Why Rivlin Is Right: Reform Isn’t Judaism

In dismissing the Reform movement, Israel’s president elect has committed only one sin: that of honesty. As he says, only Orthodoxy is the legitimate heir to the Jewish religious tradition.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran
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Israel's newly elected President Reuven Rivlin visits the Western Wall in the Jerusalem's Old City, on June 10, 2014.
Israel's newly elected President Reuven Rivlin visits the Western Wall in the Jerusalem's Old City, on June 10, 2014.Credit: AFP
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

Back in the day, before contoured bucket seats became de rigueur in cars, the front seat of family vehicles – especially larger ones – was once a couch-like affair that could, and often did, comfortably seat three adults across. The scene: Mr. and Mrs. Weisskopf, citizens of a certain age, are driving somewhere. The missus is upset, and her husband asks what’s wrong.

“Do you remember,” she says, wistfully but with unmistakable resentment, “how we used to sit so near one another on our drives? Look at us! We’re at totally opposite ends of the seat!”

The man is puzzled, as well he might be. “But dear,” he replies, looking across at her, his hands firm on the steering wheel, “I’m driving!”

This old chestnut comes to mind upon reading some of the reactions of Reform leaders to the election of Reuven "Rubi" Rivlin to Israel’s presidency.

“He may be open-minded on a variety of issues,” Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who now heads the “religious pluralism” organization Hiddush, pronounced about the president-elect, “but his mind was made up” about Judaism’s definition. He is “the same old anti-liberal, close-minded traditionalist Israeli.”

Former Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie voiced a similar judgment in Haaretz in the days before Mr. Rivlin’s election, direly warning that he expects “candidates for president to act in an appropriate and respectful manner to all elements of the Jewish world.”

And the current head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, penned an open letter to Mr. Rivlin in which he reminded the Israeli president-elect of the “stunning insensitivity” he had displayed toward the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” and expressed his hope that “you’re ready to update your harsh and rather unenlightened views of our dynamic, serious and inspiring expression of Judaism.”

Mr. Rivlin’s sin, of course, was being honest, and perhaps a bit blunt for American tastes. Although famously secular himself, he dared, back in 1989, after visiting two Reform temples, to share his evaluation of the liberal Jewish movement, calling it “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”

Then in 2006, he opined that he “has no doubt… that the status of Judaism according to Halacha is what has kept us going for 3,800 years” and that “besides it there is nothing.”

The latest voice to join the chorus of criticism of Mr. Rivlin’s unguarded judgment was that of Charles A. Kroloff, rabbi emeritus of one of the temples that Mr. Rivlin visited in 1989. He recently expressed his “hope” that Mr. Rivlin has come, over the years, to understand “that if we are to be strong we must respect our fellow Jews, and if we are to survive, we Jews must be a united people.”

Rabbi Kroloff is correct, of course, although his sentiment has nothing to do with the question of what theologies can properly lay claim to being legitimate heirs to the Jewish religious tradition and which ones cannot.

That religious tradition hewed for millennia, and still does today, to certain foundational beliefs: in a Creator, in the historicity of the Jewish forefathers, the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai; and in the eternal nature of the law transmitted there to the people, our ancestors, who were divinely chosen to be an example to all humanity.

The year before Mr. Rivlin visited Rabbi Kroloff’s temple saw the death of a Nobel laureate, the celebrated physicist I. I. Rabi. Born in Galicia and raised in the United States, he lacked the bluntness of an Israeli. But when asked about his faith, Mr. Rabi expressed much the same sentiment as Mr. Rivlin did mere months later.

“…If you ask for my religion,” he said, “I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one. If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to. That’s the one I failed. It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”

The same is true for every Jew, no matter what prefix he or she has been persuaded to place before “Jew” in his or her self-description. Jews are Jews. And, whatever some Jews may imagine, Judaism is Judaism.

Like Mrs. Weisskopf, the leaders of the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” may feel insulted at the stubborn persistence of the original Jewish religious tradition, and peeved by its great distance from them. But it was they, not it, who created the distance.

And objective observers readily perceive what those leaders cannot bring themselves to confront, that there is today, as always, only one Judaism, the original one.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle”(Judaica Press, 2012).

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