Over the past months I’ve noticed your diligence in assigning blame to the non-Orthodox North American Jews for their lack of fealty to classical Judaism; their ignorance of primary sources; and their unwillingness to give up their errant ways and join you in (presumably) Orthodox Judaism. Ordinarily I’d simply click past your response to a review of a book on Julius Rosenwald. However, following the Yom Kippur liturgy, in which it states, that the “nistarot” (the hidden matters) are solely for God’s review, while we grapple with those aspects that are seen within our domain, I think that you’ve erred. As the liturgy suggests, we, humans do not, and perhaps cannot, always accurately draw the conclusion that a person’s actions in the charitable realm do not reflect the Divine Will.
If a philanthropist, who learned under a Reform rabbi, was so inspired to partner with the Tuskegee Institute in launching his first six rural schools in Alabama, and then, by influencing partners to join him in educational philanthropy to create 5,000 more schools, clinics, training centers and teacher residences, how can you know that this did not truly reflect the Divine Will?
The repeated suggestion in your letters that Reform and Conservative Jews cannot be entrusted with the future of the Jewish people hardly invites those folks to wish to participate in other communities. That only 10% of American Jews self-define themselves as Orthodox suggests that, after more than a century past the arrival of millions of Eastern European Jews, the ideas of the immutable truth of the literal words of the Torah; the perpetual yielding to the precedence of the Talmudic rabbis; and, the inability of some streams of Halacha to take into account advances in science, sociology, sexuality and secular politics, simply do not convince the bulk of American Jews. Secondly, there have not been wholesale closings of Conservative or Reform congregations across the past decade, even as the total number of congregations affiliated with the movements’ offices has declined. The vibrancy of the over 1500 congregations in just these two movements, as well as the Reconstructioinist congregations – each reflecting a differing interpretation of tradition and law – is astounding. Their services and study may not resemble what your congregation offers, but that is simply not their purpose or goal. And, their Jewish (and non-Jewish) members have voted with their feet.
A careful read of Leora Batnitsky’s “How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought” by a scholar of this generation, or, the classic “Jewish History and Jewish Destiny” by the late Gerson D. Cohen will clarify that there was never one unified system in the rabbinic era or the European era concerning prayer, halakhic interpretation, or response to the challenges of modernity. In large part, what you view as fragmentation has been the key to our, collectively, not merely surviving, but thriving in turbulent countries and difficult decades.
It would not be proper, in this season, to conclude with the suggestion that truth resides only on one side, or in one text. So, get in touch with me at my congregation, and I’ll meet you in NYC at Kosher Deluxe by Penn Station this fall to speak of these issues with the seriousness they deserve.
Rabbi John S. Schechter
Congregation B’nai Israel
Basking Ridge, New Jersey