Thursday, January 21, 2021

Rethinking Our Engagement with Heterodoxy

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (YWN)
A while back (well over 10 years ago) there was a bit of a dustup in the Charedi world when one of their  own, Rabbi Yosef Reinman partnered with Reform Rabbi Amiel Hirsch in a public forum. They had co-authored a book describing their friendship and went on a speaking tour after its publication. 

Rabbi Reinman was severely criticized by Charedi leaders for publicly engaging in any capacity with a Reform rabbi. They considered it a violation of a principle established about 70 years ago by Rav Aharon Kotler. Which forbade public engagement with any heterodox rabbis, since the mere appearance on the same stage with them implied granting their movement legitimacy.  

Rabbi Reinman had explained that he made it very clear at every appearance that he was not legitimizing Reform Judaism. Their appearance together should not be taken as approval. 

Charedi leaders did not accept that explanation and maintained their long held position that an appearance together on the same stage implied legitimization regardless of any disclaimer. 

Rabbi Reinman dutifully obeyed his ‘Dass Torah’. He ended his tour and stopped promoting his book. But he expressed the regret that he would no longer be able to reach out to the many Reform Jews that he would otherwise never encounter.  

I disagreed with that decision at the time – agreeing instead with the rationale for engagement expressed by Rabbi Reinman. The good he would have been able to do far outweighed any possible negative consequences. 

This issue has come up a few times over the years. Recall that a few years ago, the then recently instated Chief Rabbi of the UK, Ephraim Mirvis participated in a project called Limmud. Limmud is an annual educational forum where rabbis from every denomination are invited to address the wider Jewish community to teach them Torah from their own denominational perspective. 

Rabbi Mirvis was advised by the Charedi ledership in the UK not to attend. Even though his lectures would be promoting the Orthodox perspective to non Orthodox Jews. He didn’t listen to them and attended Limmud - reaching out to those non Orthodox Jews. I supported him for doing it for the same reasons I supported Rabbi Reinman. 

Fast forward to today. The Jerusalem Post wherein Rabbi Heshie Billet reports the following: 

In June, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, an Orthodox religious-Zionist rabbi, participated in a dialogue with Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, a French Reform Rabbi. Rabbi Melamed was criticized by some colleagues in the broader Orthodox community for the sin of “recognition” – of giving legitimacy to a deviant theology. 

Rabbi Billet defended Rabbi Melamed suggesting that old arguments made against doing so in the past are no longer relevant. Instead Orthodox  rabbis should not only NOT boycott  such events they should actively be seeking them. He makes a good case for that. The idea that heterodoxy is a danger to Orthodoxy is no longer true. If anything, the opposite is true. 

Back in the 50s when Rav Aharon Kotler made that declaration, heterodoxy was on the rise and very powerful.  The pull of those movements on American Jews was very strong. Many once Orthodox Shuls were becoming Conservative Shuls. Many Orthodox Rabbis took pulpits in Conservative Shuls for lack of any opportunity in Orthodox ones. 

Back then Orthodox Shus were mostly small and could not afford to pay their rabbis a living wage. Some Orthodox rabbis needing jobs rationalized that even though they might be ‘selling out’ for the dollar, they would nevertheless be able to preach Orthodoxy to their members. Unfortunately the reverse often happened. Many of those rabbis ended up  compromising Halacha themselves. And ignored the non observance of their members – giving the impression that Halacha was not all that important. (Even while technically saying that it was.) 

Back then as well, Orthodoxy was in its infancy and in danger of disappearing. Rav Kotler understood that. He did what he thought was absolutely necessary to prevent even the slightest chance of losing even one soul to heterodoxy. 

But as suggested above, today the tables are turned. Orthodoxy is on the ascendancy while heterodoxy is on the decline. 

(To the extent that the Reform Movement might be increasing is to the extent that many of their ‘Jews’ are not Jewish. With an intermarriage rate of over 70% they now accept as Jewish - even people born to a non Jewish mother. And they also consider Jewish anyone simply living as a Jew - as they define it. No formal conversion necessary. If not for that, their numbers would probably be dwindling at an faster rate than the that of Conservatives Jews.) 

Rabbi Billlet suggests that now is the time to change our paradigm. We should not only engage with heterodox rabbis we should even support maintaining their shuls: 

IN MY opinion, recognizing that there are Reform and Conservative communities, synagogues and institutions in America is important. Though their ideologies were threatening to Orthodoxy many, many decades ago, that is no longer the case. Today, these movements play a central role in maintaining a connection to Judaism for many Jews who would otherwise be fully assimilated. It is important for Conservative and Reform synagogues to be maintained, and for Orthodox rabbis to value their role in supporting Jewish identity. 

He goes on to explain it is important to distinguish between legitimizing their movements and ‘enabling Jews to remain within the framework of the Jewish people’. 

I think he makes a very strong argument - considering how over 90% of the Jewish people are being decimated. Without a solid Jewish education, assimilation is destroying us! If we don’t do something radical to change that, the consequences are frightening. 

I of course agree that we should make clear that we do not grant any legitimacy to heterodoxy. But once that is made clear, what Rabbis Melamed, Mirvis, and Reinman did should be something we should all support. 

We are not in any real danger of losing Orthodox Jews to heterodoxy because of  the implied legitimacy of engaging them. Instead we have a chance to be positive influence. Back in the 50s giving them even tacit legitimacy might have had a deleterious effect on our numbers. But that is clearly no longer the case. If we have any chance of changing the massive hemorrhaging of Jews out of Judaism we can’t just sit on our laurels and allow it to happen. We need to engage. 

This kind of outreach is not really all that new an new endeavor for observant Jewry. Chabad has been doing this for decades. They have no problem at all speaking to non Orthodox Jews on their turf as long as they make it clear that they aren’t legitimizing their movement. Their Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneersohn apparently did have Rav Kotler’s fear of legitimizing heterodoxy that way. He has been proven right. Because Chabad is more successful in Jewish outreach than all other Orthodox factions combined. Maybe we should take a cue from them and do the same thing.