Though I read him regularly, I confess that Harry Maryles and I don’t often see eye-to-eye on issues of hashkafah. I was delighted then, when Reb Maryles, in what I can only describe as a John Lennon moment, published a post on his blog, Emes Ve-Emunah, calling for Jewish unity, which he aptly entitled Imagine.
As I have pointed out in the past, many non-Orthodox movements are rejecting the rejectionist ways of their forebearers and are incorporating many of the trappings once reserved for only the most Orthodox of Jewry. Reform Rabbis are now wearing Kipot once anathema to them, and urging Mitzvah observance albeit not mandatorily and have even established Kollelim… as a way perpetuating their existence. Both the Conservative and Reform movements now have their own elementary schools and the Conservatives even have their own high schools. While it is true that the Conservatives are in the midst of an identity crisis, it may yet self resolve because of this new and apparently successful phenomenon.
So what was once an “orthodoxy” of the American secular Jewish mindset to totally assimilate out of Jewish practice is now almost an apostasy. They have done an almost complete 180. And that’s a good thing. Secular Jewry has seen the fruit of old policies. Dropping observance has turned into intermarriage and many Jews hardly identify at all as Jews and have virtually no Jewish identity. The once predicted demise of Orthodox Jewry has morphed into an emulation of Orthodox practices.
I thought, after reading these paragraphs, that surely Rabbi Maryles would reach across the aisle (which is easier when there’s no mechitza) and shake hands with the reforming Reform movement, and the tradition-conserving Conservative movement, in an effort to build dialogue and relationships with these brethren who were estranged from Orthodoxy.
No such luck. Rabbi Maryles may have brought up other denominations, but like many Orthodox Jews, his horizons are defined by a sort of ideological tchum shabbat – if you don’t keep Shabbat, you’re not within his purview. It turns out that Reb Harry’s actual problem is Orthodox Jewish sectarianism, not Jewish sectarianism as a whole.
But there’s a fly in the ointment. All is not well in candyland… We cannot be content to celebrate our successes and move forward in unison. We instead quite because of our success, fight amongst ourselves. Instead of uniting in common cause in Orthodox brotherhood, we have taken to factionalizing and narrowing our circles so as to exclude those with whom we have even the slightest of differences.
It is one thing to reject extremism that might be on the fringes of both ends of the Orthodox spectrum. I could understand drawing those lines and draw them myself. But we have come to a point where we are drawing our circles smaller and smaller in an effort to more narrowly define what we believe to be authentic Judaism. And in the process we do more harm to ourselves as a whole than we gain in our subsets.
I’m sure I don’t agree that Orthodox sectarianism is as a result of the success of the Orthodox movement as a whole. I don’t think the Orthodox movement has been successful at all – only about one-third of Jews are Orthodox, whereas before the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, nobody disputes that whatever the precise numbers were, the overwhelming majority of Jews practiced their traditional faith in a manner most similar to Orthodoxy today.
Reb Harry concludes with a excerpt from an article by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, whom he cites earlier (full text of R. Feldman in Jewish Action available from OU.org):
A Jewish fantasy: An emergency joint task force of the leadership of the Orthodox Union and other MO institutions, and of Agudath Israel and other YO institutions, is established. It has a single, circumscribed purpose: It will focus on ways to fight the onslaught of Jewish ignorance and intermarriage. Neither group necessarily accepts the others’ worldview; perspectives on Torah and Jewish life remain unchanged. But in this critical eit la’asot situation—and in fulfillment of the words of the Talmud Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4), and of Ramban (Devarim 27:26), that those who are able to influence others to be loyal to Torah and do not care to do so, do not find favor in the eyes of our Creator—stereotypes and intolerance are put aside, and resources and energies are combined for this single objective.
Imagine the electric impact on the Jewish world even of such a limited cooperation.
On the one hand, I would welcome additional Orthodox involvement in the rest of the Jewish world. But given the attitudes prevalent throughout Orthodoxy about how to relate and reach out to non-Orthodox Jews, I have grave doubts about the success of this emergency task force.
For Orthodox Jews to effectively influence non-Orthodox movements, they must abandon the paternalistic, condescending attitude they have towards non-Orthodox Jews. This is a particularly tall order since Orthodox Judaism, despite its farcical level of internecine conflict, still purports to possess actual absolute truth, and possessors of absolute truth are notorious for their superior attitudes towards those of us who are still cognizant of the magnitude of our ignorance. In any case, openness is a two-way street, and the Orthodox must be prepared to be changed if they wish to effect change in other denominations. But the Orthodox are too afraid for the fragile, crystalline purity of their own movement and its truths to dare expose it to the proving ground of interdenominational relationships.
[Edit: Maybe there is hope – Hamodia publishes tips on hosting non-religious Jews at the Pesach seder. Hat tip to Yaakov Menken at Cross-Currents.)