Fair Criticism, Flawed Justification: Where Rabbi Perlow Went Wrong

The leading U.S. Orthodox rabbi had the right to criticize Reform and Conservative ideologies, but in focusing on intermarriage and assimilation he confused theology with sociology.

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, one of the leaders of American Ultra-Orthodoxy, recently addressed his organization’s annual gala. His speech made headlines for its fiery attack on the Reform and Conservative movement, as well as its sustained and passionate critique of a nascent movement known as Open Orthodoxy.

Open Orthodoxy is a movement within the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy associated with Rabbi Avi Weiss and with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT). Some people associated with Open Orthodoxy, notably Rabbi Zev Farber, have developed distinctly heterodox opinions about the authorship and historical accuracy of the Bible, and are therefore suspected of denying, or at least stretching beyond recognition, the doctrine of Torah M’Sinai; the doctrine that the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

To an Orthodox thinker, these are distressing developments, but Rabbi Perlow went too far. In his speech he condemned YCT in its entirety, essentially because of some comments made by people on the fringes of its orbit. If we could write off entire Rabbinical schools for such “crimes” then the legendary 19th Century Yeshiva of Volozhin should be written off because of the hidden ranks of maskilim (members of the European Jewish Enlightenment movement) who studied there.

I am with Rabbi Perlow if he wants to argue against heterodox doctrines. Indeed, I was pleased to hear him address his ‘friends’ within the Modern Orthodox camp, tacitly legitimizing Modern (as opposed to Open) Orthodoxy. But, his attack on Open Orthodoxy went too far because it tarnished everyone in that hazily defined movement with the same brush, imputing the comments of a minority onto the majority. In so doing, he evidenced the all too pervasive Ultra-Orthodox trait of condemning something before you’ve really engaged with it, read it, or understood it. He assumes that the Rabbis of YCT haven’t condemned or argued against the heterodox views of some of its alumni, but is this assumption sound? Has he been reading what the leaders of YCT have been writing?

A side controversy surrounds New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was present for the duration of the speech, addressed the gala after Rabbi Perlow, and completely ignored the attack on non-Orthodox Jews; Jews who he represents (when you bear in mind that the majority of Jews in his city identify as non-Orthodox).

But, should de Blasio really have spoken out? Rabbi Perlow didn’t accuse Reform and Conservative Jews of any intentional evil, or even of being “less Jewish” than the Orthodox. He merely said that he thought that their movements sought to “subvert and destroy Torah values.” Should we be surprised that a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi should think such thoughts?

If the mayor was at a Catholic event, and a Cardinal had stood up to denounce Protestant theological errors; if he accused Protestants of subverting the true teachings of Jesus and undermining the Eucharist with their denial of transubstantiation, should the mayor stand up and defend the finer details of Protestant theology out of concern for his Protestant constituents? No. That isn’t his place. We know that Catholics and Protestants disagree. They are allowed to. A mayor of a town can support both communities without wading into their theological differences, as long as those debates are conducted with decorum and respect.

Agudath Israel of America put out a statement to underline the fact that “Rabbi Perlow’s focus was on Reform and Conservative Judaism, not on Reform and Conservative Jews — on ideologies, not on people” and that Rabbi Perlow has nothing but “love and concern for all Jews, regardless of their affiliation.” As long as individuals weren’t being attacked, I don’t see why the mayor should have to stand up to defend the theological commitments of any of his constituents.

It’s okay for Jews to disagree. It’s what we’re good at, and those disagreements should be passionate and heartfelt. If I were a Reform Jew, I wouldn’t want my rabbi to say that all the denominations are equally valid and that one merely has to pick the movement that feels right for them. On the contrary, I’d want to hear the passion and conviction of the founders of the Reform movement, people like Rabbi Abraham Geiger, who accused the Orthodox movement of turning the Oral Torah into a frozen fossil; replacing the Bible with the Talmud, and then becoming like Karaites in their dogmatic refusal to see beyond the text of their (new) Talmudic-Bible. If I belong to a religious movement, I want it to be all embracing, passionate and, most importantly, true!

As an Orthodox Jew, it is my conversations with the passionately non-Orthodox, rather than with the pluralists, that expose me to the powerful criticisms that my own religiosity must confront. Rabbi Perlow’s passion for Orthodoxy should likewise be applauded by the non-Orthodox. It is precisely when we don’t water down our criticisms of their ideology that they can find in our words important problems that they should either rebut or address. Ideologues on all sides of the denominational map need critics, because it is only in the furnace of scrutiny that an ideology can be refined.

But, did Rabbi Perlow really subject Reform and Conservative Judaism to any useful scrutiny? No. In fact he fobbed them off. He said that they tried to subvert Torah values, but didn’t tell us what Torah values actually are, or how these movements subvert them. Perhaps he can’t be blamed for that. How much in-depth scrutiny of opposing ideologies can occur during a 15-minute after dinner speech? But, he did more than fob them off; he fobbed his audience off too. I say this because his only explicit argument against these movements was that they fair badly against intermarriage and assimilation, and this is a bad argument. It confuses theology with sociology.

Intermarriage and assimilation are sociological threats. The fact that they threaten one community more than another is not, without further argumentation, any sort of proof that one community has a more true theology than the other. If I could prove to you that the Amish have less of a problem with intermarriage and assimilation than the ultra-Orthodox, I wouldn’t thereby have proven that their Anabaptist theology is more accurate than Jewish theology.

If Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great German Rabbi of the 19th Century, was correct, then our primary mission, until the coming of the Messiah, is to be ambassadors of an ethical monotheism to our gentile neighbors, and we have to learn their language and their culture, so that we can engage with them. If this is right, then the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who shut themselves away from contact with gentiles and with their culture, are failing systematically to succeed in their mission. Their ghettoization might protect them from intermarriage and assimilation; but this doesn’t automatically entail that God is smiling upon them.

When we, as Orthodox thinkers, want to engage our Conservative and Reform brothers and sisters in debate, we owe them the favor of actual arguments. We have to understand what their theological commitments are, what their arguments are, and then we have to engage with them. On some matters we’ll end up agreeing. On other issues we’ll continue to disagree. But the debate is one worth having, since we do care about each other, about the Torah, and about the cause of truth. And perhaps, even when we don’t succeed in convincing one another of our conclusions we’ll still learn valuable lessons from the encounter.

In short, I think that Rabbi Perlow’s speech went too far in some respects, and not far enough in others. He went too far in his one-size-fits-all critique of Open Orthodoxy, and he didn’t go far enough in his critique of non-Orthodox movements. It’s okay to criticize Reform and Conservative ideologies, but one needs to do this with powerful and informed arguments instead of non-sequiturs. And, when such passionate debates occur, nobody need walk out in disgust or register their dismay, as de Blasio’s detractors suggest. On the contrary, theological debates are healthy for people interested in finding the truth.

Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University.

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