Q. Why doesn’t orthodoxy accept that the Reform movement is a valid option in Judaism?
A. It never happened that every Jew thought like every other Jew. “Two Jews – three opinions” is an expression of reality that goes even further than Elijah, who said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions?” It resonated through the ages, with dissident sects and competing ideologies, bitter conflicts and reluctant compromises. There has always been diversity in Jewish life. Even the problem of the orthodox versus the non-orthodox is not a modern invention. The problem is not whether the question is new, but whether anyone has discovered a way of solving it.
Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik distinguished between b’rit goral, the covenant of fate which binds all Jews regardless of their opinions, and b’rit Sinai, the covenant of faith which unites those who uphold the Revelation on Sinai. It is a useful approach, but it creates its own new problems. The second arm of the thesis allows orthodoxy to maintain Sinai-based halachic Judaism as the authentic tradition which defines a Jew, but leaves unspoken the status of the Conservative movement, which also claims to be halachic, and that of the Reform movement which, whilst not claiming to be a halachic movement often claims halachic legitimacy on the basis of a Talmudic statement that both Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai are “the words of the living God”.
There is a difference between, on the one hand, the secular Jews who have no room for God in their Jewish identity and come within b’rit goral but not b’rit Sinai, and on the other hand the three religious groups, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, who believe in God (though there are apparently some Reform rabbis who are not certain about Him).
The “words of the living God” assessment is in Eruvin 13b. The passage informs us, “For three years Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel were in dispute. One side said, ‘The halachah is in accordance with us’. The other said, ‘The halachah is in accordance with us’. Then a heavenly voice said, ‘These, and these, are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in accordance with Bet Hillel’.”
Two things emerge from the discussion: one, that there can be several ways of interpreting a law, and two, that in behavioural matters there is no room for halachic indecision. To think that the first statement sanctions pluralism is illusory. In the Bet Hillel-Bet Shammai dispute, both sides are within the halachic loop. It is not that one is inside the halachah and one outside it. Both are halachic. Both accept the authority of the mitzvah, but each has a different emphasis or nuance.
One cannot use this passage to say that halachah and the abrogation of halachah are both Judaism. It is like saying that kosher and non-kosher are both kosher. Neither Bet Hillel nor Bet Shammai can be used to lend support to this position. Bet Hillel did sometimes reverse a view they had espoused in favour of one advocated by Bet Shammai, but neither was outside the halachic loop. Orthodoxy has no choice but to say that whilst they respect followers of the Reform movement as part of b’rit goral, Reform as an ideology cannot be counted as part of b’rit Sinai.