On Dialogue

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On a northbound train today, the passenger who sat down next to me turned out to be a Reconstructionist Rabbi, a senior staff member of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. We shared the opportunity to discuss organizational development, structures and leadership of modern Jewish movements, and, eventually, religion. He is obviously both sincere and devoted to Judaism and Jewish education, and was familiar with Torah.org.

I asked him how he decided to become a Rabbi. He said that his family was secular but joined a Conservative synagogue (where one of the early Reconstructionist thinkers was a mentor), and he attended a Conservative after-school program through his high school years. Later, he was learning advanced Tai Chi when his instructor said to him, “you have to return to your roots!” And he realized that he hadn’t “given religion a chance.”

Now anyone who has heard stories of Baalei Teshuvah, returnees to observant Judaism, or has read a book such as Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s Anatomy of a Search, can tell you that similar inspirational comments have motivated many others as well. So after discussing why he chose Reconstructionism over the Conservative movement, I asked him why not Orthodoxy. Again I got a sincere answer: he didn’t believe that the Torah, Written and Oral, were given to Moshe at Sinai. This being the case, Orthodoxy wasn’t an option.

In between question and answer, though, the Rabbi had a query of his own. The Chinese apparantly have a custom that before a large banquet, the hostess will address the group — and apologize for being unable to serve them food! Then, of course, she proceeds to do exactly what she said she couldn’t. So he wanted to know if, in fact, when the Orthodox claim to believe that the Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai, this is not a similar declaration, dictated by culture but not genuinely believed.

Of course I set the record straight. While “Orthodoxy” can include most anyone who prays in an Orthodox synagogue, regardless of actual belief, to believe the Torah to be true is a prerequisite for “Torah observance,” that which people generally have in mind when they speak about the Orthodox.

It struck me at some point that there’s an obvious lack of knowledge and dialogue here. An Orthodox Rabbi active in Jewish affairs might not know all of the nuances between Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, but he could probably tell you second-hand what distinguishes Conservative from Reform. Today the Orthodox constitute over 20% of synagogue attendees in the United States — and this sincere, dedicated Rabbi had so little contact with them that he knew of this fundamental and cherished belief as merely a story, something the Orthodox declare and might or might not actually believe.

As we moved on to a discussion of arguments in the Oral Law, and the basic similarities of the beliefs of Hillel and Shammai (or, in his view, the lack thereof), we pulled into Penn Station. The Rabbi offered to continue by email — and I’m looking forward.

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10 Responses

  1. Yaakov Menken says:

    Aharon,

    I think Shai would agree with me that even the most non-literal traditional interpretation of “Torah SheBa’al Peh” would not satisfy the modern, non-Orthodox movements. To them, the entirety of Torah SheBa’al Peh was a later invention, unknown until late in the Second Temple period. To us, it is as much a part of the fabric of Torah as a Torah scroll itself.

    Did Moshe, in fact, learn all of the later applications of Torah SheBa’al Peh? Or did he learn the rules of derivation and the body of the 613 Mitzvos, Commandments? I don’t think we need to enter into such a theoretical discourse. We do know that whatever he knew of such future applications, he did not pass on — such that later generations were forced to apply the Hermeneutical principles themselves to derive the appropriate laws, for lo baShamayim hi, it is not in Heaven, but in our hands to determine and know the law to the best of our ability.

    The following is my reply to Rabbi Shai Gluskin, which I sent to him by email today. As I conclude below, I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion:

    Thank you for your reply. I’ll be the first to admit that your moshul and nimshal [parable and application thereof] were lost on me; I thought you were seriously inquiring whether Torah miSinai was merely a cultural statement like that of the Chinese hostess. I’m glad to know that the lines of communication are not quite *that* poor between us.

    I would disagree with your comparison to Talmud study, however. Although it took you a year of living in China to learn the local idiom, the children of that society grow up understanding the meaning behind the words. And just as we understand that something “groovy” probably has no ridges and dips, and “I could care less” means the very opposite of what it says, the Talmud is Jewish “home territory.” We, who were not raised knowing the idioms, can yet learn them from the “locals.”

    The Rabbis of the Talmud intentionally rendered Mishnah and Gemarah in an abbreviated form, one basically incomprehensible to the untrained eye. They were recording the Oral Law meant to be passed from teacher to student — and though a written record was needed to ensure it would not be forgotten, at the same time they wanted to preserve the need for a teacher-student relationship.

    Ever since, from the Rabbanon Savorai, to the Gaonim, to Rishonim v’Acharonim, there has been a steady chain of students becoming teachers, then teaching the next generation. While the signal fades over time, we still can hear the echoes of Abbaye and Rava — far more clearly than if we were, indeed, visitors attempting to comprehend a foreign custom.

    I look forward to addressing your examples!

  2. Aharon says:

    When you say the Torah She Ba’al Peh do you mean the rules for the derivation of halacha, or do you mean the actual content of the Talmud? I think the confusion between the Orthodox and non-orthodox movements revolves around the answer to that question. There seem to be those who believe (very loudly and uncompromisingly) that the Talmud in it’s current form was what Moshe received in Sinai. (Including MEgilla, Mai Chanuka, etc…). I think a clear resolution of the above question would go a long way in resolving the theological dispute b/w some of the various movements.

  3. Shai Gluskin says:

    I thought your post was well written and expressed our conversation accurately. The nimshal that you learned from my “question”, however, didn’t reflect my intentions. I asked the question about what “Torah mi’Sinai” means as a way that you could easily wrap your brain around why I’m not Orthodox. I fully understood before I asked the question that probably 90% of Orthodox Jews would answer the question the way you did.

    The “Torah mi’Sinai” does go deeper, and some alluded to this on the blog.

    In your blog, you seemed to fall into the same pothole that most Americans I met in China fall into in misunderstanding the hostess’ statement at the beginning of the meal as being “not true.” This is to ignore how important culture is in the construction of meaning. If I were to write a translation of what she said from “Chinese” to “Jewish”, the translation would be: “Baruch ata haShem, Elokeinu melekh ha’olam, ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz.”

    I want to continue the Talmud discussion we started, but I don’t have sources here, so let me just make one brief statement that connects to the thought above. I believe that when we study Talmud, to really let the rabbis (and non-rabbinic characters), we need to assume that we talmidim in the 21’st century North America begin in a place of a cultural “pa’ar” breach with our ancestors. It took me the whole year I was in China to figure out what hostesses in China were talking about. I had to start with an assumption that a literal translation of the words wasn’t going to help me with understanding the meaning of the words. One of the wonderful things about Talmud study is culture of Talmud study invites this kind of deep engagement of text — I can’t simply read it and understand it — as an expected part of the process of engagement.

    I’d like to flesh this out how this applies to specific sugyot of Talmud, but I don’t have the time right now.

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    I don’t deny that there are people who profess to be Orthodox who don’t actually adhere to Torah. As I said, “‘Orthodoxy’ can include most anyone who prays in an Orthodox synagogue, regardless of actual belief.” Nonetheless, this is the exception rather than the rule. By no means can our adherence to Maimonides’ 13 Principles be compared to the declaration of the Chinese hostess before serving the banquet.

    It’s also worth mentioning that no one believes the Torah was physically given at Sinai, certainly not in its entirety. Does anyone believe that Moshe wrote the story of Korach before it happened? On the contrary, it is Torah SheBa’al Peh, the Oral Law, that Moshe learned during his Forty Days on the Mount.

  5. Nachum Lamm says:

    I’m not so sure that all Orthodox people who say they believe in Sinai, etc. really do. Do you?

  6. suleiman says:

    The Reconstructionist Rabbi wasn’t that far from the truth,in some cases. There are some Jews labeled as Orthodox (specifically the Dati’im Hadashim in Israel) who may not actually believe that the Torah was physically given at Sinai. While they may not belong in Orthodoxy, and there has been a movement to exclude them from it, for the Reconstructionist Rabbi to suspect that some Orthodox Jews do not actually believe in Torah MiSinai was not so far off.

  7. kaspit says:

    “Of course I set the record straight. While “Orthodoxy” can include most anyone who prays in an Orthodox synagogue, regardless of actual belief, to believe the Torah to be true is a prerequisite for “Torah observance,” that which people generally have in mind when they speak about the Orthodox.”

    Perhaps what he needed to hear (when young, if not now) is how the Orthodox community encompasses and welcomes people who struggle with belief and, at the same time, enables them to clarify and (re)affirm belief in Torah. Kol tuv,

  8. Gedalia Litke says:

    1. If you continue with him by email don’t publish a book about it before speaking to Rabbi Reinman.
    2. He was seeking his roots but didn’t believe in Sinai so he avoided Orthodoxy. That’s not a search, that’s an affirmation of pre-existing beliefs.

  9. Yoel Yativ says:

    “To be realistic in the Middle East one has to believe in miracles”: David Ben Gurion.

    Emunah – Belief, is a rare commodity these days.

    In the same way that people need to have “emotional intelligence” to cope with todays complex and stressfull society, we we need to develop “spiritual intelligence”.

    How can we understand and comprehend what makes a Mezuza, or a pair of Filacteries Kosher? How can a “well educated” person believe that Hashem created the world in 7 days?. A type of “higher” intelligence is needed to enter the Torah. A purity of mind and heart not achievable in the traditions of Plato, Aristotle, Freud or even Frankel.

    Only when following the footsteps of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, Joseph Moses and Aharon, David, Rabbi Akiva, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, The Rambam, Yitzhak Luria, The Ramhal, The Baal Shem Tov, The Vilna Gaon and those true followers of our spiritual tradition.

    Spiritual intelligence opens the heart in the way promised by the profets. To be truly intelligent thus is to allow the Torah to open our hearts to the sipmle belief that will prompt us to read the simple verses in our prayer books with happiness and simplicity and then we will connect and start to see miracles.

  10. Jeff says:

    I hope the dialogue continues, and I look forward to reports of your discussions.