The Frank Apology to Reform Jews That Should Have Been Made

In denigrating non-Orthodox Jews, Israel's religious affairs minister, David Azoulay, was addressing his own community.

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Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It has been almost a month since Israel's Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay said Reform Jews are a disaster and over a week since he upped the ante, charging they aren't Jewish at all. And yet, we’re still waiting for a real apology.

We are also within the Three Weeks, a time of introspection for the Jewish people in the lead-up to Tisha B’Av, when, among other national tragedies, we remember the destruction of our two Temples. We are still awaiting the Third Temple, prevented for over 2,000 years from realizing its rebuilding, because of our collective inability to correct the sin of baseless hatred of one Jew to another.

In the spirit of reconciliation, and with assistance from one of my teachers and mentors Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, I offer this letter of apology that the minister could have written, were he being frank, to begin the process of repair and healing:

To My Dear Reform Brothers and Sisters,

This is how I should have addressed you, instead of with the hateful, divisive language that I spoke. I know the Bible says that there is no righteous person in the world who never breaches a law of the Torah (Kohelet 7:20), and I know the halakha, Jewish law that "Yisrael, af al pi she-chata, Yisrael hu," a Jew maintains the status of being a Jew even if he violates Jewish law. Therefore, even though Reform Judaism violates laws that we Orthodox hold sacred, I had no right to impugn your Jewishness. As such, I am deeply sorry for the pain I have caused.

However, to be a true apology, to qualify as teshuva (repentance), I first need to explain why I said what I said.

My world is ultra-Orthodox, Haredi. We believe in the absolute truth of Torah, as revealed by G-d to Moses and the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, and of the absolute truth of the Talmud, the Oral tradition. We, the Haredim, have come to define this tradition as immutable and definable only by our halakhic authorities.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, we went into exile and brought our holy texts with us. But, we became Jews with a Galut kop, a Diaspora head, insular and rightfully self-protective, as most of the world was out to destroy us. The Rambam, Maimonides, started a process of formalizing what we believe. The 13 Principles of Faith  became Jewish dogma. Conformity of practice became the standard, where it was more important what one believed than that one had faith. In recent centuries, doubt and modernity were the twin enemies of what was to become ultra-Orthodoxy; war was declared on them. In the 19th century, Reform Judaism became the particular target of the Chatam Sofer of Pressburg, who was the source of the ideas I repeated. In the latter half of the 20th century, Torah-true Judaism and Da’as Torah, rulings issued by our great scholars, became the standard of legitimacy for the contemporary rabbinic defenders of the faith.

Today, in my world, saying that Reform Judaism is beyond the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism is not enough to remove it as a perceived threat from our midst. Our solution has been to censor, exclude and define that which is different as beyond the pale in order to surgically remove it, because to acknowledge the other undermines the exclusivity of our truth.

I am embarrassed to say now that my words weren’t addressed to you. They were targeted to express contempt for the otherness of the Reform movement, to impress within my own community that it is not even a remote option. And, I wanted to draw a red line, to be emphatically clear that in the State of Israel, no concessions or recognition should be given to any denomination other than Orthodoxy.

Yet, I must concede now that “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh”, all Jews are responsible for one another. I am not the religious affairs minister only of ultra-Orthodox Jews. I am also not a minister just of the State of Israel, but, as Israel is the homeland for all Jews, so too I serve all Jews, including those in the Diaspora. When I stigmatize one who is different from me, I violate the Biblical injunction to love the other. 

I also now recognize that living in a democracy means acknowledging the rights of others to believe and practice, even if they are contrary to my own beliefs. My comments as a minister undercut the recognition of Israel as a land of religious freedom and democracy. I understand now that Israel as a democracy is one of the major factors in the American public's respect and support. My comments eroded that pillar of support. As such, they were a genuine assault on Israel's security.

Finally, and most seriously of all, my words were a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, because they made Orthodox Judaism sound like an intolerant, fanatic, ignorant faith. This fits the definition of Chilul Hashem in the Talmud, for it prompts people to ask, what kind of a G-d, what kind of a Torah is that? I want no part of such a Torah or such a G-d.

My words now fail me. What more can I say other than please forgive me.

With deepest regret and respect,

David Azoulay

Religious Affairs Minister,

State of Israel

Our tradition is that the Messiah will be born and arrive on Tisha B’Av either when we have repaired the sin of baseless hatred or when our situation is so bad that it can’t get any worse. As religious affairs minister, Azoulay can choose whether he wants to be a Jew who inspires leadership, unity and mutual respect, or one who maintains our current path of division and destruction.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.

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