Bringing Liberal and Orthodox Jews Together

“We All Stood at Sinai” Above, an aerial view of the area believed to be Mount Sinai. From”The Synagogue,” Phaidon, 1995.

A few weeks ago, the heads of the three major rabbinical organizations in North America met for conversation at Congregation Mogen David in West Los Angeles. For Jews to talk to each other — how natural! For Jews who disagree substantially with each other to talk — how increasingly unusual!

My two colleagues were Dr. David Lieber, president of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), and Rabbi Rafael Grossman, immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox). Rabbi Lieber and I had been moved by the statement that Rabbi Grossman’s organization, along with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, issued earlier this year after the Union of Orthodox Rabbis declared that the movements Rabbi Lieber and I represented were not Judaism. Rabbi Grossman’s statement urged that we all show respect for each other and refrain from attacks on each other. It sounded like an invitation to further conversation, and, so, when Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer of Mogen David asked us to meet with Rabbi Grossman on his visit from Memphis, we were enthusiastic.

Relations between liberal and Orthodox Jews have seldom been worse than in the past few months. The Knesset bill (now on hold) that would bar Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, the declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and the demonstration against Reform and Conservative Jews praying on Shavuot in the public non-“synagogue” space before the Wall all have turned up the temperatures of liberal Jews and have made many Orthodox Jews increasingly defensive. There are some in the Jewish community who enjoy the spectacle of these fights, while others believe that nothing breeds in-group solidarity better than attacking another group. I am not one of those people, nor, I think, are most other Jews.

Some people even contend that these public arguments discourage Jews from being Jewish. “What’s the point,” they ask, “if all Jewish life leads to is conflict?” When I urged at the recent Central Conference of American Rabbis convention that we try to break down some of the barriers between us and the Orthodox, hearty applause followed. What will it take for all of us to respect each other and to refrain from attacks?

I suggest six steps:

Learning Together

Liberal and Orthodox rabbis, and their followers, should consider on what levels we can feel and show respect for each other. One (which most of us do already) is to address each other’s rabbis by the title of rabbi. A higher rung would be to study together, and still higher would be to invite Jews of different congregations to study with rabbis of different movements — perhaps with more than one so that students might hear unfamiliar opinions, and correctives to them, at the same time, and judge the truth for themselves. An even higher rung would be to rotate these sessions among different synagogues, making it clear to participants that merely setting foot in the synagogue of a different movement does not constitute an endorsement of that movement.

We All Stood at Sinai

Another ground for respect is remembering the traditional dictum that all Jews stood at Sinai and together heard God give us the Torah. We all heard it differently, as the many controversies throughout rabbinic literature reflect. By learning and conversing together, we can perhaps help each other hear what some of us may have missed, or hear different perspectives on what we all heard in common.

Understanding Motives

We also need to talk about the issues that divide us — not to force agreement but to better understand the serious motives from which such disagreements flow. If we could respect each other’s motives — even when they lead to actions we abhor — a great deal of progress might be made. The Reform movement does not necessarily expect other movements to accept its affirmation of patrilineal descent, but respect might come easier if other movements could appreciate that it is part of Reform’s historic attempt to reach out to Jews on the margin and to try to bring them more fully into Jewish life and practice. Similarly, when I have had conversations with Orthodox Hillel colleagues about the motives of Orthodox rabbis who refuse to speak from liberal pulpits, I have been aware of the pain in their voice — pain felt not because they recognized the truth of our movements but because they recognized the serious religiosity of their non-Orthodox colleagues and mourned the gulf that history has put between us. Sharing the pain of these divisions is also showing respect.

Sharing Regrets

When people — rabbis or laypeople or both — talk to each other in small groups, without the press or large audiences, they often feel freer to speak about the things we regret in our own movements, as well as the things we like. There are a couple of stands I wish the Reform movement had not taken, though I appreciate the reasons they were taken; friends of mine who are Orthodox rabbis regret some of the attitudes of their colleagues as well. In the absence of the Messiah, to acknowledge our mutual shortcomings can also increase respect.

Media Cooperation

The Jewish press can also play a role in bringing together opposing parts of the Jewish people by printing fewer provocative articles by people who want only to attack others, and by highlighting national and local efforts to heal wounds.

Advocacy in Israel

Finally, we need to recognize that we will probably view our life together in North America differently from our life in Israel. On this continent, the liberal movements are in the majority, but we do not have power over the Orthodox. In Israel, Orthodox Jews do have power, and it is sometimes used to restrict the ability of our liberal colleagues to work with Israelis who would like to learn more about our interpretations of Judaism. For any of us to refuse to work to better relations in the Diaspora because of the intrareligious struggle in Israel would be as wrong as if we felt we needed to forget about our differences in Israel in order to have better relations here. Liberal congregations are under siege in Israel, and we need to support them. But they are seldom under siege from the Orthodox colleagues and laypeople on this continent, with whom we seek greater understanding. It may even be that as we improve our relationships here, we may figure out some ways to work together to further the interests of all the diverse religious interests in Israel. A naïve hope? How do we know if we don’t try?

When Rabbi Grossman met with Rabbi Lieber and me, he told us of his commitment to create a group called the International Center for Jewish Peoplehood. This center would further the kinds of dialogue all three of us desire. Until that center becomes a reality and makes its presence felt in Los Angeles, there are things we can do here.

The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles and the Southern California Board of Rabbis could create an inter-movement task force to implement opportunities for rabbinic and lay dialogue, as well as other projects; some individual rabbis have begun to put these together themselves. Congregational leaders can reach out to congregations of other movements to create such conversations. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom is urging schools and youth groups to do the same.

And when someone writes an inflammatory piece in the Jewish press, rather than firing off yet another furious letter, we can call the writer or send a personal letter in care of the newspaper, urging that person to help make peace rather than fan the flames.

Making peace between caring Jews is not only a mitzvah; it may well help to preserve the people and the faith that are so vital to us all.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, is the newly elected president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the international association of Reform rabbis.