Torah Judaism has always been defined by belief in binding Halacha, based upon the Torah given to Moses at Mount Sinai and the rabbinical exegesis contained in the Talmud. While there are endless disputes as to the precise contours of the Halacha, about its obligatory nature and the sources for its determination there are none.
The Halacha is the framework within which each Jew creates his or her individual relationship to God. Every Jew has a unique mission in the world and an aspect of God that only he – by virtue of his unique combination of strengthens and challenges, singular familial and historical situation – can reveal. But again, it is God’s commands that create the framework for the fulfillment of that mission.
God’s existence is, in philosophical terms, necessary; ours is contingent and depends on our attachment to Him.
BETWEEN TORAH Judaism and the various heterodox movements of Jews there is no theological common ground or meeting point. There is no continuum from lesser to greater Jewish practice, for at the theological level the chasm is unbridgeable and absolute.
Both in our eyes and those of our enemies, Judaism was always defined by the law we received at Sinai.
Paul, the founder of Christianity, came to free mankind from the “curse of the law.” And Martin Luther thought the law existed only to drive men mad and into the bosom of the church.
That law starts with the objective command, though the details of the command may subject to dispute. For the heterodox denominations, however, the starting point is individual: He decides by what to be bound, for how long and to what degree. As Reform leader Eric Yoffie puts it, “Ultimately, I must examine each mitzva and ask the question, ‘Do I feel commanded as Moses was commanded?’” The result is that each Jew creates his own religion – one that denies the very possibility of any objective standards. As another Reform clergyman describes the theology of his congregants, “I will do what I want, call it Judaism and refuse to indulge or even tolerate rabbinic judgment to the contrary. Reform is an intellectual and political technique of immunity from normative Jewish evaluation.”
That explains why so many heterodox Jews respond to the claim that their denominational brand names lack all historical or theological coherence, with the accusation that they have been labeled non-Jews.
They conflate, “Who is a Jew?” and “What is Judaism?” because in their minds Judaism is whatever a particular Jew does or does not believe.
The emphasis on subjective experience as the defining element of religion, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik pointed out, derives from German Protestantism and before that to pagan rituals.
Perhaps that is why the New Age “Jewish” festivals, with their call for each person to define is own relationship with God, invariably degenerate into Dionysian bacchanals.
ENGLAND’S ANNUAL Limmud Conference reinforces the very idea that Torah Judaism considers the most pernicious: Judaism has no objective content; it is whatever you want it to be. It offers a smorgasbord from which participants can choose – some by Orthodox presenters. But the subliminal message is: There is a denominational spectrum – and every bandwidth is equally valid. Pick and choose that which suits you best.
Limmud was repeatedly approached by some of the leading rabbinic figures in England, including Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu of the London Beit Din, with the request of a single day just for Orthodox presenters. But those requests were repeatedly rebuffed, because such a day would be out of sync with the message of a denominational spectrum.
At Limmud, various speakers hawk their wares like so many fishwives, while participants stroll about sampling from the a la carte menu, including no fewer than 10 sessions devoted to homosexual advocacy and a healthy dose of anti-Israel propaganda – e.g., the screening of Jumpers, about the destructive effect of IDF service on four young Israelis. The conference directors assume that to attract young British Jews, one needs plenty of the latter. A close friend of mine who participated as a presenter last year told me that the pervasive anti- Israel tone left him skeptical of the value of the entire endeavor.
Jews can identify strongly with Israel without being religiously observant. But I would guess that the likelihood of young Jews who are easily convinced that their fellow Jews in Israel are militaristic oppressors, perpetrating the worst human rights abuses against innocent Palestinians, coming to identify with the broader Jewish community any time soon – other than as a means to attack Israel – are slim.
THE CONTEXT in which Torah is taught is crucial. A wealthy, non-observant Jewish merchant once found himself at an inn with one of the great figures of the Mussar movement. The two Jews entered into a discussion of deep matters of Jewish belief. In the middle of the discussion, the merchant’s servant entered the room and was told to prepare the carriage.
The rabbi immediately cut off all conversation, despite the merchant’s protestations that he was thoroughly enjoying their conversation. The rabbi explained to him, “I thought this was a serious discussion. But if it was serious, then you would have to be prepared to change your life depending on the outcome. When I saw that you had already made up your mind to continue on to your destination, I realized that you did not entertain any possibility of change and were not serious. For you the conversation was only an entertainment, and to provide intellectual entertainment, I have no time.”
Our sages enjoin us to avoid the company of scoffers and light-headed people. How else can we describe a venue that offers, next to Torah lectures, sessions on “50 Shades of Humous,” “Old Jewish Jokes,” “Kaddish for Deceased Pets,” “Pajama Party Disco” and a drumming workshop? Is that a place where young Jews are in a frame of mind to change their lives? No doubt those Orthodox rabbis who attend Limmud are convinced that they have a profound impact on their listeners. It is an occupational hazard of Torah speakers – in whose ranks I fall – to consistently overestimate the impact of a single speech. But that is particularly true of those whose stock-in-trade is confirming the validity of every prejudice against Orthodox Jews and Judaism of their listeners, but offering their own sterling character as proof that one can be decent and Orthodox.
RABBI DR. NATHAN Lopes Cardozo goes even further.
He does not just urge Orthodox presenters to take advantage of whatever opportunities they are given at Limmud, but to sit together with their heterodox colleagues and learn from them. What should they learn? Biblical criticism? Guitar-playing? Cardozo suggests that the Orthodox might have learned from the heterodox how better to read the “religious map” of world Jewry. Has he read the Pew Research Center study of American Jewry – the 71-percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews, the wildly disproportionate over representation of Jews in cults, the million or more American Jews who describe their religion as “none” or “other”? Has he read last week’s JTA article on Conservative and Reform temples surviving by renting out space to Orthodox minyanim? Is there a comparable phenomenon in the Reform and Conservative movements to the ba’alei teshuva movement, which has brought tens of thousands of Jews into the Orthodox fold? Does he know Conservative and Reform Jews who are dramatically changing their lives around the question: What does God want of me? CARDOZO HAILS the courage of new British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis for his decision to attend the upcoming Limmud Conference, and bemoans the cowardice of Dayan Ehrentreu and other senior religious figures for urging Orthodox rabbis not to attend.
It is an open secret that the selectors of the new chief rabbi made attendance at Limmud a condition for the appointment. Mirvis may have decided that his considerable personal and organizational skills were just the thing to revive the moribund United Synagogue, and there was nothing to be gained by passing on the appointment – since whoever was appointed in his place would also go. And he may have reasoned that his opening address, with no heterodox rabbis on the podium with him, could do little harm, and he might even inspire some with his words of Torah and encouragement of Torah learning.
But an act of heroism his attendance is not.
And conversely, Ehrentreu surely knew that his public letter urging Orthodox rabbis to stay away from Limmud, as presently constituted, would subject him to widespread calumny in the Anglo-Jewish media and from the so-called leaders of British Jewry. Whatever the merits, his decision to go public with his criticism was not an act of cowardice.
The real tragedy is not that more Orthodox speakers don’t offer themselves as “window dressing,” in the words of London rabbi Alan Kimche, at what should properly be called the Limmud Conference of Progressive Judaism. Rather, it is that the British Orthodox establishment did not continue funding a program called Encounter, which served as a effective counter to Limmud and attracted large numbers of non-observant Jews. Encounter provided the model upon which South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein – a true hero – built the phenomenally successful Sinai Indaba, which attracts far more Jews than the British Limmud every year.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.