Battling Reform

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

6 Tishrei: Tzitz Eliezer and R. Tzvi Pesach Frank Battle Reform

The declaration of the State of Israel inspired R. Eliezer Yehuda Waldenburg to write the three-volume Hilchot Medinah (published over a few years in the early 1950s), to demonstrate how halachah could guide an effective modern state. I think the realities of life as the state continued diminished (not extinguished) his enthusiasm.

The Approaching Threat of Reform

An example of events which would have discouraged him was Hebrew Union College opening a campus in Yerushalayim (in 1963, but the discussion extended back to the mid-1950s). In the eighth chapter of his introduction to volume five of Tzitz Eliezer, he tells us he had written an article delineating the dangers of Reform Judaism, which garnered much approbation. He chose to include in this introduction the letter he received from R. Tzvi Pesach Frank, zekan hageonim, the elder of the great Torah scholars (a function both of age and rank).

He says the letter both expresses the Torah view as well as the anguished cry of a leader of the Jewish people, an attempt to rescue the people as a whole from a group whom Tzitz Eliezer sees as deliberately pursuing their detriment (meaning: they do or should know they’re wrong, and will damage themselves and others by their actions, yet continue anyway). In his view, they are trying to insert an impure version of religion into Jerusalem itself, opposite where the Beit HaMikdash once stood.

[The emotion he and R. Frank bring to the issue was part of what moved me to include this here.  In a world where many people are unwilling to see some views as right and others as wrong, they remind us of people whose recognition of true and false and good and evil. For such people, a false Judaism was a gut-wrenching blow to the sanctity of the Jewish people.

As I’ll point out again at the end, even if events have overtaken these rabbis, such that removing Reform is not possible, I wonder if we retain their certainty that Reform is not in any way a valid expression of Jewish religiosity. We will continue to struggle with how to balance such a view with our brotherly love and concern for Reform Jews, but these two rabbis remind us that any such love cannot blind us to the wrongness of their religious expression].

A Letter to an In-Law

R. Frank’s letter is dated 6 Tishrei 5717 (1956), and refers to R. Waldenberg as mechutani, my in-law, I think because he was married to R. Frank’s granddaughter. Aside from wishing him a good year, he wishes him well on his important and necessary articles opposing Reform’s gaining a foothold in Yerushalayim.

R. Frank refers to it as their “trying to dig their fingernails into the walls of Jerusalem.” [I believe the phrase means to allude to a story told in three places in the Gemara, including Sotah 49b, regarding the Hasmonean civil war, where Yerushalayim came under siege. For the first part of that siege, the Jews inside the walls would lower money each day and the Romans outside would provide them with animals for the daily sacrifices (a beautiful image itself, where people respect religion even while at war with each other).

A man whom the Gemara describes as knowing chochmat Yevanit, Greek wisdom, told the attacking army they would never win as long as those offerings continued [I wonder whether the Gemara ascribes it to his Greek wisdom because it assumes sacrifice is the reason for victory, when Jews are supposed to know Hashem is]. The next day, he put a pig in the basket and as they raised it up, the pig stuck its nails into the walls of the city, and the Land of Israel shook in its entirety.

R. Frank’s referencing it here seems to be a way of making clear he thinks of Reform as being as impure and inimical to Yerushalayim as that pig.

Issuing a Rabbinic Ruling

The topic had also been addressed by a ruling forbidding all cooperation with Reform, outside of Israel as well. R. Frank says he had already spoken to anshei ma’aseh, people involved in the practicalities of political life, to be prepared for what he calls a milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war, if the Reform move to bring their plan to fruition.

R. Frank wanted a rabbinic conference, to develop a plan ahead of time for how to keep them away Yerushalayim forever. He thinks Reform worse than secularism, and will hatch many evils.  It would be worthwhile, he says, to gather in one cover all the prior writing of Torah giants who opposed Reform.

Whoever published such a book would deserve praise and reward for alerting the public to the danger of those who (another allusive phrase) follow the desires of their heart. The phrase comes from Devarim 29;18, where Moshe warns that some hearing him tell them how to serve Hashem would insist on following their heart’s desires instead, bringing terrible punishments.

R. Frank’s point—it’s too clear to be an implication—is that Reform follows its own vision of right and wrong, and thus has gone far astray from Hashem’s service. All rabbis, in Israel and out, need to understand this, so they can react properly to encroachments by the Reform.

The Obligation to Produce the Best Possible World

R. Waldenberg says the letter should awaken all who consider themselves faithful to Hashem, lead them to evaluate themselves, deeply and piercingly, to see whether they have done all they could to prevent this breach. It especially obligates all the kinds of Torah leaders to gather and pave a road for how to stop the spread of Reform.

I am not including all of his phrases, but one that pops out is his call lirdof otam ‘ad chormah, from Bamidbar 14;45, where the Jews fight the Amalekites and Canaanites, and smite them ‘ad hachormah, completely and totally.

Until and unless (as we hope) they repent and return to Hashem, as Chatam Sofer said in a responsum. Nonetheless, the image is striking. For as long as they adhere to their Reform ideals, Tzitz Eliezer and R. Tzvi Pesach Frank share the view of Chatam Sofer, we must see them as evil, on par with bringing a pig to Yerushalayim, with the people of Amalek, with those who can hear Moshe’s calls to the proper service of Hashem and decide they know better.

So, too, Shu”t Maharam Schick (Orach Chayyim 305) expressed his surprise at the silence of those around him, when earlier generations had always known the obligation to stand up to that which is wrong, and to protect the integrity of Torah.

Tzitz Eliezer thinks Maharam Schick succeed in his time, rabbis stood in opposition to Reform (I’m not sure how historically accurate that is, since Reform spread nonetheless), and it should inspire the rabbis of his own time to do something similar, to remove Reform from our midst or at least stop its spread.

Rejection or Cautious Engagement

[As I said at the outset, sixty years of events mean our reactions to Reform differ from those R. Waldenburg wanted, and hindsight might suggest positive effects of allowing Reform into Israel as well—Reform Jews are probably more connected to Israel today than they were back then, in both theory and practice, and the connection in some cases brings them closer to meaningful observance of Hashem’s commandments as well.

While that to some extent argues in favor of engaging with those with whom we disagree, no matter how vigorously, the past sixty years also show acceptance of Reform or other such movements leads some Jews to err and think of non-Orthodox movements as also a plausible expression of what Hashem wants of us. Rather than a denomination of Judaism in the practical sense that many Jews follow it, even many Orthodox Jews think of them as not significantly less true than the versions of Orthodoxy that we know.

Regardless of tactics we choose in addressing the problem of Reform Judaism, it’s important not to let that happen, because it means we’ve lost sight of very fundamental truths of what Torah means and is about. And it’s at least that which Tzitz Eliezer reminds us of, forcefully, in this part of his introduction.]

About Gidon Rothstein

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