by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Am Echad Resources
March 31, 2002
Conservative rabbis don't hate Jews or wish them harm.
That statement shouldn't be necessary, of course, but some overly casual
readers seem to have interpreted a recent essay of mine as implying
I did juxtapose two happenings that, coincidentally, were reported in the
media on two consecutive days. The first was a blood libel that appeared in
a Saudi newspaper; the second, a New York Times report on a new Conservative
movement bible and commentary that, among much else, denies the historical
veracity of the Exodus from Egypt and the Jewish conquest of the Land of
While I took care to address ideas, not people, and while I explicitly wrote
that the subjects of the reports were "entirely different", and while I
noted that the latter development was "free of any gore or menace," I did
call both "sad[ly] revisionist" and contended that both are (or should be)
shocking to Jews.
"Howls of protest" - in The Forward's phrase - emanated from an assortment
of Jewish leaders. The national director of a secular Jewish group found my
column "unconscionable," proof that "we, too, are not immune from
intolerance and bigotry." A Conservative official denounced my "venomous
language"; an Orthodox organizational leader, my "despicable imagery."
They were baying at the moon. I never wrote, nor do I believe, that any of
the editors of the new book or any non-Orthodox leader bears any similarity
to anti-Semites. What I wrote, and believe, though, is that the theology of
the former group is as dangerous to Jewish souls as the beliefs of the
latter group are to Jewish bodies. And that Jewish tradition teaches that
the state of our souls matters most.
However impolitic (and perhaps, in retrospect, unwise) it may have been for
me to mention the two types of dangers in the same sentence, I certainly
intended no slur of any Jew's good will. I simply felt that matters that
strike at the very essence of Jewish belief demand more than a perfunctory
expression of dismay.
Vigilance against biblical revisionism is especially important today,
moreover, when the Jewish people is threatened by a seething mass of hatred
spread over several continents, and a fierce determination to expel us from
our ancestral land - yes, with all due disrespect to the new Conservative
bible, the land that was promised to real patriarchs named Abraham, Isaac
and Jacob, the land that a real Moses saw from afar and a real Joshua
conquered on the orders of a real G-d.
Jews who remain faithful to the Jewish religious tradition know that the
only solution to the current Jewish crisis is a more determined embrace of
that real G-d's Torah - its historical accounts, its wisdom and its laws
What the Conservative movement has instead chosen to foist on us at this
critical juncture is an official "version" of our holy tradition that not
only undermines the Jewish claim on the Holy land but which views the Torah
as human-sourced, historically unreliable and, of course, continuously
evolving - the better to continue to revise as we choose.
Conservative leaders took issue with that description, with my assertion
that the new bible and commentary portrays the Torah as essentially fiction
(duly "inspired", of course). "Only a few of [its] essays," the apologists
contended, clearly reject the historicity of the Torah - a statement that
lends new life to the old saw about being but a wee bit pregnant.
The New York Times was more objective, and accurate; its article on the
Conservative publication began: "Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably
never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the
Bible probably never occurred."
Or, as the new commentary's top editor, Rabbi David L. Lieber, put it to the
Associated Press: "[The Torah] was not written by God. It was not written
by Moses either." Indeed, the commentary asserts that Moses is but a
"folkloristic national hero" who may or may not have existed.
That "modernist" approach to the timeless was pointedly, and vehemently,
rejected in the past not only by Orthodox Jews but by thoughtful
non-Orthodox as well. One of the Jewish Theological Seminary's most
illustrious alumni, Joseph H. Hertz, who served as chief rabbi for the
British Empire and authored a popular bible and commentary of his own - one
that was used by most Conservative congregations for better than 60 years -
condemned the revisionist theory that the Torah was compiled from several
human sources as "a perversion of history and a desecration of religion."
Treating the patriarchs as mere legends, Rabbi Hertz said, is "blasphemous."
That which had long been seen in Conservative synagogues as "perversion,"
"desecration," and "blasphemy" is now apparently normative Conservative
My essay was my personal howl of pain. Perhaps I crossed a line by
juxtaposing a gory, hate-filled, immediate threat with a subtle, gradual
one. Perhaps my point could have been made, and had the same impact, had I
focused on the new bible alone. Perhaps.
But one thing I know is that my intention was only to try to effectively
reach my cherished brothers and sisters, fellow Jews I believe are being
grievously misled by those they look to as leaders.
If I crossed a line I shouldn't have, I apologize. But, as the Talmud
observes: "Love obliterates lines."
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel
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