“I drive on Shabbat. Am I as good a Jew as you are ?”
The question was as interesting as the genesis of the evening that led me into the heart of suburban northern New Jersey, roughly 20 minutes from my home, to a community that I had never before visited. My host – a conservative, thoughtful attorney-mediator, and an obvious provocateur (a compliment, in my estimation) – had tired of the incessant and baseless contentions of his fellow congregants at the local Temple that non-Orthodox Jews are not considered “Jewish” by Orthodox Jews. He knew it to be false, but my name emerged as one local “outspoken” Orthodox Rabbi, the “poster boy” (as he introduced me), invariably, for such an opinion. My host bet his friend that his allegation was untrue, and he would call me up and ask me.
He certainly did, and I quickly dispelled that canard, which non-Orthodox Rabbis have been lodging against the Torah world for decades. He (and I) knew that a Jew, in the simplest definition, is any person born of a Jewish mother, and the level of observance or Torah commitment of that person matters not at all. Jews – whether described as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated or whatever – born of a Jewish mother are Jews, period. It what makes the Mets’ Ike Davis a Jew according to halacha (Jewish mother only), and the Brewers’ Ryan Braun a non-Jew according to halacha (Jewish father only). But the prevailing mythology has been a hoary tactic to raise funds and tensions in the Jewish world.
In that conversation he asked me if I would be willing to come to his Temple and state this point, and I agreed immediately. When he realized that he might lack the authority to invite me, I suggested that I would come to his house, he can invite his friends and they could ask me whatever they wished. Less than three weeks later, his house was jammed with 51 people, mostly self-described Conservative Jews, at which the question above was among many others raised.
The discussion was quite frank, somewhat contentious at times, but very constructive. The introduction was the now viral “Daily Show” segment on the proposed eruv in the Hamptons, where non-Orthodox Jews opposed the change to the “aesthetics” of the neighborhood that the eruv string would bring, just moments before admitting that it was “practically invisible,” and that the real fear was an influx of Orthodox Jews. The comedy both lightened the mood and set the tone for the discussions that related to conceptions and misconceptions.
I made three basic points: first, that Orthodox Jews affirm – sine qua non – the Divine origin of the Torah, and its accompanying oral law. This is the foundation of everything in Jewish life – the Torah, our way of life, our nationhood, and our very reason for existence. As Ben Gurion stated, we are the only nation that can trace our existence to a particular day (3333 years ago this Pesach), and we even know the menu that our ancestors ate when they left Egypt (matza)! Americans do not celebrate the night the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England (it was September 16, 1620, according to the new calendar) – but we are an ancient people with a divinely-ordained purpose to our existence.
That concept – the divine origin of Torah – shapes everything about our lives. It gives us meaning, depth and structure; it teaches how to live, how to act and how to think – and what to think. It gives us our lifestyle and our values, which emerge from the Torah and not from liberal editorialists. And to the extent that we embrace it, it gives us eternity as a people. If, G-d-forbid, G-d is taken out of the equation of Jewish life, then it is also ultimately meaningless, or as meaningful as the vapid symbols and culture of any group ever can be. But such laws would have no force or imperative, and certainly it would be insane to sacrifice one’s life for man-made symbols. We do what we do because we thereby serve G-d, better ourselves and perfect the world, and that is why we cling stubbornly to halacha, allow our lives to be guided by the rhythms of Jewish life (prayer three times a day, blessings, Torah study, honesty in business, etc.) and strive to conform our lives to the Torah rather than conform the Torah to the way we wish to live. We have been provided with the mechanism to ascertain G-d’s will.
This line of reasoning, and the second point raised, engendered a question from the local Conservative Rabbi, who, to his credit, came and engaged. I assured the assembled that Orthodox Jews do not harbor any ill feelings towards non-Orthodox Jews, that we love them as Jews but are deeply concerned about their future viability, with an intermarriage rate excluding the Orthodox world hovering around 70% (!). The real dispute is not between the Jews but between the Rabbis – it is more of an “inside baseball” issue – the Jews are accepted as Jews but the Rabbis are not accepted as Rabbis. To which the rabbi asked several questions (compound questions became the norm; in other instances, with him and others, and quite typical of Jewish events, the speeches were disguised as questions): what makes me more of an authority that he is ? Why does it matter that he went to one school and I went to another ? Who’s to say that my interpretation of G-d’s will is any more valid than his ? Orthodox Jews argue over when Shabbat ends (45 minutes, 50 minutes, etc.) – so why can’t there be legitimate disputes on all other matters ? And several other questions of this genre.
My response was that Orthodox Jews follow the halacha as delineated in the Talmud, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch and subsequent codes. The Torah was given to us with a methodology of analysis and interpretation, and the non-Orthodox movements essentially abandoned that methodology, and became more result-oriented than process-oriented. The answers were often pre-determined (driving a car on Shabbat, mechitza, the host of women’s and now homosexual issues, et al), and the “halachic” justification followed. In a real and obvious sense, the Reform/Conservative movement deviated –changed the rules, 200 and 100 years ago, respectively – responding to social concerns that are no longer valid. (I underscored that the prevailing sentiment a century ago was that one could not be a fully-observant Jew and live in the secular world. But that no longer pertains to our day in which observant Jews ran for Vice-President of the US (Lieberman), served as US Attorney-General (Mukasey, under President Bush) and now serve as head of the Office of Management and Budget (Jack Lew). Shabbat observance today is understood, respected, and accommodated – something I experienced personally when I practiced law. So the whole premise under which halacha was discarded or watered down by the non-Os is no longer valid.
I further stated that I can’t look into my heart and ascertain G-d’s will but I can certainly do that and ascertain my will. But ascertaining G-d’s will can only be accomplished by looking at the law He gave us, through the Torah, the Talmud and the Codes, and through the methodology of halachic-decision making we can apply the ancient and eternal guidance to every new situation that arises. (Sometimes, of course, new matters – brain stem death, organ donation, stem cell research, etc. – remain unsettled at the beginning but over time a halachic consensus takes shape. And this dynamic – of new matters generating discussion and disagreement – is generally true of law and medicine as well.)
The local Rabbi stumbled on one point – when he admitted that he does not accept the Jewishness of a person born only of a Jewish father, as Reform Judaism does, but would require immersion in the mikveh before marrying such a person. When I asserted that, “if so, you are no different than me; it is just that my standards for conversion are more stringent and consistent with halacha than yours,” there was no response – because there is no response. He does not accept Reform conversions or decisions as halachic, and I don’t accept his as halachic, but, in essence, we treat what we perceive to be inferior conversions identically.
The Rabbi, as is the wont of non-Orthodox Rabbis, was fond of indicating the many “changes” in halacha that have taken place over the ages. “The Shabbos clock!” – until I noted that the Shabbos clock’s use is regulated by a dispute in the Talmud between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai on the existence of an obligation to “rest one’s vessels” on Shabbat, and that particular discussion ended rather quickly.
Conversion was a real bugaboo, and, while understanding why the Orthodox do not accept non-Orthodox conversions, many protested that such should be the case in the State of Israel. My response was quite simple: I live here, not there, and cannot directly influence policy there; undoubtedly, all Jews have an interest in preserving Jewish identity, which must follow the protocol as outlined in the halacha; that the problem is in the conflation of Israeli citizenship and Jewishness (“Israelis have an absolute right to determine who are Israelis. But I never delegated to the Knesset the right to determine “who is a Jew” any more than it has the right to change Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday.”) And I heartily agreed that when the Rabbinate discriminates against genuine converts, they run afoul of the Torah’s prohibition (mentioned in 36 different contexts) of not tormenting the convert, and that when non-Orthodox Jews born of Jewish mothers have a difficult time proving their Jewishness that is certainly outrageous and unacceptable. But this chaos is the obvious consequence of the importation into Israel of more than 300,000 non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are practicing Christians who came for economic reasons, and many others who wish to be Jews but do not wish to embrace the Torah and Mitzvot. That problem is likely intractable for the foreseeable future.
The third point I raised was, to me, the most controversial, but proved to be the most revealing. I stated that my sense was that the discomfort of non-Orthodox Jews in our presence was due primarily (although not exclusively) to their feelings of guilt. I.e., they know they should be living a certain way, and they are not, and therefore our presence in their neighborhoods and streets makes them feel uncomfortable, constant reminders of their “inadequacies” as Jews. I was surprised, and touched, when numerous heads nodded, in recognition of the fact that many, consciously but usually unconsciously, had experienced the same. It was not that non-Orthodox drivers on Shabbat saw Orthodox pedestrians sneering at them, but rather they felt it, perceived it, and reacted to it even if it wasn’t there because of something they have internalized that is deeply personal and painful.
“Tolerance” was raised, of course, but I stated frankly that our terms needed definition. I am tolerant in the sense that I cannot impose any lifestyle or conduct on anyone, nor do I want such imposition on myself. That type tolerance should be universal. But if “tolerance”means “legitimization” – that all views are equally valid and faithful to Torah, and all paths to G-d equally sacred – there I would have to disagree. Not every contention of every Jew becomes “Judaism” simply because a Jew believes in it, and I explained further that committed non-Orthodox Jews do not evoke the ire of Orthodox Jews because they are simply following what their rabbi teaches, itself a value in Jewish life. That is why these are ultimately disputes between rabbis, not between Jews.
So, who is the proverbial “good Jew” ? The question was clearly intended to be provocative, and I was accused several times of dodging it, likely because I was not furnishing the answer the questioner wanted. I first asked the questioner to define for me what a “good Jew” is according to him; he declined, and said I was ducking the question. When I stated that I was not interesting in judging the relative merit of different Jews – G-d’s business – he said I was ducking the question. The problem, which for certain he anticipated, was that if I baldly stated that non-orthodox Jews are “bad Jews,” I would confirm their worst suspicions about Orthodox Jews, as well as assume many things beyond my ken. Conversely, if I stated that they were “good Jews,” I would not only be assuming things beyond my ken, but also stating a falsehood in completely discounting the role that observance of Mitzvot plays in defining the life of a Jew. Clearly, the question implied the moral/spiritual equivalence (all religions are good, all people are good) that is the hallmark – and a fatal flaw – of modern liberalism.
By way of further demurrer, and underscoring the impossibility of the request, I cited the Rambam (Laws of Repentance, 3:2) that the metric for the “good Jew” is not simply a quantitative calculation. There are some good deeds that outweigh many sins, and some sins outweigh many good deeds, and the precise calculation is only computed by G-d. Was I off the hook ? Not quite.
Fortunately, I was rescued by one participant who pointed out the obvious: he had recently embraced a greater commitment to Shabbat, eschewing certain prohibited labors and focusing more on a traditional, halachic-oriented Shabbat. “Am I a better Jew now than I was six months ago ? Of course. The more committed you are, the more faithful to halacha you are, of course the better Jew you are.” To which I added two points: first, that the American citizen who obeys the law is a better citizen than the one who violates the law, even if they are both still citizens. That should be obvious. Second, that we should all be in the position and mindset of that individual – we may start at different points but we should always strive to be better Jews. And better Jews are better than they were the day and the week before.
So, can one drive on Shabbat and be a “good Jew”? It is certainly a grave sin, but that sin has to weighed – by G-d, not man – in the context of that person’s background and understanding of halacha, and other aspects of his life, the savory and the unsavory. But it is certainly a sin that requires rectification, which can only come about through Torah study and greater commitment. In that sense, spiritual complacency is always the worst enemy of every Jew.
As happens in many aspects of life, hurt feelings are inevitable but often unintended. Some spoke of feelings of rejection after being disinvited from Shabbat events when the inviters learned that they would drive. I explained that the issue was not necessarily the shame the inviters would feel, but the responsibility they would have in directly inducing a Shabbat desecration. Another spoke of the way a brother’s embrace of Torah observance split the family, from whom he is now almost completely alienated. I explained that kiruv that engenders family breakups is construed as a failure, for one reason (among others) that it deprives the penitent of the ability to be a good example to his relatives. As it turned out, the brother had been partly estranged from the family even before he became a baal teshuva.
It was a remarkable evening, a tribute to the curiosity, persistence and audacity of my host whom I had never met before that night. It was the type of gathering of Jews that should take place more frequently. Many seemed to have the impression that Orthodox rabbis were “not allowed” to address non-Orthodox Jews. That myth, and others, was dispelled. We started a little after 8:00 PM., and I didn’t arrive home until 1:00 AM – on a weeknight, no less, and exactly one week before Pesach. It was a good remember that Jews are thirsting for Torah, and every Jew – Os and non-Os – struggles with different aspects of Torah, whether halacha or hashkafa (law or philosophy), each on his/her own level.
To be able to help each other out is the living fulfillment of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”