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September 27, 2016 / 24 Elul, 5776
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How I Lost My Liberal View of Reform Jews and Started to Fear Them

When I began covering the Women of the Wall, the flagship of the Reform insurgency in Israel, my initial take was sympathetic.


Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90

Back around the year 2000, I was invited by my very good friend, Rabbi Judi Abrams, to come on board a new project of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), a comprehensive prayer book that would streamline and organize the countless versions of Reform prayer books that had been out there.

I use the title Rabbi in Judi’s case, even though it isn’t the policy of our publication to use this honorarium for non-Orthodox clergy, much less women clergy, because she has earned it. She is one of my non-Orthodox friends who truly love the Talmud and know how to learn. So, when she invited me to be the designer of the new prayer book, I grabbed it. I needed the money—this was at the bursting phase of the first Internet bubble, and all my online clients had been massacred. But the project also offered me an interesting fig leaf, which I could use to justify my collaboration: this was going to be the first Reform siddur in history to include the full Sh’ma Israel reading, all three passages.

Previous siddurim have omitted the middle passage, which warns us what would happen if we don’t obey the commandments. Those earlier siddurim also omitted the third passage, about the tzitzit, but that part introduces a reminder of how to keep the commandments in our everyday life—so that without the middle part it’s kind of pointless.

During my two years, on and off, working on the siddur project, I began to develop a theory that the Reform, despite their anti-halachic, or a-halachic stance, were still inside the rabbinic umbrella. Based on my encounters with the more learned in the movement (I also met many stereotypical Reform rabbis who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag made of blatts of gemora), I began to think of the Reform, especially the rank and file, as amaratzim — (lingo for Amei Ha’aratzot) the equivalent of the uneducated masses at the time just after the destruction of the second temple. The sages, who originally abhorred and loathed those amaratzim, once the temple was gone and the dark Diaspora had begun, started to view them as inseparable from the rest of the Jewish nation.

I felt that, despite its abysmal relationship with classical and traditional Judaism, the Reform movement was not beyond hope. And I offered, on a number of occasions, the following illustration to support my view:

We were at a large editorial meeting, discussing the texts of the Eighteen Blessings, the silent prayer or “Amida.” The Reform versions of the Amida range from ridiculously cumbersome to infuriatingly PC—compared with the traditional text, which is smooth and elegant, even in the Sephard version, which offers several alternative phrases in a number of places. No question, the Reform Amida was begging for a streamlining job.

Then one of the editors, a female clergy, suggested we add a special shmoneh-esreh blessing for our suffering LGBT brothers and sisters.

Needless to say, my little brain was working overtime trying to find justifications for that one. Was there any way that I, as an observant Jew, could lend my name to a siddur that included a special prayer for folks who break a major commandment? Might as well add a blessing for folks breaking Shabbes and another, special one, for our brothers and sisters who suffer from trichinosis. I was done for—the Yanover family would be going without fish Friday night.

But then the moderator told this nice lady: “Bring me a pasuk,” meaning offer a verse in the entire Jewish Bible that would support and illustrate the above mentioned suffering.

He spoke like a Jew. Never mind the outcome (I was let go a few months later, because of my tendency to open my big mouth to my superiors, so I never found out) – the man approached prayer from within the tradition, not as a sworn violator of the tradition. There was hope.

That episode also cost me a job with a new Haredi magazine, a competitor to Mishpacha, which hired me for a scary amount of money as senior editor—only to let me go after my boss had discovered my notes online regarding my hope for the Reform.

He, my boss, obviously saw no hope for the Reform. And having on staff a senior editor who felt that way was not going to make him friends in Borough Park.

He and I engaged in a furious email shouting match that lasted about a week, following which I saw the writing on the wall, concluded our affairs in America and set out for a new life in Israel. So I should be thankful to the man—and, in hindsight, I would have been miserable working for Haredim.

When I began covering the Women of the Wall, which is, like it or not, kind of the flagship of the Reform insurgency in Israel, my initial take was sympathetic. Go back through the archives and you’ll see that my reports from a year ago were not just respectful, but I also belittled the extent of the damage they could possibly cause.

I no longer feel that way. I fear that the Women of the Wall may be symptomatic of a serious turn in the relationship between observant Jews and the state. And the fact that this is taking place at a time when a National Religious political party, Jewish Home, is a major player in a government that supports the eradication of Orthodoxy in Israel, is even more terrifying.

I had an exchange of comments with a reader named Dan Silagi (I admire readers who use their real name in online discussions—I do it as well) on my Sunday’s report, Women of the Wall Searching for Next ‘Struggle.’

In my article I cited the WOW complaints that the police separated them from their Haredi adversaries by “caging” them (behind simple barricades) and argued that a revolution is like a shark – if it stops struggling it dies. And so, if the courts are now permitting the WOW prayer, they must find someone against whom they can struggle, and a bunch of Haredim with signs 200 yards away just won’t do.

Dan Silagi wrote:

“Boohoo, Yori, I guess you’re disappointed that there weren’t massive demonstrations against WOW which you could blame on WOW rather than your Haredi buddies. In three months’ time, give or take a couple, I predict that the Women of the Wall praying, singing, and reading from the Torah will become routine. You and your newspaper will need to find another target at which to tilt your windmills.”

First, thanks to our reader Avraham Bronstein (another real name!) who commented:

“For the record, the phrase is ’tilting at windmills.'”

My own response was a great deal less technical (I bring it almost raw, with minor post-posting improvements):

Dan Silagi · I’m not sure what point you’re making. I also predict that the WOW will be singing and reading from the Torah and playing guitar on Shabbat and davening in mixed minyanim — I just think it’ll be another nail in the coffin of our legitimacy in the land of Israel.Our entire justification for having conquered the land from the former inhabitants, which we have done, is that it was God given to us. Otherwise, we’re just European colonialists who pushed out the indigenous people for no good reason other than the power of the gun.

If we believe that God gave us the land, we must ask, what is our relationship with God? Do we bring anything into the relationship, or is the Gift from God argument, essentially, an empty slogan we don’t really believe in?

If we believe in it, then we must accept that our relationship with God is through the commandments, more accurately through our adherence to His commandments — because that’s what He, in his eternal wisdom, told us.

So that our adherence to halacha and our right to the land are inseparable, and if we don’t adhere to halacha, we have no rights here.

Now, the most essential, most central, most crucial part of halacha is submitting to the yoke of our sages. In this case, there is one sage who is the state appointed administrator at the Kotel, and he laid down the law — only to be defied both by the WOW and by two lower courts. Incidentally — the high court still sides with the Rabbi of the Kotel.

So, Dan Silagi, while I agree that your predictions are true, I also say that they make you and your ilk nothing better than the British and French oppressors of the black tribes of Africa, and that you, as a secular European invader devoid of justification for your occupation, must at once relinquish authority over the land to its rightful Arab owners.

I know, it’s a bit rough, and I could have made a more subtle and nuanced connection between our right to the land and our halachic obligations — you don’t always get to be subtle in a talkback format. But I now have shed completely any sympathy I harbored in the past for the Women of the Wall. I now believe that they are but the vanguard of an all out attempt on the part of anti-halachic organizations to attack and weaken the religious aspect of Zionism.

They’ve already done away with secular Zionism ages ago.

Yori Yanover

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.

The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.

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