Last Tuesday, a group of rabbis associated with the more stringent faction of the Dati-Leumi community in Israel issued a harsh letter condemning discourse between Orthodox rabbis and representatives of the Reform movement.
Among the 20 signatories on the letter were Rav Dov Lior, former chief rabbi of Hevron; Rav Tzvi Tau, head of the Har HaMor Yeshiva; Rav Shmuel Eliahu, chief rabbi of Tzfat; Rav Yehoshua Shapiro, head of the Ramat Gan Yeshiva; and Rav Elyakim Levanon, head of the Elon Moreh Yeshiva.
The letter states: “Recently, to our sorrow, we see that borders erected by the great Torah authorities of the world have been breached, whereby certain people have conducted meetings and Torah discourses with representatives of the Reform movement as if we have something in common when it comes to Torah….
“Needless to say, the love for each and every Jew remains in force at all times, but this does not give any permission whatsoever, G-d forbid, to participate in joint activities with representatives of the Reform movement, which has uprooted the Torah from the Jewish nation and which today fights to cast away everything holy in our Holy Land, in matters relating to the Kotel, conversion, marriage, family purity, and more….”
The rabbis noted that former Chief Rabbis Avraham Shapira and Ovadia Yosef both issued harsh rulings condemning joint discussions with Jewish religious movements that deny the Written and Oral Torah, emphasizing the danger and Chillul Hashem involved.
The rabbis’ letter was triggered by the publication of another letter – the week before – from Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Rav Yitzhak Yosef, in which he decried the same type of interactions with the Reform movement, citing Rav Eliezer Melamed’s behavior.
Rav Melamed is the head of the Har Bracha hesder yeshiva and the author of a popular halachic series, Pininei Halacha. Within the past year, Rav Melamed participated in a meeting in Jerusalem with representatives of all streams of Jewish belief and later participated in a Zoom discussion with a female Reform rabbi from France during an Internet conference on Jewish dialogue and unity.
In defense of his actions, Rav Melamed dismissed the claim that Jewish communities and leaders should be banned for their beliefs. The opposite is the case, he said. The Torah teaches us to increase feelings of love and shalom amongst all Jews.
He writes, “Even though we must disagree and protest against the beliefs of the Reform and Conservative movements in their rejection of the Torah, and against the ways they changed the prayer service, and the rules of marriage…we have to find the way to express our love for them, precisely because we are commanded to love fellow Jews….
“The Torah instructs us that when the donkeys of a friend and an enemy are burdened down by their load, it is a mitzvah to help the donkey of the hated person so he will not feel more despised. The Gemara is speaking about a person who is hated because of his transgressions.”
Rav Melamed argues that before deciding whether to ban discussion with Reform leaders entirely, one must “remember that the unity of Am Yisrael is a foundation of our nation.” He added, “The safeguarding of our unity is mamash in the category of national pikuach nefesh. This unity stands on the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people, on His having chosen us, in our collective entirety. Even if we sin, this brit is never annulled.
“The Gemara assures us that even if we, G-d forbid, worship idols, we remain the children of Hashem (Kiddushin 37).… The Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam even though people learned Torah, observed the mitzvot, and practiced kindness….
“The destruction came about, explains the Netziv of Volozhin, because of the fierce machloket between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were the datim. The Sadducees, more or less, were the Reform Jews of that time. … From this tragic example from our history, we can see that sinat chinam between groupings of Jews threatens the wellbeing and survival of the nation.”
This controversy is very charged because while Rav Melamed sometimes offers lenient opinions, he is not identified with the camp of the more liberal-oriented Dati-Leumi rabbis and his name has been mentioned as a possible future candidate for the position of chief rabbi.
In his letter, Rav Yosef rejects Rav Melamed’s explanations. He writes, “The Reformers falsified our Torah and created one of their own…. They reject doing penitence over their errant ways and staunchly adhere to their path, and they brought about the widespread assimilation in America and other places. There is a need to keep them at a distance so that no one will be led astray by our meeting with them and subsequently follow after them….
“It is obvious to me that the respected rabbi in question made a terrible and improper error…. The Reform movement strives to nullify the laws of the Torah, and to dig their fingers into our Holy Land. It is not enough for them that they have destroyed the American Jewish community, and elsewhere, through the devastating assimilation they condone amongst the Gentile nations; they now wish to ‘conquer the kingdom while the king is at home,’ in the land that Hashem, our G-d, watches over from the beginning of the year to the end.”
It appears that Rav Melamed has no intention of backing down. He told The Jewish Press: “At the moment, I have nothing new to add to what I have already written in explaining my position, and I trust you to quote whatever you chose from the things I have said. Nevertheless, b’ezrat Hashem, in the near future, I will continue to explain my opinion in a way that will, I hope, convince most of the rabbis of the correctness of my views.”