Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi – Orthodoxy and Reform.


Q. Why doesn’t orthodoxy accept that the Reform movement is a valid option in Judaism?

A. It never happened that every Jew thought like every other Jew.

“Two Jews – three opinions” is an expression of reality that goes even further than Elijah, who said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions?”

It resonated through the ages, with dissident sects and competing ideologies, bitter conflicts and reluctant compromises.

There has always been diversity in Jewish life. Even the problem of the orthodox versus the non-orthodox is not a modern invention.

The problem is not whether the question is new, but whether anyone has discovered a way of solving it.

Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik distinguished between “b’rit goral”, the covenant of fate which binds all Jews regardless of their opinions, and “b’rit Sinai”, the covenant of faith which unites those who uphold the Revelation on Sinai.

It is a useful approach, but it creates its own new problems.

The second arm of the thesis allows orthodoxy to maintain Sinai-based halachic Judaism as the authentic tradition which defines a Jew, but leaves unspoken the status of the Conservative movement, which also claims to be halachic, and that of the Reform movement which, whilst not claiming to be a halachic movement often claims halachic legitimacy on the basis of a Talmudic statement that both Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai are “the words of the living God”.

There is a difference between, on the one hand, the secular Jews who have no room for God in their Jewish identity and come within “b’rit goral” but not “b’rit Sinai”, and on the other hand the three religious groups, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, who believe in God (though there are apparently some Reform rabbis who are not certain about Him).

The “words of the living God” assessment is in Eruvin 13b. The passage informs us,

“For three years Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel were in dispute. One side said, ‘The halachah is in accordance with us’. The other said, ‘The halachah is in accordance with us’. Then a heavenly voice said, ‘These, and these, are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in accordance with Bet Hillel’.”

Two things emerge from the discussion: one, that there can be several ways of interpreting a law, and two, that in behavioural matters there is no room for halachic indecision.

To think that the first statement sanctions pluralism is illusory. In the Bet Hillel-Bet Shammai dispute, both sides are within the halachic loop. It is not that one is inside the halachah and one outside it. Both are halachic. Both accept the authority of the mitzvah, but each has a different emphasis or nuance.

One cannot use this passage to say that halachah and the abrogation of halachah are both Judaism. It is like saying that kosher and non-kosher are both kosher. Neither Bet Hillel nor Bet Shammai can be used to lend support to this position.

Bet Hillel did sometimes reverse a view they had espoused in favour of one advocated by Bet Shammai, but neither was outside the halachic loop.

Orthodoxy has no choice but to say that whilst they respect followers of the Reform movement as part of “b’rit goral”, Reform as an ideology cannot be counted as part of “b’rit Sinai”.


Q. How can the Siddur say, “Scholars increase peace in the world”? How can study bring peace?

A. “You shall teach them (the words of the Torah) diligently to your children” (Deut. 11:19) is the basis of the Jewish stress on education.

Initially the command must have been addressed to parents in relation to their own children, but Rashi explains, “Pupils are called children… and the teacher of Torah is called a father”. So the relationship of teacher and pupil is as holy as the relationship of parent and child.

Pupils and teachers are referred to in the Talmudic passage (B’rachot 64a) that you quoted from the Siddur: “Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said, ‘And all your children (pupils) shall be taught of HaShem, and great shall be the peace of your children’ (Isa. 54:13). Do not call them ‘banayich’ but ‘bonayich’.”

The “banayich – bonayich” play on words is usually explained as “Do not call them your children but your builders”, because “boneh” is a builder. Alfasi, however, derives “bonayich” from a root that means “to understand”, and hence the sages were saying that great peace comes from being a person of understanding.

How do Torah students bring peace? The subject-matter first: the patterns set out in the Torah create a just, stable, equitable society. As the Book of Proverbs says (3:17), “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace”.

The method of study: sitting with others and learning Torah together starts by pointing up differences of opinion, but ends either by coming to a position of peaceful agreement or at least peacefully agreeing to disagree and to acknowledge that there can be peace when there is respect for difference. Even a person who studies alone can help to attain peace because when you discover and grasp the truth you are at peace with yourself, with the world and with God.

Rav Kook points out in his Ein Aya that the Talmud does not say, “make peace” but “increase peace”.

The Talmud is full of passages in which the Torah scholars are in sharp disagreement. One might have thought every rabbinic debate would end with someone drawing the strands together and making a compromise, but would be unfair to the protagonists, who are all sincere in their opinions and interpretations and as a matter of principle cannot resile from their positions even to give an appearance of peace.

Rav Kook says, “The increase of peace occurs when all the angles and opinions that exist in wisdom are seen and it is clear how each one has a place. When there is a compilation of all the parts, details and opinions that look different, through them will be seen the light of truth and justice. Torah scholars increase peace in the world by widening, explaining and producing words of wisdom with different facets.”

True peace does not require papering over or removing differences but the recognition that they exist. Peace is when they live together in mutual respect and trust.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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