Who are the Heretics?

We live in terrifying times.  The Jewish people, having endured millennia of challenge, struggle, and malice, now face threats of enormous proportion: assimilation bred of indifference threatens to erode our people from within, and the fragile possibility of peace in the Middle East recedes with each passing day. In many lands, antisemitism enjoys a terrifying resurgence, making Jewish life risky and unstable. At the same time, many young Jews are abandoning Judaism entirely, falling prey to missionary zeal or to their own resistance to Torah.

Faced with these threats, how has our leadership responded? What pronouncements and wisdom have we heard from contemporary Jewish sages? Fiddling while Rome burns, Jewish machers have used this time to advance their own denominational interests, declaring other ways of practicing Judaism treif. In Europe, prominent rabbis offer public apologies for attending the funerals of great rabbis of the "wrong" stripe. In Israel, learned rabbis use their time to buttress their form of Judaism through the coercive power of a secular government—both by restricting conversions to Orthodox rabbis and by banning non-Orthodox Jews from state-funded Religious Councils. And in the United States, where it used to be "self evident" that we are "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights" such as the pursuit of happiness as we each see fit, a group of Orthodox rabbis declared Reform and Conservative Judaism to be another religion entirely. 

Facing a massive outcry of resentment, the nation's largest Orthodox establishment, the Orthodox Union, placed ads in major papers reassuring American Jewry that, indeed, one was Jewish regardless of one's denominational affiliation.  The ad also counseled restraint in public statements. Did anyone notice that the OU's response was massively beside the point? No one had claimed that Conservative Jews weren't Jews, merely that their rabbis aren't rabbis and their religion isn't Judaism. Did the OU repudiate that spurious contention? No. And in Jewish law, silence signifies assent.

Let's face it, then: to the Orthodox, we are heretics. According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a heretic  is "a dissenter from established church dogma" or "one who dissents from an accepted belief of doctrine." Note how closely the concept of heresy is bound up with Christian ecclesiastical power: who holds the keys to the Kingdom motivates defining dissent as heresy.  Indeed, the original term, the Greek word hairesis  lacked the pejorative connotation of the English "heresy." The Greek simply signified that someone holds a particular set of philosophical opinions.  Throughout the medieval period, Christendom attempted to enforce its monopoly on God's truth through the tools of excommunication and the inquisition.

In retrospect, the whole effort seems barbaric, embarrassing, and not a little silly.  "If I could know God, I would be God," wrote the medieval rabbi/philosopher Yosef Albo, recognizing that the very recognition of God's greatness requires a certain religious humility on the part of those who would serve God.  However true the revelation, it must still filter through our own finite personalities and limited understandings. No one has the perfect take on God or on God's will.

Building on that sane realization, the modern era has been marked by a universal religious effort to find common ground with disparate beliefs, to create a pluralistic structure in which piety and devotion can assume many forms without eroding a sense of common purpose or civility.  Alas, the mullahs of our People seem no more enlightened on this score than did the grand inquisitors of ages past.  Speaking candidly from the floor of the Knesset, one member of Shas admitted that the driving purpose behind the legislation limiting conversion to Orthodox rabbis was the eventual delegitimization of all other forms of Judaism. Another says that it is better to be a Jewish atheist than a Masorti Jew.
In the face of this rejection and hostility from our own brothers and sisters, how is a good Jew to respond? 

The Central Issue

To respond properly to the chill wind emerging from the more strident sectors of Orthodoxy today, we must first seek to understand precisely what it is that they are saying.  Those American rabbis who declared Reform and Conservative Judaism not to be Judaism at all are not basing their categorization on what we do or do not do. Like heresy hunters in general, they prefer someone who is a simple sinner (one who concedes that the rabbis are theologically correct, yet who violates the commandments anyway) to one who, in their view, reformulates the faith. 

Contemporary Orthodoxy stands upon the insistence that each and every word of the Torah was literally revealed by God at Mount Sinai, and that the entire rabbinic tradition is the true and only interpretation of what the Torah means and how it is to be applied.  As a corollary to that axiomatic belief, Orthodoxy also affirms that contemporary sages (Orthodox included) do not have the right to modify observance in the way that the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud did.  This bundle of beliefs (not found in the Torah itself) is labeled "Torah-true" and reflects a commitment to "Torah min ha'Shamayim (Instruction from Heaven)." Anyone who deviates from this Torah-true premise, no matter how observant he or she may be, is no longer practicing Judaism at all.  As such, the prominent Orthodox posek, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, ruled that it is forbidden to respond with "Amen" to a berakhah recited by a Conservative rabbi—even if the berakhah is recited correctly. Since the rabbi does not accept Torah min ha'Shamayim, the benediction is in vain. To seek to persuade the Orthodox leadership that we do take the mitzvot seriously, that our Siddur is 90% the same as theirs, that our observance of the holidays and festivals is virtually identical to their own is irrelevant. Their fundamental objection is to our theology, and there we must plead guilty.

Indeed, we do not believe that each and every word of the Torah was literally spoken by God to Moses. We do believe that the Torah is the primary vehicle through which God's will is embodied, hence min ha-Shamayim, but we affirm the active role of humanity in giving that Torah its final form. Midrash Mishlei's characterization of the words of the Prophets pertains to the Torah too: "they speak of God in terms of God's creatures in order that the [human] ear may be bent to hear what it is able to hear." The Torah is God's Word, but it is not God's words.

Building on that understanding, we must also insist that the halakhah is not a transcript of God's dictation (surreptitiously quoted in the name of generations of sages) but rather reflects what those sages understood God's will to be. Hence, halakhah as a process must continue to reflect three pillars: the study and explication of Torah, the thorough consideration of precedent, and our own sense of what constitutes God's will for our own time.

It is futile (and degrading) to engage in a polemic with the Orthodox on these points. As a matter of a priori faith, Orthodox rabbis could accept our presentation only by renouncing their Orthodoxy.  They will not be persuaded.  True, there will be many Orthodox rabbis willing to meet and to talk for the sake of understanding each other, and such open dialogue is to be encouraged and embraced. But the Masorti Jew must to understand that our rejection of Orthodoxy is not based on laziness or ignorance on our part, but rather on the conviction that Orthodoxy reflects a way of understanding Jewish tradition that we find inaccurate and flawed, both in terms of how classical Judaism believed and in terms of how that Jewish tradition developed. What matters, then, is not that we seek Orthodox approval or toleration, but that we understand how classical Jewish thought and dynamics find direct contemporary expression in Masorti Judaism.


Consider the structure of the Talmud: on each page, rabbis argue with each other over points of law, observance, narrative, and thought. If the rabbis of the Talmud believed that Torah was literally given and that its absolute truth could be known absolutely, they would never have created a literature so thoroughly devoted to open debate.  That the Talmud so revels in passionate engagement reflects the underlying premise that we cannot know truth absolutely. Only through dialogue, through the expression and analysis of many understandings, can we hope to approach closer to God's truth.  The Talmud is a monument to religious pluralism. The Talmud struggles mightily to balance a dual commitment to the authority of the commandments and the reality that those commandments can be understood in radically diverse ways (as Rabbi Akiva recognized, "truth has legs").  That same fruitful tension characterizes Masorti Judaism today.

In his magisterial code of Jewish Law, in the opening chapters, Maimonides stipulates that the Jew must act "as though (ke-ilu) each word of Torah was spoken by God." There is a chasm of difference separating Orthodox fundamentalism (itself assimilated from the theology of Islam and the Church) and Rambam's formulation. Those two key words, "as though" signifies that the statement is literally false yet theologically true. God doesn't literally have a mouth, God's will isn't literally limited to any finite text, certainly not to one authorized understanding of that text. But, insists the Rambam, the Torah is the closest we have to God's express formulation and so we must remain loyal to it as though it were verbally revealed!

Rambam is far from alone in his understanding. Genesis Rabbah proclaims that "Torah is an unripe fruit of divine wisdom," and the poet/philosopher Yehudah Ha-Levi recognizes that "what is plain in the Torah is obscure, all the moreso what is obscure." No less an authority than the Zohar's putative author, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, insists "if one looks upon Torah as merely a book presenting narratives and everyday matters, alas! Such a teaching, one treating everyday concerns, and indeed a more excellent one, we, too, even we could compile… But the Torah, in all its words, holds supernal truths and sublime secrets…. Just as wine must be in a jar to keep, so the Torah must be contained in an outer garment. The garment is made up of the tales and stories, but we, we are bound to penetrate beyond!"
The Revelation of God is clothed in the garment of Torah, but as much as the words of the Torah make that revelation visible, they also mask it.  For that reason, we must engage in an active process of analysis, spiritual contemplation, study and debate to sift through the Torah's words in pursuit of God's will.

Let it be known then: traditional Judaism affirms that God's will is known through the Torah, but it is not reducible to a fundamentalism that requires isolation from the great insights of human thought and scientific evidence. Not each discrete word, but the process of their being read and discussed in spiritual community , is how we grasp at God's revelation.  Affirming that the Torah is min ha-Shamayim does not necessitate literalism.  Indeed, affirming that God is infinite and irreducible requires its rejection.  Masorti Judaism stands for the nuanced and passionate faith embodied in the Talmud, the Zohar, and the Rambam.  We claim nothing less than to be the contemporary embodiment of traditional Judaism.

What to Do?

Recognizing that we will not persuade the Orthodox leadership to admit our claims, what is left for us to do? Must we submit to the rejection of the Orthodox rabbinate without protest? Must we accede to their refusal to include us as partners in the expression of Judaism?

Here I take my cue from the Kabbalistic tradition.  Of the ten Sefirot, the diving emanations, the highest of them all is the first Sefirah, Keter. Keter is so elevated that it is beyond and above any human understanding.  At the level of Keter, there is no judgment, only love.  Judgment, making distinctions, condemnation — these belong to a lower order of being. When God is most Godlike, these temptations fall away. At the highest level, there is only unity, there is only acceptance, there is only love.

If we were truly confident of God's love, would we not be better able to love our Orthodox brothers and sisters even while affirming our way of being Jewish as authentic, important, and beautiful?  If we live with a Keter-consciousness, we can remember that the true measure of a faithful Jew lies in practicing the mitzvot as the essential tools for constructing a world of harmony, justice, and peace.

Judaism is not about an obsession with hunting heretics, with sitting in judgment of our coreligionists, nor with the pursuit of rules as an end in itself.  As commanded as those rules are (and we affirm that they are), they are not to be confused with the ultimate goal. Rather, the mitzvot train us toward a higher achievement: the pursuit of justice.  When God delineates the purpose for the election of the Jews, it is "that he [Abraham] may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right (tzedakah u'mishpat) (Genesis 18:19)." One who keeps the way of the Lord without doing justice or compassion is missing the goal that God, personally, has established. That traditional perspective is affirmed time and time again: "the mitzvot were given only to refine creation through them (Bereshit Rabbah 44)," "The laws of the Torah were not established in the world except that there should be compassion, love, and peace in the world (Rambam, Laws of the Sabbath 2:3)."

Let each Jew, Orthodox, Masorti, and Reform, ask: "Have I behaved toward my fellow Jew in such a way that there is more compassion, love and peace in the world, thereby fulfilling the purpose of the Torah's laws? Have I spoken according to what is just and right, thereby furthering God's agenda of refining creation?" Let those who cannot respond in the affirmative know that theirs' is the heresy worthy of our correction, and God's.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com)  is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).