With the renewed seasonal outbreak of the Reform-Orthodox wars, I cannot see myself as a mere bystander, inasmuch as the letter by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, is addressed to me, as an official town rabbi. (See).
The attack against Reform Jews with which the Chief Rabbi begins his letter caused me serious anguish. I feel great esteem for Rabbi Amar's character and leadership. His harsh words are out of keeping with his breadth of mind, approach, and manner as I know them. I also know that his words are a source of pain to many good people who are members of these communities. I have been raised on what he wrote at the end of his letter, where he emphasizes that the members of the Reform congregations are "our brothers and own flesh … and we love them with a true love."
A vast abyss does indeed yawn between my halachic lifestyle and worldview and those of Reform and Conservative Judaism. All the same, I have dedicated many years to efforts to build bridges between us, but without compromising or surrendering my principles.
I am not referring to relationships on the individual level, although these too are extremely important. Nor to cordial relations between representatives of the different streams when they meet at the tables of philanthropists, foundations, and conferences of Jewish organizations. I am talking about real bridges that have a solid link at both ends and stand on firm foundations.
The question is whether such bridges can be built?
My answer is that on most current levels of encounter there is no chance of doing so. It requires the creation of new dimensions where such meetings are possible, despite the differences. This is extremely difficult-but it is possible.
The relations between the Reform/Conservative movements and Orthodox Jews play out in two separate channels: a public and political combat between rival groups, on the one hand, and dialogue and cooperation, where possible, on behalf of the Jewish people and its future, on the other.
Some Reform and Conservative leaders try to have it both ways: they wage war on Orthodoxy and the religious establishment in matters that have absolutely nothing to do with the development of their congregations in Israel, but raise a bitter outcry if the Orthodox dare to fight back, defend themselves, or issue their own statement in response.
On the other side, most of the Orthodox leadership is deeply entrenched in the old battles and not ready to choose a track of dialogue and participation accompanied by disagreement, of the sort that it conducts with secular Jews.
As noted, a deep gulf divides me from the Reform and Conservative communities and I have my criticisms of the conduct and style of some of their leaders. Here, though, I will not try to maintain a balance and will direct the thrust of my remarks to the general (Israeli) public raised on the Orthodox identity and worldview.
For 200 years we Orthodox fought back against the "innovators" and "religious reformers," but now the time has come for a spiritual reckoning: is there any modern idea or novelty that Orthodoxy itself, or at least broad segments thereof, has not managed to deal with? In an age of endless variations among modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, is there any meaning to the fights against the Reform?
Perhaps the militant declarations are really being voiced as part of the conflicts among Orthodox groups themselves and in pursuit of internal delegitimization? What weight do the Reform have in Israel anyway, in a time of almost total privatization of religious life (private kashrut supervision, private religious courts, congregations, Hasidic courts; yeshivas, and so on)?
In a period of growth, expansion, and increased strength, hasn't the time come afor Orthodoxy to discard all the manifestations of weakness that characterized it until 40 or 50 years ago and to stop reacting out of unwarranted fear?
Broad circles of the public believe that the path of Reform Judaism encourages and intensifies assimilation. I used to think so, too. In my youth I was taught to believe that "Reform Jews don't have Jewish grandchildren." But this isn't true.
There is a continuity of generations in Reform congregations. Over time I have discovered that there are also Orthodox people whose actions promote assimilation.
Yes, there are secular Jews and Reform Jews who encourage assimilation. But I have also learned that Reform and Conservative Judaism, with their congregations, seminaries, and organizations, are fighting in their own way for the survival of the Jewish people and are an important factor in this campaign.
The time has come to tell our brothers, our flesh and blood-and perhaps ourselves, first of all: Reform and Conservative Jews, we love you with a true love and will not fight against you anymore.
We will not give up our principles or our fidelity to a life of Torah and mitzvot according to halacha. It is precisely because we feel confident in our way that we call off this competition and move on to a new path, where we will be able, with great effort, to build bridges of cooperation for the sake of the entire people of Israel and its future.
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the town rabbi of Har Adar, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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