The Reform are a greater threat to Israel than Iran” Rabbi Baruch Efrati

“The Reform and Conservative movements do not pose a threat… This battle is an inheritance of the past.” Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth

“R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean says: It is forbidden to compromise [in a judgment], and he who compromises [in a judgment] offends, and whoever praises such a compromise has contempt of the Lord, as it is written, ‘He that blesses compromise ,has contempt for God’ (Psalms 10:3). Rather let the law cut through the mountain, as it is written, ‘For judgment is God’s.’ And so Moses’s motto was: ‘Let the law cut through the mountain’. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man, as it is written, ‘The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found on his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and swayed many away from sin.’” (Sanhedrin 6b)

In wake of the compromise deal between the Israeli government and the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, a deal whose devil remains very much in the details of implementation, many Orthodox rabbis have taken stands. On the one hand, Rabbi Baruch Efrati’s recent radio interview condemning the non-Orthodox streams and any bargain with them or recognition of their leaders represents a trend in Israeli Orthodoxy. The Chief Rabbinate, in fact, recently posted signs declaring the compromise with the non-Orthodox groups as a sin. Rabbi Efrati, in addition to being the rabbi in a synagogue in my section of the town where I live, is the leader of the Derech Emuna organization representing the more right wing branch of religious Zionism. Full disclosure, I am not a member of this organization.

On the other hand, Rabbi Neuwirth, founder and former head of the Beit Hillel organization, represents a trend in the more liberal leaning version of religious Zionism. For full disclosure, I am a member of Beit Hillel. Rabbi Neuwirth’s statement declaring the spiritual battle with Reform and Conservative Judaism over, opens a new vista in working with members of these movements to go to a new level of cooperation.

But which path is right? Which path best symbolizes the potential for creating a State of Israel which meets its various citizens aspirations? Which view adds to the forces of redemption?

This past Shabbat, we read one of the most devastating errors in the history of the Jewish people. As Moses communed with God upon Mt. Sinai, the Israelites violated the very commandments received by building and subsequently worshiping the Golden Calf. Seduced by any number of fears and trials, the people begged for a substitute for either God or Moses depending on which commentary one prefers. None other than Aaron the High Priest did the ghastly deed. “And the nation realized that Moses delayed coming down from the Mountain. And the nation gathered to Aaron and said to him, arise and make for us an elohim to walk before us…and he made a graven calf…. And Aaron saw [their worshiping] and he built an alter before the it and Aaron declared saying, ‘tomorrow is a holiday for God.” (Exodus 32:1-5) Can one imagine a greater leadership failure than that of Aaron? Further, when approached after by an infuriated Moses after the affair, Aaron basically replies that the people aren’t perfect and that due to their distraught state they demanded he make the Golden Calf. Certainly Aaron’s deportment should not be a model to be emulated.

And yet, the rabbis viewed Aaron very differently. “Hillel used to say, be as the students of Aaron, love peace, pursue peace, love all beings, and bring them to Torah.” (Avot 1:12) Hillel, one of the greatest of all the sages proclaims that ways of Aaron HaKohen stand as a polestar for life. Pursue peace and love. That seems to be the symbol of Aaron.

But what about the Golden Calf? What about his failed leadership?

The sages teach that Aaron did not actually fear for his own life. In the ensuing hubbub before creating the idol, Aaron saw the anger and fear in the people’s eyes. According to the rabbinic telling, immediately prior to Aaron’s actions, the people killed Hur, Miriam’s son, when he tried to stand in their way. Remembering that they had killed out of fear, Aaron worried that in their anger, they might raise their hands against him. Killing the High Priest and prophet might condemn the people in God’s eyes. The sin would be too great to bare. Aaron chose to sin in order to bring peace to the camp. (Sanhedrin 7a) Using delaying tactics which would eventually fail, he chose to sin over allowing others to harm themselves. He chose to allow them a small sin in order to prevent a greater one. Perhaps it could be understood that he chose peace out of love for the community over preventing what he knew to be a sin. Perhaps his actions at the time of the Golden Calf where actually the actions highlighted by Hillel. Forgiving what even one sees as sin in others in order to bring peace and perhaps eventually bring the community back to Torah. He loved them all so much and pursued peace at all cost, even at the cost of sacrificing his own integrity, in order to bring peace to the camp.

One can easily argue that the main goal of Judaism should be to increase the worship of God in the world, “to fix the world under the yoke of Heaven.” (Aleinu prayer.) We of Orthodox world view are given two paradigms of religious action: that of Moses and that of Aaron. There are those that choose to argue viciously who follow in what could be considered and uncompromising Moses manner. “Let the law cut through the mountain.” These rabbis proclaim a “Take no prisoners in our battle to show what we know is right. We will not compromise for compromise is blasphemy. “ These rabbis would rather break the famous tablets of stone rather than work towards any sort of compromise.

In the desert, next to the clear and unmitigated revelation, God seems to have praised the path of Moses. These rabbis will no doubt point out that in rabbinic tradition, Moses was praised for breaking the tablets.

Yet, Hillel chose a different path. Hillel admonishes his students to follow Aaron. With all the possible spiritual dangers involved, Aaron tried to work with others in hope of bringing them closer to God.

Today, we are standing next to Mt. Sinai. We lack the clear voice of God coming from the mountain. While we self assured (and often self righteous) Orthodox Jews may feel that the law does not conform to non-Orthodox interpretation, should we not take the path of Hillel? Perhaps the time has come to find ways not to break tablets but to help build rebuild the Temple. Loving peace, pursuing peace, loving our fellow, and bringing them to Torah is presented by the Talmud as the opposite of standing one’s ground and demanding absolute fidelity to the law. Once upon a time, the Orthodox confrontation with Reform may have been an appropriate response but no longer. Its time to allow our love for our fellow bring peace.

I am reminded of a powerful quote of Isaiah Berlin called to my attention by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,

Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals and groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth…It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: and that others cannot be right if they disagree. This makes one certain that there is one goal and only one for one’s nation or church or the whole of humanity, and that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the goal is attained – ‘through an ocean of blood the Kingdom of Love’ (or something like this) said Robespierre: and Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and I daresay leaders in the religious wars of Christian v. Muslim or Catholics v. Protestants sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one and only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind and that one has it oneself – or one’s leader has it – was responsible for the oceans of blood: But no Kingdom of Love sprang from it – or could … (The Dignity of Difference, p. 63)

We are given a choice. On the one hand some rabbis have chosen an unbending demand that our version of Torah be upheld even at the high cost of unity of the Jewish people. Others have followed in a more peaceful path of compromise. That is the choice.

Has not the time to be students of Aaron finally come?