What do some devout Christians say about gays and lesbians? Love the sinner, hate the sin. Love the person even if you believe that at the very core of his or her identity is something so intrinsically wrong, it puts that gay man or woman in a separate, scornful category of being.
To the modern sensibility, this attempt to disaggregate inward identity and outward behavior sounds unfair or ridiculous, or both.
Love the Jew, hate the Judaism.
Yet that is how Agudath Israel of America defends the incendiary remarks made by Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the leading rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, who recently publicly condemned Reform and Conservative Judaism and called the religiously progressive Open Orthodox movement heretical. (All in front of New York City’s new mayor, Bill deBlasio, no less.)
“Rabbi Perlow’s focus was on Reform and Conservative Judaism, not on Reform and Conservative Jews — on ideologies, not on people,” read a statement later issued by Agudah. (The emphases were in the statement, so I repeat them here.)
“Rabbi Perlow, and the community of Orthodox Jews who look to him as a leader, have nothing but love and concern for all Jews, regardless of their affiliation, regardless of how misled they may be by their religious leaders.”
This is a defense that reeks of arrogance and superiority — as if those of us who choose to be Reform or Conservative Jews do so only because we are misled by our religious leaders, who surely would be thrilled to know they have such power. And the broadside against Open Orthodoxy, which currently occupies a smidgeon of space in the spectrum of religiously devout Jews, seems oddly defensive. Perhaps Agudah is more worried about these insurgents than we thought.
Now I’m going to say something that may anger my non-Orthodox friends. We have also engaged in something like this same disgraceful syllogism.
How often do we say, or imply, “love the Haredi Jew, hate Haredi Judaism?” How often do we profess our belief in Jewish pluralism but allow that belief to expire when we brush up against those with whom we simply don’t agree?
We say that Haredim are misogynist, perhaps homophobic, possibly corrupt, unduly swayed by their rabbis, all too eager to game the system to obtain public money undeservedly, even fraudulently.
There is some truth in all of these statements. That’s how hurtful stereotypes are built — by a modicum of truth embellished to the extreme, to encompass an entire group rather than a wayward individual.
Furthermore, if we non-Orthodox Jews are honest, we’ll admit that there is some truth to Rabbi Perlow’s statement that the Reform and Conservative movements have “become oblivious, and they’ve fallen into the pit of intermarriage and assimilation.” Last year’s Pew Research Center report found that more than four-in-five Reform Jews marry non-Jews. Yep, that’s intermarriage and assimilation.
We’ll respond, of course, that such a sweeping condemnation doesn’t apply to all Jews who align themselves with those movements, or to those who don’t connect to a movement at all, and that Americans are exploring new ways of being Jewish that may not meet Rabbi Perlow’s standards, or our individual expectations, but are authentic expressions nevertheless.
Love the Jew even if you don’t quite understand or endorse the Judaism.
I don’t point out this uncomfortable analogy to argue that there’s a perfect equivalency between how Haredim talk about the more liberal streams of Judaism and how we talk about them. We don’t deny their very Jewishness, their very identity; since our boundaries are more porous, we are, indeed, more accepting.
Nor do I excuse Rabbi Perlow’s remarks in any way. To publicly demean entire streams of Judaism is reprehensible — compounded by the fact that he did so in front of the new leader of the largest Jewish city in the Diaspora. (Who later claimed, mystifyingly, that he didn’t hear the remarks.)
I can’t imagine the Reform movement’s Rick Jacobs or Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary saying terrible things about the Haredim — even though Agudah disparaged, indeed haughtily dismissed, the Judaism that they represent.
But the sad reality is that many of us more quietly nurse negative stereotypes about The Other. I know I do, and I’m not proud of it. As the extremes in the American Jewish community grow farther apart, bridging this gap may be one of our greatest challenges. We don’t necessarily have to love all Jews and love all aspects of Judaism. But we should strive to banish hate from this equation.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.