Scope of Orthodoxy
To the Editor:
In his book review of Justice and Judaism in your August issue, Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski makes a number of controversial statements, but one, in particularly bad taste, stands out: namely, that Reform “made it possible for the Jew . . . to widen the scope of his religion, and to find religious outlets in philanthropy rather than in the kitchen.”
The implications behind this, often heard from cynics, who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” are unfair and downright untrue. For generations Jews—Orthodox Jews—have been ideally characterized as rachamonim, bay’shonim, and gomlei chasadim (merciful, modest, and doers of charity), and to this day the observant Orthodox Jew is at least as philanthropic as his co-religionist Reformer. The oft maligned “ghetto Jew” in Williamsburg gives a far larger percentage of his income to charity than the wealthier, “ethical” and “cultured” Reform Jew. It is only among these “fanatic” people that the following incident, for which I can personally vouch, could occur; a poor laborer, probably legitimately eligible for charity himself, borrowed money in order to contribute to his more unfortunate brethren overseas. It is in the Orthodox shul where a weary traveler can be assured of an invitation to a member’s home, a meal, and a night’s lodging. I would advise the rabbi to spend a few hours learning the laws of hachnosas orchim (hospitality to strangers) and zedakah (charity) from those very tomes which he calls “obsolete.”
Reform did not widen the scope of Judaism, but rather narrowed it by confining it to philanthropy. It is to Orthodoxy’s credit that it includes in its scope the kitchen—and the living room and bedroom too. One cannot be a Jew in one sphere only. While the author accuses Orthodoxy of being too narrow, many of his colleagues consider it too pervasive and stifling. Even if Orthodoxy wanted to change it would not know in which direction it might satisfy more Reform rabbis.
Rabbi Petuchowski gratuitously analyzed the reasons for Orthodoxy’s “zealous defense of . . . minutiae.” May I take a similar, if unwarranted, liberty of analyzing the motives of the author’s biting the hand that fed him—the Judaism that kept our people together for two thousand years. Perhaps the rabbi feels a certain sense of guilt at his abandonment of the faith of his fathers, and must rationalize his behavior.
Seymour M. Glick (M.D.)
New Haven, Connecticut
Rabbi Petuchowski writes:
Dr. Glick might possibly modify his indignant argumentum ad hominem if he could be made to see that what was intended in my review of Justice and Judaism was not a denigration of Orthodoxy, but rather an attempt to account for the fact that, at a definite period of history, Reform rallied under the banner of “Prophetic Religion.” It was not my intention to cast aspersions on the philanthropic record of traditional Jews throughout the ages. They, too, are the heirs of the teachings of the Prophets. I lack the statistical data either to agree or to disagree with Dr. Glick’s evaluation as to where the greater charity is to be found. Perhaps, though, he is a little harsh on the “wealthier, ‘ethical’ and ‘cultured’ Reform Jew.” After all, it was the latter who was mainly responsible for the creation of Jewish hospitals and other welfare institutions in this country, which may indeed (and this is said with regret) lack some of the intimacy and personal involvement of the traditional hachnosas orchim and zedakah, but which nonetheless have proved quite effective in gearing those traditional obligations to a 20th-century community of some five million souls.
What is implied in my statement which Dr. Glick finds to be in particularly bad taste is simply this: In a real and consistent Orthodoxy all laws, be they ethical or ritual, are of equal importance, since they go back to the same divine revelation. It follows that even a slight infringement of a ritual or dietary rule constitutes “sin,” and, if done wittingly and repeatedly, stamps the transgressor as a mumar (apostate), and thus practically places him beyond the fold.
In the Emancipation period, this unbending (and absolutely logical) “orthodox” position drove literally thousands to the baptismal font. If Reform has managed to stem that tide, it was in a large measure due to the fact that Reform differentiated between the ethical and the ceremonial, laying the greatest stress on the former, and thus providing a means of Jewish self-identification even where the kitchen was (rightly or wrongly) sacrificed in the process of acculturation, and where, by Orthodox standards, a “break with Judaism” would already have been diagnosed.
That philanthropy by itself does not, in this writer’s view, constitute the end-all and be-all of Judaism—even in its non-Orthodox formulation—is, I believe, sufficiently indicated in the review in question. But the many t’refah-eating contributors to the Jewish Welfare Fund and the UJA would tend to support the attacked statement that Reform “made it possible for the Jew of the Emancipation and post-Emancipation era . . . to find religious outlets in philanthropy rather than in the kitchen.”