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We and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis: Challenge and Response

Klaus J. Herrmann
Fall 1997

In August 1980, Dr. Bailey E. Smith, then president of the Southern Baptist Convention, stated at a Dallas convocation no less than that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemous. It may be politically expedient. No one can pray unless he prays in the name of Jesus Christ."  

This amazing statement, from the leader of a group with some 15½ million members in 39,000 congregations, arguably the largest of all U.S. Protestant denominations, electrified American Jews in a whirl of outraged protest, leading to all kinds of "clarifications" and re-interpretations. By December 198O, Dr. Smith had met with the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith leadership and issued a statement in which he affirmed "the distinctive theological beliefs that he cannot compromise, but that he stands with the Jewish community for total religious liberty, for an American pluralistic society and against anti-Semitism." Expressing profound regret for any hurt to the Jewish community because of his remarks, he made perfectly clear that, if he had to do it over again, knowing how it would be misinterpreted, he would not have made these statements.  

In fact, all Dr. Smith had actually done was to cite a portion of the New Testament. In St. John’s Gospel (14:6) it is asserted of Jesus the Anointed that: "I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the father but by me."  

Once all was said and done, it can be gainsaid that all of the excited reactions to Dr. Smith were ill advised. In the final analysis, what does it matter what fundamentalists of one kind or another believe with regard to The Eternal listening to the supplications of this group or that? The Supreme One, normally identified as The Lord of All unless one speaks to gender equity adherents, was not consulted. His determination as to who receives audition and who does not may be quite obvious to those who accept the literal meaning of particular New Testament declarations. For communicants of Judaism, excepting the Jews for Jesus/Messianic Jews/Hebrew Christians who maintain that they too do so, prescriptions of New Testament origin are not applicable, and therefore why engage in fruitless theological disputations, leading absolutely nowhere. There never was a lack of clerics and others who dogmatically hold to a fixed set of theological principles and who remain wholly unconcerned with the "political correctness" of their position.  

Our Jewish Fundamentalists  

On March 31, 1997, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada splendidly succeeded in electrifying the whole world again. Its acting national chairman, Rabbi Dr. Hersh Ginsberg, pronounced an historic Declaration:  

"Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. Their adherents are Jews according to Jewish law, but their religion is not Judaism . . . The UOR rejects recognition of Reform and Conservative movements as Judaism or their clergy as Rabbis . . . Their condoning interfaith marriages, null and void conversions and homosexuality are repugnant not only to Torah Judaism but also to common morality. Yet they do this in the name of ‘Judaism’ . . . Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all."  

Quoting eminent Orthodox authorities to bolster its case and its total assault, the UOR summoned the late Israeli Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog ("Reform is not Judaism at all), the late Lubavitch "Rebbe" M.M. Schneersohn — regarded as "King Messiah" by his followers — (Reform and Conservative are heretical movements which have "plagued" the Jews, with no basis in everlasting Torah), and the late Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Karaites — they who reject the Talmud — were closer to Judaism than are the Reform).  

Then, in a strident appeal to congregants within Reform and Conservative temples, the UOR called on them to sever their connection with these synagogues and its clergy and to be guided only by Orthodox rabbis in all areas of marriage, divorce and conversions. Such a return to Orthodox Judaism, assured Rabbi Ginsberg, "will merit us to receive God’s help and guidance."  

While the worthy rabbi had not spoken to God nor made claim that he had, he felt utterly convinced of the righteousness of his statement. Is it not, after all, written in canonical explications of Moses’ Five Books, namely in the Talmud and the Codes of the "Set Table" (Shulchan Aruch) and in the great Maimonides’ books that only literal adherence to those 613 commandments and prohibitions guarantee Divine acceptance? And just as the U.S. Supreme Court effects decision as to what the U.S. Constitution is — and not the interpretation of whosoever reads and studies it — only the sages of the Talmud, following impeccable Orthodox affiliation and commitment, may interpret God’s will as expressed in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible framework.  

Not surprisingly, the UOR "Historic Declaration" called forth the unmitigated fury of just about everyone in Jewish organizational life. Amazingly, even the mainline Orthodox "Union of Orthodox Congregations" and its rabbinical arm, the Rabbinical Council of America, sharply distanced themselves from the UOR’s pronouncements. On the other hand, however, Israeli Orthodox leaders were delirious with joy, and for very good reason, as we shall see.  

The UOR’s undeniable public relations accomplishment was probably the media’s erroneous assumption that the UOR represented all of Orthodox rabbis. However, unlike the Central Conference of American Rabbis (established in July 1889) which entirely represents all Reform rabbis in the U.S. and Canada, doctrinal and other divergences make for a variety of Orthodox rabbinical associations. Thus, the Rabbinical Council of America, organized in 1924, is deemed to be so-called "modern" Orthodoxy’s flagship while the Central Congress of Grand Rabbis is directed by the Satmar chassidic dynast and includes those chassidic rabbis who follow his theology. As may be known, this particular congress holds militantly anti-Zionist and anti-the State of Israel views. It believes that only some metaphysically ordained Messiah may re-establish the (theocratic) Jewish State. On the other hand, all of the other rabbinical associations adhere to a more or less dedicated allegiance to Zionism.  

Supporting Israeli Political Orthodoxy  

Established in 1902, the UOR, comprised of rabbis ordained in Eastern Europe, did not waste time before it turned its wrath on a 23-year-old rabbi by the name of Mordecai Menachem Kaplan — by 1922 the founder of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism/Reconstructionism. He had started out with an Orthodox congregation and UOR found his views to be close to heresy, if not beyond. He was soon to lose that pulpit, but his actions kept him on the UOR’s hit list.  

Because Kaplan rejected the dogma of the Jews’ Chosenness and obliterated such assertions from the prayer books he edited, the UOR organized a public auto da fé of his prayer books. In 1946, the UOR proclaimed M.M. Kaplan to be excommunicated, placed in cherem. What about Reform Judaism and its Union Prayer Book? The UOR did nothing about Classic, authentic Reform Judaism. Since then motivations have radically changed and such is in consequence of the challenge to the State of Israel’s chief rabbinical monopoly.  

When in May 1948 the State of Israel was established, and certainly before that during the British mandatory period, the Jerusalem-based Chief Rabbinate’s authority was not in dispute. Neither Reform nor any other section of Judaism contended with the Chief Rabbinate’s absolute monopoly on all life cycle events and on the laws of inheritance. Not even the chancellor of Hebrew University, Reform Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, ventured any opposition, nor did those central European Liberal rabbis who settled in Israel.  

This deplorable state of affairs lasted well into the 197Os. To be sure, a League for Religious Freedom in Israel started in the 1960s, but this association reflected no specifically religion-oriented venue. Principally, the League’s leadership tried to advance a secularist-oriented philosophy, although not a few reform theologians initially supported its goals. This lack of an Establishment Reform (as also a Reconstructionist and a Conservative) presence has changed. The American Reform institutions have promoted a very visible presence within the State of Israel. Under the name of "Progressive," rabbis and lay persons developed effective strategies that were clearly designed to advance religious freedom and, therefore, a curbing of the Chief Rabbinate’s extensive powers in the realms of marriage and divorce, inheritance and conversions to Judaism.  

Separation of Religion and State  

Unlike the United States and other Western countries where separation of religion and state is paramount, an Orthodox rabbinate in the Republic of Israel receives governmental funding and holds sway by dint of the existence of Orthodox-religious political parties and their loyal voting public. Of 120 members of the Israeli Knesset, 23 represent these Orthodox-religious voters, and some appreciable number of the "Alignment" (Likud) support Orthodoxy as well. As a result, it is difficult for any Israeli government to sustain its parliamentary majority without the full assistance of an ever increasing number of Orthodox deputies.  

This state of affairs suits the UOR and its recent Declaration was largely proclaimed in order to bolster its Israeli friends: "Having caused havoc in the United States, leading Jews towards assimilation and intermarriage (Reform and Conservatism) now attempt to export their alien ideology to Israel. By promoting Pluraism in Judaism, they seek to be recognized as rabbis entitled — contrary to the existing law in Israel — to carry out Rabbinical functions . . . contrary to Torah law. In addition . . . from a Torah perspective it is imperative to support Israel’s government in their refusal to change the status quo regarding the exclusive Orthodox Rabbinic authority . . . Unless Jewish family law remains under the authority of the sole (Orthodox) rabbinate, the Jewish nation would be hopelessly divided."  

On the face of it, the UOR proclamation is a document destructive of democratic religious pluralism and is obviously contrary as well to the overwhelming consensus among America’s Jewish population, and not only that of America. Yet there is one significant difference, namely that outside the reach of the Israeli chief rabbinate and its political parties in the Knesset, declarations of the UOR or any other rabbinical association carry absolutely no coercive power. Rabbinical sages and leaders within the UOR, however eminent and distinguished, however much schooled in the intricacies of Talmud and Codes, are entirely dependent on the assent of those who voluntarily wish to be governed by their rulings and mandated exclusions.  

But It Hath Availed Thee Nothing  

For all its desperate endeavors to imitate various and sundry rituals and customs of religious Orthodoxy, Reform rabbis and Reform religious institutions stand completely rejected by those whom they have tried to appease.  

Orthodox Judaism’s rock-bottom premise is still predicated on the Maimonidean Thirteen Principles, among which dogmatic acceptance of Divine Revelation holds pride of place. Unlike interpretations by the founding fathers of Reform Judaism, who differentiated between the eternal moral verities of Torah and such practices as that of using phylacteries-tefillin, obeying the dietary laws, or on prescriptions/prohibitions once pertinent to the Priestly (Kohantic, Aaronitic) cast within the Israelite community, Orthodox Judaism holds to adherence of the strictest kind.  

It is true that talmudic ("halachic") dialectics sought legalistically to divine the Eternal’s real intentions and thereby wisely tempering what was seen as God’s immutable commandments. However, once all was accomplished by way of Halachic manipulation and Talmudic exercises, full acceptance of the "Torah min Hashomayim" — the Torah Revealed by a metaphysical God-Being to the Prophet Moses upon Mount Sinai remains the required belief within Jewish religious orthodoxy.  

Transformation of Reform  

In the case of the recent transformation of Reform Judaism, we see that even those immutable "moral" ethics of the Old Testamentary prescriptives have fallen by the wayside in contemporary Reform theology. Not one of Reform Judaism’s early theologians would ever have assented to the sanctification of practices such as homosexuality. Reform theologians accepted scholarly biblical criticism as valid, thus consenting to scholars’ findings on the origin of the Book of Leviticus as written by the Cohanim (priests) themselves and not dictated by God to Moses. Nevertheless, Rabbis Holdheim and Geiger, Einhorn and Kohler, Samuel Hirsch and Samuel Adler, Salomon Formstecher and William Fineshriber would have rejected as utterly objectionable present day Reform rabbis’ predilections and practices.  

For those of us who stand on the high ground of an authentically Classic Reformed Judaism, the condemnations and excommunications of an Orthodox rabbinate are entirely irrelevant. When therefore the Union of Orthodox Rabbis solemnly proclaimed on March 31, 1997 that: "We reject recognition of Reform and Conservative movements as Judaism, or their clergy as Rabbis. We have publicly rebuffed the claim of the ‘three wings of Judaism.’ There is only one Judaism. The Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all but another religion," we would respectfully grant the perfect right to the UOR to effect the statement and concur as to this Union’s justifiable right to state its views in a forthright fashion. If the UOR already regards the Halacha-minded Conservatives of the United Conservative Synagogue of America/Masorti as "another Faith," then why should these Orthodox rabbis consider those of a specifically Authentic Reformed Judaism as its brethren/sisters in Faith? We least of all have any cause to loudly protest the Orthodox rabbis’ assertion, namely that we of Classic Reformed Judaism do not allege being of the same Faith as these Orthodox proponents are. Hence, just as they read us out of their communion so do we gladly reciprocate.  

On Whose Side Is Logic?  

Virtually all of those Jews who adhere to Reform Judaism in one form or another regard the exercise of religion to be their private concern. Excommunications and hierarchic decision-making, such as are still relevant within, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, are regarded as entirely irrelevant and spiritually invalid within Judaism, even moderately or "modernly" Orthodox Judaism itself. Nevertheless, any serious person must at least consider if not grapple with the argumentation advanced by truly eminent Orthodox protagonists.  

Among the UOR’s brain-trust are most distinguished rabbinical authorities such as David Hollander and Moses David Tendler. Rabbi Tendler serves as spiritual leader of a congregation in Monsey, New York as well as professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University. He is also a respected medical cancer specialist. Within the pages of the Allgemeiner Journal, America’s uncompromisingly Orthodox, anti-Reform newspaper, Rabbi Tendler argues in behalf of the UOR position. He asserts that while religious pluralism is part of America’s democratic ethos, if applied to Judaism in general and to the official religion imposed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in particular, such religious pluralism "disguises deviant behaviors, many of which are anathema to Torah law and custom."  

Since there are immutable Torah laws that were never challenged by Reform Jewish theologians, i.e. on deviant practices (incest, homosexuality, bestiality) and since contemporary Reform theologians and certainly those within Reconstructionism literally sanctify some of these by way of marriage and commitment rituals, Rabbi Tendler’s aggressive words do contain a kernel of truth. "Reform Judaism is no longer a Jewish Faith" he bluntly states, thereby certainly leaving a door ajar insofar as Classic Reformed Judaism is concerned. Let us look at his arraignment:  

1. Reform Judaism, alone among the world’s great religions, denies the Divine origin of the Torah. To this charge we would answer that the Eternal conferred the gift of rationality and scholarship even on his "Chosen People." We would in fact be violative of God’s gift to us were we to ignore the immense work of scholars on the real origin of Holy Scriptures.  

2. "Since its revelation at Mount Sinai" Jewish law defines as Jewish anyone who is born of a Jewish mother. Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent "diluting its membership in order to bolster its thinning membership." We would reply that nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there a clear and precise statement such as Rabbi Tendler asserts. Yet even if there were such by means of talmudic speculationism, we are entirely entitled to reject such a biologically based understanding of High Religion. Incidentally, he may certainly be justified as to the motivational aspect of Reform Judaism’s decision on this issue, but statistically it is precisely Reform congregations whose membership advanced significantly even without those of its adherents of Jewish descent via the father and not the mother.  

3. By rejecting the Jewish laws of divorce, Reform split the Jews into two biologically distinct groups. By refusing to accede to the plea of Orthodox leaders to require a Jewish divorce ("Gett") it raised the specter of bastardy (manzeruth) over every child whose Jewish mother remarried without having obtained the Gett. Thus, neither these children nor any of their descendants (unto the tenth generation, to be more specific) can ever marry within Torah-true (Orthodox) Jewry. Rabbi Tendler asks: "Did the Reform really believe that they could dance on the graves of Orthodox Jewry?"  

Jews Are Split  

We would concur with Dr. Tendler that from his viewpoint, Jews are indeed split theologically. As a result, Orthodox Jews are enjoined to marry only those who subject to its interpretation fulfill all requirements. Hence, a great many people who are, in their own view, Jews are excluded from Orthodox Jewish consideration. Reform Judaism clearly cannot concur with such a blatantly sexist and, more than that, reprehensible statement, as that in Deuteronomy (24:1): "When a man has married a wife, but she does not win his favor because he finds something shameful in her, and he writes a her a note of divorce, gives it to her and dismisses her." Inasmuch as we reject as unfounded assertion that God made this declaration, but believe that priestly scribes composed the passages, Reform Judaism instituted ameliorations.  

While it is correct to say that Orthodoxy points to the great work which the famed Rabbi Gerschom of Mayence accomplished a millennium ago in liberalizing hitherto inflexible talmudic rules, women continue to occupy a demonstrably inferior position when divorce is involved according to the Gett. It is only the husband who is competent and enabled within Orthodox Judaism to hand the Gett to his wife, thereby divorcing her. Yet a husband who refuses to do so can be compelled by a rabbinical court of law to do so. In the State of Israel, such men can be and they have been jailed until willing to be divorced. In other countries, this is not possible and the results are often extortion and blackmail on the part of husbands who demand money and other benefits before agreeing to the divorce.  

In order to terminate this unacceptable state of affairs, the eminent Reform rabbis who convened in Philadelphia in November 1869 extensively reformed talmudic and Code restrictives and applications on the issue of divorce, declaring a civil bill of divorcement to be entirely sufficient in biblical law and talmudic explication. Since then, a rabbinic Gett is no longer required by Reform rabbis as a prerequisite for officiating at the marriage of a civilly divorced woman. In more recent years, a so-called "Reform Gett" is written up under the name of Seder Peridah or Order of Separation. It is in no way recognized as a Proper Gett and is not necessary among the Reform rabbinate.  

Chief Rabbinate’s Jurisdiction  

The issue would be of slight practical importance except in the case of Israeli law where all divorce actions are subject to the Chief Rabbinate’s jurisdiction, just as those of Christian or Moslem origin fall under the jurisdiction of the respective bishops or Moslem religious judges. There is, however, considerably more to this complex, namely the status of a child who is born of what — without this Orthodox-rabbinic Gett — is considered to be an adulterous union.  

This brings into play the proscription enunciated in Deuteronomy (23:3): "A bastard (mamzer) shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord, even to the tenth generation." Accordingly bastardy/mamzeruth applies not to an illegitimately born child, but to one conceived in an adulterous or incestuous relationship. The obvious response to orthodox understandings simply would be that the charge of adultery no longer applies once there is a divorce, civilly recognized and one which a non-Orthodox ecclesiastical court issues, such as in England in the Association of Reform Synagogues.  

Why, then, should Reform rabbis demean themselves by acceding to Orthodox interpretations of Holy Writ? Clearly, when a woman does intend to marry a man of Orthodox persuasion, she would indeed be well advised to obtain an Orthodox Gett and Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Humanist rabbis are duty bound to so advise.  

4. Rabbi Tendler accuses Reform rabbis of making a "sham" out of their conversions of gentiles to Judaism. According to Orthodox law, converts are required to observe all commandments and prohibitions as these are comprised in the Written and the Oral Law. As Reform rabbis neither accept the allegation of Divine Revelation for these laws and do not adhere to them themselves, they can hardly expect converts to do so. The answer to this would again have to be that converts to Judaism outside of Orthodoxy must be carefully advised that the Orthodox rabbinate does not accept them as valid and that these converts, if need be, would have to proceed to conversion via Orthodox tribunals. There is a "sham" only when converts to Reform Judaism are led to believe that they are recognized as duly approved Jews by the Orthodox. Reform rabbis are entitled to effect conversions applicable to Reform congregational standards and not to those of Orthodox protagonists.  

Status of Reform Clergy  

5. Reform clergy (the UOR representatives refuse to identify them as rabbis), writes Rabbi Tendler, "can profess to be non-theist. deny the existence of a God. The only god they honor is ‘autonomy.’" Again, he is correct in his statement, because the CCAR is proscribed from effecting tests of belief on any its members and there is no question that a non-Theist or Humanist rabbi is fully entitled to be a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Still, the Union of American Hebrew congregations in 1994 refused admission of Congregation Beth Adam of Cincinnati ("Judaism with a Humanist Perspective") to its fellowship, a decision that continues to be questioned by not a few communicants within Reform Judaism  

6. "In violation of the morals and ethics of Torah Judaism, the Reform rabbinate declares the Gay lifestyle an acceptable alternative to the heterosexual lifestyle and Gay clergy as legitimate religious functionaries." In this candid assessment, Rabbi Tendler is fully aligned with Classic Reformed Judaism’s views on the issue.  

7. "Reform rabbis declared non-marital sex as a matter of personal conscience, not a sinful act. Indeed, what religious tradition that has given up on morality has not found its way to oblivion?" While Dr. Tendler’s condemnation appears to be well founded, what he seems to ignore are the very Orthodox, talmudical perceptions on this issue. According to these, a married man’s concourse with a single woman, be she Jewish or not, is never considered an adulterous act; whereas such concourse by a married woman with a single man is adultery. Irrespective of this important omission, Rabbi Tendler’s accusation is in order and the pioneering rabbis of Reformed Judaism would be in agreement.  

Responsibility For Disappearing Jews  

But then the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in general and Rabbi Tendler personally charges Reform Judaism with the responsibility of millions of Jews disappearing from Judaism since the end of World War II. Sadly, we are indeed confronted with the reality of innumerable Jews converting to various cults and sects; we know that 15% of cult members are of Jewish origin. However, Rabbi Tendler’s accusation is without merit because if there were only the Orthodox avenue of practicing Judaism, millions more would have abandoned the ancestral religion. If anything, it was Reform Judaism as well as Conservative and Reconstructionist expressions of Jewish belief and practice that kept the majority of Jews from departing Judaism altogether.  

Rabbi Tendler calls Reform Judaism a "failed experiment." There are those within Reform Judaism who would agree with him, but for entirely different reasons. As the rabbis of Reform Judaism have left the teachings and practical expressions of those who established the congregations and institutions of Reform Judaism, re-introducing the practices that Orthodoxy follows, there has actually been a failure.  

The purification of Judaism into a High Religion of reformed values and ceremonials was anything but a failed "experiment." There has, in recent years, been a degeneration of what once was an immortal movement designed to edify and exalt Judaism. Exchanging the gold of universalist language for the dross of an ethno-centered, geographically linked Folkism could not but vandalize all of that re-interpreted by the founders of Liberal-religious Judaism.  

Intolerance Is Clear  

When Rabbi Tendler says that Reform "is not Judaism," a view echoed in Israel by such prominent spokesman as the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron who recently dismissed Reform Judaism as "a fabricated religion," and former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu who compared Reform Jews to "Karaites," members of a medieval Jewish sect which rejected rabbinic law, it is not the Reform Judaism of today to which they object, but any religious trend in Judaism which rejects their own authority and which abandons narrow nationalism and ethnicity for the universal religion the founders of Reform sought to promulgate. Their intolerance is clear for all to see, and their contempt for freedom and diversity of religion indicates fear of an open competition in the marketplace of ideas.  

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