Don’t Judge aBook by Its Cover


The media has been busy for months with “One People, Two
Worlds” (Schocken Books, 2002), the book I co-authored with Ammie
Hirsch, and the promotional tour from which I withdrew after
two appearances in deference to the Council of Torah Sages. Now that the dust
has settled somewhat, I would like to add a few remarks and observations of my
own.

A few weeks ago, upon his return from his now-solo
appearances on the tour, Ammi wrote an article (“Two Authors, One Book Tour,”
Jan. 3) in which he lamented the missed opportunity for the Orthodox. He had
met “thousands of Jews. Precisely the people Rabbi Reinman wanted to reach —
mostly non-Orthodox Jews eager to learn more about Torah and the Orthodox world.”

It was indeed a missed opportunity. My message resonated
well with the people during the first two appearances — in the “State of World
Jewry” forum at the 92nd Street Y and at a book fair in Indianapolis —
despite my long caftan, beard and peyot. After the presentations, many people
approached me with comments, questions and an overwhelming curiosity. We also
connected on a personal level, and I loved it and them. By withdrawing from the
tour, I had to forego meeting hundreds of people under similar circumstances. A
great loss.

So why did I withdraw? And even more important, why was this
opportunity for an Orthodox rabbi to meet non-Orthodox people such a rare
phenomenon?

Ammi offers the answer. “The Jewish world needs you,” he
calls out to the Orthodox, “to bring your love of Torah, discipline,
commitment, knowledge and passion to the Jewish world…. The enemy is not
Reform Judaism. The enemy is apathy, assimilation and ignorance. We should see
ourselves as allies in our common struggle to sustain and ensure Jewish
continuity.”

You see? There are strings attached to these wonderful
opportunities. So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis?
Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It
is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the
Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he
can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.

But Reform rabbis are not our colleagues in the work of
perpetuating Jewish continuity. Reform ideology embraces moral relativism,
denies the divine authorship of the Torah, denies the divine covenant, denies
the binding nature of halacha and, by doing so, rejects the Judaism of our
ancestors. Reform laypeople know this full well, and that is why they are so
eager to learn about Orthodoxy, the religion of their ancestors. They don’t
display the same interest in Conservatism and Reconstructionism, which are just
different flavors of the liberal stream.

During these last few months, I have met and heard from
numerous non-Orthodox people yearning for a stronger Jewish identity, and I
wondered what motivated them to set themselves apart from American society.
Then it struck me that the laypeople have never let go of the religion of their
ancestors, that the national memory of Sinai is still etched into their
chromosomes, that deep down they know the divine covenant between the Creator
and His people is real.

Fifty years ago, a group of leading Orthodox sages erected a
firewall between the Orthodox rabbinate and the Reform rabbinate, forbidding
any official contact whatsoever between the two. The sages felt that sharing
common platforms with movements so antithetical to the religion of our
ancestors would give them an aura of legitimacy they did not deserve. They
placed no restrictions, however, on contact with Reform Jews as individuals.

Since then, Orthodoxy has flourished, but the lines of
communication with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters have been shut down.
Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider
them authentic Jews — absolute lies — and they have stood guard over the people
to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended.

So why did I co-write the book when I knew that our revered
sages disapproved of sharing platforms with Reform rabbis? Was I breaking away
and setting out in a new direction? Heaven forbid.

There is a deep sense of desperation in the Orthodox
community at the disintegration of the non-Orthodox world. There is a feeling
that time is running out and something must be done. The rabbis who authorized
and supported this project decided, based on several fine distinctions, that it
was an exception to the rule. To mention just one of these distinctions, since
I am an independent scholar and writer rather than a member of the rabbinate,
my participation was considered “individual” rather than “official” contact; I
mention this distinction in the book several times. We felt we could thus
circumvent the rabbinate and speak directly to the people.

We were wrong. The media completely ignored my explicit
distinctions and depicted the exchange as a breakthrough, a breach in the
Orthodox wall of rejection, which it was never meant to be. Most did not even
bother to read the book. They just looked at the cover and, to my horror,
painted me as the Rosa Parks of interdenominational dialogue. I have yet to see
one serious, in-depth review of the book.

The declaration of the Council of Sages simply reaffirmed
what we already knew — that the distinctions had failed to register with all
those people eager to portray the book in a light that suited them better.
Under these circumstances, the tour would just compound the error.

What could I say? They were right. And so, I withdrew.
Unfortunately, the media ridiculed the Council of Sages as beady-eyed
ayatollahs issuing fatwas against me and my family and bans of excommunication
against anyone who dared pick up the book. This was all nonsense.

The members of the council are wise, intelligent, highly
principled people, most of whom I have known for years. Two of them paid their
respects when I was sitting shiva for my father recently. The sages just set
policy; they never tell individuals what to do, and they certainly never threatened
me in any way whatsoever. Their declaration treated me with kindness and
respect, and when I issued my brief statement of acceptance and withdrew from
the tour, they were surprised and responded with a nice complimentary
statement. I have only good things to say about them.

In retrospect, the premise of the book was a mistake, but
what is done is done. The book has taken on a life of its own, and I hope and
pray that it does only good and no harm. Ultimately, the book will stand as
convincing evidence that Orthodoxy is intellectually sophisticated and
compelling, that our rejection of dialogue does not stem from fear and that our
expressions of love for all Jews are genuine and sincere.

In the meantime, I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not
to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage. If they do not allow you to meet
Orthodox rabbis, read the books I mention in the afterword. If you need more
guidance, write to me at the e-mail address that appears there.

As Ammi mentioned, when we were at the 92nd Street Y, the
moderator asked me, “If someone has a choice between watching ‘The Sopranos’
and learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi, what would you advise him to do?”

Things had been going so well, and now this bomb. I tried to
wiggle out, but the moderator pinned me down. What could I do?

So I took a deep breath and said, “He should watch ‘The
Sopranos.'”

There was an audible gasp from the audience.

I was mortified.

Afterward, Richard Curtis, my wise friend and agent, told
me, “Don’t worry. People will respect your intellectual honesty. And besides,
many people will go home wondering, ‘What is so bad about learning Talmud with
a Reform rabbi? Why would he say something like that?'”

Why, indeed.

Article reprinted courtesy The New York Jewish Week. Â


Yosef Reinman is an Orthodox writer, historian and scholar living in Lakewood, N.J.