Courtesy of Agudath Israel
As I concluded a yearlong course that I have been teaching at a local day school, a student approached me with a concerned look on his face.
“What if I don’t know what my Jewish identity is?” I pushed him to say more. “Well, my parents had the Holocaust, but — I don’t know. I just don’t know what my Jewish identity is.”
Forced to think on my feet, I told him that this is part of the journey. Uncertainly is a prerequisite for growth; through this struggle a clear, focused Jewish identity will emerge. He thanked me and we parted ways.
In the hours since, his question has been replaying in my head. I heard its echo as I listened to the words of Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the rabbinical head of Agudath Israel. Rabbi Perlow bemoaned a Judaism void of meaning; divorced from its core values. He lamented a disintegrating Yiddishkeit. A new generation, he grieved, was coming — one that does not know its roots. We need, Rabbi Perlow claimed, “a Judaism that has a future.”
These words ring true. We must present a Judaism that sings in the hearts of our Jewish brethren. We need, as I told my beloved student, a Torah that embraces all and that speaks to the masses. We need a loving Torah to overflow in this world.
Rabbi Perlow, however, found a false target for his trepidations. He described “a new danger [that] has appeared on the horizon. [One that] seeks to subvert the sacred meaning of Yiddishkeit.” Indeed, he warned, it is “a sakana (danger) to klal yisroel (the Jewish community).”
He was talking about my yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
And, though his initial concerns spoke to me, by the end of his speech, I had no idea what he was talking about.
Rabbi Yaakov Perlow speaks at the Agudath Isael annual gala / YouTube
On Wednesday we learned that, while speaking at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of that organization, slandered virtually every Jew on the planet, down to and including a bunch of plain-old-Orthodox folks. We were told that attendees of the event were “stunned.”
“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people,” Perlow said. And also: “[The Reform and Conservative Movements] have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And furthermore, the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos [heresy].”
It was quite the little speech. But stunned? Really? Attendees were stunned? Do they not get out much?
Perlow heads an organization that is, by definition, extremist. They believe themselves to be upholding the strictest, and thus most correct, interpretation of God’s own Divine law; they believe that the existence of the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah, and quite possibly the world itself depends on the painstaking observance of that interpretation — which is not, in their understanding, an interpretation at all, but simply Jewish law, halakhah.
Of course he thinks you’re a bad Jew — no, I’m sorry, not a “bad Jew.” He thinks that you’re a literal danger to Judaism itself. You have come — yes, you! — to “subvert and destroy the eternal values” of the Jewish people. You! (Unless you happen to be Haredi, and Perlow’s kind of Haredi at that, in which case, welcome to Forward Thinking, we try to be a very welcoming blog).