Monday, April 11, 2005

Once again, Avi Shafran, the "Director of Public Affairs" of Agudath Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish group, tries to claim in this letter to the editor of the New York Times - Judaism and the Pope - that ultra-Orthodoxy is more than 3,000 years old, even though it, like the Reform movement, is a creation of the 19th century.
To the Editor:

A word of clarification regarding the contention of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, that "our religious traditions led us to different conclusions" than Pope John Paul II's regarding gender roles, abortion and homosexuality ("People of All Faiths Recall Pope With Fondness," news article, April 4).

The religious tradition to which the rabbi referred is the less-than-200-year-old Reform theology.

Traditional Judaism, which is more than 3,000 years old and continues to be embraced by Orthodox Jews worldwide, is much closer on all those issues to the stances taken by John Paul II.

(Rabbi) Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America
New York, April 4, 2005

It continues to amaze me how spokesmen for ultra-Orthodoxy can continue to maintain, against the historical evidence, that Judaism has never had a pluralism of views on various controversial issues, and that the current views of ultra-Orthodox rabbis are the only correct Jewish ones. Shafran is correct that ultra-Orthodoxy and Reform differ on these issues - but he is incorrect to think that all of Jewish history corroborates his view of Judaism. If we were to step back 3,000 years, approximately to the time of the building of the First Temple, I think we would find a very different religion than the one practiced by Jews (of any stripe) today. (For one thing, of course, Jews no longer sacrifice animals as part of worship). If we stepped back 2,000 years we would find evidence of some synagogues where women were leaders (see Bernadette Brooten's work, "Women Leaders of the Ancient Synagogue"). If we stepped back a thousand years we would find Jews in the Middle East who rejected the authority of the Talmud and the midrash (the Karaites).


  1. Although I don't necessarily subscribe to many of the Agudah's statements (not being UO myself), but I will try and explain it in thier view. It comes down to some sort of Darwinian exclusion process, yes, there have been Karaites, Christians, Essenes, and others, all who were (or started out to be) Jews. However, Rabbinic Judaism won through in the end. Furthermore, the points he is making are presumably based on the Torah or Talmud, and therefore are 2-3,000 years old.


  2. Of course, there have been historical developments in Judaism. There have been actions and reactions. Actually the Karaites don't go back to 3000 years ago either, they are about 1000-1200 years old, but they continue older traditions of scriptualism. It can safely be assumed that any kind of oral law had opponents throughout its existance simply because it was oral and had no written source. Since the compilation of the Mishna it has one. The interesting point of Karaism though is that at this point, both were existing and some, probably referring to an older tradition of "written Torah only", made an immanent argument within written Torah against oral Torah. They also recognized everyone's right to interpret the Torah on his or her own. While I sharply disagree with them on the point that you can disprove Oral Torah from Written Torah, they still point to some things that are going wrong in Orthodox and especially Chareidi (Ultraorthodox) Judaism today. For example, opinions of Rabbis are often considered authorative. In extreme cases, that can mean that people run to their posek (decisor in religious law) for every little thing because they feel they're not allowed to take any decisions in religious matters on their own.
    The other thing is that Tanach study is extremely neglected. That's quite a pity, although I love study Gemora.

    As for Reform vs. Chareidi:
    Of course it is foolish to say it's the same as 3000 years ago. They rather live cy the Chofetz Chaim than by Toras Moshe. On the other hand, throughout the last 3000 years Judaism has been centered on Torah, and at least in the last 2000 years that definitely includes Torah she baal peh (Oral Torah). There are lots of different groups who are doing this differently and arrive at different conclusions. The Teimanim for example do not even follow the Shulchan Aruch, they prefer Mishneh Torah. You have MO, UO, Religious Zionists, Rationalists, Kabbalists, Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Teimanim, you have different traditions. If you've ever been married to, or even close friends with, a Jew whose cultural heritage and even interpretations of religion are completely different from your own, you might know what I mean. But I repeat that Torah keeps us together.

    Reform in its very foundation radically broke away from this, saying only the ethical teachings of Judaism should still be followed. The rabbis started dressing like Lutheran Ministers and ate shellfish on rabbinical conferences. Of course, nowadays Reform isn't like that anymore. But there is one point that separates Reform from all historical kinds of Judaism known before: Reform says Torah is optional. They have officially declared everyone should choose on his or her own what laws to follow and which ones to omit. This is what makes Reform Reform and also something new in the history of Judaism. even the Karaites who have refused Oral Torah, but they did this because they believed the written Torah required them to do so. As for the Conservative movement, which was created as a "lesser reform",, the same applies to a lesser degree. Basically they believe everything to be obligatory, but they have enabled their board to introduce substantial changes. Now whether everyone can pick and choose on his own or whether an elected bodfy can do it for the community is a difference of degree, not in substance.

    I hope, I didn't offend you by any of this. My intention was to point out what makes Reform special, unique, and also new. Some may see a merit in this. R. Shafran obviously doesn't, but it is important to see why.