I. When Different Jews Meet
Orthodox Jews believe that they have the exclusive truth about God, life and Torah. So do many other people. When Orthodox Jews meet with believing Jews of other denominations, they need to navigate potentially uncomfortable situations that arise because of these dogmatic views. We do not want to insult others, particularly when such personal offense will impede important communal goals. What should we do?
R. Ben Greenberg and David Lasher recently debated on another blog this topic as it relates to Jewish communal events (links: I, II). In particular, R. Greenberg related his own experiences as a rabbinical student meeting with similar students from other Jewish denominations. Before I explain why I don’t see a need for the debate, let me describe the two views as I understand them. R. Greenberg suggests that shared ritual can cause conflict — e.g. who can count for and lead a quorum. Therefore, he suggests instead joint study of a Torah text.
Among other things, Lasher points out that joint Torah study presents its own pitfalls. Non-Orthodox Jews will take offense at certain Torah attitudes, such as those toward homosexual behavior or differentiated gender roles. Assumptions over authorship are also potentially divisive. Lasher could have listed more issues. Even a simple Talmudic passage on an uncontroversial subject can yield theological differences regarding whether later authorities accurately transmitted and interpreted statements by earlier authorities or emanated from other ancient legal systems. The respect or criticism of Talmudic figures can divide us, as well.
II. The Problems with Study and Ritual
It seems to me that Torah study and ritual share the same potential for problems. Certainly, we can more easily overlook differences for the sake of inter-denominational unity when it merely requires allowing someone else to speak. Facing exclusion from ritual for the sake of unity is a harder task.
However, shared ritual and joint study can be redeemed through adequate preparation. Both a ritual and a text can be found that are so innocuous that they do not allow for offense. Someone — anyone — can light a Chanukah menorah without blessings or you can eat OU certified latkes and jelly donuts. A simple passage about an innocuous topic, where comparisons are impossible or universally acceptable and where textual layers do not exist, can be found. This is no easy task but, presumably, worth the effort.
But the real danger lies elsewhere. Avos De-Rabbi Nassan (ch. 29) describes someone who knows Aggadah, which in the context I assume means hashkafah (Jewish thought), but not Halakhah as an unarmed soldier and someone who knows Halakhah but not Aggadah as a feeble soldier. Entering into religious dialogue with knowledgeable people of other viewpoints requires expertise in both hashkafah and halakhah. You have to be able, when appropriate, to express and defend your views with accuracy and sensitivity, all while avoiding overreacting by delegitimizing that which is proper and underreacting by accepting improper views as legitimate alternatives. This is not a game for amateurs or students.
The Mishnah (Avos 2:14) says that you must know what to respond to a heretic. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 38a) qualifies this by stating that it only applies to a gentile and you should not respond to a Jewish heretic. When does this apply? To whom? If there is ever a time for inter-denominational religious dialogue, which is not necessarily the case, such a discussion should be held by experts. You cannot send a weak and unarmed soldier into the minefield of religious debate.
III. Unifying Forces
I think a different approach is more appropriate. The main question is why we would need to hold such meetings. The answer, I believe, is to develop personal relationships, so we know that we can respect each other as human beings and work together when a need arises. It is a networking event and unifying exercise. If that is the case, then what matters most is the building of relationships, not the content of the discussion. We certainly should not run a program that generates conflict and division.
We should focus on what unites us rather than what potentially divides us. If religious specifics are divisive the we should discuss communal concerns such as anti-semitism, mundane matters like working conditions and family issues, team-building exercises that focus on solving problems, and the similar. These are all ways that Jews can meet and become acquainted on personal levels without offending each other.
The meetings need not be empty of Jewish content. We must, however, be generic in our presentations, remaining within areas of universal acceptance. This inevitably leads to superficial treatment of bland subjects but that is fine because the purpose of such meetings is personal interaction and not solving religious problems.
and sometimes, being sensitive to the possibility of embarrassment, hurt and divisiveness is enough to transform a potentially embarrassing, hurtful and divisive conversation into a positive one.
“Entering into religious dialogue with knowledgeable people of other viewpoints requires expertise in both hashkafah and halakhah. You have to be able, when appropriate, to express and defend your views with accuracy and sensitivity, all while avoiding overreacting by delegitimizing that which is proper and underreacting by accepting improper views as legitimate alternatives. This is not a game for amateurs or students.”
I don’t know if Gil intentionally used the phrase: “Entering into religious dialogue with knowledgeable people of other viewpoints requires expertise in both hashkafah and halakhah”. to apply to discussions with non Jews; but IMO his paragraph applies equally well to all “other viewpoints ” including those who enter dialogue with non Jews.
“Orthodox Jews believe that they have the exclusive truth about God, life and Torah. So do many other people. When Orthodox Jews meet with believing Jews of other denominations[…]”
This is inaccurate. Non-Orthodox Jews do NOT believe that they have the exclusive truth. They essentially believe that there IS NO truth. This is why mitzvot (outside of secular law) are considered optional.
Sometimes they use the euphemism “multiple truths”, which any thinking person will quickly realize is the same concept as “no truth”.
While loving our fellow Jew is extremely important, I’m not sure that planned events with non-frum crowds is always appropriate.
My main concern is that we shomrei mitzvot in no way validate what they do as shmirat hamitzvot.
We must lovingly, openly, and non-judgmentally invite all Jews into our homes, our shuls, and our community events; but advertising a “joint Torah study” with a frum shul and a non-frum Temple seems to lend too much validity to the latter.
My experience, as someone who has worked in Hillel,Melton and now with a Board of Rabbis, is that people( including rabbis) are thirsty for the study of Torah, see it as a sacred text, are willing to be challenged by it, and bring their own life earned wisdom to it when studying it. Most people do not care about Biblical criticism, what they care about is studying with good teachers. And yes, there are troubling passages in the Torah, so one studies them and suggests ways of approaching them.
They are not interested in debating Torah MiSinai, they may believe it in one form or another, but they are amazingly open to the wisdom of our tradition, including Midrash, Gemara etc. Don’t waste your time trying to prove anything or worrying about whether someone properly believes in Hazal, rather show how Hazal read certain texts and the wisdom they provided.
It amazes me that Orthodox Jews put up barriers to studying Torah with other Jews. The issue of lacking proper emunah is with those who are worried about exposing other Jews to Torah. Have you no faith that our tradition is powerful and transformative? Are you so afraid the local Reform rabbi will outTorah you? The opposite, people who love studying text want to study with great teachers and wrestle with great ideas. Do we have the right to deny them access to Torah because they belong to a Reform synagogue and we are afraid that officially studying together will cause our members to go to the other side?
Is it better to eat latkes together than study serious Torah together? Are you so insecure in your knowledge, ability and love of Torah?
Mussar and character development from a Jewish perspective would seem to be areas of Torah study that can foster relationships, yet without the problems described.
It’s wonderful to study Torah with any Jew of any background.
What I am wary of is an official Torah learning event co-sponsored by a group of shomrei mitzvot and a group of non-shomrei mitzvot. That raises serious concerns, including possibly lifnei iver, if others are led to believe that both groups are equally valid variations of shmirat hamitzvot.
I don’t know if you were addressing the post generally or my comment specifically – but for anyone who might be reading through the comments, I wanted to clarify that.
What about the posuk in tehillim ‘ulrosho omar … ma lcho lsaper chukoi.
It seems that hashem does not want us to study Torah with those who dont keep it. A non-jew is allowed to do all mitzvot except learning Torah (and keeping any day of the week as a rest day).
Why the sudden urgency to learn Torah with them.
Heterodox Judaism is not synonomous with postmodernism. Many do believe that there is in a truth and may even believe that they have it. In the context of Talmud Torah, most (educated) non-Orthodox Jews believe strongly that the documentary hypothesis presents an accurate view of the Torah’s authorship. In this case, they believe that there is a truth that is at least partially findable.
Regarding mitzvot, they are seen as optional by the Reform movement (and not officially so by the Conservative movement, although nearly all Conservative Jews’ practice lends itself to this idea) not necessarily because of postmodern claims of no truth. It’s much more complex. I’m not really sure how the two would be related, as someone can believe strongly that the truth is that the mitzvot are no longer binding. For instance, many Reform thinkers stress the importance of Kantian personal autonomy and thus are uncomfortable with the heteronomous system of mitzvot. Others claim that the contemporary Jew is simply unable to abide by these rules.
I recommend that you read some writings of important Reform thinkers (Rosenzweig, Cohen, Borowitz) if you want to make claims about what non-Orthodox Judaism posits. If you don’t feel that one should read these works, that’s fine, but then you should refrain from stating definitively what they think. There are certainly postmodern non-Orthodox thinkers, but there are also arguably postmodern Orthodox thinkers (Rav Shaga”r ztz”l comes to mind).
is lighting a chanukkah menora without a bracha, but not for mitzvah purposes, but for secular / cultural purposes, considered a mitzvah?
esp if the bracha is purposely not recited for reasons such as the above. (or substitute intention for the word bracha.)
Surely you engage through Seudas Mereim/Seudas Shabbos etc. That’s got to be the key, especially today? First one shares socially. That creates a connection. The NATURE of that connection may then evolve to a second step. For one type of person it could well be theological debate, for another it might be involvement in ritual, for another it might be ethics and morals, and for another it might be chassidus and/or kabbalah and yet for another it might simply be a continuation of a social interchange where an orthodox person behaves in a manner which transmits kedusha.
I don’t think one can nor should they be prescriptive. I can’t see “meetings” achieving any of the above, except that they may LEAD to a Seudas Mereim etc so that the first step can occur.
MMY – Mitzvot tzrikhot kavana? I believe that’s what you’re asking along with a few specific questions about daat pertaining to Hanuka candles.
Do any non-Orthodox groups claim that they know what G-d wants the Jewish people to do and not do on a daily basis?
That’s what I meant by Truth.
Having spent many years as an active member of a large Reform Temple, I know from personal experience that they do not claim to have the Truth.
They use cute phrases like “G-d inspired” to describe any Divine involvement in the authorship of the Torah. It allows for the possibility of Deism, at best, without obligating oneself to the mitzvot.
Contrast this with the Karaites (who still exist in small numbers today), who do claim to have the Truth, and their Truth is different than that of the Orthodox Jews.
Ultimately, I’m saying no such argument of whose Truth is correct would ensue with Reform people, because the whole concept of Truth in anathema to them.
Let me suggest a different criteria for evaluating these types of encounters between Jews: if it leads to greater Ahavas Yisroel between the parties, it is successful. If it leads to less it is a failure.I would put Ahavas Yisroel ahead of theology on my priority list any time.
Your question is flawed for many non-Orthodox Jews, because they don’t believe in a personal God.
For those who do, many probably do think they know what God wants the Jews to do on a daily basis. It probably involves some social action type things. You can argue with them about whether God wants Jews to follow halacha. I have.
You seem to be assuming that truth has to involve God. As I said above, most educated non-Orthodox Jews believe that humans wrote the Torah. They believe that to be the truth. You can argue with them (as I have) about who has the truth.
“Sometimes they use the euphemism “multiple truths”, which any thinking person will quickly realize is the same concept as “no truth”.”
Any thinking person would realize that “multiple truths” is very different than “no truth”
No Truth means that the statements: “The sky is swiss cheese” has the same truth value as “they sky is blue.”
However, multiple truths means that you can say “the sky is blue”, when there are no clouds.. and “the sky is red”… when it is sunset. and that the sky can be many other things, but it can’t be swiss cheese. Multiple truths just means there are multiple truths, but there are also many falsehoods. If you declare there are no truths, that means there are also no falsehoods.
i’m not (necessarily) saying “Mitzvot tzrikhot kavana”, but that this is an actual act of non-kavanah.
I agree with R Gil’s Point III. There are many instances of Orthodox rabbanim and communal leaders who have excellent working issues with R and C clergy on issues of Klapei Chutz despite vast differences on issues of Klapei Pnim.