Several weeks ago, the former Israeli chief Sephardic rabbi, Mordecai Eliyahu, charged that the Holocaust was divine punishment meted out against our people on account of the sin of Reform Judaism. Such an accusation is infuriating, and unleashes unnecessary hatred and incitement among Jews.
But there is unfortunately nothing particularly novel about this obscenity. I heard this charge made from the pulpit of my Orthodox synagogue by a rabbi when I was a teenager, and all students of modern Jewish intellectual history and thought are aware that the Satmar rebbe issued this charge against Reform and secular Zionism in the years immediately after World War II.
Indeed, it is commonplace enough that I might not have been moved to speak out were it not for a second incident that occurred at a memorial ceremony in Israel, in the coastal city of Hod Hasharon.
There, on Israel’s Memorial Day, an invitation was extended to Rabbi Michael Boyden to chant the traditional Jewish prayer in memory of those soldiers who had sacrificed their lives in defense of the state. It was particularly fitting that Boyden recite this prayer, as his son Jonathan was killed in southern Lebanon in 1993 while participating in a rescue operation to save fellow soldiers who had come under fire.
The local Orthodox Sephardic synagogue threatened to disrupt the ceremony should Boyden — a member of Progressive Judaism, as the Reform movement is called in Israel — be identified as a rabbi at this event. When Boyden insisted that his title be acknowledged, the local secular council in charge of this event caved in to the threat and rescinded the invitation.
To be sure, such Orthodox opposition to non-Orthodox rabbis is hardly a novelty in modern Jewish history. I have spent a great deal of my academic life describing Orthodox polemics and critiques against progressive streams in Judaism. Indeed, if one considers an event such as the assassination of Rabbi Abraham Kohn of Lemberg in 1848 by an ultra-Orthodox zealot — described in a recent brilliant monograph, “A Murder in Lemberg,” by Michael Stanislawaski of Columbia University — the charges of Eliyahu and the protests of the Hod Hasharon Orthodox Sephardic congregation seem mild.
Nevertheless, these recent events pale only in comparison to extreme acts of violence — and these displays of unwarranted contempt and hatred demand a public response of condemnation on the part of my Orthodox colleagues. Indeed, I address this piece principally to them, though I would call upon other Israeli and American Jews as well to do the decent thing and speak out against such obscene acts.
Citation of another historical precedent helps illustrate why I make this request. In July 1860, a group of zealous Orthodox youth in Amsterdam entered an assembly of the Shochrei Deah, a Reform group, and stoned the liberal rabbi Dr. M. Chronik, almost killing him. The authorities punished the culprits, but the incident caused a great stir.
Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer — then head of an Orthodox yeshiva in Eisenstadt, Hungary, and later destined to become founder of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin — did not hesitate to condemn these youth for their actions, and he stated that such a deed constituted an act of hillul hashem, a “profanation of God’s name.”
Hildesheimer realized that such deeds brought shame upon the Jewish people. “There is no way to tell of the great damage which will come to the believers in all places and lands if the majority of [Orthodox] rabbis do not gather together to denounce this action before the Jewish people,” he wrote.
Hildesheimer circulated among Orthodox rabbis in various lands a petition that stated: “We, the undersigned, have read with great sorrow the announcement about the unrestrained disturbance in the synagogue in Amsterdam. We declare that this sad episode is opposed to the commandments of Judaism.”
In light of the present-day acts of hillul hashem in Hod Hasharon and by Eliyahu, the Orthodox rabbinate — which up to now has been silent — ought to be challenged to adopt Hildesheimer’s stance. In an age where all too many enemies of the Jewish people abound, such acts of needless hatred must be condemned.
The precedent offered by Hildesheimer is consistent with the religious stance put forth by the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who asserted that all Jews, regardless of religious denomination, share in a “covenant of common destiny.” The words and deeds of these great Orthodox leaders should motivate my Orthodox sisters and brothers to speak out now.
We should recognize that all Jews are linked to one another, in relation to the pain of the Holocaust as well as in regard to the fate of the State of Israel. Were Orthodox and other Jewish voices to be raised in protest against these obscene thoughts and deeds, it would truly be an act of decency that would sanctify God’s name.
David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.