“…To this very day, if you ask for my religion, I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one. If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to. That’s the one I failed. It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”
Those are the words of the famous physicist and Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi (1898-1988), quoted in the book “Rabi, Scientist and Citizen.” He was born into an observant family in Galicia, and was still a baby when his parents immigrated to the United States.
Although he eventually lost his connection to Jewish observance, he confided toward the end of his life that “Sometimes I feel I shouldn’t have dropped it so completely”; and, as his earlier words above testify, he rejected the idea that Judaism could ever be anything other than what it always has been, or that he – or any Jew – could ever be anything other than an Orthodox Jew – whether or not he chose to live like one.
A similar sentiment was voiced several years ago by then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, the man elected last week to be Israel’s 10th president.
In a 2006 Knesset speech, Mr. Rivlin, who has been described as secular, said that he “has no doubt… that the status of Judaism according to Halacha is what has kept us going for 3,800 years” and that “besides it there is nothing.” During that same address, he explained that if non-halachic conversion standards were to be adopted by Israel, the state would be abandoning a “religious definition” of Jewishness for a mere “civic” one with no inherent meaning.
And back in 1989, after visiting two Reform temples, he was blunter still, calling the liberal Jewish movement “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”
Mr. Rivlin was assailed by adherents of non-Orthodox Jewish movements on both those occasions, and his present ascendancy to the Israeli presidency has understandably caused them renewed heartburn.
“He may be open-minded on a variety of issues,” Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who now heads the “religious pluralism” organization Hiddush, sniffed about the president-elect, “but his mind was made up” about Judaism’s definition. He is “the same old anti-liberal, close-minded traditionalist Israeli.”
Former Reform leader Eric Yoffie echoed that judgment before Mr. Rivlin’s election, pointedly warning that he expects “candidates for president to act in an appropriate and respectful manner to all elements of the Jewish world.”
And the current head of the Reform movement, Rick Jacobs, recently penned an open letter in Haaretz to Mr. Rivlin, in which he reminded the Israeli president-elect of the “stunning insensitivity” he had displayed toward the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” (a risible description if ever there were one) and expressed his hope that “you’re ready to update your harsh and rather unenlightened views of our dynamic, serious and inspiring expression of Judaism” (ditto).
Whether Mr. Rivlin, who by all accounts is a pleasant fellow, will see a need to assuage the umbrage-takers remains to be seen. He may succumb to the pressures, although one hopes that he will not sacrifice principle for pacification.
The fact that the new president’s old statements have been dredged up and placed in the spotlight, however, is a healthy development. For it informs the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” – in other words, the vast population of the Jewishly ignorant – that disinterested, objective observers readily perceive that there is only one Judaism, the original one.
The conniptions over Mr. Rivlin’s comments also call attention to the fact that, while various Jewish groups were “evolving” new theologies and practices, and abandoning the mesorah, the community of Jews who remained faithful to the Jewish religious tradition didn’t peter out, as so many had expected (and so many had hoped), but rather thrived, and continues to thrive, b”H, mightily.
By contrast, American Jewry outside the Orthodox world is in deep demographic crisis. The intermarriage and assimilation that concerned us greatly decades ago have only intensified and accelerated. Long gone are the days when a person presenting himself as a Jew can be presumed to be halachically Jewish.
And yet, there are still countless actual Jews out there, Jews who lack the benefit of an observant upbringing or a Jewish education, and are under the delusion that Judaism is a smorgasbord of offerings. They are, moreover, relentlessly bombarded with articles in the “mainstream” “Jewish” media that, in effect, warn them not to dare sample the Orthodox tray, that it will make them sick.
What can we do to help those cherished if distant fellow Jews? Ultimately, be who we are supposed to be. Many who have gotten their impressions of Orthodox Jews from actually seeing true Orthodox life and behavior (rather than from the media malshinim) have in fact returned to their spiritual roots.
But a first step is the promotion of a truism, one that was voiced by a nuclear physicist and an Israeli president.
© Hamodia 2014