Tough Love from Norman Lamm, not Baseless Hate

by Gedalyah Reback

Yeshiva University Chancellor, Rabbi Norman Lamm

(This is a response to this editorial by Rabbi Meir Feldman in the Jerusalem Post)

“With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” so said Rabbi Norman Lamm, the Chancellor of Yeshiva University’s Rabbinical School. But responses to his assessment have been reactionary and lack substance. They lack any understanding of what Rav Lamm said. They presume it is an outgrowth of Orthodox contempt for their liberal neighbors. The writing is on the wall, yet so many figures in these movements refuse to read it.

The comments by Reform Rabbi Meir Feldman in the Jerusalem Post belittled my reading of Rabbi Norman Lamm’s comments. Rabbi Feldman assumed Rabbi Lamm was expressing sinat chinam by predicting the death of the Reform and Conservative Movements. That assumption sees the opposite of reality. His analysis was honest and disparaging. He in no way wished such a death upon the lifelines of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

It was Rabbi Lamm who several years ago tried putting an end to the conversion crisis by negotiating with, and co-initiating with those movements a universal conversion for American Jews. His efforts were not successful, but his effort was born out of the reality that the continuing superfluous nature of conversions for new members of Reform and many Conservative communities was an enveloping social crisis for the Jewish people. He criticized Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the leader of Agudath Israel, for leading the opposition that ended the project.

The failure by Agudah to recognize the severity of the situation has had deep repercussions for conversion the last several years. Today’s decision in the Israeli spureme court to fund Reform conversion projects in Israel has emboldened the denominational lines on conversion and worsened the social crisis that has prevented many marriages from taking place, offering false promises to prospective converts, and inundated Jewish religious courts with difficult cases regarding divorce, conversion and mamzerut.

It is unfortunate that the immediate reaction of Rabbi Feldman is that Rabbi Lamm wishes a cataclysmic collapse upon these movements. He recognizes Reform’s growth is attributable to the recognition of patrilineal descent and inclusion of non-Jewish parents of mixed-lineage children in congregations’ member lists.

The Conservative and Masorti Movements: Global Schism

“Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture,” Rav Lamm said last week. He is alluding to the fact Conservative Judaism has slipped on its original doctrinal commitments that juxtaposed it to Reform’s theological doctrine. The doctrine of reform, negation of law and precedent, arbitrary dismissal of customs and aversion to observance of the major precepts Shabbat and Kashrut have hammered the size of Conservative Judaism as a separate movement.

Calling this “Baseless Hatred” Simply Avoids the Issues

I would go as far as to say Rabbi Feldman’s comments are characteristic of a certain demeanor I experienced prior to my experience as ba’al t’shuva. Progressive Jewish leaders, be they Reform or Renewal or from the left wing of the Conservative Movement, have framed these issues in terms of freedom or religious observance, pluralism and other terminology which offers unconditional acceptance of all Jewish practice. Hence, any open criticism of such a stance becomes, itself, intolerable. The attitude in Rabbi Feldman’s article is reactionary because it assumes that merely offering analysis and even lament to reinforce that analysis is a contravention of tolerance. In that, I think much of the leadership in these movements have sacrificed the “freedom of speech” in order to preserve an unquestionable “freedom of religion.”

Lamm Still Demands Working Together

“He supports outreach to Reform and Conservative Jews, ‘but not by watering down what we believe and not by demonizing them either.'”

Lamm wants to support those who identify Jewish and contribute to their education and acculturation. He represents a segment of the Jewish people that see the same practical issues that liberal Jews see in having to acculturate Russian and Ethiopian Jews who have committed themselves to Jewish life. He sees the same practical issues that the whole of Orthodoxy sees in making sure those who deserve conversion receive it, and that conversion itself maintains its integrity and does not dilute what it necessitates of its candidates.

These are issues he has battled before and wishes for the support to make sure he can battle them again, this time with the utmost success. Rav Lamm is not at all expressing sinat chinam, but that ahavat chinam that Rav Kook so espoused, and that Rav Feldman just cannot seem to see.

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