Latest update: December 4th, 2012
For thousands of years of Jewish history there wasn’t a unique nomenclature classifying Torah-deviant Jews. Denominations like Conservative, Reform and Orthodox were non-existent. One was either more observant, less observant, or, in highly atypical cases, nonobservant.
The reason for this is that history is immutable. Sinai was a historical fact that was irrefutable and unassailable.
I haven’t met a sane individual who doubts Julius Caesar existed or the Roman Empire fell. Yet I have encountered numerous people who cast aspersion on the world’s most momentous and epic occurrence: Revelation at Sinai. Such a blatant disregard and contempt for incontrovertible history has opened a Pandora box of other denials, such as the claim that the Holocaust never happened. Once we tolerate one perversion of history there’s no limit to other falsifications that ensue.
It’s been alleged that Judaism’s transmission is unreliable because it is no different from the game “telephone,” in which one person cites a word and the message moves down the line until it emerges a garbled version of the original. This comparison is wholly inaccurate.
The nature of the Jewish people is to be argumentative – but notwithstanding endless persecution and exile, the original message emerged unscathed. This may be attributed to the fact that the message wasn’t arbitrary or subjective but was God’s revered Word – hallowed and sacrosanct. Couple the tremendous import of the message with the fact that each Jew was a master pedagogue (“vishinantom livonecha,” Devarim 11:19) and it’s obvious how vital preservation of the accurate tradition was.
Perhaps no other nation has such an explicit and unequivocal historical chain. Rambam (in his introduction to Mishneh Torah) delineates a clear, incontestable chain of teachers from Moshe Rabbeinu until Rav Ashi, redactor of the Talmud. Conclusive studies have traced contemporary Torah leaders back to Rav Ashi, bringing the chain of tradition full circle.
Were Julius Caesar to visit Rome today, he would be at a total loss. He wouldn’t understand the lingua franca, the dress, or mannerisms. On the other hand were Moshe to visit Meah Shearim, he would, essentially, feel at home.
The Torah mandates that an ambiguous “pri etz hadar” be combined with other minim on Sukkos. “A beautiful fruit” can depend on individual taste and preference. One person may consider the mango to be the most beautiful fruit, while his peer may be partial to an apple.
If our mesorah were in any way diluted or adulterated, one would anticipate seeing an array of different fruits being used for this mitzvah. Historically, in direct fulfillment of the Oral Law, only the esrog has been used in fulfillment of this mitzvah.
In my years (before my early retirement) of supplying the community with arbah minim, I had the privilege of servicing an eclectic base – from leading chassidic rebbes to litvishe roshei yeshiva, as well as Conservative rabbis.
It seemed disingenuous for a Conservative rabbi – who professed no allegiance to and sometimes displayed vehemence against Oral tradition – to purchase an esrog. It is, however, an incredible testimony to the force and weight of our tradition that even those who tend to deny it end up corroborating it.
Until the early-mid 19th century no one challenged the universally accepted truth of Sinai. Then a neo-Jewish movement began in Berlin that sought to reconcile modernity with Judaism. For the sake of progressiveness and to facilitate assimilation, this movement claimed the Torah had not been God-given, and that it was not incumbent on Jews to follow it. They postulated that the Torah was man-made and subject to change – and in “modern times” obsolete.
In 1837, Abraham Geiger called the first Reform rabbinical conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, and declared: “The Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted human books, as a divine work must also go.”
Samuel Holdheim headed the Reform congregation in Berlin. He disavowed many cardinal features of Judaism: circumcision, covered heads during worship, the tallis, blowing of the shofar, the use of the Hebrew language, and the mention of Zion, Jerusalem or the land of Israel in any service.
By the mid-19th century, Reform had dethroned Jerusalem in favor of Berlin. The Jewish Sabbath was changed from Saturday to the Christian Sunday. The synagogue began resembling the church in its aesthetics and services. German Reform also had the gall to abolish the “automatic assumption of solidarity with Jews everywhere.” Adherents of Reform described themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion,” rather than as Jews.
This movement gained momentum. In the end, traditional observance by European Jewry gave way to assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion to Christianity. By the advent of World War II, over 40 percent of German Jews had intermarried and many Christianized. Even in Poland, that bastion of traditional Jewish observance, two-thirds had ceased to keep the Shabbos.
What went wrong? Modernity is by its very definition relative – subject to the capriciousness of men and society. Any notion defined by modernity is fluid and can be changed according to time, place, and situation. Modernity itself is therefore useless in defining a standard of right conduct.
Judaism, a divine institution, operates in the sphere of eternity, which is, by definition, absolute. Absolutism transcends the vicissitudes of mortal whims, as it is forever valid.
This brings us to the timely issue of women rabbis. Jewish tradition, cognizant of the physiological, psychological, and spiritual makeup of human beings, distinguishes between men and women. It actually gives deferential status to women. According to many meforshim, women are exempt from certain mitzvos due to their exalted status. As John Gray famously wrote, “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”
While we may be two sides of the same coin, we are different. That’s how God designed things. As sefer Bereishis carefully explicates, a woman’s role is reflective of the fact that she is often the silent hero, working behind the scenes as the nurturer, sustainer, and catalyst.
A difference in roles is by no means a diminution in value. Whether it was in Egypt, Israel, Persia, or Syrian-Greek occupied Israel, throughout Jewish history women have heroically redeemed the Jewish people, albeit in a uniquely feminine manner. A recent Time magazine article suggested that feminism may have contributed to more sadness in women than happiness. When modernity supplants eternity – when innate, ontological strengths are skewed and distorted – it’s time for pregnant pause and introspection.
Judaism teaches that in every male-female encounter there is a unique dynamic at play, with potential for exploitation. This is precisely why safeguards apply, in order to maximize necessary propriety between genders. Studies suggest that irrespective of environment (even in academic and corporate milieus) men have a tendency of viewing women colleagues, superficially, as women.
Judaism’s tradition of modesty is meant to preempt potential disregard for a woman’s intelligence and spirituality. The shofetes Devorah was not your typical public functionary. Though she was ordained by God to judge her people, it was a pro tempore role and special guidelines were prescribed to safeguard her intrinsic femininity.
The prognosis for Reform and Conservative Jewry is bleak. A break with tradition is a failed experiment. Only Traditional Judaism – a.k.a. Orthodoxy – once deemed a relic of the past, is in upward swing. The secret to its success? Not capitulating or kowtowing to transitory ideas or ideals but rather harnessing modern knowledge and invention to complement religious experience.
Obscuring the divinely endowed roles of man and woman is tantamount to denying God’s Omniscience. As we stand at the precipice of a new threat to tradition, it is incumbent on us to reaffirm our fealty to the Omniscient Knowledge of our Creator.
About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer is a popular lecturer and educator and the author of "Search Judaism: Judaism's Answers to a Changing World" (Targum, 2009), available at SearchJudaism.com. He is also director of the Think and Care Tank (thinkandcare.org), an organization dedicated to spreading Jewish values and innovative Jewish programming.
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