Torah is the five books of Moses, the written text with the oral law that explains, expounds and applies it to the conditions and circumstances of Jewish life in every age. It is a pattern of principles for wise and ethical living. It is the tree of life that gives the Jew strength, support, stability, instruction and inspiration.
Says Samuel Belkin, former president of Yeshiva University: “The essence of traditional Judaism is the indisputable faith that the Torah, the revealed word of God, is not a mere constitution or code, but that, as the law of God, it represents divine authority and contains the highest wisdom and loftiest truths, and that as such the divine law is sufficient for all time and should control and guide the entire life and destiny of our people.”
Until the end of the eighteenth century, no-one denied that this was Judaism, and it was taken for granted as such by the entire Jewish people with the exception of one or two dissident sects which accepted and lived by the written Torah whilst querying the oral tradition.
A new element has entered the Jewish world in the last two centuries. Variously called Reform, or Liberal, or Progressive Judaism, it represents a new type of dissent. No longer is it the rabbinic tradition alone which is queried; now it is the Torah Shebichtav, the written Torah itself, which is rejected in greater or lesser part.
We who humbly seek to understand and fashion our lives by the Torah given on Sinai see in Liberal Judaism far more than simply a somewhat modified form of worship with shorter services featuring more English, the use of an organ, men and women sitting together, and changes in the words of the prayers.
We see in it a different philosophy. The person who joins a Liberal Synagogue thereby commits himself to more than a mode of worship. He commits himself to a philosophy.
As against the traditionalist philosophy which says our religion is God-given and the Torah a Divine message to our ancestors at Sinai and to all the generations of Jews to the end of time, the Liberal view says that some or much of our religion is man-made and without permanent and binding authority. It claims therefore the right to alter and adjust Judaism to the times.
Therein of course lies its appeal to some people of the type who demand, “Why don’t othodox Jews change Judaism? Why don’t they bring it up to date? Why don’t they make it more modern?” What they mean is probably this: “Why not make Judaism more trendy, less of a discipline, and tailored more closely to the ways and whims of the moment?”
We for our part are unimpressed with such ideas, and continue to stand for the eternity and integrity of the Sinaitic Torah.
As an American Rabbi, Harold P. Smith puts it, “Orthodoxy feels terrified at the thought that you will take a time like the present… and say you want to adjust your religion to the times”.
An age of promiscuity and paganism, of cruelty and callousness, of victimisation and violence, of social disintegration and moral decline – is this the age to which Judaism is asked to adapt itself? Surely it is Judaism that should be allowed to shape the times, rather than the times shaping Judaism. Harold Smith goes on, “Orthodoxy believes that every non-orthodox approach… has in itself the seed of self-destruction. The moment you extend to each generation the invitation to mould our religion to suit its particular whims, then it is a definite certainty that, after you have rejected what does not suit you, and then preached how vital is what you have kept, for the preservation of the Jewish religion, your grandchildren will come along and eliminate these as unsuitable to them – and why not? – and where are you then? When you admit that what is Judaism in one land is not Judaism in another land – then the Judaism of the ages, universally applicable to all times and all places, must of necessity become a thing of the past…”
The philosophy of the Judaism of tradition believes that the Torah is the word of God. It is convinced that God in His infinite sagacity is wiser than finite man. It accepts that God has revealed the principles and patterns whereby man is to live. It is not so arrogant and conceited to imagine that mortal man has the right to judge one element or other of the Torah as dispensable, and then to legislate it out of existence.
It affirms, “I do not pretend to understand all of God’s ways or to know why some of his statutes were commanded. But humbly, lovingly, loyally, I do my best to live by the word of God, and I keep on studying and delving so that day by day I deepen my understanding”.
There is a whole range of stereotypes, of slogans, directed at us by those who do not (perhaps I should say, who do not yet) adhere to the fullness of Torah Judaism.
They say, “Your way of being Jewish is too ritualistic and you forget the ethical principles”. We answer, “Ritual – if by that you mean observing the mitzvot – is not an end in itself. It is a daily, practical means of symbolising the great teachings. Thus, the ritual of Pesach symbolises freedom. The ritual of Shavu’ot stands for acceptance of the moral law. Kashrut represents discipline. And so on. Without ritual, the theory of theology would become so rarefied that human beings could not attain it”.
We are told, “How can God be interested in pots and pans?” We answer, “God is interested in weights and measures too. He is interested in separating milk and meat, and He is also interested in distinguishing between right and wrong. Why should the Almighty be concerned only with big things and not with small ones”?
We are told, “Your services do not attract people”. We answer, “The non-orthodox services – for all their modifications and their greater use of English and their organs and their family pews – are not noticeably more successful in attracting the numbers than we are.
Indeed, the congregations that do bring in the crowds – every Shabbat, indeed every day – are the orthodox ones, which are sometimes too noisy but which maintain the emotional and intellectual richness of the tradition”.
We are accused, “Your members are as non-observant as are the Liberals”. We disagree. We say: “Every individual has to live by his own conscience. If he belongs to an orthodox synagogue, his partial non-observance is probably due to weakness or lack of understanding. There may and hopefully will come a time when he hearkens to his conscience and comes closer to the law. But a person who fails to observe the mitzvot and claims that he or his congregation regards the law as obsolete, it is he that is a transgressor – by ‘making void the Torah’ – and he menaces the unity and continuity of Judaism.”
They say, “Your orthodox approach is only for old-timers”. We reply, “The fact is the opposite. It is orthodoxy which today is attracting the young people and the intellectuals. It is orthodoxy which is becoming ever more of a force with more and more of the younger generation committing themselves to Torah, learning Torah, and living Torah”.
They suggest to us, “Your Judaism is stagnant and fossilised”. We say, “This is simply not true. Judaism grows, its principles are applied to new situations and unprecedented challenges and changes. But the growth is from within. It proceeds slowly, carefully, and in harmony with the past. And it is authorised, by men of unimpeachable piety and deep learning, who do not alter the Torah but apply it with responsibility and conscience”.
This is not a polemic. It is not a tirade. It is not an exercise in abuse or execration of persons and views with which the Judaism of tradition is at variance. Intemperate language is out of place when important things are being discussed. Even when one feels strongly one should be able to debate calmly and with respect for the human dignity of the other person.
But it is necessary for us to clarify our stance especially when false ideas and stereotyped slogans are being heard. It is necessary for us to make it clear that it is principle that lies between orthodoxy and Liberalism – principle on both sides. Of course it is important to stress that we are all Jews, and that there are non-religious areas where we can and do work together – but the orthodox Jew feels that if the Liberal has chosen to dissent in major areas of religious teaching, the Liberal cannot in fairness ask his orthodox brother to compromise his conscience and push away his principles and act as if nothing has happened.
From time to time grave agonies are caused because people cannot or do not see that there are deeds of dissent which we cannot approve. When marriages are performed that infringe Torah law, when converts are accepted without taking upon themselves the observance of the mitzvot – we have no choice but to say that this is not in accordance with the tradition. It is not we who are then causing an injustice or exhibiting intolerance.
Sometimes people use the term Progressive Judaism. In fact, the true progressive Judaism is orthodoxy. It is the Judaism of tradition that urges progress, progress upwards and onwards, towards intenser devotion, deeper learning, more abiding commitment to Torah. And it is Torah which equips man, Jew and non-Jew, to help the world to progress, and to bring about the Messianic fulfilment.