How pluralism imperils Israel's Jewish future
Many secular Jews are perplexed by the harsh Orthodox response to Israel's High Court ruling regarding Reform conversions, but when confronted, not every religious Jew knows how to give an answer. Here’s the way I do it
My Dear Brother,
I’m what you call a chareidi Jew, and although you call yourself chiloni, I want to speak to you beyond the barriers that the media has placed between us, and above the heads of the politicians who like to pretend that they are speaking in your name and in mine. I want to talk to you directly about a matter of mutual interest: our shared concern for the continued existence of Israel as both a Jewish nation and a Jewish state.
If you see yourself solely as a citizen of the world, if you have no interest at all in the Jewish nation, and just by chance you happen to live here, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea; if you are unconcerned that with time, the character of the State of Israel will be altered, meaning you do not care if it becomes a pronounced Levantine state, devoid of any exceptional Jewish history; if it’s not important to you that your grandchildren be “Israeli” in some form or another, without any reference to its Jewish past — then don’t continue reading this.
But if you’re like me, perhaps you too are worried. If our nation’s increasing assimilation worries you (despite the Hebrew language and IDF service), if you deeply desire that the State of Israel remain the Jewish state, perhaps we can find some common language that will form a bridge of understanding over the abyss of differences of opinion that lies between us.
I know that you do not accept the term “Jew” the same way I, with my traditional view, understand it. I know that you reject my worldview, which sees an absolute correlation between the Jewish People and its Torah and asserts that Jewish nationhood cannot exist for long without the framework of emunah and a Torah-based lifestyle.
I know that you see this traditional approach as stifling, and that you are proud of your pluralistic and open approach to the concept of “Jew” and “Judaism.” This view propounds that it is possible to live as a Jew and feel like one, even if one does not observe mitzvos and is not faithful to Torah principles. I’m not here to argue or persuade you that my position is correct. That’s not why I’m reaching out to you.
But in light of this “silent Holocaust,” as assimilation is called by Jewish leaders in America, as young, unaffiliated Jews are fleeing into the arms of mixed marriages and are then lost to our nation for eternity, both of us must ask ourselves: What happened? Why is it like this? Where have we gone wrong?
Allow me to put to a historic test a modern mantra — the call for “pluralism in Judaism,” meaning that every Jew has the right to determine and define his personal brand of Judaism. Actually, ours is not the first generation to have taken this liberty. If we look back thousands of years, we can make the claim that Yeravam ben Nevat, who caused the split between the kingdoms of Yehudah and Yisrael, was the founder of the first Reform movement. He was the first leader to redefine the service of Hashem and “adapt” it to his generation, establishing an “alternative spiritual center” to the Beis Hamikdash in Jerusalem.
The results of that step led to the fall of Malchus Yisrael and the disappearance of the Ten Tribes from the map of the Jewish People. True, the kingdom of Yehudah also fell, but the Jewish nation — the descendants of the tribes of Yehudah and Binyamin — remained faithful and continued to weave the unique tapestry of Jewish life even in the lands of our exile.
Other movements, such as those of the Tzedukim (Sadducees) and the Baitusim (Boethusians) — who wanted to alter norms and institute new ones that were different from accepted mesorah — actually exerted powerful influence on political and religious life in the land of Yehudah of those days, while the Perushim (the Torah faithful), whose traditions were based on Torah shebe’al peh and later compiled in the Mishnah and the Talmud, had little power. Despite their deep, internal moral strength, these staunch Perushim were just a tolerated minority — which was sometimes not quite tolerated, and instead, persecuted and besmirched.
That leaves us with the question: Where are they today, the Tzedukim and the Baitusim? Why did this stream — deeply influenced by the dominant Greek culture — not prevail in the greater historical picture? Why didn’t religious pluralism maintain a hold? Why is it that ultimately, the Perushim’s approach to Judaism captured the hearts of the Jews?
Throughout the long years of exile following the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash, various reform movements rose every so often, waving the banner of pluralism. These movements strayed from tradition, and their adherents vehemently defended their right to be called Jews or Bnei Yisrael. The most well-known among them was the movement of the man from Nazareth, and his Christian disciples to this day call themselves the true Nation of Israel. I assume that even you, a supporter of pluralism, is not ready to accept Christianity as a legitimate movement in our nation. (But actually, why not? Why are they not allowed to interpret Judaism as they wish?)
And throughout the exile there have been other movements, such as the Karaites, the Annanites, and others, who decided to reject the Oral Torah and rabbinic authority, cleaving only to the literal interpretation of the Written Torah. And again the question: Why did they not survive? Why did they lose their Jewish identity? Why did they become isolated communities with no connection to the Jewish nation?
That big “why” is compounded by another important “why.” Why is it that precisely the weakest faction, the Perushim — the rabbinical group that’s ostensibly so stagnant, so ossified, and that scrupulously adheres to Torah according to the traditional interpretation — was forced to spill rivers of blood yet emerged intact from the many lands it has traversed? Today, it not only exists, but is thriving. And even the alternative modern movements in Am Yisrael today, which claim the right to self-definition in the name of pluralism, arose from within this traditional sector, and not from the remnants of bygone pluralistic movements.
How is it that this group has succeeded in maintaining authentic Jewish identity, and has survived for 1,900 years without a state of its own? And conversely, how is it that those pluralistic ideals you embrace have not withstood the test of the generations? The mass escape to the arms of assimilation (and eventual oblivion) comes overwhelmingly from the pluralistic camp.
We see this happening to Jews who belong to the Reform movement in the United States, the movement that has erased from its charter the concept of a “Jewish nation” in favor of a “religion” that must be adapted to the “spirit of the time and the place.” As such, it has also erased from its “siddur” any mention of Jerusalem or Zion, and has clergy who marry mixed couples in church in a joint ceremony with a Christian clergyman — in the name of pluralism, of course.
On the other hand, the Orthodox sector of the Jewish nation, its most scorned and derided demographic, is preserving Jewish identity. This despite the fact that we live in a global village, in an open, enlightened, comfortable world that offers every opportunity and temptation.
We stand today, my dear friend, facing the reality on the ground. It’s hard to argue with facts, of course. And now, if the future of the Jewish nation is in fact important to you, if you want your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be Jewish, you must ponder this question: Why is the nation coming apart at the seams? Why is it losing its identity just a few decades after the movements that demanded for themselves the right to define Judaism in free terms? What is lacking in these interpretations that strips them of the power to endure the ravages of time?
Indeed, Western democratic society promotes pluralism, the free play of opinions and many viewpoints, which are decided, on a practical level, according to the decision of the majority. But even this democracy doesn’t sanction faking opinions and worldviews. What would you, the Zionistic Israeli, say if, one fine day, Neturei Karta declared themselves “Zionists,” albeit according to their own interpretation? It’s safe to assume that you would feel indignation at this effort to blur or distort the concept of “Zionism” that is so dear to you. You believe that every person has the right to promote whichever worldview he wants, but at the same time, he must not distort the facts, falsify definitions, or steal worldviews, thus engendering confusion and blurring of real lines.
There is a general consensus about this elementary rule — except when it comes to Judaism. Why is anyone allowed to decide that his behavior — even if it goes against everything stated in Toras Moshe — constitutes Judaism, and entitles him to certain rights as a Jew?
I want to point out, for your sake, that every movement that has deviated from the traditional interpretation and accepted concepts of “Jew” and “Judaism” has been so fully eroded over the years that, by a century or two later, nothing remained of their initial ideas and sentiments.
You have a right to call traditional Judaism whatever you want — you may ascribe to it dubious descriptions such as stagnant, outdated, medieval and the like — but based on historic experience, I promise you that in another two or three hundred years (if by then we’re still waiting for Mashiach), that Judaism that you have ridiculed will still be alive and vibrant, while all the other modern interpretations of Judaism will be dismal postscripts in the annals of history. There may be new movements that will “march with the times,” but that is the great virtue of time — that it passes with time.
Perhaps in light of all this, you can understand a bit better what Torah-aligned Jews are fighting for in Eretz Yisrael, the land of the Jews. Believe me, it is not just for us, the Torah-observant Jews, that we are fighting for self-preservation, but rather for the entire Jewish nation. Even those who self-define as secular and pluralist are just as Jewish in G-d’s eyes — and in ours — as the most pious Yid in Meah Shearim.
Because I believe that you are a partner to my concerns, and because I am convinced that you are also alarmed at the current situation in the Diaspora and do not want to bring that dilution here, I deeply hope that my meager yet sincere words will awaken some positive thoughts in your conscience regarding our joint future.
Thank you for your understanding,
Your Worried Brother
This article was adapted from a piece originally published as part of Rabbi Grylak’s “Know Thy Judaism” column, which ran for many years in Maariv.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 853)
Oops! We could not locate your form.