The Rabbi Eliezer Melamed controversy

From the harsh, condemning tone of some of the articles opposing Rabbi Melamed's opinions, you might think he was a serial murderer.

Tzvi Fishman ,

Reform 'Rabbi'
Reform 'Rabbi'
Flash 90

A continuing controversy surrounds Rabbi Eliezer Melamed concerning his views regarding the best way to relate to today's Reform Movement. The fires of disagreement were first ignited when he participated in an international Jewish theological forum called “Our Common Destiny” a project of the Government of Israel, the Jewish Agency, and dozens of worldwide Jewish organizations, including the Mizrachi Movement, Bnei Akiva, the Orthodox Union, and leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements. Rabbi Yaacov Meidan of Yeshiva Har Etzion and the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks were also involved in the undertaking to bridge gaps and bring Jews closer together.

The storm surrounding Rabbi Melamed began when he participated in a Zoom discussion with Delphine Horvilleur, a leader of the Reform Movement in France who bills herself as a Rabbi. This digital encounter aroused the ire of Israel’s Chief Rabbis and many other leading Rabbis in Israel as symbolizing recognition of the movement.

Rabbi Melamed endeavored to explain his beliefs in a series of articles which only enhanced the opposition to his maverick approach regarding how Orthodox Jewry should relate to those who are connected to the Reform Movement throughout the Jewish World, many of them not Jews halakhically. He proposed that while the Reform Movement was to be condemned for rejecting the commandments of the Torah, when it comes to a person-to-person basis, it was important to maintain a loving and brotherly connection between Jews and not to wage an aggressive public war against them.

His approach drew strong opposition from leading Rabbis in Israel, as blurring the connection between individual members of the Reform Movement, who are not the problem, and its leadership. Refusing to heed their warnings, he repeatedly defended his views, insisting they were in line with the teachings of Rabbi Kook and with Torah directives which command Jews to love their fellow Jews. His explanations were rejected or perhaps not understood, prompting the articles against him to continue.

His recommendation to allow Reform Jews to use a Torah scroll in their prayer gatherings at the special section of the Kotel which has been designated for their use added fuel to the fire. He even suggested that the Rabbi in charge of the Kotel should help the Reform Movement visitors by making a Torah scroll available for their services.

Without discussing the halakhic issues involved, or other halakhic issues for which Rabbi Melamed was criticized, which are beyond my expertise, I would like to comment in a general way about the wave of articles written in opposition to Rabbi Melamed’s sincerely meant perspective. First, let me say that I am not an advocate of the Reform Movement (and certainly neither is Rabbi Melamed). Nor am I a supporter of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization, known for its more lenient opinions. For me, the institution of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is holy, and I believe that our support of its authority is vital to maintaining the Jewish Identity of the country. In the last election I voted for the party led by Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and Avi Moaz who cannot be accused of backing Reform Judaism. Currently, on the “HaKol HaYehudi” website, a short story of mine is posted which is clearly opposed to the Reform Movement.

However, I am forced to admit that the issue is not totally black and white. Most of the letters and articles which have been written against Rabbi Melamed’s approach have been penned in a respectful manner, concentrating on matters of halakhah and Jewish thought, hashkafah. Others have been written in a more aggressive and condemning style, leaving me saddened that Rabbis in Israel could attack a fellow Talmid Chacham in such a caustic fashion, to the point of declaring that he should cease writing articles until he gives more thought to his beliefs and is willing to step in line with the Rabbis who disagree with him.

There is no need to quote from the opinions of his detractors. The articles, both those of Rabbi Eliezer and his detractors, most in Hebrew, can be found via a quick search on Google. Certainly debates over the interpretation of halakhah are perfectly in order and discussions airing differing opinions can be very productive. But strident rebuttals including derogatory remarks about Rabbi Melamed’s personal character and behavior are themselves cause for concern. Whatever happened to the mitzvah of judging others favorably in the scale of merit, especially a Torah Scholar who has a long list of praiseworthy achievements to his credit?

Allow me to use a different issue of heated controversy, although not one affecting the future of the Jewish people in the same way that the Reform Movement does, as an example. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, zts"l, Rabbi Zalman Melamed Shlita and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and others, have expressed their opinion that Har HaBayit is presently off limit to Jews and that Aliyah to the Mount is forbidden, due to the dispute about the location of the areas where walking is punished by karet (Heavenly death sentence) and the fear that the secular would not heed the special preparations mandated by halakha. Nonetheless, there are many Rabbis (HaRav Eliezer Melamed among them) who maintain the very opposite. They encourage Jews to fortify our sovereignty over the Mount by visiting the sacred site. People decide what to do according to the rabbi they see as their spiritual guide.

Would anyone think of condemning the Torah integrity of the many distinguished Rabbis who advocate Aliyah to Har HaBayit? Would their opponents warn the public not to listen to what they had to say? Should HaRav Yisrael Ariel be forced to shut down the Temple Institute until he retracts his beliefs? Should HaRav Lior be restrained from publishing his opinions, as has been suggested regarding Rabbi Melamed? If so, I haven’t seen these type of reactions in print.

The controversy surrounding Rabbi Melamed is, however, approached differently. Instead of a tone of respect, several articles published against him (not all) and comments from readers (not all) are filled with an almost obsessive desire to denigrate Rabbi Melamed personally. Though the authors insist that their protests come as a righteous red light to warn the public and to protect the welfare of Am Yisrael, on more than a few occasions I could not escape the feeling that other less noble reasons were also involved.

Some opponents claim that Rabbi Melamed has closed himself off from communicating with people who attempt to speak with him, including the efforts of important Rabbis. The truth is that many Rabbis are very busy. It is not always easy to reach them. Nonetheless, on four recent occasions I have written to Rabbi Melamed, disagreeing with his approach and questioning the path he has taken, and each time he answered me immediately.

By the harsh and condemning tone of some of the articles opposing Rabbi Melamed, you might think he was a serial murderer, Heaven forbid. What is all the hysterics about? What crime did he commit? Why all the thunderous accusation against an Orthodox Rabbi whose popular series of books, “Peninei Halachah,” have brought tens of thousands of Jews closer to Torah, and whose spiritual leadership in Har Bracha has made the community into one of the largest and most flourishing settlements in the Shomron?

After all, the Reform Movement did not begin with Rabbi Melamed. It began hundreds of years ago with the Emancipation and the desire of Jews to be accepted in then Christian society and seem like everyone else. Apparently, preceding the revolt, Orthodox Rabbis failed to attract a large segment of the young generation to the age-old method of teaching. Often, it is not the Torah which people reject but the way the Torah is presented and lived.

Has Rabbi Eliezer Melamed caused the liberal Jew in America to scorn Judaism, intermarry, and to adopt a negative attitude toward the Jewish State? Is he responsible for the destruction of Judaism and the Americanization of the Jew in the United States? What then has created the plague of intermarriage? Besides the anti-Semitic atmosphere of America and the Jew’s desire to be accepted like everyone else, it may also be the hypocrisy of the Orthodox Jews themselves in their love affair with Gentile America which causes secular Jews to feel a lack of respect for the Torah which focuses on Eretz Yisrael.

On the contrary, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed has succeeded in explaining the Torah in a fashion which speaks to our generation, attracting myriads of Jews to a more Torah way of life, and Rabbis attack him for doing the very opposite? We, the faithful advocates of the Torah, must accept part of the blame for our failure to project the joy and beauty of Torah, and to reveal its universal genius and Divine moral standards. It seems to me that Rabbi Melamed is rightfully saying, “Friends, we have failed our brothers through our outright rejection of them. Our approach has failed. Assimilation is increasing all over the world. Instead of cutting them off from our influence, let us try to bring them closer through communication, empathy, and the love for all Jews, just as the Torah commands.”

Maybe his approach is mistaken because he believes we must also treat Reform leadership with empathy, while there is no dispute about connecting with members of that movement. Yet perhaps some of what he argues is true. Rabbi Kook taught us to see the positive in all opinions and beliefs, even in those which seem the most heretic. Perhaps we can learn something from them. Perhaps they come with all of their chutzpah to make our own service of Hashem more active and sincere and to force us to explain the Torah in a higher light.

Certainly, we have failed in stemming the tsunami of assimilation, Jewish cultural erosion, and moral decline which characterizes secular Jewry throughout the Diaspora, and which threatens Israel today. Even Chabad, with all of its kiruv and outreach has proven to be impotent in stopping the spiritual Holocaust. The rate of assimilation continues to soar.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, as Rabbi Kook intended, is not only to be the guardian of Torah but its purveyor as well, like a father who is commanded to hand over the Jewish laws and traditions to his children in a pleasant and loving manner. So too the Orthodox Rabbinate has to find pleasant ways to bring the Jewish People closer to Torah rather than to close the door in their face. Perhaps it is time to stop projecting our own failure and guilt on Rabbi Eliezer Melamed. Perhaps the time has come to take a penetrating look at ourselves.