Spoiler alert – Orthodox Judaism is too

Cookie Schwaeber-Issan | December 13, 2022

For some time now, Orthodox Jewish leaders have attempted to delegitimize Conservative and Reform Judaism as not being authentic Judaism, so it probably didn’t come as a big surprise when Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of the ever-controversial late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, declared that these two branches of Judaism are “a new religion.” Stating that these streams “represent a ‘new religion’ and are actively uprooting our Torah,” he went on to say that “there is no difference between the two, as they are both the same.”  Of course, those who know anything about these two branches know Conservative Judaism tends to be much more observant and ritualistic than Reform Judaism. For example, gender separation is still practiced in most Conservative synagogues, with husbands and wives not sitting together during services. Yosef has described both streams as “Shabbat violators,” saying, “It is better to interact with secular Jews and try to bring them closer to religion, than it is to interact with Reform or Conservative Jews.” 

These statements didn’t go over very well with those specifically targeted by the rabbi, as one representative of the Reform movement responded by saying, “It is not possible that a rabbi whose salary is paid by the public disparages the liberal Jewish public, including Israeli men and women who belong to the Reform and Conservative movements. It is appropriate that the chief rabbi of Israel should understand that there is more than one way to be a Jew and not exclude millions of Jews from the nation of Israel.” But, if the truth be known, today’s expression of Orthodox Judaism, also known as rabbinic Judaism, is a departure from the Judaism recorded in the biblical texts.   Those texts were the basis of Judaism until the First Century, when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a rabbinic scholar, and a group of other sages concerned for the survival of Judaism, gathered at Yavneh, a town to the west of Jerusalem, for discussions and policymaking, which would eventually lead to a departure from what had been observed up to that point.  Their goal was to devise a framework within which the religious identity of the Jews could be preserved without the Temple – thus was the birth of rabbinic Judaism, which relied upon an Oral Law, penned by rabbis, scholars and sages, alongside the Written Law

Exodus 31:8 states, “When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, writtenwith the finger of God.”

Those writings, comprising the Talmud, Mishnah, Gemara and Midrash, all contain a code of religious laws, traditions, interpretations and commentaries. There is also the Kabbalah, a set of mystical religious interpretations. But if Rabbi Yosef were to be forthright and candid, the truth is that this gathering in Yavneh prompted a very significant shift in the political and religious life of the Jewish people. It essentially redefined Judaism, as its tenets, from that point on, would come from rabbis, scholars and sages, as opposed to the scriptures.

Wikipedia’s description of rabbinic Judaism supports this, saying, “rabbinic Judaism has been the mainstream for Judaism and gained predominance within the Jewish diaspora between the 2nd to 6th centuries, with the development of the oral law and the Talmud to control the interpretation of Jewish scripture and to encourage the practice of Judaism in the absence of Temple sacrifice and other practices no longer possible.” In fact, throughout history, there were so many different commentaries and interpretations of Judaism that this was largely responsible for a great many splits within the faith, causing the emergence of other streams and branches.   Those differences covered issues of divorce, holiday observance, outward dress, what constitutes a lie and so much more. Not only is this unknown universally. But many Jews are, themselves, unaware of Judaism’s evolution as a faith over the last 2,000 years. 

Today, the government of Israel supports rabbinic Judaism as being the authentic and most legitimate expression of Judaism, affording its adherents rights and privileges which escape others who seek to bring their own interpretation of a more liberal and pluralistic observance. That preferentialism manifests in many aspects of daily life, but examples which are, perhaps, most prevalent include the fact that only Orthodox rabbis are authorized to perform wedding ceremonies in Israel for a Jewish bride and groom. Likewise, organized prayer at the Western Wall by groups other than the Orthodox has been a constant source of conflict and might be banned entirely with the election of more extremist religious political parties into Israel’s government. While there is no doubt that Rabbi Yosef would not hesitate to say that he keenly observes the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, one wonders if he is familiar with the particular scripture from Deuteronomy 4:2 that says: “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”  Because, if he accepts that scripture at face value, how does he not see the Yavneh forum as being responsible for Judaism becoming a new religion, as it relied upon extra-biblical sources to repurpose the faith – making it look very different today from the one inked by the finger of God?

The delegitimization of one’s personal choice as it concerns one’s faith is not only terribly divisive, it also supposes that one stream and one interpretation have the lock on what God intended. It places that person or group in the category of ultimate arbiter and spokesperson for the Almighty.  It separates us as a people and as a nation, doing more harm than our outside enemies, because it constitutes a rejection of the Chosen People by a segment of its own.

Israel must internalize a very important law of human nature.  Disenfranchisement is not a winning strategy in trying to persuade hearts and minds – especially when capitulation would only come from being locked out, not being included with your own people and having to go against your own conscience as it pertains to issues of faith. 

Orthodox Jewish leaders would do well to remember that only God has the power to change people from within, and, perhaps that was best expressed by the Jewish prophet Jeremiah, who wrote, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).