilui Da'as and asserting that Limmud is "consistent with the best traditions of Anglo-Jewish orthodox rabbinic leadership – promoting an open, approachable and inclusive Judaism, whilst adhering to a firm halachic framework." They did not explain how any halachic framework could encompass abomination advocacy or the expression of opinions denying the binding nature of Torah.
THE GILUI DA'AS made no mention of Chief Rabbi Mirvis, and he issued no response. The new chief rabbi is well-respected by his more chareidi colleagues, and has been the initiator of a number of successful communal Torah learning programs.
One can sympathize with his position. He is known to have good interpersonal and organizational skills, and no doubt burns with plans to revive the moribund United Synagogue. And he certainly knew that if he refused to attend Limmud, the selectors would find another candidate likely less capable and less committed to spreading Torah learning who would do so.
The Chief Rabbi's own keynote address will no doubt contain only words of Torah and encouragement of Torah learning. There will be no representatives of other denominations on the podium with him. Perhaps he even hopes that his one-time attendance at Limmud will be enough. One can understand why he decided that the price to be paid by attendance is justified by all the great things he hopes to achieve.
I too have experienced the temptation of being asked to debate in questionable forums. My initial reaction was always that I would have a wonderful opportunity to cogently present the Torah view to those not usually exposed to it. But in each instance wiser heads prevailed and told me that I was only been invited (sometimes for generous fees) not for my views but for the legitimacy my black velvet yarmulke would add to the proceedings.
And the reality remains that Chief Rabbi's attendance at Limmud will legitimize participation of other United Synagogue rabbis and open the floodgates for them to take up slots in what is ultimately a smorgasbord of offerings of which Torah M'Sinai is only one. The primary goal of the Gilui Da'as is to deter the latter rabbis. Torah Judaism is not another offering on the menu.
MORE THAN A DECADE ago, I twice participated in Encounter Conferences (established as a counter to Limmud) in England– once in London and once in Manchester. Both drew a large non-Orthodox attendance. Speakers also spoke in United Synagogue synagogues over Shabbos and in the big Jewish schools.
The model was later picked up and expanded by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in South Africa by the fantastically successful Sinai Indaba. (No South African rabbis teach at the local Limmud). Too bad that more communal resources were not invested to keeping Encounter going in Great Britain.
Since the end of Sukkos, the Israeli Torah world has been fully absorbed in the municipal elections. The Israeli Torah world faces the biggest threat in decades, and yet the focus of all its energy in recent weeks has not been on Yair Lapid, but on intra-communal strife.
I once saw an Eastern European religious paper circa 1936 in an archive. The top two-thirds of the front page were devoted to a communal machlokes, while a small item at the bottom of the page reported that Nazis, ym"sh, had vandalized a few shuls in Germany.
In the same vein, a friend told me yesterday of an Oberland community whose rav passed away, triggering a vicious succession struggle between his son-in-law and his son. Fisticuffs broke out among partisans of each candidate. And then the Nazis came. After the War, a few survivors straggled back, and when they saw each other, they could only wonder what had seemed so important about their machlokes.
The scars of machlokes do not soon heal, and the greatest damage is that on the neshamos of the participants. The Stoliner Rebbe recently told his flock: Just a month ago, we were absorbed in thoughts of teshuva. Now what are we talking about? Internecine strife.
A visitor from the States over Sukkos commented to me that in his years in yeshiva one never heard a gadol b'Torah spoken of derogatorily. Someone replied, "That's because America never had a culture of patshkevillen."
Out of the machlokes in one of Israel's flagship yeshivos, a generation of bochurim have imbibed the lesson that anything is permitted as long as it's leshem Shomayim. That attitude culminated the morning after the elections in a physical assault on Maran HaRav Aharon Leib Steinman as he sat learning in his home at 5:30 a.m..
One of Israel's most successful kiruv activists told me that she is going to have a much harder time after these elections. I thought she was referring to selling Torah to secular Jews who can avidly read all the shmutz that we hurl at one another. But she corrected me: It was her own disillusionment that concerned her.
Let the spinmeisters have their day, and interpret the results as a great victory for this side or that. But bottom line: We were all losers.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, World Jewry
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