Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk: A conversation between — and about — denominations

November 9, 2017
Rabbi Sarah Bassin (left), Associate Rabbi Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg (right), Director of The Shalhevet Institute Judaic Studies Faculty

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Ari, we separate our movements based on our philosophical approaches to Judaism. Yet I feel that there is a disconnect between what movements purport and what we actually do.

Reform Jews are supposed to have a deep education in Jewish text and tradition in order to make an informed “choice through knowledge.” Because we believe our Torah was shaped by imperfect humans striving to understand the Divine, we have flexibility in approaching tradition in ways that your community — with its view that God dictated Torah through the hand of Moses — doesn’t.

Unfortunately, Reform Jews often exchange flexibility with non-engagement. Shabbat attendance and ongoing learning aren’t nearly as central to Reform communities as the clergy would like.

“Despite our deficiencies, my movement does an extraordinary job of moral education.”— Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Why would I still choose Reform Judaism? Because I think your community, too, struggles with a disconnect between purported and lived values. I choose the flaws of my community over those I perceive in yours.

Despite our deficiencies, my movement does an extraordinary job of moral education — conveying core values about what it means to be Jewish in the world. Some say we overemphasize universalism, but the Torah, our prophets and our most-respected modern philosophers all seem obsessed with the central core value of human dignity. I take pride that Reform Judaism has been at the forefront of each era’s fight for human dignity.

The Orthodox community will nearly always beat us on fidelity to learning, Shabbat practice and kashrut. But I fear that focusing on these values comes at the expense of the our tradition’s moral core, which demands that we transform our faith into social action.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

Sarah, first, I don’t claim to be the representative of the Orthodox community. But I’ll do my best to present a fair and constructive perspective on it.

I think you’re right: A major tenet of Jewish thought and tradition is social action and, generally speaking, the Orthodox community does not make it as central as it ought to be. But some contextualization is also necessary. To claim that social action alone is the “moral core” of our tradition ignores the binding nature of mitzvot as they appear in the Torah and rabbinic literature.

Regardless of how you define revelation, a Judaism that doesn’t place ritual, God and some form of halachah (Jewish law), on similar footing to social action feels a bit Jewishly vacant to me. I don’t mean to downplay the value of social justice and tikkun olam, but our tradition perceives Torah and mitzvot as axiomatic to our Jewish identity.

Also, many Orthodox Jews carry a significant burden of historical oppression, so they fear what the Jewish future holds. Given those concerns, a serious commitment to social justice unfortunately takes a backseat to internal Jewish causes. Many would applaud others’ activism and philanthropic work while claiming that our resources must be allocated to the sustainability and future of our own community.

Rabbi Bassin

At our origin, the Reform movement clearly distinguished between ritual and ethical commandments. We’ve walked back that language in recent decades, but there’s a truth to that distinction that I refuse to relinquish. My intellectual predecessors gave birth to the Reform movement as a corrective for a tradition that had lost sight of ethical monotheism in focusing on the details of legal minutiae.

You may find this heretical, but I don’t believe that Judaism is an end in and of itself. I see it — and all religion — as a tool for human flourishing. I don’t believe in a deity that cares whether I light Shabbat candles. I have trouble with the idea of worshipping a god that demands such acts of reverence. I do believe that the act reminds me of the moral importance of setting aside time to remember that we are not only what we do.

Spiritual discipline, channeled to an end beyond itself, can help us tap into our core purpose. Yet our inherited mitzvot are not my only — or even my primary — source of commandment. I have always been drawn to the philosophy of Emanuel Levinas, who posits that our greatest access to the Divine is through other people, who reflect the image of God more strongly than any law.

When religion becomes its own end, I fear that we unleash dangerous impulses. We find ways to overlook bad behavior, tolerate scandals and disregard the humanity of others under the guise of protecting our community — and keeping our dirty laundry indoors. That tendency isn’t isolated to the Orthodox community, or even the Jewish community, but I fear that the danger increases with greater particularism.

I take joy in witnessing elements of Orthodoxy that have reclaimed a more universal outlook and ethical imperative, and I hope the Reform movement helped pave that path. I also hope to draw from your community to address the shortcomings of my own — particularly in the form of spiritual discipline and commitment to community as a foundation for faith in action.

Rabbi Schwarzberg

Your clarity of purpose and responsibility is inspiring. I agree that when religion becomes an end unto itself, it has the potential to become idolatrous. There’s a fine line between serving God and serving ourselves in the name of God. But I think that’s the precarious nature of all religious institutions.

Similarly, your comment about scandals and overlooking bad behavior feels like an unfair critique of some of the Orthodox community’s lowest-hanging fruit. I am the first to criticize scandals, fraud or abuse under the banner of frumkeit. But, as you said, those issues are neither endemic nor exclusive to the Orthodox community.

“I don’t mean to downplay the value of social justice and tikkun olam, but our tradition perceives Torah and mitzvot as axiomatic to our Jewish identity.”— Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

That said, we’re not immune from the traps of tribalism, halachic territorialism, or authoritarian rabbinic leadership. And we should ensure that our most sacred values are not compromised in their name. My work with The Shalhevet Institute is predicated on the belief that pluralism and Orthodoxy are not oil and water.

Perhaps what we’re really talking about is methodology. If religion is to be transformative, how do we best achieve that result? I take my cues from Rambam here: The frame of our commandedness must be “to know God.” But it’s through mitzvot, prayer and learning that our religious consciousness is best activated. I don’t think of lighting Shabbat candles as merely a way to serve a demanding God. The meaning you’ve attached to it is wonderful, but it’s also part of an evolving system that aspires to foster a community of empathic humans and deep Jews. If anything, it’s our particularistic identity that obligates our universal mission.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is an associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg is the director of The Shalhevet Institute.

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