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I’m No One’s ‘Heretic’

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow speaks at the Agudath Isael annual gala / YouTube

On Wednesday we learned that, while speaking at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of that organization, slandered virtually every Jew on the planet, down to and including a bunch of plain-old-Orthodox folks. We were told that attendees of the event were “stunned.”

“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,” Perlow said. And also: “[The Reform and Conservative Movements] have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And furthermore, the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos [heresy].”

It was quite the little speech. But stunned? Really? Attendees were stunned? Do they not get out much?

Perlow heads an organization that is, by definition, extremist. They believe themselves to be upholding the strictest, and thus most correct, interpretation of God’s own Divine law; they believe that the existence of the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah, and quite possibly the world itself depends on the painstaking observance of that interpretation — which is not, in their understanding, an interpretation at all, but simply Jewish law, halakhah.

Of course he thinks you’re a bad Jew — no, I’m sorry, not a “bad Jew.” He thinks that you’re a literal danger to Judaism itself. You have come — yes, you! — to “subvert and destroy the eternal values” of the Jewish people. You! (Unless you happen to be Haredi, and Perlow’s kind of Haredi at that, in which case, welcome to Forward Thinking, we try to be a very welcoming blog).

There’s a reason that when women try to read Torah at the Western Wall, they’re met with spit, thrown chairs, and hateful words. There’s a reason that when Israel dipped its toes into paying non-Orthodox rabbis (as it pays many, many ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who get to decide who gets married, which conversions count, and how and where you may be buried), we were told that such rabbis are “destroyers of religion” and “haters of the Lord.” There’s a reason, and that reason is that they mean it.

Among the non-Orthodox, there’s an unfortunate, and very powerful, tendency to bow to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox as the arbiters of “real” Judaism — you’ll note that Israeli presidential candidate (and entirely secular Jew) Rubi Rivlin compared non-Orthodoxy to “idol worship” and has reportedly hesitated to call Reform and Conservative rabbis “rabbis.” I hate to tell my American Jewish friends how utterly typical Rivlin’s attitude is of broadly-held Israeli opinion, but here’s the truth: It’s very typical. The ultra-Orthodox control religious life in the Jewish State, and they’ve done an excellent job of convincing the Jewish public that everyone else is doing it wrong.

But it must be acknowledged that we’ve helped. When non-Orthodox shuls call Chabad to teach us how to make matzo, we’re saying we’re not good enough. When we donate to Orthodox yeshivas to which we would never send our children, we’re saying we’re not good enough. When we let Israeli politicians insult our faith and spiritual practice and quietly presume that they somehow know better simply by virtue of their living in Israel — we’re saying we’re not good enough.

I don’t need Yaakov Perlow or his cronies to like me, or approve of my Judaism. That’s between me, the Holy One, and the people with whom I daven — and frankly, I don’t like Perlow or approve of his Judaism, either. So it evens out.

Next week we’ll be celebrating Shavuot, the holiday that marks not just the giving of the Law to Moses, but also the moment at which the Israelites were transformed from a throng of ex-slaves into a people, called into being at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Do you remember what greeted Moses when he descended the mountain, carrying tablets inscribed “by God’s own hand”? He was greeted with the Golden Calf. We could not get through the law-giving process before the splinter groups started — with the help of Moses’s brother, no less.

I know we really like to think that we’re a united people, or were once united, or might be united in the future. But we’re not. We’ve never been. We share a great deal, and in times of trouble, you can bet I’d come to Perlow’s aid. But let’s stop being so stunned, and admit that like any people, we are and have always been a mighty multitude.

I suspect that’s what really bothers Perlow, et al — the fact that Jews who are unlike them actually have a real future, a fertile present, and a rich and life-giving past.

This Conservative Jew doesn’t need Yaakov Perlow’s approval. You don’t, either.


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