While we won’t legitimize a skewed approach to halachah, what does that have to do with the precious Jews who were killed in Pittsburgh?



ews of the shocking, despicable mass murder in Pittsburgh came in the midst of pre-election fervor here in Israel. For a few moments, the tragedy in America overshadowed the scramble of the mayoral candidates to grab the top political seats in their respective cities and towns. Soon enough, though, the elections were once again at the front and center of the public’s attention.

Still, the tragedy that left us all feeling sick at heart brought up another old canard that cannot remain unaddressed.

The race-obsessed killer targeted a Conservative congregation.

And just a day later, Israeli deputy minister Michael Oren declared that Israel must recognize liberal Jews. By so doing, he dredged up two arguments — both false — that besmirch Orthodox Jews and foment needless bitterness.

His first argument: It’s time for the State of Israel to recognize Conservative and Reform Jewry as legitimate, authentic streams of Jewish practice. “I call on Minister Bennett not to suffice with condolences, but to recognize liberal Jewish streams and unite the people,” as he put it.

The second: Orthodox Jews don’t consider their liberal brethren to be Jewish at all. “Liberal Jews were Jewish enough to be murdered, but their stream is not Jewish enough to be recognized by the Jewish state.”

When a tragedy takes place and our hearts go out to our fellow Jews, does the halachah suddenly change? What does one have to do with the other? Do we condemn the crime? Most certainly! Do we offer all help we can possibly give to our suffering Jewish brethren? Of course! But does that mean we change our definition of authentic observance because a despicable act of slaughter was committed? 

Yes, yes, in the name of pluralism. That’s the jargon bouncing around the airwaves, grinding down our ears with the refrain, “You Orthodox people are going to have to accept the fact that there are other approaches to Judaism.” In other words, we’re supposed to compromise our fundamental beliefs to suit other people’s notions. You might just as well tell us, “You say that coffee is defined as a beverage brewed from coffee beans? Well, we have a more liberal, inclusive definition. We say that this drink made from orange peels is also called coffee, and it’s about time you recognized that there’s more than one kind of coffee.” Well, you can go ahead and drink your orange-peel brew if you like, but don’t tell me I have to call it coffee. 

These alternative religious movements, rapidly dwindling due to assimilation, call themselves adherents to the Jewish faith and expect to be recognized as legitimate streams of Judaism, despite the fact that they deny the binding authority of the Written and Oral Torah. They have replaced the Torah with something else, defying the Rambam’s words, “This is the Torah, and it shall not be changed and it shall not be replaced with another.” Our beliefs and theirs are mutually exclusive, because whatever it is they’ve invented, it’s something other than Judaism.

And so, we come to that second old canard, the one that keeps telling us to remember that the members of our People in the heterodox camps are also Jews. One Israeli columnist, apparently enamored of his own incisive logic, wants to know, “How is it that you [the Orthodox] view the secular population in Israel as Jews, even though they’re far from adhering to Judaism, but you won’t recognize the Conservative and Reform [who are more religiously observant than the secular] as Jews?” This ridiculous accusation can only stem either from deliberately evil intent or from inexcusable ignorance. Whoever said that Jews who belong to Reform or Conservative congregations aren’t Jews? A Jew is a Jew. Yisrael, af al pi shechata, Yisrael hu. That’s an axiom of our faith.

And instead, here we are, dragged into this senseless argument at a time of tragedy — a tragedy that befell the entire Jewish People.

Permit me to retell a story that took place in Sao Paolo, Brazil, a month after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. I was there for an Arachim seminar, and my longtime friend, then-Israeli chief rabbi Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, was also in the city at the invitation of the Safra kehillah to eulogize the slain prime minister. In addition to taking part in the memorial, Rav Lau also met in a closed forum with the rabbanim of the Orthodox and chareidi communities to discuss various issues. A local Reform rabbi came uninvited to the gathering, and when Rav Lau was informed who the man was, he refused to start the meeting until the intruder left. Very offended, the Reform clergyman stalked out.

Some hours later, lay leaders of the Reform community demanded a meeting with Rav Lau. They had come air a serious complaint: Why had the Rav treated them in this shameful way, refusing to include their religious leader among the other rabbis and essentially calling them non-Jews?

Rav Lau explained to them, “Chalilah v’chas! Of course you are just as Jewish as any other Jews. But we cannot condone your rabbis, who are leading you astray from real Judaism. And they are lying to you and telling you that we, the Orthodox, don’t view you as Jews. Such a painful, malicious lie! Tayere Yidden! You are one hundred percent kosher Jews!”

That night, when I walked the Rav back to his hotel, he found a huge floral arrangement waiting for him. The local Reform community was so touched by his words of affirmation, his loving recognition of them as an integral part of the Jewish People despite the religious schism that divided them, that they’d decided to send him this token of their appreciation.

But unfortunately, just at the time when we need to stand strong against our enemies from without, this false notion has taken root within, and like an invasive weed, it has sprung up once again. May Hashem shine down His truth for all Jews. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 734)