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Rabbi Views “With Alarm” Extremist Trends In Jewish Religious Life

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 2002

Recent trends in the interpretation of Halakha, Jewish religious law, have been moving in an “extremist” direction, writes Rabbi Irvin Brandwein in Judaism (Fall 2001), published by the American Jewish Congress.  

Rabbi Brandwein, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and has served congregations in New York, California and Montreal, states that, ‘Like many, I view with alarm various trends in Jewish religious life. Oddly, many recent changes in Jewish Law emanate from the extreme right. If we who occupy the religious center do not become as passionate, committed and articulate in our study and teaching as the giants of the Hasidic and Yeshiva worlds, then we will have completely surrendered both the power and privilege to speak for Jewish authenticity. Total religious control will have been relinquished to a small but stalwart circle of ‘authorities’ who have grown steadily in power.”  

Too often, Brandwein argues, mainstream American Judaism has conceded “vast and crucial areas of Jewish life to the extreme right wing. These include dietary laws, divorce, mikve, eruvin, mezuza, conversions and circumcisions. By abdicating our duty to salvage, transmit and apply neglected but genuine traditions of Halakha, we allow only one model to represent Jewish authenticity and legitimacy for our children and the world. This is no longer tolerable. It is high time that we unite to lay the foundation for a new perspective.”  

In Brandwein’s view, Jewish law over the centuries has been amenable to change and to a variety of interpretations: “Too many in the Jewish world accept the misleading notion that there is really only one way to be authentically Jewish. Their vision is one of monolithic uniformity. However, if allowed to speak for itself, the Halakha (Jewish law) exhibits profound generosity, flexibility, grandeur, elegance, symmetry and an explicitly pronounced liberalism which remains loyal to our way of life. In fact, one, can make a compelling case that the very term Halakha itself implies metamorphosis and change, the word means proceeding, advancing, traveling, moving on a prescribed path.”  

Many examples of variety are presented. One hundred years ago, the orthodox Rabbinate of Bombay, India, approved and endorsed train travel on Sabbaths and Holy Days for their Jewish community. Jews living in Jerusalem during the first half of the 20th century were given approval to attend sporting events and restaurants on the Sabbath. In 13th century Provence, the playing of stringed instruments was permitted on the Sabbath.  

More recently, trends have moved in a more restrictive direction. The Jewish Community Council of Montreal recently declared that a dozen fruits and vegetables are no longer permissible without careful inspection, using a special fluorescent-light examination box and elaborate cleansing procedures. Some foods can now no longer be eaten at all, including artichokes, asparagus, blackberries, broccoli and cabbage.  

Rabbi Brandwein notes that, “Since the holocaust, Jewish religious discourse has become inundated with newly coined buzzwords and terminologies encoding a specific ideology and religious agenda. . . . (these) have become tools to sanctify a specific, idealized past, carry out the crusade against modern, secular life and resurrect the religious milieu of pre-modern Eastern European Jewish life . . . If we are serious about our tradition and respect the spiritual legacy handed us, then we must stop surrendering the Halakha to others and reclaim what must be ours.”  

He concludes that, “. . . generally, Jewish law is flexible and liberal. Rabbinic literature has consistently frowned upon unnecessary strictness . . . Today we witness the spectacle of national rabbinic bodies and entire religious groups cowering in fear of accusations of heresy, threats of excommunication, and worst of all losing their kashruth endorsement. We are justifiably offended when some Christian writes off the Jewish people or devalues our relationship with God and yet some ‘torah giants’ do precisely the same thing. Entire streams, movements and communities of Jewry are declared illegitimate . . . Non ‘torah-true’ Jews are considered ‘fallen’ and even the parliament of Israel is vigorously lobbied in a desperate effort to halt the recognition of non-Orthodox movements and their leaderships. A questionable Halakha is used to displace genuine Jewish ethics. Religious extremism erupts into orgies of excommunication, rock-throwing arson, mob violence, physical assaults and the destruction of Jewish institutions. We have been forced to endure the Jewish national disgrace of learning how terrorist attacks, accidents, disasters and even the murder of Price Minister Rabin can be justified halakhically/theologically.”

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