It is so frustrating! The time is ripe for Orthodox Jewry to reach out to all Jews regardless of denominational affiliation or lack thereof. Now more than ever. What is frustrating is that many legitimate efforts to do so are swept into the general edict issued decades ago by Orthodox rabbinic leaders. They forbade doing so in instances that would make it appear that we are legitimizing heterodox movements. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick agreed with them but limited it to theological interactions. Non theological interactions such as discussing matters public policy affecting the Jewish people were permitted by him.
I actually agree with those Rabbi Soloveitchik. Arguments that the times have changed and that we should re-consider those edicts do not sway me, even though it is true that times have indeed changed. That’s because those edicts were not only about losing Jews to heterodox movements. Although that was certainly part of the equation, it was not the whole of it. It was about the very act of seeming to give an Orthodox imprimatur to heterodox movements which entertain false ideologies. It cannot possibly be good in the ideas of God to promote or even tolerate ideologies that deny His Torah being Divine.
Much as I agree with the edict, what troubles me is the way it is interpreted today. The question is whether there are situations where one can interact with heterodox rabbis or enter their space when it is clear that you reject their movement’s legitimacy. That is where I part company with the right.
I have mentioned more than once the story of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman. He was a Charedi Rav from Lakewood that somehow struck up a friendship with Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch. They eventually collaborated on a book explaining their friendship and their differences and proceeded together on a book promotion tour.
The Agudath Israel rabbinic leadership reprimanded him and forbade him from continuing the book tour. They saw being on the same stage with a Reform rabbi as tacit legitimization. Even though he made it very clear that he did not recognize Reform as legitimate. Rabbi Reinman honored their wishes and stopped – regretting the potential outreach to hundreds if not thousands of Reform Jews that he will now never meet. He correctly perceived in the little contact he did have that he was indeed inroads with Jews hungry for more knowledge about their own Jewish heritage. That was now over.
I humbly but strongly disagreed with the Agudah rabbis at the time - and still do. When one makes the distinctions between Orthodoxy and other denominations clear at the outset - there is no way anyone could mistake being on the same stage with a Reform rabbi as tacit endorsement. In my mind it was an unnecessary lost opportunity to reach-out to what by now is acknowledged by all to be movements that are hemorrhaging Jews.
Which brings me to the recent visit by Naftali Bennett to the Conservative Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. Mr.Bennett is an observant Jew as well as being the Israeli Education Minister. That visit was strongly criticized by Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief rabbi, David Lau. Why did he do that? From a JTA op-ed by Jerry Silverman, an Orthodox Jew,Rabbi Lau is quoted as saying:
“You cannot go to a place where the education distances Jews not only from the tradition, but also from the past, and therefore from the future of the Jewish people…”
What makes those remarks all the more dismaying and perplexing (says Silverman) is the double standard. He also recently visited a non-Orthodox school, one that originally held classes in a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. During his October visit to the pluralist Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Rav Lau reportedly spoke of the “connectedness of all Jewish people” and told the children: “You are Jewish life in this city.”
It’s difficult to understand how Bennett’s visit to Schechter is any different.
I can’t speak for Rabbi Lau. But it is the very thing Mr. Silverman complains about that supports Rabbi Lau’s opposition:
Rabbi Lau should be praising him for reaching out to the non-Orthodox Jewish community, for recognizing that there is more than one way to be Jewish…
This is precisely what the original edict was trying to prevent. Orthodoxy does not admit there is any other way to be Jewish than the Orthodox way. There is also a difference between a Conservative school whose defining theology is unacceptable and a pluralistic school that does not have a defining theology by definition.
That said, I am not convinced that Rabbi Lau is entirely right here. I do not see an Israeli cabinet minister as a representative of Orthodoxy. Especially in a government that is clearly not defined as Orthodox. Mr. Bennett cannot be accused therefore of legitimizing a heterodox movement. But as an Orthodox Jew he can therefore be a positive force for outreach.
That there are so many Jews opting out of their religion at this point in time makes what Bennett did all the more important. To somehow apply the edict of the rabbinic greats of the past to this situation in our time seems at best to be foolhardy and at worst damaging to the future of Jewry. Instead of doing what we can to increase observance among our people, it damages it, since doing nothing allows the hemorrhaging to continue unfettered.
It is as though no matter how remote one’s act of outreach is from that original edict, if there is a way to apply it they do. It happened with Rabbi Reniman. And it happened again with Minister Bennett.
Rabbi Aaron Soloviechik strongly supported that edict and demanded students to follow it. But his support was limited. Not every instance of interaction with Conservative rabbis was seen by him as a public endorsement of their movement. It was with his blessing that his son, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik gave a regular weekly class in Talmud to a group of Conservative rabbis. Would Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik have seen what Bennett did in the same light as did Rabbi Lau? I’m not sure he would have.
Now is the time to take outreach to the next level. We need to somehow find ways to address the masses of Jews that are on the precipice of abandoning the last vestiges of their Judaism. This does not mean abandoning what these great rabbis directed us to do. As have Open Orthodox rabbis that openly embrace Conservative rabbis as equals and holding shared prayer services with them. But it does mean taking every opportunity to reach out - even if it means sharing a stage with a Reform rabbi whose theology you openly and clearly reject or sending an Israeli cabinet minister that happens to be Orthodox to a Conservative Shul.