Orthodox. Reform. Let’s Talk (Part II): A conversation between — and about — denominations

December 7, 2017
Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg (left), Director of The Shalhevet Institute Judaic Studies Faculty, and Rabbi Sarah Bassin (left), Associate Rabbi Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

As I mentioned in our last exchange, much of my work is predicated on the belief that a spirit of pluralism lies at the heart of Jewish consciousness and our halachic tradition. The Mishnah is my ultimate model. When the rabbis gathered at Yavneh, they defined the future Judaism through the model of the beit midrash (house of study), where dissenting opinions were not only tolerated and included, but venerated through their ongoing study in the Talmud and later commentaries. Taken as a whole, our rabbinic texts set up a model for community where ritual and observance must always be accompanied by discourse: Talmud Torah k’neged kulam — The study of Torah is equivalent to all of the mitzvot.

But that kind of vision requires basic fluency with Jewish literature, ideas and values. Seriously engaging with our Jewish identity depends on understanding our history, language and texts. This lofty educational vision is likely the Orthodox community’s highest priority. Families put their money where their mouths are for the sake of a proper Jewish education.

“It concerns me that the majority of American Jewry is unfamiliar with the language of our people.” — Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

I know that the founders of the Reform and Conservative movements also viewed Jewish education as sacrosanct. Their scholarship always includes classical Jewish texts. Yet, it seems to me that these educational norms are no longer central to your community and the educational footing of a strong Jewish identity has become watered down. It concerns me that the majority of American Jewry is unfamiliar with the language of our people. If so, what serves to bind Jewish peoplehood?

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

The Orthodox community does an extraordinary job of prioritizing Jewish education to create a strong foundation of literacy for the community. It’s the positive byproduct of a closed community with high standards of belonging. But to extrapolate that this system is the best option for the entirety of the Jewish community ignores that most Jews have opted out of these constraints to seek a more flexible expression of religion.

On the whole, Reform literacy is lower than Orthodox literacy. The positive byproduct of the Reform movement is that the threshold for coming to Judaism — whether as a Jew-by-birth or as a Jew-by-choice — is relatively low. Our catchphrase “audacious hospitality” captures our value of paying attention to those at the community’s fringes, not just its center.

Absent obligation-driven education, the Reform community has become deeply inventive and experimental to help people engage with the wisdom of Jewish tradition. The burden is on rabbis and other leaders to demonstrate Judaism’s relevance. I welcome that challenge, which has made education better at our temple. Our post–b’nai mitzvah enrollment has quadrupled in just three years, not because teens felt obligated to learn, but because we created a programming so compelling that they want to.

When continuity and preservation are the driving values, they lead to increasingly unimaginative responses to new realities. The Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg once said, “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.” Sadly, on some of the most pressing issues, I’m not seeing much rabbinic will. I believe that’s due in large part to an Orthodox education that serves primarily to reinforce and protect an existing system. A system that produces Jews similar to their predecessors regardless of the changing environments around them has its own flaws to face.

Rabbi Schwarzberg

I beg to differ here. You’re painting the Orthodox community as an enclave of stale, unimaginative drones motivated by preservation and continuity. The Modern Orthodoxy I know has been incredibly creative in shaping a life that is grounded in Jewish law and values and wholly committed to being part of broader civilization. Our community works tirelessly to navigate this dual identity and has been incredibly inventive along the way — legally, professionally and educationally.

There’s no denying that obligation is central to an observant Jewish life. But it’s not a four-letter word. While Orthodoxy is theocentric, the needs of our community along with shifts in the broader culture require us to engage in regular check-ins. The interpretation and application of Jewish law is alive in the beit midrash and around Shabbat tables, and our educational values are in constant motion.

To be sure, this fine line between obligation and invention breeds its share of internal divisiveness — it’s nearly impossible for us to reach a communal consensus. Yet, overall, I find our community to be spiritually and intellectually engaged, belying a claim that our sustenance springs merely from the forces of obligation, fear and slippery slopes. I am not saying that (Modern) Orthodoxy is the lone truth, I just think your depiction of the community is a caricature that needs updating.

Our commitment to learning empowers our community to develop informed opinions. We often disagree, but our disagreements stem from a shared tradition. Our young adults emerge and pursue a variety of Jewish and personal journeys, but those choices are genuine decisions that follow a robust Jewish education.

I admire the values of flexibility and choice you extol, but what choice is there really if textual literacy, obligation and commandedness are tangential to your educational message?

Rabbi Bassin

If my depiction of the Orthodox community came across as a caricature, please let me clarify — or at least distinguish what I perceive as the outcomes of our respective educational systems.

In the Orthodox community, I see people who are much more fluent in traditional texts than those in my own community. But as much as I envy this achievement, the philosophical tradeoffs it would require of progressive Judaism seem too great.

“Each generation has the potential to grow in wisdom — to build on our predecessors’ progress.” — Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Inherent to Orthodox education (whether Modern, centrist or ultra-) is a concept of diminished authority from revelation at Sinai until now (yeridat hadorot). In his book “Rabbinic Authority,” Michael Berger calls this “a belief that with the passage of time, the spiritual level of humanity has declined.” If every generation sees itself as less capable than the previous to be religious arbiters and leaders, the system necessarily values preservation at the expense of progress.

Reform Judaism understands humanity’s trajectory differently. Each generation has the potential to grow in wisdom — to build on our predecessors’ progress and correct the mistakes they made.

Reform education’s goal is to cultivate moral agency. Rooted in the progress-oriented vision of the Enlightenment, we believe each generation has more, not less, authority. We aspire to raise a generation who will study their history, internalize the wisdom and question the often flawed moral assumptions of the past. Judaism provides a language to sharpen our moral acumen. We take seriously our obligation to use our cultural wisdom not as an end, but as a means to make us agents of a more just and moral world.

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