Encore Archive

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Non-Negotiable Judaism

By Nosson Scherman (Sh'ma 11/211, April 3, 1981)

For all its apparent sincerity, compassion, and probing, Rabbi Schulweis's article is deeply disappointing - and not primarily because it should more honestly have been called "An Attack on Mainstream Othodoxy" rather than the facetious and inaccurate "In Defense of Orthodoxy". That point may seem minor, but it is indicative, I believe, of his failure to deal properly or fairly with his topic. The cleavage among Jews deserves more serious - indeed, more responsible - treatment.

Essentially, Rabbi Schulweis makes three points: Orthodoxy shuts itself off from contact with non-Orthodox Jews; Orthodoxy should recognize the religious equality of other ideologies within Judaism; and Orthodoxy is lacking Ahavas Yisrael, the love of fellow Jews. He is wrong on all three counts.

It is essential to differentiate between Jews as people, and individuals or organizations that purport to represent Judaism as a religion. Orthodoxy does not discriminate against fellow Jews who are less or even non-observant. The Talmud teaches that Jew remains a Jew even though he has sinned and the Halacha recognizes no differences between the treatment of Jews of greater or lesser religiosity. In my community there are many self-help organizations supported and staffed exclusively by Orthodox volunteers - primarily the sort of commonly described by the fashionable pejorative - "ultra-Orthodox." Their help goes to all Jews, and often non-Jews, on an equal basis.

Orthodox Involvement with others

A interesting and inspiring case in point is Hatzoloh, a voluntary life-saving organization whose members must receive an intensive hospital-administered course in emergency techniques. Its members all carry beepers and must be on call 24 hours a day, including store and office hours, Sabbath and festival days. It is widely known in the major Jewish neighborhoods that the Hatzoloh ambulance and volunteers will always be on the scene before anyone else. The members span the spectrum of all the Chassidic sects and yeshivos, more than half wear shtreimels on the Sabbath. They take their religion very seriously; it is because of that, not in spite of it, that they answer emergency calls on the Sabbath without asking whether or not the victim is observant. I vividly recall summoning Hatzoloh to literally save the life of an elderly invalid who had always viewed his bearded Orthodox neighbors with an irrational antipathy. To their dying day, that man and his wife could not believe that the people who dashed up their stairs with an oxygen tank and lovingly carried a dangerously stricken octogenarian down the steps to the hospital-bound station wagon were not well-paid employees of something or other. My daughters are among the hundreds who are up at 6:30 a.m. at least one morning a week, or give up afternoons and evenings, to feed chronically ill patients, few of whom are Orthodox.

It is true, and sad, that a social and cultural gap often keeps us too far apart from our fellow Jews. We don't feel comfortable with one another, unfortunately, but neither do physicists with philosophers. Despite that we remain fellows in Jewishness, if not in observance. Thousands of unobservant, semi-assimilated young men and women come to our homes and communities to spend Sabbaths with us and observe the "Jewish Amish," and most of them go away respecting Orthodox life, some even return to the faith of their forefathers- but not because we are trying to "spread the faith." Perhaps we should, but truthfully all we do is open our homes and act ourselves. We are available. We don't agree that "love costs."

Why then can Orthodox religious leaders and organizations not join their Reform and Conservative counterparts around the table? There, an unbridgeable cleavage does and must exist. There is a basic difference between Jews as people and Jews as representatives of Judaic thought, religion and worship.

Reaching out Personally, not Religiously

Orthodox people can and do work with non-Orthodox individuals and secular organizations for the advancement of Jewish interests. (As a matter of historical fact, the pinching shoe has been on the other foot: the establishment American Jewish organizations and federations have disdained Orthodoxy and been most reluctant to give its leaders and institutions a voice on their boards and in their councils. Only recently has this policy begun to change, and grudgingly at that). But religious recognition is quite another matter.

Let me illustrate. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, builders, and pants manufacturers can rub shoulders comfortably and equally in country clubs, synagogues, and community and political organizations - but they cannot belong to the same professional organization. The chairman of General Motors buys lawyers and company doctors by the dozen, but he cannot buy a membership in the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association. And that is how it should be.

The question is not whether Reform or Conservatism are entitled to religious freedom. They are. But that does not make them legitimate expressions of historic, authentic Judaism. For people who take their Judaism seriously, it is unconscionable to confer Jewish religious legitimacy on people who espouse a Judaism without belief in the Divine origin and immutable nature of both the Written and Oral Torah. That is no less a matter of principle and conscience than the maintenance of professional standards by the legal and medical fraternities.

Protecting Authentic Judaism

A recent Jewish quarterly profiles a rabbinical student at a non-Orthodox seminary. His belief is described as seeing G-d not as a supreme personage but as an ideal which sets a pattern for morality and behavior which has given rise to Jewish civilization." He believes that "G-d is a goal, an inspiration and a process that develops out of a community of people, making for good, for ethics, and for the Jewish way of living." The article says that "this is the G-d he says he prays to."

Rabbi Schulweis feels that our refusal to recognize such a belief as "Judaism" is akin to what he calls coercion, refusal of the right to preach and practice, and denigration. I am appalled and personally offended by such characterizations; they tar with a wide and slanderous brush. Orthodoxy does not seek to strike down the First Amendment but it is grossly unfair to ask one who believes in a Judaism based on the existence of G-d, His omniscience and divine Providence, and the divine origin of the entire Torah, to grant Jewish religious validity to movements denying any or all of those principles. Truth in labeling does not end at the supermarket.

Judaism was defined undisputedly by the above basic beliefs from Abraham's day to modern times. Sadducces, Christians, and Karaites deviated and fell away, never to be recognized seriously as coequal strains of Judaism. Nor did anyone challenge classical Judaism for not sitting with them around a common altar. Reform, Enlightenment, Conservatism and other movements have succeeded in breaking down the barriers that protected Orthodoxy. They have also succeeded in spawning unparalleled assimilation and intermarriage. Now they seek even to gain recognition as authentic forms of Judaism. They are expressions of religious belief, but someone who believes in the traditional principles of faith cannot acknowledge them as legitimate streams of Judaism.

Rabbi Schulwies cites a number of Orthodox rabbis and scholars, but a careful reading of their remarks as quoted by him - I do not know whether they are taken out of context - does not disclose a basic challenge to the above thesis. Surely no one believes, that the President of Yeshiva University, for example, would agree with those who claim that Orthodoxy is no more valid than any other credo calling itself Judaism. Rabbi Lookstein's remark questioning the future of Reform and Conservatism and categorically declaring the death of classical Reform can hardly comfort members of those groups who draw the cloak of legitimacy snugly over themselves.

Retaining Judaism with Ahavas Yisrael

More illustrative than the people Rabbi Schulweis cites - generally to the left of the Orthodox mainstream - are those he cannot cite. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is nowhere found in his thesis, nor are the rabbis of Lubavitch, Satmar, Ger, Belz, Vizhnitz or such venerable roshei hayeshiva as Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yaakov Kaminetzky, Eliezer Schach, Shneur Kotler, Mordechai Gifter and others. It is certainly fair to say that the above Chassidic and Yeshiva leaders, individually and in combination, have had far more influence within Orthodoxy and in revivifying Jewish pride and identity than any other group of Jewish leaders.

Ahavas Yisrael? Indeed, we need much more of it, within Orthodoxy and without. We are not pleased with the state of Orthodox life in many, many areas, and we are self-critical, though probably not enough. Indeed, self-criticism too is a religious requirement. But "Ahavas Yisrae1" is too often used as a bludgeon to intimidate Orthodoxy into renouncing its religious principles. Modern society has watered down religion to the point where hardly anything has been left but the pap of love, tolerance, and the espousal of fashionable (if important) causes. The pages of Sh'ma, for example, are regularly filled with essays preaching a "Judaism" of environmentalism, anti-Reaganism, feminism, keep-the-West Bank, give-away-the-West Bank, have babies, don't have babies, and so on. Often these legitimate expressions of political or social opinion are wafted into a celestial sphere as " new mitzvos, " or at least religious requirements. I submit that not every liberal, conservative, or moderate stand is an expression of Judaism. Love is one of the 613 commandments, but it is not the only one, and when it is used to subvert the other 612, it becomes just another four-letter word.

Orthodox families who bear the crushing burden of supporting boys' and girls' schools and numerous religious charities should welcome some Ahavas Yisrael in the form of moral and financial support of Torah causes and institutions, by the way.

Necessary Role of Religion in Politics

Rabbi Schulweis properly bemoans the corrosive effects of politics mixed with religion. It should be recognized, however, that the atrocious over-politization of Israeli society has thrust political involvement upon religious movements. Orthodox leaders and academics often debate the question of divorcing religion from party politics; most of them conclude sadly that there is no practical alternative to going to the political mat if important rights and interests are to be safeguarded. As a case in point, Agudath Israel had to become an indispensable member of Mr. Begin's parliamentary coalition before it could achieve legislation giving families the same rights routinely enjoyed by Americans and almost every other nationality to prevent unauthorized and unneeded autopsies. The anti-Orthodox press to the contrary, religious parties of Israel do not infringe on the rights of others. And it noteworthy that major decisions on politics and principle are decided for Agudath Israel by its Council of Torah Sages who frequently put sharp brakes on the politicians. Too few American Jews know that the Council would not permit Agudath Israel to accept cabinet portfolios, those hotly sought "pots of gold" filled with power, prestige and patronage. The party sent its votes to the government but would not join an executive branch where it would be bound by oath to administer laws contrary to its religious beliefs.

In conclusion, let me emphasize that this is no whitewash of Orthodox life. All is not idyllic on our street. We have an uncontrollable lunatic fringe that engages in acts not sanctioned by their leaders of Halacha. We have too much friction and too much carping among ourselves. Thoughtful and conscientious people should and do address these concerns, but just as we make no claims to perfection we decry the unfairness of "defending Orthodoxy" by misrepresenting our stands and pointing only to our warts in an imperfect world.

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