Avoid Boycotts

Boycotting an entire segment of the Jewish people demands great caution and constant re-examination * It cannot be asserted that the Reform community causes damage to an extent that justifies boycott, even if in the past there was justification * The perception that your righteousness is measured by your exclusion of others, which unfortunately has penetrated the National Religious public, is unacceptable and should be avoided

In my last column, I explained that it is a mitzva to maintain a warm relationship with fellow Jews from all movements and streams, including Reform and Conservative, and together with the mitzva to admonish against breaches of the Torah, we must also give expression to the mitzvah to ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’ in our encounters with them, and thus oppose boycotting their representatives, for the prohibition of hate and the mitzvot of admonition and love are interconnected, as is written:

Do not hate your brother in your heart; you must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.

Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people; you must love your neighbor as you love yourself; I am God.” (Leviticus 19: 17-18)

Three claims have been raised against this view and in favor of boycotting representatives of these movements:

  • They encourage assimilation, which is the most serious threat to the Jewish people. Every encounter with them gives them legitimacy and intensifies assimilation;
  • They harm Torah tradition and the observance of mitzvot, and damage the status of the Chief Rabbinate;
  • All the great sages (“gedolim”) of the past agreed they should be boycotted, so it is forbidden for a rabbi to meet with them publicly, against the view of these sages.

Preface to the Discussion

Needless to say, we have strong disagreements with our Reform and Conservative brethren regarding Torah tradition and halakha. Therefore, unfortunately, we cannot acknowledge their halakhic authority vis-à-vis conversion, weddings, and the like, and owing to the obligation to protest, we are also unable to attend their prayers and weddings. In addition, for many years they estranged themselves from Eretz Yisrael and from Israel’s redemption, and even today many of them believe the libels our enemies spread against the State of Israel and against the settlers in Judea and Samaria. The question is whether these disagreements should lead to hatred and boycott, or whether we must find ways to increase peace, love, and mutual understanding to the degree possible.

The Premise

Before starting the discussion, we must establish the premise. The unity of the Jewish people is one of the supreme values ​​of the Torah, and upholding it is a matter of collective piku’aḥ nefesh. As our Sages said (Yoma 9b), the First Temple was destroyed because of the sins of idolatry, incest, and bloodshed. “But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they occupied themselves with Torah, observance of mitzvot, and the practice of kindness? Because there prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered equivalent to the three sins of idolatry, incest, and bloodshed together.” The controversy in the Second Temple era was between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And this is what the Netziv (Responsa Meshiv Davar 1:44) meant when he address whether the God-fearers (“Orthodox”) should separate from the Reformers and establish their own separate community: “This suggestion is terrible, like swords to the body and existence of the nation,” for even when we were in the Holy Land, with a certain degree of autonomy, “the Temple was destroyed and Israel was exiled because of the controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” Similarly, our Sages said (Sifrei Naso 42):

Great is peace, for even if Israel worships idols, if they live in peace, the Holy One, as it were, says that the Accuser (‘Satan’) cannot touch them, as it is stated (Hosea 4:17) “Ephraim has bound himself to idols—leave him alone.” [I.e., the Ephraimites have bound themselves together, and so are left alone, even though they bonded together to serve idols.] But when they are divided, what is written of them? “Their hearts are divided—now they will be laid waste!” (ibid. 10:2).

And in the Tractate Kalla Rabbati (Chapter 5): “As long as they are joined together, even to worship their idols, leave them alone.” That is why the destruction of the Second Temple is more severe than the destruction of the First Temple.

Therefore, instituting a boycott against representatives of a Jewish movement is a grave and terrible method that endangers the nation. Only when there is no choice, when there is a present, palpable state of national piku’aḥ nefesh, can it be implemented. It would be like a situation where a diseased limb must be amputated to save the patient from a greater risk of life. Therefore, as long as there is some doubt that it is not a situation of certain national piku’aḥ nefesh, or that the nation can be saved in other ways, it is forbidden to employ a boycott, which is even more dangerous to the existence of the Jewish people. And even if it was necessary to take this terrible measure for a certain period of time, it must be examined periodically to see whether it is still necessary, for every year the boycott continues, another cohort of young Jews undergoes this dangerous and horrible surgical operation, which concerns millions of Jews who identify as such. In light of this, we will examine the three claims.

Encouraging Assimilation

Some argue that the Reform movement causes assimilation, and the only way to save the Jewish people is to boycott them. First, we must examine whether this is true. The argument can be made that in the early generations, when the Reform and Conservative movements attracted observant Jews, they thus increased the risk that those Jews would assimilate, for the assimilation rate in these movements was immeasurably higher. Yet the matter is still unclear, because the question is what those Jews would have done had they not gone over to the Reform or Conservative movement: If they would have remained observant, then indeed the chances of them remaining in the Jewish fold would have increased. However, if they had abandoned everything, as many did (20% of German Jews converted to Christianity in the wake of Emancipation), then joining these movements actually delayed the assimilation process.

Even today, some argue that as a result of the Reform movement’s willingness to officiate marriages between Jews and non-Jews, assimilation is increasing. Perhaps they are right. However, given present circumstances, where over 70% of non-observant Jews in America and about 80% in Europe marry non-Jews, it is more likely that the position of Reform leaders does not affect their decision. It would seem the phenomenon of assimilation preceded and caused the Reform decision to officiate marriages of Jews with non-Jews, so as to maintain their connection to Jewish identity. It appears that, indeed, affiliation with the Reform movement, and even more so with the Conservative movement, preserves, to a greater or lesser extent, the Jewish identity of assimilating Jews. I have met a number of Jews who told me that thanks to these movements, they retained their Jewish identity and over time became observant and immigrated to Israel. And they are grateful to the movement for that.

At any rate, the claim that they are causing masses of Jews in the Diaspora to assimilate is far from proven, and it consequently does not justify using the dangerous tool of boycott.

Legitimation of Transgressing the Torah

Another argument that has been raised is that a public meeting with Reformers gives them legitimacy, and as a result, some people will stop being observant or pick and choose which mitzvot they want to keep. It is also argued that meeting them increases their demand for equal status to the Chief Rabbinate, which would be dangerous and destructive for the Jewish people.

This claim, as well, must be questioned, for even without Reform, there are unfortunately many Jews who stop keeping mitzvot, for a variety of reasons. Moreover, today, anyone who wishes can join a Reform or Conservative community. On the other hand, it is likely that precisely the policy of boycotting strengthens their claim to a separate legal status, so perhaps it would be better for the Chief Rabbinate to treat them with dignity and friendship. Perhaps this would even improve the status of the Chief Rabbinate, because in the eyes of many traditional and secular Israelis, the boycott is despicable. It pushes them away from Torah and mitzvot and causes them to question and undermine the status of the Chief Rabbinate. Perhaps a positive attitude toward Reform and Conservative would bring more Jews closer to Torah and mitzvot.

In sum, it seems that the policy of boycotting does more harm than good to Torah observance, the status of the Chief Rabbinate, and Jewish identity. And even according to those who believe that the boycott is effective, it is not a matter of national piku’aḥ nefesh that justifies taking such severe and dangerous action.

Did the Gedolei Ha-Dor Decide to Boycott?

In light of what I have clarified, it is clear these Jewish movements should not be boycotted. However, opponents will still argue that the leading sages, the gedolei ha-dor, decided to boycott these movements, and their decision should not be altered. However, even if we accept this unproven argument (and ignore the position of the rabbis who opposed the boycott), since we are dealing with a public issue that depends on real-world circumstances that naturally change, we are obligated to reconsider it periodically. For with each additional year of boycott, another cohort of Jews undergoes a terrible and risky amputation. Therefore, anyone who quotes eminent rabbis from previous generations, if accurate, can contribute to the historical debate, but these quotes do not obligate us to adopt the same position nowadays.

In conclusion, given the present reality, it is forbidden to boycott the representatives of the Reform and Conservative movement. This does not demand or require everyone to meet people they do not wish to meet. It is only a determination that the boycott is forbidden.

The Boycott Method

The frequent use of boycotts against movements in recent generations has produced a frightful reality in which Jews think that the more meticulously they boycott, the more “righteous” they are considered. Instead of occasionally re-examining whether the boycott is justified, they become more entrenched in their error and apply it to other movements, thus stabbing the heart of the nation with more and more daggers. One group boycotts Zionists, another boycotts soldiers, others boycott Neo-reformers, and still others boycott the academic world. Then another group boycotts rabbis who do not boycott academia, or Zionism, or anyone who does not accept Rabbi X as the gadol ha-dor. Thus, we find Hasidic Rebbes or yeshiva heads who are brothers but have not spoken to one another for years. “God-fearing” people nod their heads in understanding that these methods are all very saintly, as though it is not a public breach of the Torah.

Recently, the boycott method has penetrated the national-religious public. The main Torah debate facing some distinguished rabbis is where to draw the line—that is, who to boycott. Ignoramuses stir the pot, whispering in the rabbis’ ears, speaking slander and libel, and creating a situation that for some rabbis, a “sacred” assembly must declare from the outset who they disqualify and who they boycott. Only then can they discuss the “fateful” question about the “new and dangerous developments” with which only the most terrible events in history can ever compare, who is to blame for it, and what measures to take against them.

At any rate, as for me, if God gives me strength, I will try to proceed in the opposite direction: Whenever there is an initiative to boycott well-intentioned people, even if I deem them dreadfully wrong, if I have the opportunity, I will meet with them publicly, with dignity and love. And if I am attacked for this, I will meet with them repeatedly, and thus include myself in the sanctity of Knesset Yisrael.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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