Avram Israel Reisner
Rabbi Emeritus of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, Baltimore, MD

When Orthodox thoughtlessness replaces Jewish thought

David Azoulay, Israel’s newly appointed Minister of Religious Services, a member of the Shas Party, has chosen to opine about his own understanding of Jewish law, and has not acquitted himself well in so doing. Cited in the Times of Israel on Tuesday, July 7, he has this to say:

“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew. These are Jews that have lost their way, and we must ensure that every Jew returns to the fold of Judaism.” To be perfectly fair to him, he continued that, when they do return “[we must] accept everyone with love and joy.”

The problem is that what he cannot allow himself to say, the tradition has clearly said.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a, the amora Rabbi Abba bar Zavda states definitively that, “[A Jew,] even though he sins is considered a Jew.” Though in its place that is an individual opinion, it has been generally appropriated by the tradition.

By Azoulay’s view, he must consider that a Reform Jew should not be counted to a minyan. Though the much greater medieval rabbi, Rashi, in his book of responsa, Isur v’Heter [125], addressed that situation head on and ruled, “A transgressor… is counted in a minyan and remains obligated in all mitzvot, because… ‘[A Jew,] even though he sins is considered a Jew,’ thus he remains in his holiness and has not left the Jewish fellowship.” He ruled, similarly, that the prohibition against taking interest from a fellow Jew applies even to a Jew who has converted to another religion, “for he has not ceased to be one of those included in the prohibition of taking interest; similarly, in matters of marriage and divorce he is fully a Jew.”

To the extent that Minister Azoulay’s opinion is masking a concern about the issue of conversions, in the Talmud (Yevamot 47b), codified in law in Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 268.12, that notion is applied to a convert as well, that even should he return to his native religion, “he is considered a sinning Jew whose [Jewish] marriage is valid.”

But Minister Azoulay’s problem is not just that his thoughts on this subject have no grounding in Jewish thought and Jewish law, but that his thoughts are tremendously naïve, even pernicious, in the realm of modern Israel for which he is ostensibly responsible.

Does Minister Azoulay, then, think that all or even most of the voters that voted for Shas are habitually and religiously “following Jewish law?”

Who then are the masses attending Saturday football matches? Does he hesitate about considering them Jewish, for they are no less not-observant than the Reform that he cannot see as Jews?

And what does he have to say about the majority of his fellow legislators in the Knesset, a majority of whom, I warrant, are not Sabbath observers?

That the Reform Jews that he “cannot allow himself” to call Jews are more strongly committed to Jewish religiousness than many that he would, I imagine, unhesitatingly consider Jewish, suggests that his criterion for determining whom he can allow himself to say is Jewish is something other than Jewish thought and Jewish law. And the fact that he has not recognized that problem is a sign of the general thoughtlessness with which he is approaching his assignment.

We have a right to hope for better.

About the Author
Avram Israel Reisner is Rabbi Emeritus of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation. He has a PhD in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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