Two People, One World

A Reform Jew and an Orthodox Jew talking seriously about Torah. That was the apparent novelty of "One People, Two Worlds," the recent book by Rabbis Ammiel Hirsch and Yosef Reinman, in which they present a probing 18-month e-mail exchange dealing with a host of Jewish issues and texts.

The book received a great deal of attention from the media, in large part because a dialogue between the "two worlds" of Orthodoxy and Reform seemed original to many. For us, we are proud to say, it is old hat.

From 1996-1997, we spent a full academic year studying Talmud together on a daily basis as chavrutas (study partners) at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. In the process of our studies, we struggled with many of the same subjects discussed in "One People, Two Worlds," including (to name a few) religion and modernity, gender issues in Judaism and the divinity (or not) of the Torah.

Other students around us — men and women — were discussing, dissecting and disagreeing about the same subjects. Pardes is one of the few coeducational adult yeshivot in the world today. To our knowledge, it is the only one that recruits students from across the spectrum of Jewish denominations, actively seeking the dialogue that fascinated readers of "One People, Two Worlds." The big surprise for many: Pardes has been doing this for 30 years, since its founding in 1973.

Despite the different Jewish paths we have taken (one of us completing Reform rabbinical school, the other deepening his commitment to Orthodoxy), our common ground remains the same — the Torah. This, perhaps, is the difference between us and Rabbis Hirsch and Reinman. They apparently see themselves operating in "two worlds," while we firmly believe that we share one.

We speak the same language. Our discussion of Jewish issues (and beyond) is framed by classical Jewish texts — the Bible, Talmud, Midrashim and responsa literature; we both read these texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic; we sometimes interpret them differently or argue over their authority, but they are unquestionably the starting point for both of us; and we value each other’s opinions about the texts, each remaining open to persuasion by the other.

Our experience has led us to the conclusion that, to have real power, dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews must be more than an antiseptic exchange of ideas. The participants must be prepared to have their own ideas challenged, and to let the interaction change them in some way; this is the essence of a true chavruta learning partnership.

The interest generated by "One People, Two Worlds" gives us hope — hope that more non-Orthodox Jews will pursue in-depth Torah learning, and hope that more Orthodox Jews will see them as valuable partners in learning. In this regard, Pardes remains a shining example of how different Jews can learn to share the same world together.

The emphasis on cooperative, respectful learning is not new. In fact, it is the central message of the sefira (counting) period between Passover and Shavuot.

The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) states that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died between Passover and Shavuot, "because they did not treat one another with respect," leading to the sefira period taking on attributes of mourning that we observe today.

Later commentators explain the disrespect among Rabbi Akiva’s students, noting that the students lacked proper regard for one another’s insights into the texts they were studying.

In a similar vein, the late Rabbi Aharon Kotler, founder of the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey suggested that Rabbi Akiva’s students failed to properly observe the precept to "judge each person favorably." According to Kotler, this precept applies not only to the way we view others’ actions, but to their opinions as well. One should always give others’ opinions the benefit of the doubt.

This is the message of the sefira, and it is one that every Jew should internalize before Shavuot. The night of Shavuot, when Jews spend time studying Torah, is called a tikkun (correction). Infrequently considered is precisely what this night seeks to "correct." We believe that the Shavuot evening Torah study should be viewed as a tikkun for the complacency that can lead different groups of Jews to feel satisfied living in two worlds, rather than one.