P erhaps no phrase has been more often repeated during the recent flap over the heterodox prayer site than “Jewish unity.” Natan Sharansky used it, saying, “This crisis has to be solved, because it’s too important for the future of our unity,” and so did the Conservative movement, warning of the “existential threat… to the unity of the Jewish people….” And when then-religious affairs minister Naftali Bennett inaugurated a 450-meter platform at the site in 2013, he declared that it was to “help unify the Jewish people.”

Strange, isn’t it, that those splitting off and praying at their own site are seen as promoting “unity”? One can understand an argument for a separate space for heterodox worship based on appeals to pluralism or individualism. But wouldn’t a value called Jewish unity seem to militate for all Jews to pray together in the same space, and in unified fashion?

The truth is that all the talk of unity masks what is one of the most unpleasant truths of the entire episode, one the heterodox movements must not utter lest it explode not only their claims at the Kosel but their entire push for religious recognition in Israel, too. They know only too well what their beliefs and practices are, or aren’t.

And thus, although they may believe their religion is valid, they also must know — if they possess even a modicum of intellectual honesty — the truth of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch’s observation that the theological chasm separating Orthodoxy from Reform is even greater than that between Protestantism and Catholicism. Although both are practiced by Jews, the former two faiths are distinct religions, no less than the latter pair.

Nor does one need to be of Rav Hirsch’s stature to discern this; even a simple Jew can do so. When, in 1997, Israeli Reform leader Uri Regev accompanied the current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, on a get-acquainted visit to a New Jersey Reform temple, Rivlin told the press upon his return to Israel: 

As a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked without any limit…. I felt as if I were in a church. I was completely stunned. This is idol worship and not Judaism. Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.

But fear not: Having ascended to the presidency, Rivlin has since “seen the light.” Thus, when Natan Sharansky tells the Times of Israel that there is “staggering ignorance among Israeli government ministers about Reform and Conservative Judaism,” he ought to be careful what he wishes for.

And so, when heterodox leaders speak of Jewish unity, they don’t mean with the fervently Orthodox. Knowing just how great and unbridgeable is the chasm between them and Orthodoxy, why ever would these movements seek unity with us? Are there ever unity-building missions by the Southern Baptist leadership to Vatican City, or vice versa?

But we’re not just a different religion — after all, the heterodox love interfaith dialogue — but a religion they disdain. They are the Children of Light; we, of benighted, repressive darkness. They are the vanguard of reason and morality; we, throwbacks to medieval, superstitious fundamentalism.

As former Reform movement head Eric Yoffie wrote in Reform Judaism Magazine: 

As a leader of the Reform Movement, I spend much of my time fighting Jewish fundamentalists — ultra-Orthodox or haredi (G-d-fearing) Jews who oppose modernity, resist reason, and reject as inauthentic the progressive religious values I espouse.

(To his credit, however, he continued to express admiration for “the community-building and mutual caring I find in the haredi world…. Rather than wait for the government or a social service agency to act, they have established their own institutions; and what they are unable to do is done by the extended family, by neighbors, or by the synagogue. Consequently, they have largely been shielded from the scourge of alienation pervading modern life…. Clearly, there are things we can learn from the ultra-Orthodox about being a more caring community.”)

A Torah Jew believes that every Jewish neshamah is indispensable to the wholeness of our Chosen Nation, and there’s no contradiction between feeling an essential unity with every other Jew whatever his religiosity, and regarding the heterodoxies as perversions of Judaism. To the contrary, the more deeply he experiences his oneness with all Jews, the more acutely does he feel the injury done to our people by the heterodox poseurs.

But for the Reform movement, whose founders declared themselves Germans of the Mosaic faith and rejected the very idea of a Chosen Nation comprised of elevated Jewish souls, Jewish unity means nothing more than solidarity with like-minded people. As for the Orthodox, whose deeply held beliefs in the Thirteen Principles of Faith get in the way of such “unity,” they can go fly their own primitive Yiddish-kite.

But perish the thought of them saying so openly, since that would that run afoul of the high principle of pluralism to which they pay homage. And more importantly, to acknowledge the vast gulf separating them from us would, logically speaking, dash any possibility of official state recognition for a strangely formed, three-winged bird of Judaism.

And so, even as they attack the Rabbinate and the frum community for their fundamentalism, heterodox spokespeople choose to touch only lightly upon their own beliefs and practices, lest that highlight just how radically alien they are to Jewish tradition. They speak, instead, incessantly of “Jewish unity.” But the question begs: With whom?

It is reported that when the Jewish Agency canceled its dinner with Netanyahu over his Kosel decision, the chairman of its board announced, to great applause, that the food was being donated instead to Ezer MiZion, a frum health services organization that embodies true Jewish unity, serving all of Israeli society. And the irony could not have been greater.



EGGED ON The egg has boiled, and it is unquestionably cooked. After ten months of steady, week-by-week effort, groups of Daf Hashavua learners around the world, including one in my shul, are about to conclude Maseches Beitzah. I’ll say this: It has lived up to its reputation for difficulty, as Talmudic tractates go.

That makes all the more remarkable the story told of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Introduction to Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim, vol. 5, p. 9) that when he was eight or nine years old, his father, Rav Dovid, learned all of Beitzah with him over the course of one Shavuos night. Both the young boy’s obvious potential and his father’s dedication to helping him realize it were the talk of the town of Uzda, where Rav Dovid served as the rav. Rav Moshe spoke of the strong impression that evening made on him, serving as an early springboard for his climb to greatness in Torah.

But in Beitzah’s very complexity lies one of the sources of satisfaction to be found in following a program of limud haTorah like Daf Hashavua. While many, perhaps most, of those who’ve been learning this masechta since last Succos can’t say they know it all that well (although building time for review into one’s week raises immeasurably the likelihood of knowing it well), they can say they’re no longer afraid of it. They can even entertain thoughts of one day returning to actually conquer it.

I’ve had that precise experience numerous times when learning a masechta for the first time, even if only at a quicker, more superficial pace. Before venturing into its pages, it stands there like a daunting, foreboding Everest, daring one to scale it.

Then one takes up the challenge, and slowly, a relationship with the tractate develops. It becomes one’s dear friend — so much so, that Chazal (Sanhedrin 99b, with Rashi s.v. Torah) teach that the Torah goes before Hashem on behalf of the Jew studying it with toil, beseeching Him to give over its logic and secrets to him. And when the siyum arrives, he turns to address the masechta directly, intimately, saying Hadran alach — I will yet return to you, climbing again and again, until I’ve arrived at your summit, which is all you desire.

At the very least, we’ve spent these months peeling away Beitzah’s hard shell, revealing a delicious source of nutrition and pleasure within, even if not all of us have fully ingested it — this time. Now it’s on to Rosh Hashanah (the masechta), and soon, the Judgment Day that is its focus. Join us, won’t you? 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 668. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com