| Second Thoughts |

The Rise and Fall, the Fall and Rise

One can respect the intelligence of Israeli secularists without agreeing with their anti-religious views


Would any intelligent country knowingly import a product that is known to be defective? How is it, then, that the secular Israeli establishment is welcoming Reform and Conservative ideology into Israel — which will inevitably dilute the sanctity of the Western Wall, reduce standards of Shabbos, kashrus, marriage, and divorce laws, and seriously loosen requirements for conversion to Judaism? (Interesting footnote to the clamor for “equal prayer rights” for women at the Wall: At the Shacharis service for the first day of Chanukah, the section allotted to “Women of the Wall” was empty.)

The very attempt to import such defective goods should be risible. Instead, Israeli leadership takes it seriously and even PM Bennett, dangling kippah and all, encourages Reform to come to Israel.

This phenomenon of intelligent Israelis actually encouraging a failed Reform transplant can only be due to several factors: a) the infusion of vast amounts of money from abroad; b) a visceral antipathy toward Orthodox Judaism, especially the chareidi incarnation; or c) a complete unawareness of the ideological bankruptcy of Diaspora Reform.

I write these lines not as a theoretical polemic. Rather, it is based on my personal experience as an Orthodox rabbi who served for 40 years in an American community dominated by the non- Orthodox, and for an additional 35 years as a retired rabbi of that community. In those 75 years, I have personally experienced the rise and tragic fall of these heterodox movements, and the fall and astonishing rise of the Orthodox.

I had frequent interactions with the non-Orthodox leadership, and hold no animus toward them as individuals. But I harbor deep sorrow at the missed opportunities for Jewish resurrection. By any measure, these movements have failed miserably: in terms of mitzvah observance, Torah learning, retention of youth, attendance at religious services. Year by year, despite the artificially inflated figures, their real support dwindles, victims of Jewish illiteracy and intermarriage. Especially intermarriage, which, among the non- Orthodox, approaches 80 percent; i.e., out of every ten heterodox marriages, eight are with a non-Jewish partner and only two are with a Jew.

I remember well their typical conversion process: attendance at eight public lectures by the rabbi, followed by a dramatic appearance before the opened Ark with the convert pledging to be a “loyal Jew” — without any commitment to any mitzvos or practices. Is this what we are importing to Israel?

I recall the early 1950s, when the non-Orthodox were riding high, and the Orthodox seemed down for the count. In those years, my small congregation, desperate to grow as a community, tried to prevail upon me to adopt some of the practices of the local Reform rabbis. If we streamlined our services, if we made Judaism more “attractive,” we would save Judaism. I resisted, albeit with much heartache.

The argument du jour was that half a loaf is better than none, that if we loosened requirements, at least some Jews would remain within the fold. This is  seductive, but history has shown that when it comes to Judaism, logic goes out the window. Half a loaf remains half a loaf and then shrinks to a quarter loaf and then reduces itself gradually over the generations to no loaf at all.

Because history has its own peculiar logic. The non-Hebrew prayers, the abbreviated and sanitized services, the Protestantizing of the worship, the priestification of the rabbinate — none of this did the job, and 75 years later, Reform and Conservatives are moribund, their adherents dwindling, their temples empty.

A leading Conservative rabbi — whose synagogue once had upwards of 2,500 families — confided in me 20 years ago that he sincerely had wanted to revive Judaism by streamlining things, but realized too late that (direct quote) “we bet on the wrong horse.” The gimmicks did not work.

And all the while, the old-world Orthodoxy, with their insistence on full observance, their shuckeling during davening, is today the fastest-growing movement in the Jewish world, with day schools, yeshivos, kollelim, crowded shuls, a vigorous youth.  It is illogical. That which seemed so obvious — “ease up so that more can enter the tent” — has backfired. No one can explain this phenomenon. Perhaps it was that intellectual rigor and authenticity struck a responsive chord.

Granted, the present Israeli religious administrative system is far from satisfactory. There is much room for improvement. But imperfections can be corrected without tearing down the entire structure of classical Judaism.

Having suffered through the dark times for Orthodoxy, and having witnessed its miraculous resurrection, the attempts to reinvent a dead ideology in the Holy Land is a bit of an overload for me.  As Yogi Berra put it, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

One can respect the intelligence of Israeli secularists without agreeing with their anti-religious views. There is always the hope, therefore, that the former will ultimately prevail over the latter.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 892)


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