Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Teves 5760 - January 5, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Friendly Words From a Surprising Place

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

There is now reason to hope that the two young Jewish girls who have been the focus of much of the Orthodox Jewish world's attention in recent months may yet be removed from the custody of their nonobservant, reportedly meshumad father in Italy and perhaps even returned, as is their wish, to their observant Jewish mother in Eretz Yisroel. The outrageous decision of a juvenile court in Genoa that awarded the father, Moshe Dulberg, custody of the girls and severely limited the youngsters' contact with their mother and other religious Jews has been overturned by a court of appeals. May all the steps necessary to return the girls to their mother and their religious heritage come to pass, if not before these words are read, then soon thereafter.

Many groups have become actively involved in the effort to "rematriate" the girls. They include, in addition to AIWO, Am Echad, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Orthodox Union, and the Conference of European Rabbis. Another prominent figure whose voice was added to the chorus of protest deserves particular mention, and credit: Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of his movement's Religious Action Center.

According to a report in the Anglo-Jewish weekly, Forward, the Reform leader recently described as "extraordinarily troublesome" the Italian juvenile court's evident determination that an Orthodox life would be detrimental to the girls' welfare, and decried its "assumption that Orthodox Judaism is a cult that is not deserving of the respect of the court and the protection of international religious freedom treaties."

The mother's Israeli attorney, Shmuel Moran, said about the decision: "I'm not religious. In both my life and beliefs, I am completely secular. Yet as a man and as a lawyer, I cannot make my peace with what I have witnessed . . . The total impermeability of the court, its antisemitic approach, the racist asides and expressions of disgust for the mother and her way of life, all suggest preconceived notions that the girls would be better off if separated as far as possible from their mother and her way of life . . . "

The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Eliyahu Toaff, characterized the court's decision as "bizarre" and as having "stigmatized the lifestyle of Orthodox Jews around the world."

Rabbi Saperstein's inclusion, however, on the list of those expressing outrage at the court's apparent bias against Orthodox Jews and Orthodox practice is particularly laudable, welcome, heartening -- if somewhat surprising.

Surprising, because negative characterizations of what the world calls Orthodox Judaism -- what for several thousand years until fairly recently was called simply Judaism, without any prefix -- have emerged on more than one occasion from an assortment of leaders of the movement Rabbi Saperstein represents.

Several years ago, for example, the then-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Simeon Maslin, was not waxing sentimental when he described "bearded men in black caftans and women wearing sheitels (wigs) . . . [who] pray rapidly in a sing-song Hebrew, pore over the Talmud in segregated yeshivot, . . . and generally reject modernity." (Reform Judaism, Summer, 1996).

For good measure, Rabbi Maslin decried shechita as a "painful method of slaughter," . . . and ridiculed Orthodox Jews for daring "to pray, at the dawn of the 21st century, for the reestablishment of the sacrificial cult."

More recently, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' current president, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, decried what he christened "ghetto Judaism" -- which he defined as the belief that Jews "should be secluded in our own communities concerned only with our own learning and observance . . . that our connection with the outside world should be a utilitarian one . . . " And lest anyone misconstrue his mark, he went on to identify it as having long existed "in Williamsburg and Borough Park."

Rabbi Yoffie has also made reference, in other contexts, to "utterly fanatic ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who are becoming more extreme every day" and has accused "the ultra- Orthodox" of having "abused Torah for their own selfish purposes and brought it into disrepute."

Sentiments like those voiced by Rabbis Maslin and Yoffie have had, unfortunately, a profound effect on their intended audiences -- Jews who might be persuaded to support Reform efforts, in particular to change Israel 's religious status- quo. But they might also have had an unintended but not insignificant ripple effect on the larger world. Reform Judaism, after all, is an impressive, glossy publication mailed to 310,000 addresses, not all of them Jewish homes, and the national and international press routinely provides broad coverage to Reform leaders' remarks. And the full effect of negative rhetoric is sometimes not evident until it is reflected back, grotesquely magnified, from other, distant, fun-house mirrors.

And so it is deeply gratifying to note Rabbi Saperstein's recent stance and remarks. And deeply stirring to imagine that they may signal a retreat on the part of the Reform leadership from the anti-Orthodox excesses of its past. Such a change, especially coming on the heels of Reform movement's recent and much-publicized acknowledgment of the importance of traditional Jewish practice, could bode well indeed -- not only for the image of Orthodox Jews in the eyes of the wider world but for the future of the hundreds of thousands of precious Jews who currently affiliate with Reform temples.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs of the American Aguda. This article appears in the current issue of Coalition, an internal publication of Agudath Israel of America.

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