Rabbi Yehoshua Van-Dyke
Rabbi Yehoshua Van-Dyke Courtesy

Recently, Arutz Sheva posted an article describing a public meeting between Rabbi Eliezer Melamed Shlita and a Reform "Rabba." After reading it, I went to see Rabbi Melamed in order to understand his surprising position firsthand and we engaged in a long and friendly conversation. Since then various articles by both of us and others have been published on the subject.

Rabbi Eliezer's accomplishments in the field of spreading Torah knowledge and making it available to the public are a matter of public knowledge, a fact which caused many people, this writer included, to regret that this meeting was held in public. After our talk, Rabbi Melamed publicized his opinion on the relationship one should have to the Reform and Conservative movements as he sees it, and explained that since the Reform are our brothers, and they are organized in movements, we must not boycott the movements and their representatives, because that de facto makes us boycott their members.

Rabbi Melamed then wrote another article about the Sages of the past generations' relationship to the Reform. Rabbi Melamed also claimed that anyone who is against his meeting with the Reform "Rabba" is in favor of a "cherem" – boycott – of Reform adherents, and that we must oppose any sort of "cherem."

However, those who disapproved of the meeting made a point of stressing that there is no "cherem" – all of us have acquaintances who are of Reform or Conservative persuasion whom we have met over the years, including the US brother of a friend of mine with whom I have had many pleasant conversations on his visits to our community - that is not the issue.

When a rabbi has a public meeting with a Reform "Rabba," it is not just a meeting. Everything a well-known rabbi does publicly is measured differently than what he or a layman might do privately. Any action by a rabbi that can be seen as granting legitimacy to the Reform and Conservative Movements is detrimental, especially since Rabbi Melamed praised the movements as "central and important."

And in Israel, even more than in the USA, there is another dimension: Anything that smacks of recognizing the Conservative or Reform Movement's clergy is of consequence in the ongoing struggle to have halakhic marriage, divorce and conversion remain the only legal way Jews can perform these rituals in the Jewish state, the only homeland for the Jewish people and the only place in the world whose official marriages, divorces and conversions are recognized by rabbis the world over.

Torah Sages of past generations – what did they really do?

In order to justify his opinion Rabbi Melamed brought the words of the Netsiv (famed Dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva. d.1893) and the Admor of Srikov as examples of those were against isolating the Reform. I beg to differ.

The Netsiv, first of all, was talking about the Haskalah (secularization) movement of his time and the non-observant Jews of Eastern Europe, who turned their backs on Torah but did not establish a new religion to replace Judaism as the Reform Movement did. Both the Netsiv and the Admor were against separating the Jews into two communities, one religious and the other non-observant just as we cannot imagine separating the State of Israel into two communities – one for those who are God-fearing and the other for those who are not. However, neither of them recognized the Reform Movement or considered it non-religious – they saw its cancellation of halakha and other practices as defining a different religion (as reiterated by venerable Religious Zionist Sage Rabbi Yaakov Ariel Shlita who wrote a critical article concerning this meeting, in this week's Hebrew Makor Rishon newspaper) - nor did they meet its representatives and clergy.

And that was the attitude of all the Torah Sages from that time onward: Rabbi Avraham Kook, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, all zts"l, and all the Chief Rabbis of Israel since its establishment.

Torah leaders in America, who were familiar with the Reform Movement such as Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (hereafter called "the Rav" as he is known in the American Modern Orthodox world, while in Hebrew he is called "the Gri"d) and the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zts"l did the same.

Rabbi Tsuriel Halamish of the Har Bracha Institute of which Rabbi Melamed is the head, and Rabbi Reuven Spolter who works with all types of congregations the world over, and Rabbi Melamed himself, wrote in their articles that our Torah Sages met in friendly fashion with representatives of the Reform Movement. But to be precise, anyone who reads those articles realizes that the facts brought back up our claims that along with friendship and love for all of our brothers in Israel, and cooperation in matters that affect all of our people, the Sages were extremely careful not to say or do anything that could be interpreted as recognition or the granting of legitimacy to the Reform and Conservative Movements.

For example, Rabbi Chalamish quotes Rabbi Lichtentein zts"l, the Rav's son in law who said that it was possible to work together for freeing Soviet Jewry, supporting Israel, and standing up to the governments on issues such as ritual slaughter and burial. "He consistently encouraged a united stand for 'external' topics…but not 'internal ones.' And that is exactly the point: Any form of religious recognition is 'internal' – and was consistently avoided.

Rabbi Chalamish brought one relevant instance of the Rav's meeting with one Reform "Rabbi" when he was 33 years old. For the next 45 years of his life there was no other meeting of that nature – and it is important to note that even that one meeting was not publicized and that it was on the subject of charitable aid to Jews, with no connection to recognition as a legitimate stream in Judaism.

Meetings or cooperation for concrete goals, such as charity drives, aliya, political lobbying in the Diaspora, have no bearing on legitimacy as a stream in Judaism. In contrast, a meeting between a Rabbi and a "Rabba" (who even said "words of Torah" – at least in her eyes) without any concrete goal to the meeting, is a form of religious legitimacy, even if that was not the intention.

Rabbi Soloveitchik's closest talmid, Rabbi Herschel Shachter Shlita

As there was disagreement here in Israel on Rabbi Soloveitchik's attitude to meeting with Conservative and Reform clergy, with some claiming that Rabbi Soloveitchik did meet with Reform leaders, I called the rabbi who was closest to him, the Torah Sage Rabbi Herschel Shachter Shlita who is considered the continuation of his leadership, Rosh Yeshiva of YU and a noted halakhic decisor - to hear his opinion. He wholly agreed with everything I had written about the Rav and allowed me to use his name to back up my words.

Rabbi Shachter explained that the Rav's support concerning synagogue organizations was only in order to receive grants and donations. He stressed that, as opposed to today, the Orthodox were a small minority of American Jews (and it was predicted that they were slated to disappear within a generation). They aspired for recognition so as to receive donations, but the Rav never agreed to meet Conservative and Reform clergy in the role of rabbis, because that would be an "internal" meeting to which he was opposed.

That was exactly what I had written after reading the Rav's article on the subject. He added that Rabbi Joseph Shobab, mentoned by Rabbi Chalamish in his article, was a significant donor to the Rav's yeshiva and helped him in the well known struggles for honest kosher labeling in Boston, so the Rav had a personal friendship with him along with feelings of gratitude. However, he never recognized him as a Rabbi, nor did he ever converse with him on subjects that rabbis discuss as men of religious leadership.

One certainly cannot suspect the Gaon Rabbi Shachter, the Rav's closest student and the person who continues in his footsteps, of misrepresenting the opinions of his great mentor.

The Reform and Conservative Movements and otherTorah Sages

Today, now that only about half the members of the Reform movement, including their rabbis, are halakhically Jewish due to their method of conversion, recognizing patrilineal descent and their clergy performing at intermarriages, the reaction of all the Sages of past generations needs no eludication.

And even then, those Sages did not have "getting to know you" meetings with Reform and Conservative clergy and none felt that refraining from this would harm Jewish unity or love of Israel. They acted in accordance with halakhic decisions of the generations before them, including Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Chatam Sofer and others, because there is a clear difference between separating into two Jewish populations – which Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook opposed as well, and giving legitimacy to these movements and their representatives as "Rabbis" and Leaders.

Chief Rabbis Herzog and Nissim zts"l only met Reform and Conservative clergy privately or for practical reasons such as the UJA campaigns and fought to prevent the construction of a Reform temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook had a personal friend who was a Reform "Rabbi" but broke off their relationship when the latter planned to establish a Reform community in Israel.

How deeply rooted this policy is can be seen from the fact that the Gaon Rabbo Meshlam Ratte – zts"l – the Torah luminary of his generation, as Rabbi Melamed wrote in a recent article – refused to accept the Rav Kook Prize for Judaic literature together with Conservative Rabbi Saul Lieberman, who was a kosher Jew and Torah sage in his own right, but taught at JTS – and even though he prayed in a minyan that separated men and women which existed during his lifetime.

Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook, on his historic trip to visit the settlements of early Zionist pioneers, would not enter an Orthodox synagogue in Zichron Yaakov that was built to resemble a Reform temple (the Bama was next to the Ark) because he did not want to give the Reformed way of praying any legitimacy.

Our brothers and a united Jewish People

Let me emphasize that our struggle with Reform and Conservative Movements is not only about the Torah, it is also a struggle for a united Jewry, for the Jews to remain one people. That is what Chief Rabbis Herzog and Nissim zts"l wrote when they turned to Prime Minister Moshe Sharett saying: "We are turning to his honor in the name of the Torah of Israel and in the name of the unity of the Jewish people requesting from the depths of our heart that he forbid a Reform temple in Jerusalem."

Reform and Conservative leaders wish to obtain equal standing in Jewish matters in Israel: conversions, mikvahs, marriage and divorce - destroying the wonderful unity of those who returned to Zion.

And kashrut? The Reform do not even insist their temples keep kosher. And circumcision? In a NYTmesarticle about circumcision, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, "I think there was a time when all American baby boys were circumcised, of all religions, Now it’s a choice. It’s a decision."

I heard Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, my mentor and guide, Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz Harav, say many times that the fact that the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox due to the law passed (with Ben Gurion's agreement) is enough of a reason to say Hallel on Israel Independence Day, because in that way, all those topics, including kashrut in Israel are in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, without allowing entry to the Reform and their cohorts. That is what keeps the Jewish people united, that is true love of Jewry, because that way all those converting here and all those recognized as Jews here can marry one another, without lists of who is Jewish and who is not – what a contrast to the Diasapora.

The Reform and Conservative movements today as compared to the past generation

Of course Reform Jews are our brothers (that is, those who are halakhically Jewish are our brothers, as many of them are actually Gentile ever since the Reform clergy decided to recognized patrilineal descent over 30 years ago and perform intermarriages. See the Reform movement website.) Today, the members of Reform congregations who are Jewish can be defined halakhically as "infants who were captured"- a term for someone who has never been exposed to Torah Judaism and is therefore not punishable for his transgressions. Not so their clergy.

That is why it is fine to join with Reform Jews in charity drives, in efforts to help society or in supporting Israel through AIPAC for example (if they do support Israel – see later in this article) or in the struggle against anti-Semitism (as Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote). But we cannot ever work together with these two movements themselves, since their entire essence is to transgress and eliminate the G-d given Torah, the lifeblood of the every individual member of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Melamed, of course, agrees and even emphasizes in his articles, that "we do not agree to consider the Reform as a stream that represents the traditional Torah." But in practical terms, the gap between recognizing the Reform Movement and its representatives to recognizing it as a legitimate stream in Judaism is very narrow (the reason there was so much criticism of Naphtali Bennett's words when he was Diaspora Minister – criticism with which Rabbi Melamed also did not agree at the time. And Bennett was simply an Israeli government official, not a respected rabbi).

In this recent article Rabbi Melamed did not stop at defining the Reform as our brothers (which is something we all agree to when talking about the Jews among them) but praised the movements themselves. Rabbi Kook (who is certainly not suspected of not loving every Jew) wrote about them:" Those who destroyed the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts of the House of Israel, and caused many to leave G-d's ways and His Torah…"

The Kotel – the fight for legitimacy and our fight for unity

Over and above that, Rabbi Melamed is also up in arms at the "boycott" of the Reform and Conservative visitors to the Kotel. But there is no boycotting at the Kotel. The Western Wall is open to everyone, and every Jew of every kind (as well as non-Jews) can come to pray there, according to the tenets of halakha of course – that is, separating men and women (which Rabbi Soloveitchik considers de'Orayta – that is, a Torah source halakha, not a rabbinic one) .

But the Reform and Conservative Movements want a part of the Kotel area so they can be recognized as a legitimate stream in Judaism (and where they can pray as non-Jews do, without gender separation). Everyone understands that even worldwide Jewish movements such as Bnai Brith, the Joint or World Maccabee, would never dream of expecting a part of the Kotel for themselves.

The only reason these movements want it is to gain religious legitimacy in Israel by stages (as the Women of the Wall head admitted was her group's goal in a BBC interview several years ago) – and as Conservative leader in Israel, Yizhar Hess wrote, the day the separate area for mixed prayer was designated at Robinson's Arch: This is a historic step that defines anew the relation of religion and state in Israel. Today, every solution to a problem must address the simple fact that there ismore than one way to be Jewsh, in conversion, marriage, and kashrut. " (Ynet, 1.3.16.)

I believe he means it.

If these movements ever get a third of the Kotel area, something that almost passed in the previous government, and not because they fill the area they have now, which is almost empty most of the time, they will turn to the Supreme Court and say they have been recognized as a legitimate stream in Judaism in the holiest place for the Jewish People, the Kotel, so they have the right to equal standing in rabbinic courts for divorce and conversion, in the rabbinate, marriages, mikvahs as well. It is not hard to predict the court's decision.

If that happens, the religious will continue to be wed and divorced by observant Orthodox rabbis, but many of our secular brothers, who know so little about Torah, and even those who are traditional, and who do not know how to tell one rabbi from another, will be tempted to marry, or worse, to divorce or convert through a charming person who makes everything easy and effortless. That is how we will "gain" mamzerim and goyim in Israel wo think they are legitimate Jews but who we cannot marry.

That is the real blow to Jewish unity and love of every Jew. If they are given part of the Kotel Plaza, observant Jews will know where to go, but people who know little about Judaism but wish to do things properly will go to their part of the kotel, possibly without realizing that it is Reform, and take part in a caricature of Jewish prayer with men and women praying together, devoid of any feeling of true Torah, holiness and sanctity.

Love for the People of Israel

That is why this struggle is one of love of Israel. Observant Jews will know which kosher certificates are trustworthy, but innocent and unlearned Jews who wish to keep kosher but do not know which rabbi is which may end up eating non kosher food. And when we try to explain to them that a conservative or reform "rabbi" is not a bona fide source for Judaic practice, they will say that haredi rabbis do not recognize the decisions of religious Zionist or Modern Orthodox rabbis and it is the same problem. However, it is most certainly not the same – in the case of the haredi and modern orthodox, we are all G-d fearing, none of us has changed the Torah, we are all recognized rabbis, and the Reform and Conservative have abandoned the Torah and are not.

In sum, it is as a result of our responsibility for the Jewish people and our call for Jewish unity and love of Israel that we must battle the Conservative and Reform Movements who wish to turn us into just another people with communities who cannot marry one another and leaders who lead their congregants astray.

Nevertheless, there is no "cherem " of anyone. Our concern is love of Israel and Jewish continuity. We are certain that Rabbi Melamed did not intentionally cause harm to these concerns, but we are only a hairsbreadth away from governmental recognition of Reform and Conservative Movement rights to the Kotel, Conversions, Marriage and Kosher certification.

The courts are already on the way to that recognition and these movements know how to use that fact. They have the money to continue to pursue legal actions.

All this explains why anything that smacks of recognition and granting legitimacy to these movements is dangerous. Not "cherem" but love, caring and well-founded concern for our people's continuity is what leads us to express these opinions.

Connecting to Judaism: They are not keeping Jews connected, they are helping create non-Jews.

During our conversation, Rabbi Melamed explained that the situation has changed in his opinion. In the past, the Reform Movement was against Israel and the State (i.e. Zionism which they removed from their prayers) but today they support Israel, so we must strengthen them, because they preserve the connection with Judaism of their members and the possibility of aliyah and less assimilation. Unfortunately, a cursory examination of the real situation shows that the facts are far removed from this thesis.

First of all, the Reform Movement does not strengthen its members' connection to Judaism, because it openly promotes assimilation. Six years ago, Rick Jacobs, the head of the movement, attacked those who saw intermarriage as problematic. At this point, the Reform intermarriage rate is at least 50%, with most of the children not being raised as Jews. According to the PEW Institute's 2013 survey, the birthrate in that community is even lower than the average US birthrate: 1.7 births per family as opposed to 2.2 over the general population. The Orthodox rate is 4.7 births per family. The percentage of Reform congregants who make aliya is negligible in relation to all aliya from the US, and has little more significance than that of non-religious olim who are not connected to the Reform community.

Supporting the State of Israel

Second of all, the Reform Movement is in the forefront of the controversy over Jewish symbols in the public sphere in the State of Israel, against our settling Judea and Samaria, and against the authority of the Chief Rabbinate (note the lawsuits the movement has filed in the Supreme Court on every Jewish subject). The Reform Movement published its opposition to moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem unless there was to be a peace treaty including a Palestinian Arab State that reflected Jerusalem's status as a holy city for three religions.

The Reform Center for Affairs of Religion and State filed a suit in Israel's Supreme Court against the Boycott Law passed by the Knesset to fight BDS organizations, and asked to indict Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rabbi of Tsfat, for his halakhic decision regarding the Torah prohibition in Deuteronomy 7:2 which literally means "you shall show them [the tribes in the land] no mercy but is interpreted as "you shall not give them a foothold in the land." The Reform Movement took an active part in supporting the Nuclear agreement with Iran and in supporting leftist organizations such as J Street and Rabbis for Human Rights.

Even the "important ideals of tikkun olam " which Rabbi Melamed praised, are actually a concerted struggle to advance the values of the left progressives (see Levi Cooper, the Assimilation of Tikkun Olam, Jewish political studies Review, Fall 20, Volume 25, Numberg 3-4. [/10-42.) most of which are diametrically opposed to Torah and the spirit of Israel, such as their fight for the LGBT organizations and recognizing all kinds of marriages as well as intermarriage.

In truth, the Reform Movement is declining rapidly in the USA and all over the world. In addition to the massive assimilation and low birthrate, its youth are less and less interested in it, according to PEW's 2013 survey, and things have gotten worse since then. The solution the Movement has decided upon is an attempt to pitch its tent in Israel, and continue the destruction it has already accomplished in the Diaspora. It is crystal clear that Rabbi Melamed wants no part in this, but his action in meeting a Reform "Rabba" as an equal, can unintentionally strengthen these trends. That is why we hope he will rethink the issue, and, as our Sages said, a rabbi who takes back words that he realizes were in error , is especially praiseworthy.

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