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A Viewpoint: The Orthodox Attitude Towards Non-Observant Jews by Deborah Sanders
A Viewpoint: The Orthodox Attitude Towards Non-Observant Jews by Deborah Sanders

Volume 2 , Issue 5

One of the most important issues facing the Jewish community today is how Orthodox Jewry should regard non-observant Jews and non-orthodox Jewish movements and organizations. Yet, in considering this issue, one is immediately struck by the multiplicity of opinions put forth by Orthodox Jewish authorities. One reason for this is that Orthodox Judaism is, itself, actually a heterogeneous mixture of individuals with varying backgrounds, lifestyles and levels of observance. Still, as Rabbi Moshe David Tendler points out, ?The literal interpretation of God speaking to Moses is the foundation of our faith and differentiates Orthodoxy from deviant groups in Judaism.?[1] Tendler sees the belief in a literal and direct verbal revelation as the common thread uniting all Orthodox Jews, and as the most striking and important distinction between the Orthodox and non- Orthodox movements. While we may readily agree to faith in the Mosaic tradition as a basic tenet which underlies Orthodoxy, there is still much room left open with respect to how various segments within the Orthodox community wish to treat members of their religion who are not as observant as they are themselves.

Discipline via Halakha

According to Orthodox Jewish belief, tradition or masorah, divinely obligates man to discipline himself by following the halakha (Jewish law). Modern-day Reform, and, to a lesser degree, Conservative, Judaism. represents a serious departure from a strict adherence to the halakha in every day-life. Samson Raphael Hirsch, seen by many as the founder of the Modem Orthodox movement, considered the views advocated by the supporters of the Reform movement in Germany to be artificial. He held that Reform Jews ?take a standpoint outside of Judaism to accept a conception derived from strangers of the purposes of human life and the objects of liberty, then cut, curtail and obliterate the tenets and ordinances of Judaism.? According to Hirsch, Reform Judaism seeks to ally religion to progress while Orthodoxy seeks to ally progress with religion.[2] As Hirsch saw it. for the Reform Jew, religion is only valid to the extent that it does not interfere with progress. To Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, progress is only valid as long as it does not interfere with the true workings of religion.

To the Orthodox, who lay exclusive claim to the correct manner of Jewish observance. the practices of the Conservative and Reform Jews are seen as false and even dangerous. For this reason, Orthodox leaders refuse to recognize many non-Orthodox practices out of fear that such recognition would legitimatize such ?innovations? as officiating at intermarriages, marrying a divorcee without a valid Get (Jewish bill of divorce) and conversion without tevilah (ritual immersion) or. in the case of males, without valid circumcision. By Orthodox standards, Reform and Conservative converts are generally not regarded as Jews. According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. a marriage ceremony performed by a Reform rabbi is null and void because a Reform Jew falls under the legal category of the mumar. the heretic, who has departed from the Torah in his basic Jewish beliefs.[3]

Another source of conflict in relations between Orthodoxy and the Reform movement is the fact that in 1983, the Reform leaders accepted ?patrilineal descent? as a basis for deciding the question of who is considered a Jew. Orthodox Jews feel that they must be extremely cautious in entering into any family relations with Reform Jews because of the latter's acceptance of patrilineal descent. Their fear is that as a result of patrilineal descent, many legally non-Jewish individuals will consider themselves to be Jews. and their intermarriage among true Jews will result in an alarming increase in offspring of doubtful status.

Given these problems, about which all Orthodox Jews agree, there is still a wide range of opinion within the observant community on how the Orthodox should view the non-observant Jew and what, if any communication should exist between the Orthodox and the Reform and Conservative movements. The first view within Orthodoxy, ?separatism? is held by those who believe it imperative to maintain as distant a relationship with non-observant Jews as possible.

Separatism vs. Interaction

The tendency towards separatism is more prevalent amongst the so-called right-wing elements within Orthodoxy. It is a view which is prevalent amongst the chasidim (with the notable exception of Lubav itch). Satmar chasidim, for example. reject interaction with the contemporary Jewish world, holding that it is impractical in these troubled times to try to help bring the non-observant Jew closer to Orthodoxy. The right-wing holds a contemptuous attitude towards Reform, seeing it as a minimization of the Jewish character. One pre-eminent chasidic rabbi has even referred to Reform temples as ?churches without a cross?.[4] Reform Judaism is regarded by these elements as extremely dangerous in that it contravenes the most fundamental tenets of Torah in allowing man to do what he personally considers to be right.

The right-wing position is clear, ifsomewhat disconcerting. But what of those who include themselves among the ?Centrist? Orthodox movement, whose approach to Orthodox Judaism is more modern in tone? Do these Jews favor communication with the other Jewish denominations? As Walter Wurzburger comments, ?Contrary to prevailing misimpressions, substantial segments of Centrist Orthodoxy, for all their receptivity and openness to modem cultural values, frown upon cooperation with deviationist religious movements?.[5] According to the centrist, Sidney Hoenig, the majority of Reform and liberal rabbis and laymen neither understand the Hebrew language nor the Jewish tradition and the whole spirit of true Judaism is foreign to them.

In the last century both a modernist like Samson Raphael Hirsch and an arch-traditionalist, like the Chatam Sofer could advocate complete segregation from the non-observant. They agreed that any relationship with the non-observant was contrary to the Talmudic law which forbids one to ?have association with the wicked.? Because they classified the non-observant among the ?wicked,? they felt that it is wrong to participate in any organizations that do not completely adhere to Jewish law.[6]

Isolation is Inconsistent

While it is not too surprising to find even worldly Orthodox Jews separating themselves from the non-observant, there are others who adopt quite a different view. Howard Levine, for example, is just one representative of the many Orthodox Jews who support serious communication between the Orthodox and the non-observant, and who sees the separatist outlook as ingenuous. Levine feels that such an isolationistic approach is inconsistent with a basic truth of Judaism: that the Torah is one and the Jewish people are one, Therefore, according to Levine and those of similar outlook, it is contrary to Torah to permit Judaism to remain divided and for the Orthodox to actuallyencourage this division.

Norman Lamm, Presidentof Yeshiva University, sees it as the Orthodox Jews' task both to develop the tradition and at the same time teach and explain to the non-observant the true nature of this tradition so that Reform and Conservative Jews, for example, can reinterpret their own views in the light of God and Torah. The non-observant Jew, while not a true follower of the ceremonial law, is tobe commended for remaining in the Jewish community. Instead of rejecting the non-observant outright, Orthodox Jews should try to join hands with the members of the Reform and Conservative movements. By doing so, Judaism as a whole will be strengthened and the lines of communication will remain open between the groups. It is only by maintaining such links that the non-observant will be exposed to the Orthodox position and perhaps show a willingness to change.

The Nitziv Critical of. Isolation

The Nitziv, in one of his responsa, expressed deep criticism of those within Orthodoxy who claim they can strengthen their own Yiddishkeit by separating themselves from non-observant Jews. He agreed that once Orthodox Jews start excluding the non-observant, then it will only be a matter of time before they start drawing lines of exclusion even among themselves. For the Nitziv, unity is particularly important in the Diaspora where Jews need to be joined together in order to maintain their own existence.

According to Howard Levine,as long as a Jew maintains his ties with theJewish people, even though he is not fully observant, he must still bl considered as ?our brother and compatriot.?[7] In his view, the contemporary neglect of Jewish law stems, for the most part, from inadequate Jewish education and training, and for this reason Orthodox Jewry must view the non-observant with tolerance and understanding. Levine holds that it is the Orthodox Jew's responsibility to make every possible effort to prevent the non-observant from leaving Klal Yisroel and, as such, Orthodox Jews must take whatever steps are necessary to stop the trend towards sectarianism. The Chazon Ish supported this more tolerant view and held that it is the Orthodox Jew's duty to use all possible measures in order to correct the mistakes of their Reform and Conservative brethren. He, therefore, felt that it was necessary to maintain serious communication between the movements, including intergroup cooperation and the serious exchange of information and ideas.

In recent years the argument over cooperating with ?non-religious? Jewry has become heated to the point that it is no longer a rational debate. ?Proponents of separatism are maligned for their alleged lack of concern and love for their fellow man, while advocates of cooperation are denounced for legitimizing deviations from halakha.?[8]

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), unlike other Orthodox rabbinical associations, has generally sought relations with non-Orthodox rabbis. In 1955, the Rabbinical Alliance of America (RAA) which consisted mostly of rabbis who rejected the secular world and secular education, pressed for Orthodox rabbis to disassociate themselves entirely from any coordinated activity with their Reform and Conservative colleagues. The conflict came to a climax in 1956 when the RAA, represented by its spokesman Rabbi Aaron Kotler, issued an Isur forbidding Orthodox rabbis from participating in the New York Board of Rabbis and the Synagogue Council of America, interdenominational agencies which, according to the RAA, were prohibited by Torah law.

Emmanuel Rackman, the then Vice President of the RCA, argued that much of the progress that Orthodoxy had made in convincing non-Orthodox rabbis to adopt rules and values sensitive to Orthodox practices, owed its origins to boards and organizations where all rabbis, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, joined together. The RCA voted to remain in the Synagogue Council of America and to urge its own mrembers not to follow the RAA's decree. At the July l958 Rabbinical council convention, its members strongly denounced the RAA ban. ?Whereas we will never recognize the religious legitimacy or authority of the Reform and Conservative movements, we must try to work with them.?[9]

It would seem that the current opinion of the RCA and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America is that it would be counter-productive for Orthodoxy to isolate itself from the rest of the Jewish community.

The Vilna Gaon's View

Is there a conclusive answer to the debate over whether it is permissible or even preferable to have serious relations with non-observant Jews and movements? From a practical or strategic point of view it is very difficult to evaluate the claim that only the separatists will manage to maintain Orthodoxy in a pure form, or the counterclaim that Judaism can only be united as a result of communication between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. However, from a philosophical point of view, it may be instructive to consider the implications of the following story which is related concerning the great sage, the Vilna Gaon:

It is related that the Gaon of Vilna happened to be at an inn with a companion. During mealtime, the two rabbis sat at one table while at another table was seated another Jew who was completely non-observant. He neither washed nor did he recite any blessing before the meal. Yet at the conclusion of the meal, the Gaon invited this Jew to join in a mezuman, for the blessing after the meal. The man replied in a scoffing tone: ?Don't you see that I am an apikores? I have nothing to do with mitzvot and blessings.? To which the Gaon answered, 'That you did not wash and did not recite a blessing and call yourself an apikores does not change the fact that you are a Jew. You have just finished eating; as a Jew you are obligated to bless your God. All your past transgressions cannot erase your present obligation to join in our mezuman.' [10]

The Gaon felt that all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, are still Jewish and still ?belong.? Torah's claim is upon all Jews. In a similar vein, one should also consider the halakha that if one sees a fellow Jew in danger, one is obligated to do whatever one can to save that person's life. This rule does not obligate one to ask whether that person is an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jew. The question to be decided is whether the ?danger? referred to in this law is merely physical or if it should also be considered spiritual as well. The future of Klal Yisroel may indeed hang on the answer which we provide.




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