NOTE TO READERS: This is a ten-part series of online articles that, with G-d’s help, I hope to transform into a larger book. It is prompted and inspired by questions I have been asked over the past half century by my readers and particularly these past five years by non-Jewish political conservatives of Christian background who often love Jews but cannot figure us out. Because most online opinion articles range between 600-3,000 words, this subject cannot be treated properly in one single article or even in a series. However, this series marks an ambitious effort to address a perplexing question, one that perplexes America’s one million Orthodox Jews more than it does even non-Jewish conservative Christians. The series necessarily begins with several foundational points:
A series as forthright as this undertaking will be met initially by Knee-Jerk Leftist Jews (KJLJs) with the avoidance of facts and the evasion of truth so typical of contemporary cancel culture. They will begin: “Well, who is this guy anyway? Ignore him. He is nobody.” For that reason only, I set forth some basic Judaic bona fides that document my street cred on the issues. I was born and reared in 1950s and 1960s Brooklyn, New York, in a Modern Orthodox American family. My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were Jews who came to America from Russia, and my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather came here from Galicia in southern Poland. They all were among the 3,250,000 Ashkenazi Jews who arrived here primarily between 1881-1914 and who continued arriving until America slammed the gates closed in the early 1920s. I attended Modern Orthodox yeshiva day school in Brooklyn (Yeshiva Rambam at 3121 Kings Highway) from kindergarten through eighth grade. I attended Yeshiva University High School at East 14th Street and Avenue M through my four years of high school. There I was elected student body president and graduated third in my class with several honors. During my next four years pursuing my undergraduate degree in political science at Columbia University, I was elected to represent the entire college student body in the University Senate, and I also continued learning voluntarily at an advanced yeshiva program taught nearby because my Uncle David of blessed memory paid a Rabbi Julius Novak $400 annually to keep an eye on me and to teach me more Torah. I then studied between 1976-1981 for the Orthodox rabbinate and was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in March 1981. My klaf semikha (ordination certificate) was signed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of righteous holy memory and Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm of blessed memory, perhaps Yeshiva’s greatest president. Over the next 40 years, I have been a congregational rabbi at two synagogues affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the “O.U.”) and at two others affiliated with the National Council of Young Israel. I am a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, where I served on the RCA executive committee for several terms. I am one of only five or so rabbis in RCA history who was drafted by the membership to serve an additional term even when the official “Nominations Committee” had decided it was time for someone else once my terms were completed. I am a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, a co-founder of the Coalition for Jewish Values where I am a senior rabbinic fellow and a regional vice president, and I served previously as a vice president of the Zionist Organization of America and as national director of the Likud Zionists of America. I am author of a book on Judaism that remains popular after 30 years, another on Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon, and of thousands of articles on Judaic theology, Jewish history, Jewish culture and society, and Israel. Although I deem The American Spectator, where I am a senior contributing editor, as my professional and cultural home base, my writings regularly appear in The Jerusalem Post, Arutz Sheva / Israel National News, Israel Hayom, The Jewish Press, and will resume soon at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. I co-founded a Jewish community in Samaria where I lived in its gestational two years and was national director of the American support group for Israel’s Likud Party during the two years it extirpated Labor socialism from Israel. My standing to this day in American Orthodox Jewish rabbinic circles is augmented by a career that has included serving two years as a Jewish hospital chaplain in New Jersey, two years as Jewish police chaplain there, a career as a congregational rabbi in New Jersey and California, and having taught on the rabbinical religious-studies faculties of two yeshiva high schools in the New York tri-state area, as well as having taught in two advanced religious-studies college-level programs in Israel, one for overseas college students from English-speaking countries ranging from New Zealand and Australia (to the degree that their language can be called English) to the United Kingdom, South Africa, and America — and one for newly inducted soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. Enough — even embarrassingly too much — about me. But my bona fides need to have been laid out preliminarily in light of the criticism that KJLJs and non-Orthodox commentators will level once these articles hit social media. As for the criticisms that anti-Semitic trolls may post from their mothers’ basements under assumed names, I do not care a whit.
Jews are an ethno-religious, religio-national group. In ancient times, all Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, and other such groups worshiped the same god common to their nationality, even as they were ethnically homogeneous. This phenomenon continued into Greek and Roman Empire times. People of a nation worshiped as their nation uniformly did. The same with Jews. Thus, Jews are both ethnically common and of a common religion. In more modern times, many Jews — especially but not only KJLJs — have deviated from or completely abandoned the Judaic religion, but they remain ethnically Jewish. Jews are not a race. There are Jews of all races — Caucasian, Asian, Negroid — because Jews are people of a shared faith, a shared people.
There are only two ways to be a Jew. All people born of Jewish mothers whose birth mothers were not apostates at the time of childbirth are Jewish. Just as Americans who meet citizenship requirements at birth remain citizens even if they grow up to be felons and worse, so it is that born Jews remain Jews even if they grow to be evil. Thus, for example, even apostates like George Soros, the despicable late Bernie Madoff, and the apostate communist Bernie Sanders, who associates and identifies with Nazi-like Jew-haters of the Ilhan Omar sort, all are Jews even though they all are evil. It is much like American citizenship. To lose that definition — the status of being a Jew — requires not just evil but an apostasy that is akin to an American renouncing his or her citizenship. The only other way a person can be a Jew is if, born non-Jewish, he or she undergoes a conversion process that includes accepting every word of the Torah as true, accepting the obligation to live the rest of one’s life by following the laws of the Written and Oral Torah, thus believing as unalterably true all historic accounts in the Torah, and accepting the halakhic (Judaic law) process of mesorah (Tradition) — the way that tradition and authoritative rabbinic rulings have continued shaping Judaism the past three millennia.
The above paragraph clarifies critically that between 30-40 percent of people who today call themselves “Jews” are not Jews. Adolph Hitler defined Jews by “blood,” tracing lineages back two generations, even patrilineally. However, in fact, a person born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is unequivocally not Jewish. Today in America, large numbers of people tell Pew Research and other pollsters that they are “Jewish” when, to their own innocent ignorance, they are not. Even many of their rabbis are not Jewish. For example, a very prominent woman rabbi in Manhattan who is rabbi of a very prominent reform temple in Manhattan, is not Jewish. She does not see it that way, nor does her reform temple’s membership. That does not matter. Judaism does not have DACA and does not play games. She is not Jewish because her mother was a non-Jewish Korean lady, and this woman never took on the life of a proper convert. Likewise, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is not Jewish. Her patrilineal line was Jewish, but that does not matter. Her maternal grandmother took on Christianity and passed that to her daughter. By the time Dianne was born to her Christian maternal lineage, she was being sent to Catholic schools from childhood through her high school. The fact that she married a Jew, has a surname like “Feinstein,” identifies as a Jew, and votes Democrat does not make her a Jew. She is not a Jew.
Historically, there were not exactly denominations of Judaism. At most, Jews were divided by tribes. Those divisions became stark in some cases. The Bible describes the development of sharp differences in pronunciation (Judges 12:5-6), morals and values (Judges 19-21), and religious standing (Leviticus). Over centuries, tribal distinctions waned, and Jews came to follow theological models they saw among their non-Jewish countrymen. Muslims break into Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, and others. Christians break into Catholics and Protestants. Roman Catholics are different from members of Eastern Orthodoxy. Protestants divide into numerous denominations. Even Protestant denominations subdivide. Thus, for example, there are Lutherans who identify as members of the Missouri Synod, others as members of the Wisconsin Synod, and others as part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Among Jews, the main contemporary denominating began in Germany in 1815 with the rise of the Hamburg Temple. Many Jews in Germany felt they could no longer endure the thousand years of deep Jew-hatred there and desperately sought to minimize the differences individuating them from more open-minded German liberal non-Jews. As a result, they undertook to “reform” Judaism. They first publicly downplayed any further interest in the Holy Land, saying that Germany is their Zion, and German cities like Berlin are their Jerusalem. To underscore their position, they stopped calling their houses of worship the “bet knesset” (synagogue or “house of assembly”) and instead called their places the “temple” to manifest that they have no desire or yearning for the Temple (Beit HaMikdash) that is so central to Judaism, the one that stood and one day will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Rather, for these reform Jews, their “temple” — their only temple — is where they congregate locally in their respective diasporic communities. Other “reforms” they introduced included importing organ music into temple worship because that was the contemporary music of German Lutheran church worship in that era. They had their rabbis dress like German Protestant pastors in black robes rather than wearing yarmulkas as Jewish men should be. They discontinued male head coverings for laity, removed all references to “Israel,” “Jerusalem,” and the “Temple” from their prayerbooks, some moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, some discontinued circumcising baby boys, and they abandoned the Hebrew language to pray in the vernacular: in German for German reform, for example. They boastfully asserted that they were “on the side of history” because their reforms would be proven over time to make Germany the one country that would stand out as being permanently free of anti-Semitism. In 1815, history had not yet unfolded.
As the “reforms” and radicalizations grew increasingly extreme, a counter-radical theological group arose to slow down the “innovations.” They eventually came to be known as “Conservative Judaism” because their deviations and abandonment from the religious core moved much more slowly and methodically — that is, at a comparatively conservative pace. The paradox is that today’s “Conservative Judaism” is not at all conservative but quite “liberal,” and “Conservative Jews” likewise typically vote and think in extremely Democrat liberal terms. Therefore, it now is commonplace among American Jews for someone to say “I am a conservative Jew with a small ‘c’” – meaning the person votes Republican or Tory. Likewise, one might say “I am a Conservative Jew with a capital ‘c’” — meaning that the speaker’s theological affiliation is with the denomination that is more conservative in its radical deviations than is “Reform.”
Among American Jews who do not faithfully observe Judaism’s Torah way, denominational Conservative Judaism is in a massive decline and faces eventual disappearance. Many of them have been pulling leftward and moving towards “reform” while others have moved towards authentic observance, leaving them in a diminishing center. Membership in their congregational association, the United Synagogue of America, has taken a steep hit, and many of their temples have merged with reform temples. Other deviationist denominations include “Reconstructionist” and “Humanist” “Judaism,” but they are inconsequential, of practical irrelevance.
To “call a spade a spade,” Reform Judaism and all other non-Orthodox Jewish denominations all comprise a fundamentally false theology built on myth. Christians can say they worship Jesus and follow the teachings of Paul and the apostles as integrated in the Christian Bible (which they call the “New Testament”) because they have documentary materials that present as the Word of God. Muslims can say they worship Allah, and follow Muhammad as prophet, because they have the Quran as the Word of God. Orthodox Jews can say they believe as they do because they have the Torah as the Word of G-d. By contrast, there is no theological document by which a deity is said to prescribe a divine epistemology and teleology that conflates aspects of Judaism with eating non-kosher food, secularizing and desecrating the Sabbath that extends from Friday sunset to Saturday nightfall, and such other practices outside Judaic practice. Thus, those systems simply are deviations in which practices and beliefs have been excised from authentic Judaism, one by one, based on the feelings of those movements’ human thinkers and philosophers. Without core Judaism like kosher and Sabbath, they are left speaking about ethics and morals — very important central core aspects of Torah Judaism — but such teachings really are no different from those of ethical and moral Muslim, Christian, and even atheist teachings. The primary advantage they have over atheists is more holidays.