When Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, a.k.a. the Novominsker rebbe, took to the dais at the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America gala on May 27 to condemn Conservative and Reform Judaism and assail the so-called Orthodox movement, various New York media seemed to find his speech noteworthy.
Here’s what Perlow said:
Those movements that came to subvert the historic meaning of Yiddishkeit have disintegrated themselves. They’ve became oblivious and they’ve fallen into the pits of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future. They almost have no present. And you can say that these vestiges of heresy and lies will be relegated by God to the dustbins of Jewish history.
But a new danger has appeared on the horizon, a movement that calls itself open Orthodoxy, that also seeks to subvert the sacred meaning of Yiddishkeit, that is steeped in heresy…*
Here are some of the reactions the speech spawned:
“Orthodox rabbi stuns Agudath gala” — Forward
“A striking statement” – The New York Times
“Tirade” – New York Observer
But for those who have been paying attention, Orthodox leaders have been disparaging Reform and Conservative Judaism for decades, and Perlow has been at the forefront of such attacks. (See below for some examples of those attacks, culled from the JTA Archive.)
Here’s what David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudah, told JTA in an email:
Agudath Israel has historically been quite vocal on the subject of the non-Orthodox movements – especially in earlier years, when the American Jewish community was still taking shape. More recently, the focus has been less on the heterodox movements, whose failures to sustain Jewish growth and continuity have become painfully apparent to all, and more on internal challenges facing the Orthodox community itself. Still, even today, we do not shy away from criticizing the non-Orthodox movements when they deviate further from classical Judaism.
What’s more, Agudah’s disdain for open Orthodoxy is not new, as is clear from this statement issued last September condemning Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the leader of the open Orthodox movement, for hosting a multidenominational rabbinical panel.
Throughout its history, our people have been afflicted with schismatic movements and sects at odds with the mesorah, or religious tradition, bequeathed to us at Har Sinai.
Sometimes such “new approaches” openly rejected the Jewish religious heritage, like the movement that introduced itself in the nineteenth century as “Reform.” On other occasions, the break with the Jewish past was more subtle, as in the case of the “Conservative” movement, whose name, though, was quickly belied by its actions…
Countless Jews have been led down the path toward Jewish oblivion by the mesorah-rejecting rabbis of the non-Orthodox movements. That an ostensibly Orthodox rabbinical seminary would now provide a prominent public platform for leaders of those movements to share their wisdom on the subject of training new rabbis is irony of the most bitter kind.
A yeshiva is a place where Jews rigorously pursue the timeless truths of Torah. That leaves no room for those who reject the very concept that such timeless truths exist. The forthcoming YCT installation ceremony does violence to this essential principle.
Defending the May 27 speech — after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who spoke after Perlow, came under fire for not condemning the remarks — Agudah officials have taken pains to note that Perlow was not condemning non-Orthodox Jews, but non-Orthodox Judaism.
Some analysts have dismissed that distinction as perfunctory, but it’s actually significant.
While Perlow never has been shy about condemning the non-Orthodox movements, his controversial speech actually reads more like an analysis of the non-Orthodox movements than an attack — and not a wholly inaccurate one, as Forward Editor Jane Eisner acknowledged in an editorial on Tuesday:
If we non-Orthodox Jews are honest, we’ll admit that there is some truth to Rabbi Perlow’s statement that the Reform and Conservative movements have “become oblivious, and they’ve fallen into the pit of intermarriage and assimilation.” Last year’s Pew Research Center report found that more than four-in-five Reform Jews marry non-Jews. Yep, that’s intermarriage and assimilation.
The upshot: What’s the news here?
UPDATE: In an email to JTA, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, responds to Perlow’s remarks:
I welcome the Noviminsker into the conversation of how to bring a Torah message to all Jews that is meaningful to them and their lives. I hope this is the beginning, albeit a rough beginning, to a relationship and partnership with the haredi world to work together for Hashem’s Torah and Klal Yisrael. We at YCT are working hard to train the rabbis who will revitalize and reinvigorate Modern Orthodoxy to relate to the issues and people of our times in a way true to our tradition. I call on the Noviminsker and all Jews to join us in that mission. Orthodoxy should be open, but also a lot more – passionate, inclusive, rigorous, dedicated to walking in Hashem’s ways.
Courtesy the JTA Archive, here are a smattering of some other instances of Orthodox attacks on non-Orthodox Judaism:
Nov. 28, 1995: Yaakov Perlow decries non-Orthodox Judaism as a “false ideology.”
March 26, 1997: The Union of Orthodox Rabbis: “Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. While their adherents are Jews, their religion is not Judaism.” Defending the union after critics assailed the statement, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, dean of Yeshiva University, called Reform and Conservative leaders “deceitful.”
July 13, 1981: Harold Jacobs, president of the National Council of Young Israel: “By rejecting the standards of Jewish law and tradition, it is the Reform and Conservative groups which have divided the Jewish people and caused needless human suffering through invalid conversion, marriage and divorce procedures which have thrown a shadow over the Jewish identity and marital status of thousands of innocent men and women.”
Jan. 21, 1974: Rabbi David B. Hollander, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America: “If rabbis oppose the authority of the halachah, they effectively disqualify themselves not only as rabbis but also as faithful Jews since they stand guilty of leading many well intentioned Jews away from Judaism.”
*Words in italics represent English translations of Hebrew or Yiddish terms.