For From Zion Shall Go Forth the Torah

Recently, the entire non-Chareidi world became very exercised over Chief Rabbi David Lau’s criticism of Naftali Bennet’s visit to a non-Orthodox, specifically a Conservative day school in New York City. R. Lau essentially said it’s wrong to confer that type of religious legitimacy on (what he and most Orthodox Jews maintain is) an illegitimate movement, Conservative Judaism.

This kerfuffle raises a question in my mind. I agree that Orthodox Judaism, even the problematic manifestations of it that are coming to dominate the American Jewish scene are superior to their heterodox counterparts for one simple reason. Orthodoxy, for all its problems and religious shortcomings, is anti-assimilationist. I don’t really accept the notion that Orthodox Judaism, especially American Orthodox Judaism, be MO, OO Litvish, Chassidish, Chabad, is historically identical to classical Judaism. I tend to believe Jacob Katz’s idea that all contemporary Jewish denominations are extensions of Jewish reactions to emancipation. Pre-Emancipation Judaism and Jewry were very dissimilar to what we have now. It was, all at the same time, more intellectually tolerant, yet more traditional vis-a-vis most everything; especially belief. Moreover local custom and usage (i.e. mesorah, with a lowercase “m”) meant more than overarching rules and codes. But I think three plus centuries of the American Jewish experience support the point that non-Orthodoxies tend to pave the way to assimilation into the broader culture; ending in the disappearance of Judaism.  I don’t mean to suggest that non-Orthodoxies are intentionally assimilationist.  I’m looking at the net results over time.

But what about Israel? Do non-Orthodox forms of Judaism pose the same threat there? What assimilatory effect do they have in the Jewish state, the world’s biggest Jewish neighborhood? I’m focused more on Conservative Judaism in this though, than on Reform. Conservative Judaism defines itself as being bound by Halacha, Reform does not. We can debate whether it remains true to its stated convictions (then again we should debate if Orthodoxy does as well), and we can debate the methods it uses to make Halachik determinations. We can discuss the policy considerations in actively enacting change to Haalchik praxis as opposed to fostering slower organic evolution over time. But as opposed to Reform, Conservative Judaism does place Halacha as normative Jewish practice. So “m’idach gissa” might a liberal, even if only nominally, Halachik movement prove attractive to many Chilonim, attracting them to greater Halachik observance, even if not Orthodox observance? Would it not be better if Jews in Israel drive to an egalitarian schul Shabbat morning and not to the beach? Why would there doing so necessarily be a bad thing?  Why would it be worse than the beach? And if in fact the assimilation factor is removed from the equation in Israel as it ought, then the debate between the Orthodox and Conservative centers on the speed of implementing legislated change to Halachik praxis, and the methods used to pasken Halacha. But those are debates and questions that currently rage in Orthodoxy, especially when considering Open Orthodoxy and the controversy it has generated. And while I’m sure he disapproves of Open Orthodoxy, I highly doubt Rabbi Lau would castigate anyone for visiting  Yeshiva Chovevei Torah.

So, exactly what upset the Chief Rabbi? Why does he feel threatened by Conservative Judaism making inroads in Israel? It seems to me that Israel, because the risk of assimilation is so low, is THE place to finally hash out the substantive questions raised by the Conservative movement. Is he afraid Orthodoxy might not prevail? Why would that be a problem? Disputes about the fundamentals of Judaism have often been resolved with one school of thought coming to predominate over the others. This would be no different. The only basis I can see for maintaining the conflict, and denying Conservative Judaism a seat at the religious table in Israel, is the diaspora. Conservative Judaism might very well prove to be intellectually and systemically valid, even the preferred system in the world’s biggest Jewish neighborhood. But it is fraught with problems outside that neighborhood. There Orthodoxy has to reign, lest Jews disappear into the surrounding society. And that dichotomy, of liberal Haalchik praxis dominating in Israel and stricter orthodoxies reigning in the diaspora cannot abide, because “Ki miTzion teitzeh Torah.” Israel has to be the “frummer” side of the equation to maintain religious authority.  And if that’s the case, is Zion really the fountainhead of Torah?

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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