A reform temple in Ra’nana was recently attacked by vandals who clearly thought that they were very erudite. Instead of daubing the walls of the temple with offensive epithets or threats, they effectively gave their victims a reading list. Their graffiti scrawl read, “Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Chapter 3, Law 14; Psalms 139, verses 21-22.”
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The attack doesn’t demand too much interpretation. The law codified by Maimonides to which the vandals were referring states that heretics and deniers of the Torah have no place in the world to come. The verses in Psalms express the Psalmist’s desire to strive against those that hate the Lord.
It was a heartless, criminal act. It was cowardly, and it was hateful. Everybody from left-wing party Meretz to right-wing Habayit Hayehudi has testified to that. But above and beyond its heartless criminality, its content was wrong, even by strictly Orthodox lights: Reform Judaism isn’t apostasy.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz, in his book “Not in Heaven,” made the following observation: Jewish law only recognizes two types of apostate - the apostate who rejects Judaism for an easier life, and the apostate who rejects Judaism out of a desire to attack Jewish tradition. Berkowitz makes the following point: sincere Reform Jews do not satisfy either of these criteria. They are not apostates.
In contemporary Israel, the point is easily demonstrated. To join a Reform community in Israel is never to opt for an easier life. You want a Reform wedding? The state won’t allow that. You want a Reform rabbi to officiate at your funeral? The state won’t allow that. It would be much easier to be a non-observant Orthodox affiliating Jew than to turn to the Reform movement and face the legal and social obstacles in the way of Reform Jewish life. I have deep and fundamental concerns with Reform Judaism, a movement of which I am critical, but Israeli Reform Judaism is certainly not apostasy for the sake of an easier life. It is a conviction-driven affair.
Furthermore, Reform Judaism doesn’t have any desire to attack Jewish tradition. It has a desire to reform it, to save it from fossilization, to bring it into a modern age. It isn’t motivated by destructive zeal. It is an expression of Jewish pride, whether you agree with it or not.
Membership in the Reform movement is far from sufficient to make a person an apostate even if, like me, you think that they’re theologically misguided. The law of the heretic doesn’t apply to them. The graffiti wasn’t just scary and criminal; its content was wrong.
When these thugs are hopefully caught, I think a fitting punishment would be to daub graffiti on their houses that reads, “Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relationships, Chapter 19, Law 17.” In that chapter, Maimonides states that Jews are not supposed to marry gentiles. He further states that if you meet a Jew with certain character traits, you should doubt that they are really Jews. Even if you meet a person whose family tree is Jewish all the way up, if they display certain traits, Maimonides says that you shouldn’t marry them for fear that they can’t really be Jews. He states:
“Similarly, whenever a person is characterized by insolence and cruelty, hating people and not showing kindness to them, we seriously suspect that he is a Gibeonite. For the distinguishing signs of the holy nation of Israel is that they are meek, merciful and kind.”
Now, of course, liberal ears will take umbrage at the racist denigration of the Gibeonites. But these vandals are looking at the Reform Movement from a Maimonidean perspective; let’s look at them from the same perspective.
Was their act of vandalism meek? Was it merciful? Was it kind? Or was it insolent, cruel and hateful? These vandals may think that they’re erudite, and that their denomination of Judaism is inerrant and supreme, but Maimonides would suggest that whatever their denomination is, they’re not even Jewish.
The law in question also states that if a person accuses another of X, then we should suspect the accuser of X, because “whoever denigrates others, denigrates them with a blemish that he himself possesses.” This would seem to imply that the vandals in question are the enemies of God, against whom the Psalmist strives.
If these vandals were meek, merciful and kind, perhaps they’d have the courage and the love to engage Reform Jews in conversation; perhaps they would find, as I have done in my conversation with some Reform leaders and teachers, God-fearing Jews of tremendous conviction, despite our heartfelt disagreements.
Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.