Weekly Letter: DO We Need to Reform Judaism in Order to Ensure Jewish Survival?

In connection with this week’s parsha – of the first “reformers” of Judaism – those who served the golden calf and of the current events in Eretz Yisrael where reformers have instituted a law to accept conservative and reform conversions – we present a letter in which the Rebbe addresses the question of the need to reform Judaism in order to ensure Jewish survival, the betterment of mankind and the keeping up with the times. A very essential and basic letter that also touches on the concept of the authentic, Jewish way of teshuvah – a theme in our parsha as well. This letter is from volume 5 of The Letter and The Spirit.

By the Grace of G-d
Tishrei, 5738
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Setauket, N.Y. 11733
Blessing and Greeting:

Your letter reached me some time ago, but due to pressure of duties and intervening Festivals of this month, my reply was unavoidably delayed.

In your letter you express your opinion that Judaism should be altered in light of the changing times, implying, indeed suggesting, that this would also work for the betterment of mankind both spiritually and secularly.

Needless to say, such a topic can hardly be discussed in a letter. Nor is there any need of it, since there is a vast literature on the subject. I will therefore confine myself to several points, after the following prefatory remarks.
Despite attempts by some people to delude themselves to the contrary, one of the main factors that dictate human activities is reliance on factual results from past experience or knowledge. The fact that the causes and effects are not always, if ever, understood, does not make any difference. An obvious example can be readily found in the medical profession. It has been established by tests and experience that a certain treatment is effective, while another is harmful, even if it is not understood how and why, this will be the deciding factor in the physician’s treatment of his patient and he will categorically tell the patient what he may or may not do to get well. Of course, the quest for deeper knowledge to understand the working of the natural forces involved will always go on, but no one who is of sound mind will suggest that until such a time as the mystery of the particular cause and effect has been unraveled, the treatment should be held in abeyance. To say nothing of such a suggestion at a time of an epidemic, G-d forbid.

Obviously, the more frequently the results had been verified by repeated experiments and test, and the longer the time they held good, the more readily and confidently they are accepted and implemented.

Now, the desire to modify or alter Torah Judaism “to come to grips with the realities of today” is not a new invention of the present age of advanced science and technology. It is as old as Judaism itself. For, immediately after the Torah was given at Sinai some 3300 years ago, there was an attempt by certain groups within the Jewish people to alter it in keeping with the time. Similar attempts were made from time to time and at various intervals, throughout our history, both in Biblical times and post-Biblical times and in the Diaspora, in various countries – in the mistaken belief of promoting the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people in a hostile world, where Jews have always been a small minority. Thus, we have here an area where the above-mentioned criterion can be put to the test.

What happened to all those who experimented with the new ways in Judaism by deviating from the strict letter and spirit of the Torah and mitzvos?

The annals of Jewish history are replete with clear evidence that all attempts to alter Torah Judaism lasted a comparatively short time, usually no more than two or three generations, and then the result was invariably the same – either/or: Either those who were involved in the change realized their folly and returned to the fold; or they were completely lost to our people, sooner or later.

What a pity that these incontrovertible historic truths are so often ignored in regard to Judaism in the U.S.A., where it is conveniently departmentalized into so-called orthodox, conservative and reform movements. After all, those who profess to be “conservative” or “reform” are only children or grandchildren of Torah-true parents, having for various reasons and rationalizations compromised their commitment to Yiddishkeit. Moreover, carefully watching this trend, I do not believe that anyone can find a sizable proportion of conservative and reform Jews that have retained their positions for more than two or three generations. The eventual outcome is inevitable – either/or, as mentioned above. Witness the many baalei teshuvah on the one hand, and the many intermarriages leading to complete assimilation, on the other.
Your assertion that altering Judaism would benefit mankind spiritually and secularly seems to be quite irrelevant. I have never heard anyone suggest that strict observance of kahsrut, Shabbos, etc. inhibits one’s relationship to mankind, and I cannot see what Jewish religious reforms have to do with the “betterment of mankind.”

Much more could be said on the subject matter, but a letter is hardly the proper medium for it. I will therefore conclude with the prayerful wish that since we are now in the period of the “Ten Days of Teshuvah,” in regard to which our Sages declare that this is the time of the year to which the prophet alludes in his call to every Jew and Jewess: “Seek G-d when He is readily found; call on Him when He is near”(Isaiah 53:6) – may G-d grant that everyone should indeed seek G-d in the direction He has clearly indicated, as to how and where He is to be found and reached, and not in devious ways and experiments, vitally involving one’s own life and the life of others. Why look for new ways, perchance this way is right, or that, when there is a well-trodden , well tested and time-honored path that runs like a golden thread throughout our Jewish history, ever since the time of our Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is not science, nor philosophy, nor language, nor a land and certainly not adaptation to the cultural patters of the environment that held our people together and enabled us to survive – for these changed from time to time and from place to place. The only thing that has not changed is the actual performance of the mitzvos in the everyday life – kashrut, Shabbos and all the 613 mitzvos. To be sure, attempts have been made at various times to promote the observance of the mitzvos through the interpretations from various viewpoints (philosophic, scientific, social, etc.), but the actual performance of the mitzvos remained unchanged and inviolable at all times wherever Jews lived – and this is what has united and preserved our people through the ages.

On the personal note, I see from your writing that both you and your husband have positions of leadership in your community and are involved also in education. There is no need to emphasize that these are Divinely-given opportunities which carry both a great zechus and a great responsibility. You will surely agree that people, certainly children, should not be experimented with, especially where such vital considerations are at issue. Furthermore, if in regard to ones’ own self one may be satisfied with a minimum, or average, one would wish to give children the maximum possible.

You are at liberty of course to show this letter to your husband, especially as he is also mentioned in your letter as being concerned with this important subject matter.

I take the opportunity, at this time, of extending to you both my prayerful wishes for a Chasimo uGmar Chasimo Tovo, including hatzlocho in the strengthening of Torah-true Yiddishkeit. Truth cannot, of course, be compromised, much or little; it is either the whole truth or no truth at all. May G-d grant that you should both use your good influence in this direction with joy, without regard for inconveniences that this may entail, which are surely of no significance in relation to the rewarding experience of carrying out your G-d-given mission in life, with all that it means, not only in the Hereafter, but also in this life on earth. Our Jewish people was not lightly called a “stiff-necked people.”

With esteem and blessing,

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