One people, two worlds
A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues that Divide Them
By Amiel Hirsch and Yosef Reinman
Reinman; Schocken Books, New York, 2002
Dr. Norman Lamm: Torah UMadda, Jason Aronson Inc, Northvale,
New Jersey, London, 1990; pages 57, 58
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in a moment of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.
This statement by Martin Luther King came to mind when I read One People, Two Worlds by Rabbis Yosef Reinman and Ammiel Hirsch. This book contains a candid and provoking dialogue about the fundamental differences between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Rabbi Reinman is a member of the Chareidi ** community of Lakewood while Rabbi Hirsch is associated with the Reform Community in New York City.
Educators and many laymen were waiting for this book for a long time. It was no doubt a relief to a lot of people that these two rabbis had the courage to leave their convenient and self sustained communities and beliefs and opt for a “respectful” but head on collision about a wide range of topics which touch on the foundations of Jewish belief without mincing words. This is of special importance because it is the first time that a chareidi rabbi publicly showed the courage to personally befriend a reform rabbi and a reform rabbi put his antagonism towards the so called “ultra-orthodox” aside and actually listened to what an “ultra-orthodox” rabbi had to say.
To many, the book is an eye opener. From an orthodox perspective it gives a valuable insight into the frame of mind of reform ideology. It reveals the many misconceptions, which Reform believes traditional Judaism is all about but is also a biting and honest critique of orthodox thought and practice. This is nothing else but a great blessing since it could function as a catalyst for orthodox thinkers to re-state their beliefs in more profound ways. After all, we owe much of our knowledge not to those who agreed, but to those who differed and therefore challenged us to sharpen our minds. “Accept the truth from whomsoever says it” was Maimonides’ great advice in his famous treatise: Shemone Perakim.
The book is also of tremendous benefit to outreach professionals. It gives important information about the mindset of the Reform world, its problems, its struggles with faith and Torah and its inconsistencies. At the same time it will, hopefully for once and for all, put an end to the claim that all Reform rabbis and leaders are out to deliberately destroy Judaism and the Jewish people.
Since most Reform Jews will never open a book written solely by an orthodox thinker, One People, Two Worlds offers most important information about the orthodox ideology which would otherwise never be studied or read by a large part of the Jewish people. As such the book is a great vehicle to enable many non-affiliated Jews to learn more about the orthodox world with its spirituality, commitment and deep religiosity.
It is therefore most disturbing that while several impeccable leading chareidi rabbis have encouraged this venture, some others members of the orthodox leadership have decided to condemn the book and advised us to remove it from our homes. This is a great tragedy and above all a great disservice towards Torah ideology and the orthodox world with far reaching implications. What after all is accomplished by such condemnation and advice?
Does it really help orthodox Judaism when it tries to stop the Reform movement making its ideology known?
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 (chareidi) 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)….***
Should we perhaps counter argue that by allowing our “adversary” to state his beliefs he will perhaps be able to convince us or our fellow Jews of his views or make the impression that his is also a legitimate view of Judaism?
How uplifting and refreshing is the Maharal’s response when he states that we should in fact look for the strongest opponent so as to challenge us:
When a powerful man seeks out an opponent in order to demonstrate his (own) strength, he very much wants his opponents 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***
Indeed, what kind of message does orthodoxy send its children and students when it shows that it is fearful of having a debate with a person with opposing views? What quality of Jewish education is orthodoxy giving its followers when it teaches its followers to be afraid of the views of Reform? 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 compared to what Reform has to offer?
It is clear from the outset that Rabbi Reinman’s main purposes for agreeing to this debate was to prove that Reform is indeed not a legitimate representation of Judaism. So if he succeeded, what is the problem? And if he did not, what does that say about orthodoxy’s arguments? And if the end result is undecided, should the reader not have enough knowledge to decide for himself? True, there may be readers who may misunderstand the arguments and arrive at the wrong conclusions but in that case we should not allow them to study the Torah, Talmud, Mishna, and their commentaries either since all of these run the high risk of being misunderstood with drastic consequences. Nothing in this world comes without risk and the great paradox of courage 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 have only to answer ourselves and not the “adversary”; the real 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 opposing this great book when orthodoxy is losing it’s soul and spirit because of it? For great souls great quarrels are great emancipations and if anything is required today it is that orthodoxy shows that it enjoys a good fight because it is convinced of its own beliefs. “The best way I know of winning an argument is to start by being in the right”, Lord Hailsham once said.
The greatest problem with this kind of condemnation is however the fact that it came after the book was published. To remove a book from the bookshelves is many times more dangerous, than preventing its publication in the first case. Not only will it compel many more to buy and read it but it is a move which will be seen as a reflection of weakness on the side of orthodoxy and a great victory for the so called “open mindedness” of Reform. As such a great amount of excellent outreach work has been badly damaged and undone by this proposal.
It is time that orthodoxy wakes up and once more “dares” the world as Avraham Avinu and so many after him did. Authentic orthodoxy has nothing to worry about. It has all the necessary ingredients to create a heroic assertion of self-confidence. It should show unprecedented courage. From its point of view it should have caused Reform leaders to wonder if it would not have been better to remove the book from their shelves!
Let us hope and pray that Rabbi Reinman and those chareidi rabbis who backed this endeavor will respectfully resist and have the courage to prove orthodoxy’s real uncompromising ideology.
** Chareidi: pious. Unfortunately this word is often translated with “ultra-orthodox”. Such description is totally inadequate and misleading.
*** Maharal : Be’er HaGolah, end of last chapter. Translations by Rabbi