The three articles we ran at the end of last week regarding the notion that the Reform movement now ordains “rabbis” who are not Jewish resulted in a huge explosion of responses, and that’s always a good thing, even if in the process yours truly came across as a big meanie, a racist, an extremist, a divider, a hater, and someone who contradicts the very spirit of the month of Elul.
There is a midrash (homily) about Shimon Kefa, who was none other than Peter the Rock, the first Christian pope. Jewish sources have been doing battle over the veracity of this story since at least the time of Rashi and the Machzor Vitri (earliest cited Jewish prayer book), in the 11th and 12th centuries. There are at least four versions of the same midrash, which vary on specifics, but relate essentially the same story:
The Christians were persecuting Jews and encouraging Jews to join their fold, which they did in droves. The sages were distraught about this, until one of them, a sage by the name of Shimon Kefa (rock in Aramaic) volunteered to go as a Trojan horse into the Christians’ camp and change Christianity forever so it would not look Jewish.
He received the sages’ blessings and went to carry out his mission. In a major Christian enclave, he told the gathered that he is the messenger of Jesus. To prove this, he performed some of the miracles Jesus was famous for: healed a leper and resurrected a dead person. When they were convinced he was truly a messenger of their departed master, he started instructing them—and here each version differs on what he told them to do, except that they all emphasize not attacking Jews any more.
Other than persuading the Christians to leave the Jews alone, in several versions Shimon Kefa—Peter—tells them to move the day of rest to Sunday, to eat all the animals and all the blood they wish, and not to circumcise their sons. And so, in short order, the gap between Christianity and Judaism became so wide, no one in his right mind would suggest they’re the same religion.
What was is it about Christianity that so disturbed the sages? After all, Christians to this day embrace many of the Torah commandments and rely on Biblical verses for practically everything they do and say. Why couldn’t the sages say, well, it’s true that Christianity is not exactly Orthodox Judaism (a 19th century term which I doubt they were familiar with), but at least it keeps them away from paganism.
Because it doesn’t. By placing man at the center of the story, even when it is a god who becomes man through congress with a mortal woman, Christianity is paganism 2.0, promoting the same self-centered ideas but using Biblical verses in the process.
I’m well aware of the scant few sources in the Talmud which defend Christianity as an essentially monotheistic religion which employs pagan concepts. I’m not a scholar and this is not a scholarly article, so I’ll cut to the chase: according to Jewish law, a Jew is not allowed inside a Christian church where Christian icons and symbols are on display (but we are permitted to enter a mosque and even pray—Jewish prayers—there).
Our modern poskim, most notably Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, have already prohibited Religious Jews to set foot in a Reform temple. Rabbi Feinstein rules that Conservative and Reform temples are the same as places of idol worship with respect to both of the following rabbinical notions (source: Institute for Dayanim):
1. Since praying together with a Conservative or Reform congregation is forbidden, the need to avoid the appearance of worshipping in a prohibited manner is applicable to these temples.
2. Similarly, the prohibition on being in the vicinity of a place designated for people with heretical beliefs applies equally to idol worshippers and to Jews who do not accept the fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism. (Orthodox Judaism itself has a broad spectrum of beliefs. For a working definition of Orthodox Judaism we can use the thirteen fundamentals of the Rambam [Maimonides]. All streams of Orthodoxy accept the thirteen fundamentals of Judaism of the Rambam as correct. Anyone deviating from those principles is considered a kofer-heretic).
(There are some who make a distinction between the Conservative and the Reform, in that while the Reform completely removed themselves from rabbinical halacha, the Conservative still consider halacha as their legally binding law, they just interpret it differently. Not my place to decide that one.)
Before we continue, I want you to understand that these supposedly harsh and firm demands, as presented by Maimonides, are broad enough to include a huge variety of Jewish congregations, all the way from ultra-Haredim in the neighborhood of Geula in Jerusalem, to the most left-wing shuls in hip America. They all manage to find themselves inside this tent, and quite comfortably and happily at that (OK, some not as happily as others, can’t win everything).
There is only one fundamental, unwavering rule at the core of all these varied congregations: we all connect to God through the commandments, and we all do this in line with rabbinical interpretation.
This is the core difference between the monotheistic and the pagan: in our tradition, we do the will of God, in theirs, it’s the god who does their will.
Their god provides the beauty of a great singer, the loving kindness of a great teacher, the spiritual wonder of the seeker, the helping hand to the needy, the diversity of all of mankind, the generosity of the human spirit – there are so many incredible things their god does for them. It’s truly lovely, and as a recent comment suggested on one of our articles: “Yori Yanover, listen to the singing one more time. Only THIS time, listen with your 2,000 year old ‘wandering Jew’ neshamah, and NOT with your intellect.”
And that is the essence of paganism. A Jewish relationship with God is anchored in a covenant, a legal document the essence of which we recite twice a day, every day, in the Sh’ma. We accept the yoke of mitzvot and in return we have a relationship with God, we get to be alive and to have national and personal continuity.
It’s wonderful when this relationship results in a lot of beauty and personal satisfaction – why the heck not. But it is there also when He in His wisdom kills us en masse, kills our babies, ravages our fields, inflicts cancer and boils on us – we still hold on to the covenant, and we work hard to love Him, especially when He in His wisdom makes it so difficult.
We don’t do this out of an emotional or spiritual yearning – those are wonderful aspects of our faith, but not the essence of our religion. We do this out of a commitment to the mitzvot as a clear expression of the Will of God. we don’t need to imagine what would God want of us – He came down on Mount Sinai and told us specifically, and empowered our sages to teach us the meaning of His words.
And so, we insist that Jews be made aware that only our places of prayer and study are sanctioned by our Jewish tradition, and that non-Orthodox places are not – despite all the sometimes incredible beauty emanating from them.
An ugly etrog is still an etrog, but a beautiful lemon is never an etrog.