Redefining Reform

Orthodox Judaism believes in a binding Written and Oral Torah, and the equal importance of commandments between man and man and between man and God. Reform Judaism generally rejects the divinity of the Torah, and places an emphasis on commandments between man and man, which it terms “moral laws,” while commandments between man and God, “ritual laws,” are generally viewed as non-binding.  A different type of Reform Judaism, the Haredi movement, subjects Torah law to the unprecedented interpretations of its own rabbinate as well, but in the converse — invalidating or ignoring moral laws in favor of stringency in ritual laws.

Orthodox Judaism’s response to these two reform movements should be identical.

The tractate of Avoda Zara navigates the tension between integrating with modern society on the one hand, and uncompromising observance of Torah laws on the other. The Talmud records many anecdotes in which great rabbis debate heretics, and prohibits non-scholars from debating heretics, yet also entreats the average man to learn effective responses should they be challenged.

The Talmud institutes a rabbinic prohibition on the bread, wine, and cooked food of non-Jews (even if kosher, and not used in idolatrous libation), yet refrains from prohibiting consorting with gentiles entirely. It states explicitly that a rabbinic decree which most people cannot uphold is void.

In short, our rabbis recognized the dangers of modernity and integration. They endorsed interaction with The Other, and set up guidelines to protect us from temptation in those interactions. The balance they struck allowed us to uncompromisingly live halakhically, while rising to our responsibility to be a ‘light unto the nations’.

This balance is a hard one to live by. The complexity this approach demands is hardly uniform. Some traditional Orthodox Jews see feminism as a foreign idea, swinging the pendulum too far toward the ideal of integration. Some progressive Orthodox Jews will see traditionalism as an unfairly oppressive burden in areas where the letter of the law is more permissive than traditional practice. There can be robust debate within the large tent that is Torah.

However, despite the nuances of each subset, these sub-groups of normative Orthodoxy are sufficiently similar to be single units whose observance rests on unmitigated commitment to observing Halakha, while integrating and interacting with the secular world and with adherents of other faiths.

Our sages also taught the need to break from groups that reject parts of Torah. The Talmud records the great lengths to which Chazal went to delineate the distinction between Judaism and Karaites, Saducees, Kuthites, and Christians. In modern times, Orthodoxy has recognized Conservative and Reform Judaism as not being Torah observant. This does not mean rejecting the Jews who follow these movements, but a formal declaration that their observance is not our observance. We do not pray in their synagogues, but we invite them into our own.

How can the Orthodoxy that is so uniform in its rejection of the Reform ideology of Hebrew Union College be so oddly apologetic of the Reform Judaism taught in Bnei Brak and Meah She’arim.

The RCA recently published an Op-ed in Hamodia explaining its decision to stage a counter-protest against Satmar. The Op-ed calls our theological differences with Haredi Judaism “neither good or bad – just different,” and opines that “We have much to learn [from Haredi Judaism] about the goals [of Torah, tefilla, and raising God-fearing children.]”

We seem able to articulate our rejection of HUC Reform Judaism, while apologizing for our differences with Bnei Brak Reform Judaism. In so doing, we imply that normative Orthodoxy is not an ideal, but a compromise. Not a difficult balance to be sought after, but a fallback for those not dedicated enough for authentic (read – Haredi) Judaism.

This is so because we conflate a spectrum of dedication with a spectrum of authenticity. We perceive that Haredim are more dedicated than Orthodox Jews, who in turn tend to be more dedicated than Conservative and Reform Jews.

But, it is a fallacy that a movement with more dedicated adherents is more authentic. Fanatical Islamists and Fundamentalist Christians are certainly dedicated but not viewed by Orthodoxy as more authentic theologies than our own.

We must believe that the goal of Orthodoxy is a life of integration with society, of interaction with science, of dialogue with The Other, and of uncompromising observance. We practice normative Orthodoxy not because we are insufficiently motivated to live the “more dedicated” Haredi lifestyle, but because synthesis is the IDEAL of Judaism.

Just as Orthodox Judaism does not allow for the Reform theology taught at Hebrew Union College, which views ritual law as optional or worthy of cancellation, we cannot condone the Reform theology taught in Meah Shearim and Bnei Brak that teaches that moral laws are suspended to impose your rabbi’s interpretation of modesty or piety on another.

Just as we clearly delineate a divide with a Reform Movement that rejects rabbinic laws of Mehitza, we must delineate a divide with a Reform Movement that rejects “Im Ein Derekh Eretz Ein Torah,” and the tradition of great sages who were both scholars and tradesmen.

Perhaps no single Talmudic entry better underscores Haredi divergence from Chazal’s tradition of comfort with cognitive dissonance than Talmud Bavli Menahot 99B.

There, Ben Dama asks Rabbi Yishmael if someone like him who has learned the entire Torah can study “Greek Wisdom.” Rabbi Yishamel answers, “Go and find a time that is neither day nor night and at that time study Greek wisdom, for the commandment says ‘Vehagita Bo Yomam Valayla’, you shall study Torah day and night.”

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeini, quoting Rebbi Yochanan, retorts that this verse is not a commandment, but rather God’s blessing to Yehoshua that he should merit to study Torah despite his responsibilities as the post-Mosaic leader of the Jews.

The entry concludes that one meets his minimum requirement of learning by reading the Shema in the morning and evening. Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that one may not teach this Halakha to an ignoramus out of concern that if he knows this rule, he might never attempt to study beyond the mandated recitation of Shema. Rava, however, requires that we teach this law to all, to avoid the lazy student giving up altogether rather than fulfilling his minimum requirement his way.

This exchange teaches us that: 1. there actually is no commandment to learn Torah at all times; 2. learning secular wisdom is in fact permitted; and 3. our sages were concerned with ensuring that as much Torah as possible would be learned by the masses.

It is odd, then, that there is a debate about Haredi military service and education. The idea that secular knowledge is a prohibited diversion from learning is not based in Halakha. The Torah commands a father to teach his son a trade so that he will not be hungry.  In fact, Maimonides describes someone who learns Torah full time and is supported by Tzedaka as “One who desecrated Hashem, embarrassed the Torah, extinguished the fire of knowledge, and damaged himself, for he has removed himself from this world, and will end up a thief.”

From Kollel to modesty to IDF Service to conversion and marriage; from the role of the Rabbinate to kashrut, normative Orthodoxy chooses a path of dialogue, facilitation, and respect, and Ultra-Orthodoxy chooses one of coercion and delegitimization. Normative Orthodoxy chooses the path of Chazal who dedicated all of Tractate Avoda Zara to identifying guidelines that would protect our observance without compromising on our integration and interaction into the world. Haredi Reform Judaism chose the path of “Eila Elohecha Yisrael,” that deifies a select few who are either too pious or too divorced from everyday life to even consider whether the people can realistically live up to a decree. They chose the path of leaders who enforce poverty and coercion as a means to keep their adherents uneducated, unemployable, and dependant.

Orthodox Judaism must define what is outside the pale of our tradition. “Deracheha Darchei Noam.” I am not calling for schism. I am calling for definition. We are unashamed to turn to the left and proclaim that, as opposed to them, we do not practice our ideology out of compromise. The dialogue continues, with love, understanding, and tolerance. We must also be unashamed to define the rightward borders of Orthodox Judaism, and declare that they, not we, are observing a compromised Judaism.

About the Author
Noah Roth is husband, father, business owner, and marathoner, living in Bet Shemesh.