Dear Rabbi Wolpe
Dear Rabbi Wolpe,
I admit it.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I’m genuinely embarrassed at the moment.
Judging by the recent goings-on in the Jewish book publishing world, where certain Orthodox authors have been taken to task for their controversial writings and books have either been banned, forcibly censored or book tours were canceled, it would seem that we don’t have our act completely together.
And while there may be some in the Orthodox community who resent you for expressing your views, I thank you for pointing these things out, because it allows for more dialogue, and the lack of dialogue that has existed to date is something both of us lament.
You raised some valid and important issues in your recent article in The Jewish Journal ("Spiritual Agoraphobia," Nov. 15) about the insularity of the Orthodox community. And, you presented your arguments eloquently and respectfully. Again, I am grateful, because you could have been much more brutal.
You presented some philosophical difficulties with Orthodox Judaism’s shunning of the outside world. But I think you’ve missed the boat here. The Vilna Gaon, who embraced secular knowledge yet objected to Maimonides, did not object to secular pursuits as a supplement to and augmentation of one’s understanding of Torah; he objected to using secular wisdom as a means of supplanting and undermining Jewish theology. So a rejection of Reform theology is not de facto a rejection of all secular wisdom.
But there is a bigger picture: the reality about at least one of the current situations you addressed — Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Reinman’s recent cancellation of his book tour with Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch — is only tangentially related to Orthodoxy’s views on the secular world. Without even realizing it, you hit a nerve within the Orthodox community, which really has nothing to do with philosophy at all.
It’s got to do with leadership.
The cancellation of the book tour was due to a letter issued by the Moetzes Gedolai HaTorah (Chief Rabbinical Council) of Agudath Israel criticizing the legitimacy that would be lent to Reform Judaism through the tour. Maybe you assumed that this was the first time that these rabbis had heard of the book and its objective of bringing together Orthodox and Reform rabbis to discuss their personal beliefs. But think about it: Does anyone really think that a rabbi studying in the haredi yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J. would dare agree to co-author such a controversial work without the consent and even encouragement of his rabbis?
So what really happened here? It would appear that somebody in the leadership goofed. Originally, a leading rabbi or rabbis within the haredi world thought that dialogue with Reform Jews was a good thing, that it would lead to closer ties to our fellow Jew, regardless of his or her theologies.
And, perhaps the thinking went, maybe we could even expose some Reform Jews to the beauty of Orthodox Judaism, so that either they could embrace some aspect of it or at least learn to be more tolerant of it. But then, either the same or different rabbis got cold feet and pulled the plug. We’ve got your classic flip-flop here, and the Orthodox community was left with egg on its face.
No, the Orthodox community is not monolithic. And even within the same community, there is not always consensus. So the recent vacillation is representative merely of a lack of decisive leadership for now. But it’s normal within any community for there to be times of stronger, coalition-based leadership and times of weaker, fractured leadership. This is part of the evolution of any society.
OK, so that’s the bad news. But here’s the good news. We’ve come a long way, baby. Before Hirsch and Reinman’s book, if someone would have suggested that a rabbi studying in Lakewood would even agree to dialogue with a Reform rabbi, much less write a book with him, he would have been laughed out of the room. The Orthodox world is starting to wake up to the fact that there is a larger Jewish world out there.
You need us, but we also need you. If we’re going to weather our future in Israel and in the Diaspora, we’ve got to do this together.
We’ve also started to realize that just because we say hello to a non-Orthodox Jew, it doesn’t mean we’re going to tear down our mechitzahs. Over the years, we’ve become more confident in who we are and our lasting power amidst a world of clashing and alluring cultures and beliefs that are pulling so many of us away from Judaism.
Orthodox Judaism has endured the test of time. If we can "make it" in Hollywood and still keep the faith, then we can also make it amidst our Reform brethren and not be frightened that we’ll be automatically won over to the "dark side."
So, while you were looking at the glass as half-empty, I think there’s a half-full perspective here. We’ve started to realize that dialogue is good, dialogue is healthy. Yes, this recent debacle over Reinman’s book indicates that we’re still ambivalent about the whole thing. But it’s far better than the emphatic refusals of the past.
I sincerely hope that recent events will not mean a setback for those of us on both sides who have already begun the healthy dialogue. Perhaps these recent events can even be a springboard within our local community to rekindle the flame of dialogue and cooperation between the different denominations and congregations.
Wouldn’t that be a great victory for all Jews?
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin