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Orthodox V Reform

Yom Chamishi, 7th of Av, 5776
Thursday, August 11, 2016

Seven score years ago the Jewish people in Germany broke into two groups when Orthodox Jews officially separated from the general Jewish community.1 This division in the Jewish nation happened in reaction to Reform Judaism, a movement to bring Judaism up to date with the social and intellectual developments of the modern world. Since that time, other Jewish movements have formed, partly in reaction to the Orthodox/Reform split. While in many ways the Jewish people has remained one nation, the Orthodox and progressive movements have such different philosophies that in some ways we are a nation divided.

Now 140 years later, the two parts of our nation are still locked in a struggle to resolve the differences that led to their formation. One of the main battlegrounds in this conflict is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, which is, ironically, the one place where all of the Jewish people should be able to come together as one. The Western Wall is a remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem, built as a recreation of our nation's birth at Mt. Sinai, where thousands of years ago all of our people stood united, and in the merit of that unity had an encounter with the One G-d.

The Jewish people were charged with a mission at Mt. Sinai - to be a mamleches kohanim, a kingdom of priests, and a goy kadosh, a holy nation.2 To show the world how a people should live - in relation to G-d, and in relation to each other. As part of the former role, we observe the ritual of Shabbat each week, recognizing the Creator of the world. To fulfill the latter role, we fight for social justice, treating our fellows as we ourselves would like to be treated.

While in some ways it is an oversimplification, the division between Orthodox and Reform Jews can be seen as a split between those Jews focused on G-d and ritual observance and those Jews focused on their fellow human beings and civil law. And so, in the conflict at the Western Wall, Orthodox Jews attack Reform Jews for their relative lack of emphasis on G-d and ritual. And Reform Jews rail against Orthodox Jews for not recognizing equality and human rights. Neither group is wrong, and neither group is right - we are simply two parts of one people.

Although both philosophies are part of Judaism, I want to suggest that ultimately one is more important than the other. In this month called Av (Hebrew for "Father"), consider how G-d sees us.3 As any parent knows, if you come home and find your kids doing something bad together, even something disrespectful to you, that is unacceptable, and everyone needs to sit down for a long talk. But if you come home and your kids are all fighting with each other, that is simply intolerable, and it needs to stop right away. So, for G-d's sake as well as our own, let's focus for the time being on how we're treating each other. And, maybe then we can all talk about Shabbat and other observances.

About a week ago, on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month) of Av, I went to the monthly Women of the Wall (WOW) prayer service. I've been a regular at these events for five months now, and there's always conflict, but this month was especially bad. The ultra-Orthodox protestors in the women's section blew whistles so loud4 that it became unbearable for some WOW members. And in the outer plaza, where the men stood, the shoving was more violent than I've ever seen. At one point, soldiers moved people to either side, separating the Orthodox and liberal camps. I was the last one left, and a secular soldier asked me something in Hebrew and then motioned with his hands - this way or that?

An Orthodox yeshiva student had asked me the same question at another event a couple months before. In the month of Sivan, the month of our rendezvous with G-d at Mt. Sinai, the Reform and Conservative movements held a mixed-gender afternoon prayer service at the Western Wall. In what became a rowdy family reunion, the Orthodox gathered next to the liberal Jews on the plaza, heckling and pushing. As a liberal Orthodox Jew, I stood in the middle, prompting the student's question. "Both," I answered, "I want everyone to be able to come here."

I didn't realize it then, but for the brief time of the service, everyone was there. When the Reform and Conservative Jews first came onto the plaza, they were singing. The Orthodox charged at them, and then, stopped, and - started singing their own song. Toward the end of the service, some of the Orthodox sang the song Toras HaShem Temima (G-d's Torah is Perfect) while the Reform and Conservatives sang Aleinu (Us). We had different tunes, even completely different songs, but we were undoubtedly both Jewish groups - two distinct, yet complimentary parts of one people singing to G-d there at the foot of the Wall.

I think this could be how we really complete the mission given to us at Mt. Sinai. Not by being one big mamleches kohanim and goy kadosh, but by being a mamleches kohanim AND a goy kadosh, two - or more - different parts joined together as one. That's how we show all of the peoples in G-d's very diverse world how to do it, by demonstrating that different groups can join together as one, completing each other. Orthodox AND Reform, Jews AND Muslims, Women AND Men.

Sometimes there's a little friction when two people are trying to come together. Like two fifth-graders with crushes on each other, we fight or act avoidant, unaware of our real feelings. So often it's the person who condemns the loudest that has a hidden liking for their object of scorn. So I'm not worried about the whistlers at WOW events. Eventually we'll break through the conflict and avoidance and see that we really do want to connect.

And on that day, let it be soon, all of our different voices will join together in a new song, a great symphony of many distinct parts, a beautiful combination of countless unique instruments that, some of us didn't even realize we were playing. I'm looking forward to that day, and to hearing that new, most beautiful song of all. But until then, I'd like to offer an oldie. Well, it's an oldie where I come from.

My country, tis of thee, sweet Land of liberty, of thee I sing

Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrim's pride

From every Mountainside, let freedom ring!

1 Ellenson, David. (1990). Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. p. 87. Retrieved from
2 Shemos (Exodus) 19:6
3 This is a common analogy, not my original thought.
4 Glassman, T. (2016, August 5). WATCH: Ultra-Orthodox Protestors Heckle Praying ‘Women of the Wall’ Members. The Forward. Retrieved from