“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy” (2).
This statement by Martin Luther King came to mind as I was reading One People, Two Worlds (3), a candid and provocative dialogue between two rabbis on the fundamental differences between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Rabbi Yosef Reinman is a member of the Chareidi, “ultra-Orthodox” community of Lakewood, while Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is associated with the Reform Community in New York City.
Educators and laymen alike waited a long time for the publication of this book. It was no doubt gratifying to many people that these two rabbis had the courage to leave their comfortable and self-sustaining communities and convictions, opting for a respectful but head-on collision, with no mincing of words, on a wide range of topics that touch on the foundations of Jewish belief. This is of particular importance because it is the first time that a Chareidi rabbi publicly displayed the courage to befriend a Reform rabbi, and a Reform rabbi put aside his antagonism towards the so-called ultra–Orthodox and actually listened to what one of their rabbis had to say.
For many, the book is an eye opener. From an Orthodox perspective it offers invaluable insight into the frame of mind of Reform ideology. It reveals the many misconceptions believed by the Reform about the nature of traditional Judaism, but it is also an honest and even biting critique of Orthodox thought and practice and of Orthodoxy’s failure to understand what lies behind Reform ideology.
Besides the fact that the voices of Modern Orthodox and Conservative Judaism are not heard, the book has many other shortcomings. One of them is the frequent use of mediocre arguments by both authors. Still, it could function as a catalyst for each party to restate its beliefs in more penetrating ways. This is especially true for the Orthodox community, who of late has produced very few profound works that adequately explain its views. Its obsessive dedication to Halacha, which Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “pan-halachism,” has resulted in the nearly complete rejection of anything non-halachic. Most of its books, such as those published by Artscroll, ignore or willfully deny the many challenges to Orthodox belief. Indeed, in some of these books the authors deliberately mistranslate Hebrew phrases or simply remove some words when they feel that the sources, which were undoubtedly written by much greater scholars than their own rabbis, were mistaken (4). As a result, the more intelligent students have little interest in taking Orthodoxy seriously.
What Orthodox leaders must remember is that we owe much of our knowledge not to those who agreed with us, but to those who differed and therefore challenged us to sharpen our minds. “Accept the truth from whoever says it” was Maimonides’ sage advice in his introduction to his famous treatise Shemonah Perakim.
At the same time, we recognize the many mistakes made by some Reform thinkers whose understanding of authentic Judaism and Orthodoxy is one-sided and biased. Often they are informed by Orthodox books that are overly simplistic. By now, the Reform rabbis should know better.
Books like the one by Rabbis Reinman and Hirsch, when written more carefully, could be of tremendous benefit not only to outreach professionals but even to serious thinkers who deal with major theological issues. They would supply important information about the mindset of the Reform world, its problems, its struggles with faith and Torah, and its inconsistencies. At the same time, they would finally put an end to the claim that all Reform rabbis and leaders are out to deliberately destroy Judaism and the Jewish people. Some of their writings actually reveal a deep concern about the future of Judaism and the many philosophical and academic challenges.
Since most Reform Jews will never open a book written solely by an Orthodox thinker, books like One People, Two Worlds could offer them, as well, vital information about Orthodox ideology, which would otherwise never be studied or read by a large percentage of the Jewish people. As such, these types of books are a great vehicle for many non-affiliated Jews to learn more about the Orthodox world, its spirituality, commitment and deep religiosity, and to understand its differences with the Reform.
It is therefore most disturbing that while originally several leading Chareidi rabbis had encouraged this venture, by now, nearly all of the Chareidi leadership has decided to condemn books like these and have advised people to remove them from their shelves. This is not only an enormous tragedy but a great disservice to Orthodoxy, with far-reaching implications. What, after all, is accomplished by such condemnation and advice?
Does it really help Orthodox Judaism when its leaders try to stop the Reform movement from publicizing its ideology?
Let us read the wise words of the holy Maharal, Rabbi Judah Low Ben Bezalel of Prague, one of the great leaders and thinkers of Orthodox Judaism in the 16th century:
It is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you do not (summarily) reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if (your adversary) does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs. And even if such (beliefs) are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say to your opponent: “Speak not and close your mouth.” If that happens, there will take place no purification of religion. On the contrary, you should say at such times, “Speak up as much as you want, say whatever you wish and do not say later that had you been able to speak, you would have replied further.” For one who causes his opponent to hold his peace and refrain from speaking demonstrates (thereby) the weakness of his own religious faith….This is therefore the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against religion, that strengthens religion. That is not so, because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is naught but the curbing and enfeebling of religion (itself)…. (5)
Should we perhaps counter-argue that by allowing an opponent to state his beliefs he will perhaps convince us or our fellow Jews of his views, or give the impression that his views are legitimate?
How uplifting and refreshing is the Maharal’s response to this when he states that we should in fact seek out the strongest opponent to challenge us:
When a powerful man seeks out an opponent in order to demonstrate his (own) strength, he very much wants his opponent to exercise as much power as he can, so that if he defeats him his own victory will be more pronounced. What strength is manifested when the opponent is not permitted to fight?….Hence, one should not silence those who speak against religion… for to do so is admission of weakness. (6)
Indeed, what kind of message does Orthodoxy send to children and students when its rabbis fear debating a person with opposing views? What quality of Jewish education is Orthodoxy offering its followers when it teaches them to fear the Reform’s views? If Orthodox Jews are so vulnerable to Reform proselytizing, then there is something seriously wrong with their educational system. But does Orthodoxy not constantly emphasize that its education is by far superior to what Reform has to offer? So what is there to fear?
In the case of One People, Two Worlds, Rabbi Reinman’s main purpose for agreeing to this debate was to prove that Reform is indeed not a legitimate representation of Judaism. If he succeeded, what is the problem? If he did not, what does that say about Orthodoxy’s arguments? And if the end result is undetermined, should the reader not have enough knowledge to decide for himself? True, there are those who may misunderstand the arguments and arrive at the wrong conclusions, but in that case we should not allow them to study Torah, Talmud, Mishna and their commentaries either, since all of these run the high risk of being misconstrued with drastic consequences. Nothing in this world comes without risk; the great paradox is that one sometimes needs to risk one’s life in order to save it.
To have arguments in our study halls is easy, since we need only to answer ourselves, not the opponent; the true test of our beliefs comes when we are asked to defend and explain them in the arena of real opposition.
Indeed, what is the purpose of condemning such books if Orthodoxy is losing its soul and spirit because of it? For exceptional souls, intense quarrels are great emancipators, and if anything is required today it is Orthodox rabbis and leaders showing that they enjoy a good fight because they are convinced of their own beliefs. “The best way I know of to win an argument is to start by being in the right,” Lord Hailsham once said.
Removing a book from the shelves is much more dangerous than preventing its publication in the first place. Not only will it compel many more people to buy and read it, but it will be seen as a reflection of weakness on the part of Orthodoxy and a great victory for its opponents.
It is time for Orthodoxy to wake up and once again dare the world, as Avraham Avinu and so many after him did. Authentic Orthodoxy has nothing to fear, for it has all the necessary ingredients to create a heroic assertion of self-confidence. It should show unprecedented courage.
Would it not be better for Orthodoxy to start publishing books of such great profundity that it would cause its opponents to wonder whether they should remove those books from their shelves?!