The spiritual longing for a more just and beautiful world has always been the soul of Judaism.
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Many years ago, I was approached by a young man from El Salvador, who wanted me to help him get an Orthodox conversion. He told me that he didn’t fully understand why he needed the Orthodox conversion, as he already had a non-Orthodox conversion. Apparently he was told it was a good idea that his Jewishness be recognized wherever he was to travel and it would be good for his future children as well.
I examined his conversion document and it looked pretty serious. In it, the young man confirmed his “commitment to God, Torah and the People of Israel, and acceptance of the sacred obligation of the mitzvot.”
He affirmed his belief in the principles of the Jewish faith and declared his determination to maintain a Jewish home. He pledged to circumcise his future son and raise all of his children in loyalty to the Jewish faith. I was impressed with the document and kept a copy for my records. It was dated August 15, 1996. I then proceeded to ask the following question: “In your conversion program, did you learn that there were 10 plagues in Egypt, and there actually was a miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, and there was a Revelation at Mount Sinai?” The former El Salvador native replied, “We learned that if we want to believe it really happened, we can.
But if we want to believe these stories are fable, we can believe that, too.”
I told him that this is exactly the reason why he needed the Orthodox conversion.
This story illustrates why Orthodox Judaism has a problem with the other branches of Judaism. The acceptance of the events at Mount Sinai is critical for one simple reason: Mount Sinai proves that the Jewish faith is divine. This acceptance of Mount Sinai is an affirmation that both the Oral Law and Written Law were given to us by God Himself. The Oral Law is a specific set of guidelines handed over to the spiritual leaders of every generation to interpret, safeguard and protect the Judaism that was first taught to us by Moses during Israel’s 40 years in the desert. The boundaries in interpreting Jewish law have been carefully handed down from generation to generation. Each generation understood that there were certain lines that must not be crossed.
If one fails to accept the message and authenticity of Mount Sinai, then his Judaism is a religion of folklore, traditions and customs that are essentially man made. In a man made religion, everything is up for grabs. Certainly men should not be bound by laws that other men instituted. Judaism then becomes a religion where each person does what is right in his own eyes.
If he likes some of these traditions and laws, he will follow them. If they don’t make sense to him, he will reject them. This is not the case when one believes that everything originates from God and that there is a clear set of rules, with serious consequences for the non-observance of these laws. After all, what right do we have to argue with the Master of the Universe? The point that is missed when speaking of the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is that the issue is one of theology and nothing else. Simply put, one group feels the religion is divine and therefore, bigger than we are, and that there is only room for maneuvering within those traditional guidelines. The other groups do not see the religion as absolute and coming from God, and believe they are entitled to make changes to their heart’s content. This is the reason why it’s so difficult for Orthodox rabbis to sit with non-Orthodox rabbis. It’s also difficult to carry on a debate when one side sees Sinai as the symbol of a God-given Judaism and the other does not. The common bond is that we are all Jews and we must stick together even when we don’t see eye to eye on theological issues.
A further fallacy that is probably magnified by intolerant Orthodox Jews is that followers of the other branches of Judaism are not authentic Jews. This is absolutely false. It does not matter what affiliation any given Jew has, or what type of synagogue he is a member of. Every Jew is holy in the eyes of God and the commandment to love every Jew applies to every Jew. However, if an organization, or a movement, or an individual expresses views that are contrary to the Torah given on Mount Sinai, these views must be challenged. Maimonides explains in his classic work, Mishna Torah, that certain scoffers, heretics and non-believers will not be able to repent so easily and their lack of faith can cause them to lose a share in the next world. Specifically, there is a group called “kofrim” or deniers, whose major sin is their inability to accept that the Torah is directly from God.
Twentieth century scholars such as Rabbi Yeshaya Karelitz, also known as the Chazon Ish, and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook both were quoted as saying that there are no longer heretics in our generation. Most of the blasphemous comments are made more out of ignorance than with malice. This should further bridge the divide so that we learn to be more accepting of every Jew. This acceptance is still limited to where Torah from Sinai’s authenticity is scrutinized. Nevertheless, it will help a great deal if these points are clarified. On a personal level, we have to learn how to get along. We must learn not to take one’s theological beliefs personally.
Judaism has managed to survive primarily because of the faith and determination of Jews in every generation, in the most trying circumstances, not to waver from that which began on Mount Sinai. We continue to hold fast to this commitment. We cannot be expected to waver in this commitment. What has not been done sufficiently is to attempt to express views in a more patient, understanding manner. Communication is the first step toward bridging gaps. It may not solve all of our problems, but it is a step in the right direction. Without communication, each side sees the other as much more stubborn and unyielding than it is. After all, the conversion candidate from El Salvador was told he had a pretty good conversion and was not insulted for his attempt. What was missing is that it’s all about Sinai!
The author is the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City and is currently a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem.