Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Response to a Reform Critique

Last Sunday, the Toronto Star published an article from one of their columnists, Rabbi Dow Marmur, the Rabbi Emeritus of Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple, a leading institution within Reform Judaism. The article was entitled: "Women energize modern Judaism," and its topic was obvious -- how the greater involvement of women in the synagogue, liturgy and clergy has had a 'positive effect' on 'Judaism'. Of course, included in the article, even as Rabbi Marmur himself states that he has "the highest regard for Orthodox Judaism", are a few jabs at Orthodoxy -- enough of them that more than one person asked me to respond. The article can be seen at:

The question for me was how to respond. His was the politically correct position and challenging this position directly in the largest newspaper in Canada would be foolish and only have negative results. Yet, while in the end my response was not published by the paper, I felt that it was important for me to respond, at least to try and challenge what he said, specifically the subtle negative implications he presented about Orthodoxy. Here was my response:
While Rabbi Marmur is fully entitled to express his thoughts on how women have energized his religion, I do not think it appropriate for him to misrepresent my religion in the process. He critiques those who “depict Judaism as an obsolete relic” and then he revels the same accusation at Orthodox Judaism. Any representation of Orthodox Judaism as fundamentalist negates its commitment to thought and its consummate rejection (via the diversity of opinion found within its studies) of the expression of life in black-and-white terms. Rabbi Marmur’s misrepresentation may be innocent however due to a general perception that the distinctions in the branches of Judaism are more matters of form than issues of essential objectives and understandings. While he may incorporate practices from Orthodoxy in his world of Reform Judaism, he misses seeing how Orthodoxy’s principles really differ from those of Reform Judaism. If he truly understood the distinctions, he would recognize that the changes in the understanding of gender that have occurred over the past 150 years, while having their impact upon Reform Judaism in the obvious manner they have, have also had their impact on Orthodoxy but in a vastly different way reflecting the underlying distinctly substantial and complex values of Orthodoxy.
As I maintained in my article "Adjective and Non-adjective Jews" (available on the Nishma website at, I truly do believe that the best way of responding to these types of directives against Orthodoxy is by just presenting the theological truth -- the religion of Reform Judaism and the religion of Orthodox Judaism are two different religions. What is the problem with stating this? Describing Reform Judaism as its own religion does not in any way give it a standing as true. Let Rabbi Marmur talk about how women have energized Reform Judaism -- well maybe this religion needed some energization. I make it clear this way, though, that what he says has nothing to do with my faith.


Rabbi Ben Hecht


Garnel Ironheart said...

> how the greater involvement of women in the synagogue, liturgy and clergy has had a 'positive effect' on 'Judaism'.

Well considering studies that show that men are dropping out of his "temples" en masse due to their dislike of egalitarianism it's a good think the women are having a positive effect, else he'd have no one left to give his sermons to!

Avraham said...

it was good that I read this, because i forgot to say the bracha shelo asani isha in the morning. This is a great reminder.

But actually to be a bit more serious why not take this critique in a positive way?
If someone criticizes you even with a bad intention (as it almost always is) still does it not make sense to at least try to see if he has any valid points. If orthodox Judaism would be a simple continuation of places like the Mir or Brisk then he would have no valid point. But most of orthodox Judaism is far away from the ideals and principles of the great European yeshivot. It is fanatic. It does have a dark side that is invisible to itself.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

There is an interesting twist to this advancement of women in liturgical life. During the 1980's, when I was working in Denver, a church group, mostly of teenagers, came on a Shabbos to see the service. Afterwards, I was taken by one of the comments of one of the boys. He was surprised to see how many men were in the synagogue; his church basically never came close to this percentage of men. This is an idea that I have since heard many times -- religion is deemed to be a pursuit of our feminine side. Is it not surprising, as such, as movements within generic Judaism are moving more towards the realm of generic religion that there would be a motivation for involvement of women to also increase?

When I was growing up, people seemed to like to point out how Judaism was different than Christianity (specifically referring to Roman Catholicism) in that we didn't need a priest but just 10 men, laymen. While priests were men, the majority of the participants in the services were still women. The fact that it was 10 men who were needed, who participated in the services, was perhaps even more remarkable. (Of course, the original statement was highly problematic and reflected actually an ignorance of Torah as the idea of a select group doing the service actually was adopted from the Jewish kehuna)

Rabbi Ben Hecht