The New Sadducees

How have the Jewish people arrived at a situation where even the Kotel Hamaaravi, the Western retaining wall of the ancient Temple and the site adjacent to the holiest place in Judaism, should be the source of acrimony and strife among Jews?

The latest contrived controversy was fomented by the government’s withdrawal of an ill-fated plan to formally recognize the southern part of the Kotel as a place for non-Orthodox, mixed prayer services for those Jews who have rejected tradition. Those who have attempted to make the change of decision (back to the status quo!) into a cause célèbre are surely aware but for their own purposes ignore the fact that the same area has been used for non-Orthodox prayer services for several years already. The issue seems to be that the area in question (to the south of the Mugrabi Gate and in front of Robinson’s Arch) has its own entrance and the Reform leadership wants an entrance from the main plaza rather than a separate entrance.

One would not be wrong in concluding, as Naphtali Bennett has said, that the whole tumult is over a door – and where that door should be located. Of course, the Reform leaders are also seeking official recognition of their status. Nevertheless, since the designated area has been sparsely used since its opening – it sits vacant and unused for days at a time, such being the commitment of the non-Orthodox to daily prayer – one would also not be wrong in concluding that the Reform desperately need a controversy to keep their money flowing in, the passions of their declining membership inflamed, and interest in their movement from dissipating altogether. And this is that controversy, and soon they will find another, because the long term projections of their survival are not promising.

There are many people who have concluded – and it is a very American approach in honor of the Fourth of July – that a “live and let live” religious compromise is most appropriate. As Thomas Jefferson wrote while drafting the Virginia statute on religious freedom, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Many people felt “out of sight, out of mind, do whatever you want to do, and just don’t bother me.” There is some merit to that argument.

Yet, we are talking here about the precincts of the Holy Temple, the area closest to the holiest place in Judaism – the Temple Mount itself. There is an obligation of “guarding the Mikdash;” we don’t say “anything goes” in the Mikdash. And even Jefferson’s liberal views on religious freedom do not give me the right to erect a shtiebel in Times Square; there are other concerns and considerations afoot. For sure, other religions protect their holy sites and it is considered uncouth and unseemly to deviate from the norms of those places. Only Muslims are allowed to even enter Mecca, much less worship at the Grand Mosque and it is inconceivable that the Vatican would allow Protestant services in St. Peter’s Square. The pertinent analogy here is really to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where all the Christian denominations fight over inches of space and zealously protect their turf.

Is that what we want for the Kotel? Invariably, if non-Orthodox services at this site are formally recognized, there would be demands within a year or two that the main Kotel plaza permit this alien worship service as well. I can write their brief: their assigned area is separate but unequal, they are relegated to the back of the bus, they are receiving second class treatment, etc. And the High Court would hear the case and rule against Jewish tradition as it nearly always does. But this is the Kotel, and for those who believe in God’s existence it is a special place and not just a tourist site of historical interest.

Obviously, mixed prayer services conflict with the sanctity of the place. Those neo-Conservatives and others who point to the absence of a mechitzah at the Kotel for centuries as justification for leniency today are unknowingly referencing a time when the Kotel was not under Jewish sovereignty and the Jewish people suffered under the yoke of foreign occupiers of the land of Israel. Is that how we should view modern Israel – as no different than when the Mamluks ruled the place? I think not. It is also mystifying and disconcerting that there are organizations that aspire to leadership that instead  choose to take “no position” on these matters, preferring hackneyed calls for unity rather than unequivocally defending the Torah. Imagine if Moshe, in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, had cried out not “Mi LaHashem Eilai?” (“Whoever is for G-d, follow me”) but rather “Why can’t we all just get along?” That is the modern approach but the Jewish people and the Torah world deserve better than that.

And there is the profound irony that the very law of the separation of the sexes during prayer is derived from what took place on the Temple Mount itself! The non-Orthodox, in effect, are insisting on their right to pray adjacent to the place that teaches that their preferred form of worship is a violation of Jewish law. Alas, the irony and the transgression are lost on them. Perhaps basic tolerance requires first respecting the sensitivities of those Jews who still pray daily for the rebuilding of the Temple and whose faith and tenacity regarding Jewish tradition maintained the Jewish people’s connection to Zion during the centuries of exile.

Even sadder is this. A few years ago, Rabbi Berel Wein wrote a short but insightful book entitled “Patterns in Jewish History.” It is uncanny how nothing ever changes in Jewish life except the names and places. The same arguments we have today – within Orthodoxy, with the non-Orthodox, and with non-Jews – we have had since the beginning of Jewish history. We fight over the same things – Israel, the Mesorah, secular education, women, mysticism, work, etc. Again and again the patterns return, and there is nothing new under the sun.

And so it is. It occurred to me while in Israel last week that we are re-living the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were wealthy, influential and Hellenized, and they made the Temple the focus of their activities and their doctrinal deviations. The Reform movement is similarly wealthier on average than other groups of Jews, fancy themselves influential (although, as we will see, the extent of their influence is grossly exaggerated), Americanized, and they are now focused after decades of indifference on claiming a share of the Temple Mount environs. Of course, history never repeats itself precisely and no analogy is perfectly apt. Both the Sadducees and the Reform denied and rejected the Oral Torah, but unlike Reform, the Sadducees at least believed in the divine origin of the written Torah. And the Sadducees disappeared right after the destruction of the Temple because they had nothing else going for them. They were severed from tradition, from the community of faithful Jews and they had lost their Roman patrons.

The Reform movement is in a free fall, and none of this is any cause for rejoicing. We are losing these Jews in astounding numbers. As the Talmud states, one sin engenders another sin. Removing the mechitzah didn’t drive people to the temples but away from them. Abandoning Hebrew in prayer and other mitzvot further undid the connection of Reform Jews to the Jewish people. Relaxing conversion standards didn’t stop intermarriage but encouraged it and then made conversion into a farce. They then made their peace with intermarriage but permitted patrilineal descent for Jewish status when even diluted conversion was too much. One departure from tradition led to another until today when even belief in G-d is optional in the Reform movement. Anywhere from 30-50% of Reform members today are not even halachically Jewish and, as such, is in no position to dictate to the Jewish world about anything.

The conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees went on for several centuries with occasional and horrendous bloodshed. Thousands were killed on both sides, and one glimmer of good news is that such will never happen in these modern tiffs. But the sad truth is that Reform is disappearing before our eyes, just like the Sadducees did. Their numbers are dwindling and are already inflated. Official membership is low, active membership is even lower, and many who respond to surveys identifying themselves as “Reform” do so as the default classification for those who are totally non-observant. Their power and influence are gone even on the American scene.

Here’s another sad truth: Israel doesn’t need Reform as much as Reform needs Israel. That’s why their threats to withdraw political and financial support are such a bluff.  The Reform movement is essentially a wing of the Democrat Party, now the party of opposition that itself has fallen on hard times. It has little sway with the ruling authorities. Congressional support for Israel is rooted in the justice of our claims and the backing of Christian evangelicals, not the Jews, and the Reform movement has, in fact, been consistent critics of Israel for many years. Indeed, support for Israel is the only aspect of Reform that resembles anything uniquely Jewish; without Israel, Reform is just social justice with holidays and one need not be Jewish to fight for social justice. And much of the money sent by Reform members to Israel supports organizations that are really inimical to the true needs and values of the Jewish state.

To condition their support for Israel on changing the status quo is cynical, even if it were credible. The Reform movement needs Israel, without which their vanishing from the Jewish stage will be hastened. Similarly, they need to build up the Orthodox (Charedim or otherwise) as the enemy; it’s good for business. But I don’t identify as “ultra-Orthodox,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most religious-Zionist rabbis also support the government’s decision and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and many others have simply tired of the blackmail to which the non-Orthodox have resorted for some time whenever some issue does not go their way.

And what they need most is something we all need: to acknowledge G-d and His Torah and to surrender to His will. We don’t submit G-d’s law to our scrutiny or approval nor do we sit in judgment of the Creator. Those who deign to sit in judgment of G-d have historically been on the fast track to their own disappearance. Until they learn to surrender to G-d and make His will their will, they will go the way of the Sadducees. That is the lesson of history – for them and for us. It is a sobering thought that we have seen before this movie of the assimilation and disappearance of large numbers of Jews, and we know how it ends. And we also know how it can be stopped. But that will take great people to admit that their path has been misguided, to return to tradition, and make their contributions to Jewish life and the world in a way that is faithful to the Torah that is the heritage of all of us.

Just leave the Kotel alone.


8 responses to “The New Sadducees

  1. Once again, Rabbi Pruzansky demonstrates that he is amongst the most clear-eyed and and astute observers of the American Jewish community. Yasher Koach!

  2. Midrash Tehillim, chapter 11:
    “The Shechinah [Divine Presence] never leaves
    the Kotel HaMaaravi [Western Wall in Jerusalem].”
    “When Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin visited the kotel he fainted.
    He never returned to the kotel, unable to endure the powerful emotions it evoked.”

    CHRONOLOGY: Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin was a leading Orthodox Rabbi, who was born in year 1818 CE and died in year 1898 CE.

    SOURCE: The Midrash Says by Rabbi Moshe Weissman, Volume 2 of 5, page xvii, year 1980 CE

    How a Reform Rabbi Became Orthodox (true story):

    Reform Judaism vs. Real Judaism:

    How Reform Jews CHEATED on the Pew survey:

    How intermarriage harms
    Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel

    How Shabbat-desecration
    harms Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem:
    Rabbi Avraham Yaakov HaKohen Pam taught:

    Upon my first encounter with the Kotel HaMaarav (the Western Wall), I was enwrapped in lofty thoughts … I prepared myself mentally as I stood ready to visit a holy site on a holy day, when holy neshamot (souls) would be present.

    To my dismay, when I arrived there, it was like coming to the market. “When did you arrive?” “Where are you staying?”
    “When are you headed back?” “Which airline?” I saw that people were conducting themselves there the same way they conduct themselves in shul — the same conversation, the same lightheadedness. If this is how they act at the Kotel, one can assume that they will act this way as well at the site of the Third Beit HaMikdash (Temple) …

    Rabbi Pam said that the Kotel-plaza has the status of a Beit HaKnesset (synagogue) in which mundane conversation is prohibited even when davening (praying) is not in progress, see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 151:1. Aside from this, he said, such behavior is wholly inappropriate at the place from which the Shechinah (Divine Presence) has never departed.

    SOURCE: Rav Pam: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov HaKohen Pam (page 175) by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, year 2003 CE, Mesorah Publications, ISBN 1-57819-384-2.

  3. As an Orthodox Israeli, I found this essay to be very well written and its arguments compelling. I can also attest, as someone who davens at the Kotel and ascends Har Habayit on a monthly basis, that the separate, egalitarian Azarat Yisrael section is seldom used for non-Orthodox prayer services as I have not once seen it used for egalitarian prayers, and these days it is primarily used by tour guides to take their mostly non-Jewish groups to take advantage of an essentially private section of the Wall for solemn prayer and to place notes in the cracks (but I digress…). Nonetheless, I am quite certain that while this piece will be well received by Orthodox readers, most non-Orthodox rabbinic leaders will not be persuaded by its reasoning, and this leads me to make the following speculation: Just as you have applied your legal acumen to mentally draft a civil rights petition to the High Court, I think that many non-Orthodox readers will take umbrage to your assertion on the heels of R. Wein’s referenced book that members of the Reform movement are the new Sadducees inasmuch as members of the Orthodox movement (including Haredim) are modern day Pharisees. I note that no reference was made to members of the Conservative movement who claim a fidelity to halakhic observance as developed over time. I would think that non-Orthodox rabbinic leadership could with equal ease draft an academic essay demonstrating that they are the spiritual heirs to the Pharisees, along with many Rishonim, including Rabeinu Tam and other Ba’alei Tosafot and the Meiri who immediately come to mind, who through their hermeneutics were able to render morally challenging and socially unacceptable halakhot and mitzvot no longer applicable in their times (e.g., eradicating Amalek, Shmitat Ksafim through the institution of the Prozbul, the prohibitions of engaging in commerce with Christians and drinking mayim megulim to name a few quick examples), while the current views of many members of the Haredi community on women’s issues, Zionism and secular studies may lead one to conclude that they are progenitors to the Essenes and not the Pharisees. While I share many of your modern orthodox, religious-Zionist views, I do not think that we will successfully win over our non-Orthodox sisters and brothers to appreciate our hallowed traditions if we equate the Reform with the bloody and treacherous attacks of the Sadducees against the rabbis, no?

    • Of course, I write with love and a great deal of sadness about current circumstances. You are overlooking the ravages of intermarriage that have rendered perhaps 50% of so-called Reform or unaffiliated Jews into “non-Jews” both according to Halacha and their own self-definition. At least the Sadducees were all Jews. My comparison was not to their treachery or tactics but simply to their rejection of Rabbinic authority and the Oral Law that has always been a portal to a rejection of mitzvot and assimilation. Thus there is no comparison at all between these heresies and the enactments of the ancients like pruzbol that were applications of Mishnaic principles and part of the halachic system or even the nuanced approach to Christianity or Amalek or mayim megulim that were responses to new factual circumstances.
      We are now living through a calamity of the highest magnitude, and those at the center do not even think that they are part of the calamity. I wish there was a way to get through to them. Instead, there is just more talk about becoming more open to intermarriage, as well as mixed prayer facilities at the Kotel. Perhaps that will be the next venue for intermarriages? Oy, what has befallen our people.
      – RSP

  4. Phillip Slepian

    Excellent. Truth and clarity abound!

  5. Chaim HaLevy

    לכבוד הרב,
    Please read Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s article i
    In Arutz Sheva last week.
    Can we afford to expel 85-90%of Jewry.

    • No one is expelling anyone, G-d forbid. We are seeing self-expulsion resulting from a rejection of tradition. Surely, you would agree that a 70% intermarriage rate is not the fault of the Torah world and a recipe for disintegration. That is what is happening. And all the Kotel distractions will not change that.


    Reform—with rebuke for existing forms inherent in the very word—was by its nature incompatible with traditional Sephardic orthodoxy. Reform, an attempt to bring Judaism “up to date,” to make Judaism appear to be at home with existing American religious patterns, was attacked by traditionalists as a subversive attempt to “Christianize” Judaism. Under Reform, women would come down from their secluded balconies in synagogues, and worship side by side with their husbands. Men would take off their tall silk hats. [Reform] Synagogues would look more like churches. English would replace Hebrew.

    SOURCE: The Grandees: the Story of America’s Sephardic Elite (chapter 14, page 192) by Stephen Birmingham, year 1971, First Lyons Press paperback edition, ISBN: 9781493024681 ISBN: 149302468X
    “…it [Reform Temple Emanu-El, in year 1868 CE] represented—on a national scale—a triumph for the Reform movement, which the Sephardim had so long opposed.”

    SOURCE: The Grandees: the Story of America’s Sephardic Elite (chapter 18, page 253) by Stephen Birmingham, year 1971, First Lyons Press paperback edition, ISBN: 9781493024681 ISBN: 149302468X
    “While Reform Judaism was remaking the pattern of Jewish life, threatening to topple the traditional orthodoxy, these [Sephardic] Jews knew nothing of it.”

    SOURCE: The Grandees: the Story of America’s Sephardic Elite (chapter 21, page 273) by Stephen Birmingham, year 1971, First Lyons Press paperback edition
    “…the insistence of the Sephardim on retaining the Orthodox form of worship—against the trend toward modernization and Americanization that has been marked among Jewry all over the country …”

    SOURCE: The Grandees: the Story of America’s Sephardic Elite (chapter 22, page 284) by Stephen Birmingham, year 1971, First Lyons Press paperback edition, ISBN: 9781493024681 ISBN: 149302468X
    “To this day there is no Sephardic synagogue which is not strictly Orthodox. Although not all Sephardic Jews are personally Orthodox, Orthodoxy has remained the official Sephardic tradition. Nowhere in the entire Sephardic world has Reform or Conservative Judaism penetrated.”

    SOURCE: The Secret Jews (chapter 3, page 99) by Joachim Prinz, year 1973, Random House, ISBN-10: 0853031851 ISBN-13: 978-0853031857
    “The Reform leaders did not rest on their laurels, and continued agitating until they had obtained a foothold in virtually every single kehillah in New York.

    Out of 100 shuls that had been established in the early 1800s, only a pitiful ten percent, ten shuls in all, remained Frum [Orthodox].
    Three or four of the ten were Sephardicshuls, and the rest were Ashkenazi shuls that had heroically managed to withstand the pressure of the Reform movement.”

    SOURCE: The Rav HaKolel and His Generation 5th Edition (chapter 7, page 53) by Rabbi Yonah Landau, year 2014 CE, 68 Lee Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211
    …We do declare that:

    We affirm the eternality of our holy Torah, the Jewish nation, and the Holy Land of Israel.

    We affirm that our Judaism is solely determined by the teachings of our Holy Torah, both written and oral, as passed down through the generations, all the way to Sinai.
    Movements such as Conservative and Reform are foreign to our Torah tradition, and their executions of halachic rites such as: marriage, divorce, and conversion will NOT be recognized.