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Jew verus Jew

by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2003-10-03

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

About a month ago, when I visited England on a book tour, I read of how Rabbi Louis Jacobs had been banned from being called to the Torah (getting an aliyah) in the Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation because he was the founder of British Masorti, or Conservative Judaism.

The thinking, I can only presume, was that by honoring Rabbi Jacobs with a call to the Torah in an Orthodox synagogue, he was being legitimized in  some way, and by extension, his non-orthodoxy validated as well.

I found this new episode in the epic battles between Anglo-orthodoxy and liberal Judaism to be almost unbelievable. To be sure, in the eleven years I lived in England nasty fighting between
Orthodox and Reform was par for the course and deeply embarrassing to both sides. The non-Jewish community followed the worst outrages - like the Orthodox refusal to attend the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor - with glee in the mainstream British
newspapers. I spent a considerable amount of my time, and dedicated my limited communal influence, to trying to heal the divide. Like others before me, I failed.

Still, this story surprised me. It seemed means-spirited and utterly unnecessary. His granddaughter was getting married. He was there in a private capacity. And while I realize that no public figure ever truly serves in a completely private capacity, what major harm would be
done with his call to the Torah? At least with the funeral of Rabbi Gryn, the argument could be made that since it was held in a Reform temple, which many Orthodox rabbis refuse to enter, participation would have granted de fact recognition to a Reform service. It may be weak,
but it's an argument nonetheless. But what was the thinking here where the event in question took place at an Orthodox synagogue and the conservative rabbi in question was conferring legitimacy upon an Orthodox service?

For two centuries the Orthodox leadership in Britain in particular has been of the belief that the best way to combat Reform is to ignore and shun them. By forbidding Orthodox rabbis to appear on the same platform as Reform rabbis, the Reform clerics would be denied standing
as Jewish clergy. Many other communal censures along these lines were designed to ensure that people got the point: Reform Judaism is not  authentic. It bears mentioning that this is not a strategy that has been adopted by mainstream Orthodoxy in the United States, where rabbis of  all denominations regularly work together to raise funds for Israel, addresses social leads, and promote Jewish education. Be that as it may,  my purpose is not to condemn this practice of British Orthodoxy, but  rather to challenge it.

And here's the challenge. Did it ever occur to the leaders of Anglo-Orthodoxy that if their purpose is to strengthen traditional halachic Judaism, there is no better way than to act with humanity and decency at all times? As Jews we are commanded to dedicate our lives toward enhancing the glory of God. There is no better way than to act with such integrity, affability, and graciousness that all who behold Orthodox actions pay homage to the power of traditional Judaism to inspire outstanding goodness in people.

The approach of recoiling from Reform and Conservative Judaism and shunning their leadership is misguided because it presupposes that Orthodox Judaism lost market share due to the growth of less demanding alternatives. To be sure, many Jews do indeed prefer Reform and Conservative synagogues because they find it more accommodating; an English liturgy, sitting with their spouses, a more musical service. (Orthodoxy, of course, has since addressed this disparity by offering beginner and Carlebach-oriented services that are less intimidating and more inviting). But while this explains why many reform Jews prefer Reform services, it does not explain why so many Reform Jews shun Orthodox observance. After all, being a member of a Reform synagogue does not preclude one from the daily donning of tefillin or keeping a kosher home. For that you have to go to the complaint that I am sure every Orthodox Jew hears regularly from their non-observant counterparts, namely, that they have no evidence that Orthodoxy makes people into better human beings. On the contrary, they will recite to you a litany of Orthodox Jews they know who they say are guilty of unethical behavior in business, or are condescending and judgmental of Jews less observant than them.

Now, maybe this is just an excuse they use in order to shirk the demands of Jewish observance. But instead of affording them high-profile excuses, like a cruel insult to one of the world's leading non-Orthodox rabbis, why not present them with inspiration instead. Let us imagine,  for example, that rather than humiliating Rabbi Jacobs by depriving him of an aliyah at his grandson-in-law's pre-wedding Sabbath, the congregation instead decided to honor him, treating him like a distinguished guest and most welcome visitor. Granted, the story would not have made the newspapers, but he would have been deeply impressed with the warm welcome accorded to him by his Orthodox counterparts.

He would have mentioned it, either in his weekly sermon in his synagogue, or to acquaintances and colleagues. The story would have trickled out through the grass-routes medium of word of mouth, which is far more compelling in shaping public opinion than newspaper reports anyhow. The Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation would have sanctified rather than desecrated the ancient Jewish faith, and many who use Orthodox insufferability as a justification for their lack of observance would have drawn closer instead.

I realize that the thoughts I have penned above contain no great profundity. They are simple home-grown truths that most readers can figure out for themselves. Still, they bear repeating.

In the final fundraising dinner put on by the Oxford L'Chaim Society before my return to the United States in 1999, we invited as our guest speaker Rabbi Harold Kushner, the noted author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and a Reconstructionist rabbi. Some questioned the  decision insofar as Rabbi Kushner's mega-selling book denies God's omnipotence. The four days he spent with us, however, exposed one of America's best-known rabbis to the important work an Orthodox organization like ours was doing with non-observant and non-Jewish students on campus, and he delivered an oration that could not have been more powerful in its advocacy for support of our work.

Perhaps more importantly, he became my lasting and close friend and I benefit from his experience and guidance until this very day. Our connection is not due to the fact that we are both rabbis, but rather that we are both Jews.