Non-Orthodox Dialogue

letter-447577_1280

Ah, for when life was simpler!

One of our readers, Shalom Simon, stuck it to me regarding my post on the grand debate at Harvard Law School. He asked whether the event (which had received approval from personages otherwise opposed to interdenominational gatherings) had really smacked of legitimizing any heterodox movement. If not, should we not rethink the usual hands-off policy to such gatherings?

This is what I responded:

Dear Reb Shalom,

I used to believe as you do. To a large extent, I still do. I am acutely aware of how many opportunities we miss by refusing all forums in which heterodox leaders share the platform. Not only do we turn down some of our only chances for being able to convey authentic Torah to people, but we perpetuate the stereotype eagerly dished out regularly by Reform and Conservative rabbis that the Orthodox do not believe anyone else to be Jewish. See – they won?t even sit down with us!

Moreover, the practice of shunning all religious edifices outside our community was not universally embraced. Rav Gustman, Z”L, held strongly that we should try hard to gain entrance to non-Orthodox establishments so that we could speak our minds.

It has been my own experience, however, that (as we say here in Hollywood) no good deed goes unpunished. Years ago I quietly made some exceptions to the general practice of avoiding joint panels etc., each time after consulting with morei horaah – halachic decisors. (The Harvard event should demonstrate that there are times that poskim are willing to see the venue as very different from the usual type that we routinely stay away from). I took great pains to keep things quiet, and to specify both why I was there (which was always to unabashedly dispute what the others were saying) and that there should be no PR. Without fail, somewhere down the line, some Reform or Conservative rabbi would write something about new trends within the Orthodox community, new possibilites of acceptance and of moving closer together, etc. I never cease to be amazed by the need of heterodox rabbis to hear that the Orthodox validate them as authentic teachers of tradition. It is a validation that we cannot afford to give them. (I met one notable exception – the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. He laughed at the idea of an Orthodox hechsher, claiming that if he was secure in his beliefs, what need did he have of the Orthodox approving? He was the only non-Orthodox leader I?ve personally met who said that he had no theoretical problem with allowing an Orthodox speaker access to his flock even if he knew that the favor would not be reciprocated.)

Summing up, the issue is not monochromatic. There are nuances. We lose by not being on some of those panels, but we also gain some credibility, in a strange way. There are some people out there who understand that the difference between traditional Judaism and the other movements must be extremely pronounced if the Orthodox will not budge on the validation issue. This means that people who are very disaffected regarding the Judaism they have encountered are sometimes still open to an Orthodox experience, because they do not view their negative experiences outside of Orthodoxy as sitting on the same continuum. And even where there would be clear gain in joining some joint panel, we should not forget that there is a price we would be paying at the same time. It is not clear at all to me that we should rethink the decades-old ban on such activity.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. Jon Baker says:

    Clearly this blog holds that there is some value, and some level of rabbinic approval, for religious discussions with heterodox clergy (despite R’ YD Soloveitchik’s distinction of klapei phnim (religious matters – forbidden) vs. klapei chutz (socio-political matters – permitted). R’ YY Reinman, one of the regular contributors, came under fire for his book of dialogue with a Reform rabbi.

  2. Jon Baker says:

    Clearly this blog holds that there is some value, and some level of rabbinic approval, for religious discussions with heterodox clergy (despite R’ YD Soloveitchik’s distinction of klapei phnim (religious matters – forbidden) vs. klapei chutz (socio-political matters – permitted). R’ YY Reinman, one of the regular contributors, came under fire for his book of dialogue with a Reform rabbi.

  3. Elya says:

    Rabbi Alderstein, I couldn’t agree with you more. I have had many interactions with non-Orthodox clergy and on a personal level much can be accomplished, but I have refused to sit with them on any sort of panels or enter their places of worship because I have perceived the trend that you describe. There will always be some who we’ll miss out on by not going into the lion’s den but I believe that there are equally as many who never get comfortable with their movement’s positions because they know full well that there is a whole sect of Judaism that does it VERY differently and “they” seem to be prospering. Tough issue.

  4. Moishe Potemkin says:

    “There are some people out there who understand that the difference between traditional Judaism and the other movements must be extremely pronounced if the Orthodox will not budge on the validation issue.”

    There probably are, but I would venture a guess that most people attribute it to the closed-mindedness and intellectual timidity seen in many fundamentalist groups that hesitate to expose themselves to public challenge.

    I am curious as to how these offsetting considerations are actually weighted, though. Any insight you could provide would be appreciated.

  5. Yaakov says:

    Even though we ought not publicly sit on a dais with heterodox clergy, there is GREAT benefit to paying personal visits to local heterodox leaders to develop a human relationship. When I met a local Conservative rabbi in his office “just to say Hi,” he immediately challenged why I would meet him privately, but “wouldn’t even share a bagel with him” at the local Board of Rabbis monthly breakfast. I told him that I’d be more than happy to discuss ideology, but only after we knew each other as people, respected each other as people, and enjoyed each other’s company. Only then could we have a no-holds barred discussion that would not spill over to the personal realm. Naturally, he demurred noting his busy schedule, but I do perceive less anti-Orthodox venom coming out of his institution.

  6. Gil Student says:

    I have friends and relatives who currently, with guidance from world-renowned (non-YU) poskim, sit on panels with heterodox clergy. They have received very positive feedback from their encounters and have not seen any of the legitimation-press that you received. Perhaps you are too successful and famous for doing these things. But the little guys can accomplish a lot of good by doing this.