Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Four Musketeers?

What do Sally Priesand, Sandy Sasso , Amy Eilberg and Sara Hurwitz have in common? They have all been ordained as rabbis by their respective denominations. Of course Rabba Hurwitz is not called by the title ‘rabbi’. She is called ‘rabba’. But that is just a technicality since her mentor and ordaining rabbi, Avi Weiss, has made it clear that the women he ‘ordains’ (another taboo word apparently – I think he is searching for another term) are for all intents and purposes spiritual leaders along the same lines as rabbis.

One might say that it is unfair to equate Rabba Hurwitz with the other three rabbis since they are not Orthodox and are not recognized by any Orthodox organization as legitimate. (How could they be if the denomination itself is is not recognized as far as the Orthodoxy is concerned?)

And yet there she was in ‘brotherhood’ with ‘sister’ rabbis on a panel in a Reform temple celebrating Chanukah with them – as though they were 4 separate but equal branches of Judaism.

Of course this is not new for her mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss. He has admitted departing from his own mentor’s ways in this regard. Rav Soloveitchik clearly forbade any participation with heterodox rabbis in matters of religion for fear giving the impression of their legitimacy as a religious movement in Judaism.

I realize that she is a very sincere Jew – as is her mentor Rabbi Weiss. They are both good people. They see this as a form of outreach. Rather than chase Jews away with the ‘vinegar’ of rejection they appeal to them with ‘honey’ of brotherhood and camaraderie. They will thus be able to win more hearts and minds influencing fellow Jews to see the beauty and truth of Torah. And in the process perhaps get more Jews to become observant. They highlight , embrace, and participate in elements of heterodoxy that coincide with Orthodoxy as if to say we are all one. An atmosphere of brotherly love prevails among Jews.

I’m sure that is the motivation. The intentions are all good and I firmly believe that they consider their actions to be L’Shem Shamayim.

But Rav Soloveitchik and virtually every other Gadol from right to left saw this as wrong, counterproductive, and even a possible violation of Halacha. The danger of legitimizing the illegitimate far outweighs the outreach potential. It gives secular Jews with a limited background the impression that it is just a question of how stringent one wants to be.

They will see it as a matter of choice. If one wants maximum participation in ritual one chooses Orthodox. If one wishes to be moderate in one’s observances one chooses Conservative. If one has Reconstructionist conceptions of God, one chooses Reconstructionism. If one wants to embrace the ethics of the Torah and not do any Mitzvos, Reform is the way to go. It’s all good.

That is the danger.

As important as outreach to fellow Jews is, one cannot send messages that undermine the very religion itself. Which is what happens when you celebrate a religious holiday at the same table with heterodox rabbis.

It should be noted that Rav Soloveitchik parted company with other Gedolim when it came to matters not relating to religion. In matters of public policy affecting the Jewish people he permitted cooperation with heterodox rabbis.

The Charedi Gedolim felt that this too was a form of recognition and forbade any cooperation at any level. One can debate this facet. I happen to agree with the Rav about this. I do not for example believe that joining with rabbis of other denominations to lobby congress for the State of Israel grants them any recognition.

Bearing this in mind I am reminded of what happened to Rabbi Yosef Reinman a few years ago. Rabbi Reinman attempted outreach via collaboration on a book and book signing tour with Reform Rabbi Amiel Hirsch. They had written a book about their friendship and religious differences. Rabbi Reinman was very clear about not legitimizing the Reform Movement in any way.

But he was reprimanded by the Charedi rabbinic leadership and asked to withdraw from publicizing his book and his relationship with Rabbi Hirsch.

I believe that was a mistake.

In no way does a book explaining differences and calling them unacceptable qualify as legitimization. But Charedi rabbinic leaders felt that this outreach attempt violated the spirit of the ban on any participation with heterodox rabbis. On the other hand I believe the Rav would have approved of Rabbi Reinman’s outreach effort.

But I don’t think he would have approved of Rabbi Weiss’s proactive participation with heterodox rabbis nor would he have approved of his ordination of protégé, Sara Hurwitz. And now Rabba Hurwitz has taken another step along the direction of her rabbi and away from the Rav. It’s a slippery slope. I wonder what’s next.