The leading rabbi of Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, condemned non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and called the religiously progressive Open Orthodox movement heretical at the group’s annual gala.
“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people,” said Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker rebbe and the rabbinical head of Agudath Israel, at the May 27 dinner.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who spoke directly after Perlow, did not address his remarks. The mayor praised Agudath Israel, some of whose lay leaders were key backers in his mayoral campaign.
De Blasio said that the push for universal prekindergarten that has been a key achievement of his administration so far was conceived, in part, with the Orthodox community and Jewish schools, or yeshivot, in mind.
“From the very beginning I knew this would succeed for all of New York City if it was also something that succeeded for this community,” de Blasio said. “The yeshivot were such a crucial part of it. I knew if we did that so many children would benefit.”
At an event that read as both an assertion of ultra-Orthodox power and a call to vigilance, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan to applaud their leaders and to show solidarity against perceived threats. The Hilton’s ballroom was a sea of black hats and black suits.
Perlow’s speech, the evening’s most fiery, condemned non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and used particularly harsh language to condemn Open Orthodoxy, the movement led by Rabbi Avi Weiss and centered at Yeshiva Chovevei Torah in Riverdale that pushes for a greater role for women in Jewish ritual, among other things. Perlow criticized the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for not being harsh enough in their treatment of Open Orthodoxy.
Perlow said that the threat posed by the Conservative and Reform movements had largely passed. “They’ve become oblivious, and they’ve fallen into the pit of intermarriage and assimilation,” he said. “They have no future, they almost have no present.”
Yet he warned of the danger to the ultra-Orthodox posed by Open Orthodoxy. Perlow said that Open Orthodoxy is “steeped in apikorsos,” or heresy.
“There’s a grave danger out there…outside New York City, that positions of leadership amongst Orthodox Jews is being taken over by people who have completely deviated from [the preservation of holiness.]” Perlow said that Isareli Chief Rabbinate is “not sensitive this,” and called on the Modern Orthodox to “stand up and reject these new deviationists, cloaking themselves in the mantle of Orthodoxy.”
One Jewish leader who attended the gala and was not ultra-Orthodox criticized the remarks.
“The comments were absolutely appalling and divisive, and really have no place in Jewish communal life,” he said. “This guy is basically saying that 95% of Jews aren’t Jewish.”
Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, disputed the leader’s characterization of Perlow’s speech. “It was not the Jewishness of any Jews that Rabbi Perlow questioned, but rather the Jewish legitimacy of heterodox theologies,” Shafran wrote in an email. “He was simply acting as a religious whistle-blower — out of deep concern, not God-forbid, disdain, for innocent Jews.”