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Are Non-Orthodox Jews Still Jews?

Part Two

Q. Why do the Orthodox kick up such a fuss about the "Who is a Jew" question?

Answer: Because we do not want do not want divisions in Jewry. Startling answer, isn't it? Think about it:

The people who stand the most to be affected by the problem are the descendants of today's non-Orthodox.

In one or two generations, there will be young men and women who wish to become Orthodox. They will discover that because their parents and/or grandparents were adamant about breaking down the Halachah, these grandchildren will be in many cases Gentiles. Who will be hurt? Not those who are currently Orthodox, or their descendants. Nevertheless, today's Orthodox are concerned, not only for that reason, but for the sake of Hashem's Torah.

Here's another scenario, which has already occurred too often.

A woman did not care about receiving a get, a proper Jewish divorce. She left her husband, got a civil divorce by United States law, and then "married" another Jewish man. By Jewish Law she is still married to the first man; any children she has from any other man (until she gets a get from the first man) will be illegitimate. They will not be allowed to marry a legitimate Jewish child.

The creation of illegitimate Jewish children is of great concern to us. But bear in mind that it is of concern to us because we do not want divisions in Jewry.

And what happens in one or two generations, when an illegitimate Jewish child becomes Orthodox, and wants to marry an Orthodox Jew? Who will suffer then? We all will suffer the pain.

And whatever vestiges will remain of the Reform and Conservative movements will yell and scream that we are being unfair to the descendants of Reform and Conservative Jews, as if somehow we are specifically targeting them. They will insist that the time has come to change the Torah and "abrogate Halachah in face of the growing need." To be sure, they will not call it "abrogating Halachah," but rather "changing" or "adapting" Halachah, as if there is any difference.

Rather than have that happen, we wish to prevent it at the root, and not let people trample on Halachah.

Q. Why don't the Orthodox consider Conservative or Reform rabbis to be rabbis?

Answer: In order for someone to become a Rabbi he must undergo certain preliminaries. He must take a specific, required course. If you redefine that course, that criterion has not been met.

Secondly, one can receive this course, and the subsequent ordination, only from a qualified Rabbi, i.e., one who has successfully undergone very advanced tests and procedures that gives him the authority to ordain another Rabbi.

Thirdly, he must demonstrate that he assumes the responsibility to fulfill all the Laws to the best of his ability; that he does not repudiate or disagree with any of them, and that he will keep within the clearly mandated bounds of Halachic procedure.

Some of the first early Reform leaders possibly met the first two criteria, but the very definition and purposes of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements are the negation of that third criterion.

Today's Conservative and Reform "rabbis" do not study the proper courses; in any case they are given by people who have not themselves fulfilled the criteria; nor do they intend to fulfill the Halachah as mandated. This is not the definition of a Rabbi. And again, this does not mean they are not Jewish. Even an unaffiliated Jew is a Jew. Even a Jew who (G-d forbid) attends a Christian church is a Jew, if his or her mother was Jewish, or if that person properly converted to Judaism.

Q. But isn't the Orthodox attitude exclusionary and divisive?

Answer: That isn't fair. Look at our history. At first there was one nation, all alike. There was only one kind of Jew. These divisions did not exist until these groups broke off from Orthodox Judaism. In fact, it is the Orthodox who are inclusive of all Jews.

The Reform Movement has very clearly and deliberately excluded many types of Jews. Since 1983, it has denied the Jewish status of any Jew born of a Jewish mother, if the child did not receive a Jewish upbringing. In 1996, Simeon Maslin, then president of Reform's Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the following at the annual meeting of America's Reform rabbis: "Let me make it clear that when I say we, as 'we are the authentic Jews', I refer to the two great non-Orthodox synagogue movements of America: Reform and Conservative."

Orthododx Judaism, on the other hand, considers anyone born of a Jewish mother to be Jewish. That is the Law of the Torah, and it has never changed for us. Orthodox Jews do not reject any Jews. on the contrary, we pray and want all Jews to become Orthodox Jews, to serve Hashem as Hashem has taught us all.

We do not want the various factions. We want us all to be one. Those who break apart, as the Reform and Conservative have done, are the ones who are divisive. They have created the divisions, the rifts in Jewry. We want to bring them back to us.

In the High Holy Days' prayers, we ask:

And so, too, Hashem our G-d, instill Your awe upon all Your works, and Your fear upon all that You have created. Let all works revere You, and all creatures bow before You. Let them all become a single society to do Your will whole-heartedly . . .

A little later we pray that wickedness and sin vanish, but we never pray that erring and lost Jews be hurt, killed, or punished in any way. Nor do we make any reference to Jews being cut off from the fold or from G-d. We pray only that all repent.

But: Halachah forbids us to join with heretics, or to do anything that will support their activities in any way.(1) This still does not change the fact that they are Jews.

How should we act towards them? A distinction is made between those who simply follow others because they know no better, and those who do indeed know better.(2) Jewish Law teaches that those who do not know better "should be brought back with repentance, and attracted with words of peace, until they return to the power of the Torah".(3)

As for their leaders, it is forbidden to accord any respect whatsoever to anyone who knowingly teaches anything that contradicts the Torah.(4)

Nevertheless, some of their leaders may indeed not know better. Though they sin by misleading others, they too, if possible, should be brought to see the truth, with words of peace. But that is a separate issue than that of respect.

Some argue that since they bear the title "Rabbi," they should be accorded respect. But if we called them "Rabbi," they would have a greater problem. For Maimonides goes on to say(5) that any Rabbi who rules differently than the Halachah and teaches others to do so has much more culpability, and is liable at a greater level, than anyone else.

It is a far greater mercy not to consider them Rabbis.

We do not consider them Rabbis, but that is not because we hate them.

Q. Why can't the rules be altered?

Answer: Because they don't need to be.

There is a very common fallacy argued by many people. They contend that people change, therefore the rules should change. This is a logical argument, and should not be ignored. It deserves discussion.

The truth is that the only major thing that changes about people is their opinions. People do not change, and truth does not change. People are motivated by essentially the same things by which we have always been motivated. People have essentially the same desires we have always had. Human nature has stayed exactly the same, and this is why people say that history repeats itself.

The only thing that really changes from culture to culture and from time to time is what public opinion holds to be right and wrong. And that is the basic flaw in popular cultural mores. Malleable moral standards are fallacious and unreal concepts. Anything transitory cannot be fundamentally true.

However, Judaism believes that G-d created the Torah first, and used the Torah as a blueprint from which to design the universe. Thus, the Laws of the Torah are as eternal as the universe.

Throughout all the ages, the Jews have been exiled in many lands. The Egyptians practiced incest. The Jews maintained that incest is wrong. We still do, and we always will.

The French have no qualms about extra-marital affairs. Rabbinical works of long ago mention this as a problem centuries ago. The Jews maintained it was wrong. We still do.

There were cultures that practiced theft and crookedness to degrees that would put Ferengi to shame. The Jews have always maintained it is wrong. We still do.

I am not claiming that we have never had sinners who practiced these and other immoral acts. But we never changed Judaism to reflect the mores of other cultures, or of the dominating society.

I once met a Jewish woman who insisted that it was time for Orthodox Judaism to modernize, as she had. She couldn't exactly explain what she meant by "modernize," but subsequent discussion revealed that she was completely unobservant, and had finally become reconciled with the fact that her daughter had married a gentile.

This was the modernization we should embrace? The loss of our culture through syncretism and assimilation? The following of popular culture and ideals, to the detriment of our own?

The fallacy is in thinking that Judaism actually once fitted into society, but is now outdated. Actually, we have never fit into "society," nor were we ever supposed to.

When the Jews were in Egypt, we kept ourselves separate. We dressed differently, we did not intermarry with unconverted Egyptians, we spoke our own language, and we kept our own names.

When the Jews were exiled to Babylon, after the Destruction of the First Holy Temple, we still kept ourselves separate from the Gentiles. We dressed differently, we kept only Jewish names, we spoke our own dialect, and we observed the Torah as best we could under the circumstances. This is what we do today, and what we have done in every exile we have endured.

When we were returned to the Holy Land, to rebuild the Second Temple, there eventually arose a group that insisted we "modernize." We must join the world's general movement towards enlightenment and acceptance, they said. Yes, that means assimilating; yes, that means watering down the Torah; but the time has come to alter the Torah. We must join the world and be accepted.

They were called Hellenisers, because they imitated the Greeks. Modernize, they said. Don't be so rigid and different. But we resisted, and we kept the Torah. That's how Chanukah came to be. The Hellenisers and the ancient Greek culture are all gone today; we still exist.

The Romans came to the foreground of world politics, and similar movements sprung up. Still we resisted. The ancient Roman culture no longer exists; the Jews do.

The American culture will some day go the way of all its predecessors. It, too, with all its imitators, will dissipate, and be replaced by something even more "modern," which will in its turn be replaced by something else new.

And we Jews, with our "archaic culture that can never seem to fit in," will still be here.

Is our culture archaic?

Whatever the society, whatever the abomination, we did not fit in. Judaism never accepted the beliefs and mores or any other culture, thus we were never in step with any other culture.

It would be correct to call us "archaic," or "outdated," if there had ever been a time when we were modern and in style. We have always been outside of the dominant style and culture. We have never fit in. We have never fit into society, thus we are not archaic. We are timeless.

And the reason? Because no matter how many times the masses change their attitudes and beliefs, right is still right, wrong is still wrong. To us, it does not matter what popular opinion thinks is right and wrong.

If I feel that something is morally wrong, and the Torah says it is morally right, than I am mistaken, not the Torah.

Because, you see, Judaism is the word of G-d. The Laws of the Torah make provision for all future contingencies, and thus changes have never been needed. No human being could devise a system so perfect that it never needs to be changed. Thus, it is outside of the experience of most people.

Many people mistakenly think that our life or culture is static and unchanging. To the degree that it is static, that is good. It means that we have been keeping our morals, and have not been assimilating. But even Judaism takes into account the changes and tides of societies and peoples.

It is also a mistake to think that "strict and unalterable" means "inflexible." Judaism is not inflexible. Judaism takes the perfect balance between firmness and flexibility.

Likewise, Judaism takes into account the fact that people have individualistic minds and free choice. A proper study of Judaism will show you this.

[Continue on to Part Three]

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1. See, for example, Babylonian Talmud Bava Basra 10b; Maimonides Laws of Charity, 10:8; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 249:7

2. Maimonides, Laws of Rebels, 3:1-3

3. Ibid

4. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 41a; Shaarai Teshuvah 187-193; see also Rashi, Deut. 13:9

5. Ibid, 3:4