Jewish wars of words echo that we are not yet one

NEW YORK — Nearly every time the head of an American Jewish religious movement speaks these days, his remarks aren't complete, it seems, without an attack on some other segment of the religious community.

And the next day would seem somehow lacking if it weren't filled with vitriolic statements in response, faxed to every news organization with even a scintilla of interest.

Most recently, Rabbi Simeon Maslin, president of the Reform rabbinical organization, compared contemporary Orthodoxy to the Sadducees and liberal Judaism to the Pharisees.

The Sadducees were a sect of Jews — wealthy and upwardly mobile — who rejected the Talmud and said they were bound only by the Bible. They disappeared with the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70.

Their enemies, the Pharisees, focused on study, developed the Talmud and are regarded by contemporary Orthodox Jews as their predecessors.

"What the Pharisees created 2,000 years ago was actually a mutation of Judaism. It was the Sadducees who represented `Torah-true' Judaism," Maslin told Reform rabbis at their annual gathering last week.

"But the Pharisees convinced the people that there was a second Torah — an oral Torah — given at the same time as the first," Maslin said.

"And through this mutation called the oral law, a revolutionary shift from the Jewish orthodoxy of the day, they absolutely abrogated certain provisions of the written Torah that were impossible to live by in their modern world."

Furthermore, he added, "while claiming to be the sole heirs of the Pharisees, [the Orthodox] totally misunderstand what Pharisaism was all about, that it was a revolution against scriptural literalism and that it preserved Judaism by creating a virtually new Torah."

Maslin neatly turned on its head a formulation long used rhetorically by some in the Orthodox community who have derided Reform Jews as assimilationist Sadducees. In the process, he enraged the Orthodox Jewish leaders.

The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents some 1,000 centrist Orthodox rabbis, in a statement called Maslin's remarks a "truculent and indiscriminate assault" with "disingenuous historical reconstructions" (e.g., the Orthodox are `Sadducees').

A spokesman for their colleagues to the right, represented by Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing the ultra-religious community, said: "Such an orgy of name-calling and ill will is clearly a last gasp, the desperate cry of a movement confronting its own spiritual bankruptcy."

Ironically, perhaps, the main thrust of Maslin's speech to the approximately 600 Reform rabbis who attended the convention in Philadelphia March 24 to 28 was a call for community standards and a move away from the "anarchy" in decision-making.

Maslin sounded an extremely traditionalist note when he urged his Reform colleagues to resist making decisions about such things as officiating at interfaith marriages out of "ignorance and convenience."

Calling for "boundaries," he said, "There must be a core of historically and communally validated beliefs and acts that define who and what we are."

Maslin also said in his speech that, as a Jewish people, "we have ceased to be one."

In response, the Rabbinical Council of America wrote in its statement, "We reaffirm our commitment to the oneness of the Jewish people.

"We shall endeavor to continue to work with any and all Jews who are committed to the future and survival of the Jewish people, despite any profound differences we may have with them, provided that we are not asked to sacrifice that which we regard as sacred principles."

Maslin, of Elkins Park, Pa., retorted: "If that's the case, I would like the RCA to instruct its rabbis to rejoin boards of rabbis, to rejoin what was the Synagogue Council of America and in other ways to show that they recognize the validity of Reform and Conservative rabbis.

"Until they are willing to do that, we are not one."