Response to j-Wire article critical of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Raymond Apple wrote an article critical of Reform Judaism entitled "Orthodoxy & Reform" that was published on j-Wire; in response, Rabbi Fred Morgan submitted an article that was also published on j-Wire. Click on "read more" to read both articles.

ORTHODOXY & REFORM - Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Why doesn’t orthodoxy accept that the Reform movement is a valid option in Judaism?A. It never happened that every Jew thought like every other Jew.

“Two Jews – three opinions” is an expression of reality that goes even further than Elijah, who said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions?”

It resonated through the ages, with dissident sects and competing ideologies, bitter conflicts and reluctant compromises.

There has always been diversity in Jewish life. Even the problem of the orthodox versus the non-orthodox is not a modern invention.

The problem is not whether the question is new, but whether anyone has discovered a way of solving it.

Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik distinguished between “b’rit goral”, the covenant of fate which binds all Jews regardless of their opinions, and “b’rit Sinai”, the covenant of faith which unites those who uphold the Revelation on Sinai.

It is a useful approach, but it creates its own new problems.

The second arm of the thesis allows orthodoxy to maintain Sinai-based halachic Judaism as the authentic tradition which defines a Jew, but leaves unspoken the status of the Conservative movement, which also claims to be halachic, and that of the Reform movement which, whilst not claiming to be a halachic movement often claims halachic legitimacy on the basis of a Talmudic statement that both Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai are “the words of the living God”.

There is a difference between, on the one hand, the secular Jews who have no room for God in their Jewish identity and come within “b’rit goral” but not “b’rit Sinai”, and on the other hand the three religious groups, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, who believe in God (though there are apparently some Reform rabbis who are not certain about Him).

The “words of the living God” assessment is in Eruvin 13b. The passage informs us, “For three years Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel were in dispute. One side said, ‘The halachah is in accordance with us’. The other said, ‘The halachah is in accordance with us’. Then a heavenly voice said, ‘These, and these, are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in accordance with Bet Hillel’.”

Two things emerge from the discussion: one, that there can be several ways of interpreting a law, and two, that in behavioural matters there is no room for halachic indecision.

To think that the first statement sanctions pluralism is illusory. In the Bet Hillel-Bet Shammai dispute, both sides are within the halachic loop. It is not that one is inside the halachah and one outside it. Both are halachic. Both accept the authority of the mitzvah, but each has a different emphasis or nuance.

One cannot use this passage to say that halachah and the abrogation of halachah are both Judaism. It is like saying that kosher and non-kosher are both kosher. Neither Bet Hillel nor Bet Shammai can be used to lend support to this position.

Bet Hillel did sometimes reverse a view they had espoused in favour of one advocated by Bet Shammai, but neither was outside the halachic loop.

Orthodoxy has no choice but to say that whilst they respect followers of the Reform movement as part of “b’rit goral”, Reform as an ideology cannot be counted as part of “b’rit Sinai”.


Rabbi Raymond Apple's column on Orthodoxy and Reform is expressed with his customary courtesy and wit, but I believe it misses the point as far as Progressive Judaism is concerned.

I think I have to begin by pointing out that R Apple rather disingenuously speaks about the American Reform movement but we use a different terminology here in Australia, and the difference is there for a reason.  Our "Progressive Judaism" has features of American Reform but it's a more traditional expression of Judaism than American Reform congregations tend to be.  More significantly, its cultural and historical context is different.  Though Orthodoxy doesn't generally take cultural and historical context into account - that's clear from R Apple's discussion, which focuses on the halakhah - Progressive Judaism does.  Indeed, we might say that sensitivity to historical context is precisely what sets Progressive Judaism apart from Orthodoxy; while sensitivity to tradition is what sets it apart from some expressions of Reform Judaism in America.

R Apple is describing the non-Orthodox movements from an Orthodox perspective; hence the attention paid to halakhah as the determining factor.  This fits the way he has phrased his sh'eilah, the question that is posed.  It asks why Orthodoxy doesn't accept Reform as a valid option.  The simple answer might have been, because Orthodoxy doesn't accept options at all.  It recognises that there are differences of opinion - machloket - as R Apple stresses, but these take place within the circle of halakhah.  What he doesn't say, however, is that the circle or loop of halakhah stretches far wider than some Orthodox rabbis assert.  In fact, it is stretching so far these days that it is in danger of breaking.  As a sign of this, the "blacklist" from the Israeli Chief Rabbi's office,revealed a couple of days ago, is directed mainly at conversions done by Orthodox, not Reform, rabbis.  So, which Orthodoxy is R Apple favouring?  Ultra- or Charedi Orthodoxy, one of the many warring Chasidic Orthodoxies, Modern Orthodoxy (I imagine that R Apple, with his urbane British training and his reliance on Rav Soloveitchik's theory of two covenants, would favour this brand of Orthodoxy), Mizrachi, Sephardi, Egalitarian Orthodoxy; which is it?  They are not all representative of the schools of Hillel and Shammai.  For some of them, their machloket is for the sake of heaven, but for others it certainly seems to be more in tune with the machloket of Korach.

However, that's for R Apple to sort out.  My concern is more with the place of Progressive Judaism in the spectrum of Jewish experience.  The reality is that Progressive Judaism is concerned with halakhah, but it is not governed by halakhah.  It is governed by principles of Torah. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on the rabbi and community, it will attempt to adjust its behaviour to halakhic norms.  The "ham sandwich" argument that R Apple introduces is simply silly.  But these halakhic norms are culturally and historically bound.  They reflect the times and places in which they are enunciated.  If these norms are contradicted by trans-historical principles of Torah which seem to override them, then the principles of Torah will prevail. 

In other words, Torah is eternal, given on Sinai, so to speak; but it was delivered in a particular historical context, written in a way that would be meaningful to the people of its day.  We have the written word, which is bound to its history, but embedded within it are principles that hold for all time.  It invites us to critique its own historical material with the principles which that material itself transmits, so Torah continues to "progress" through history in its meanings and applications.  In every age we reassess Torah in the light of its principles.  These are principles of fairness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion - the key words that enter our religious imaginations from the Torah text, and that invigorate and renew our religious lives from generation to generation.  That is what Progressive Judaism is about.

A good example of this process is mamzerut, "bastardy".  According to Torah, when two people who are in a forbidden relationship have a child together, that child is called "mamzer" and is forbidden to marry a fellow Israelite apart from another mamzer for ten generations.  The "sin" of the parents is visited upon the children, through ten generations.  The Progressive approach to mamzerut is to see it as a product of its time.  But we can criticise and overturn it by the application of Torah principles, especially the principle tzedek tzedek tirdof, "justice, justice shall you pursue." We believe if God gave Torah today, mamzerut would not be in it,not because we'd prefer not to have it in the book but because God has taught us that mamzerut is unjust.  In other words, historical circumstances have sensitised us to Torah's principles. This is what makes Torah the unique, eternal text it is.

The fact that the Progressive approach is different from the Orthodox approach is not in doubt.  If it wasn't, we wouldn't be having this discussion.  But I think it's incumbent on anyone who would criticise Progressive Judaism to find out first what it's about in its own terms, before subjecting it to standards that are not true to it.  Otherwise, the argument is purely apologetic, and what's the point of that?


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