In Defense of Dialogue
“In our dialogue, I learned from these non-Orthodox rabbis about tikkun olam and interfaith work which has largely been forgotten by Orthodoxy.”
Oped by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin | November 22, 2020
A recent letter of condemnation signed by 22 Orthodox Zionist rabbis against showing any kind of recognition whatsoever to non-Orthodox rabbis left me dismayed, angry and saddened.
The letter went on to charge that those who give such recognition are performing “a terrible desecration of God’s name,” a hillul Hashem, an act widely regarded as one of the most unforgivable perversions of faith.
The signatories were strengthened by a statement by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who went so far as to threaten the rabbinic perpetrator of the “crime” with “nidui,” excommunication!
What is most disturbing is that the subject of the condemnation is one of the greatest rabbinic decisors of our generation, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed. The rabbi’s writings Peninei Halakha are used by intelligent and learned laypeople as well as by rabbis and educators as a modern-day Shulhan Aruch-Code of Jewish Law, and his personal piety is praised by all who come in contact with him.
His “crime” was that he participated in an online conference held by the Makor Rishon newspaper last summer where he participated in a panel discussion-debate with a French rabbi who identifies with the Reform movement.
The entire premise of such a condemnation is nonsensical. To hold a public or private discussion or debate grants neither legitimacy nor recognition to the credentials or the positions of the other side. Much the opposite, the very fact of debate or discussion of a controversial issue automatically heralds a difference of opinion and a clear divide between two opinions.
Moreover, in a cultured society predicated upon freedom of thought and speech, the side that refuses dialogue automatically loses not only the aborted debate but even more significantly loses the opportunity of swaying the minds of observers, who are the most important audience: after all, they have the greatest potential to be swayed toward Orthodoxy, something one would assume would be important to the letter’s signatories.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, in one of his most far-reaching responsa, once counseled a distraught father against disowning his apostate son. He referred to the very secular climate of the times, and maintained that the only way to overcome the hedonistic zeitgeist of “modernity” is by intellectual discussion and a loving environment. And when he would often spend a Shabbat in a totally anti-religious secular kibbutz, speaking and debating, and then singing and dancing with the kibbutz leadership, he didn’t seem to be concerned about giving legitimacy and recognition to the intellectual leadership of the kibbutz.
I would also add that we are not living in the days of emancipation, when secularism was the order of the times and Reform Judaism was a serious threat to Jewish tradition. By 2020, the tide has turned; for many decades already, many Jews are searching for a meaningful and purposeful life which, I believe, Orthodoxy is uniquely positioned to provide.
In my 19 years as a rabbi in the secular cultural center of New York, Lincoln Center, our Orthodox synagogue was clearly the most successful on the “block,” with the largest attendance in services and adult education classes. I spent many hours in debate and discussion with leading Reform and Conservative rabbis. As a result of this dialogue we created many joint programs which strengthened Jewish engagement across the board and even brought several Reform and Conservative Jews into Orthodoxy – including a small but significant number of the younger clergy. I also found that the majority of the non-Orthodox clergy was sincerely interested in raising the religious level of their congregants. We could truly work together successfully without my sacrificing any halachic or theological detail.
We conclude our daily services with a citation from our Sages: “Scholars in Torah must increase peace in the world” – not delegitimization or, God forbid, excommunication, and loving one’s neighbor means recognizing the image of God in everyone and the spiritual potential in everyone.
I also must admit that in our dialogue I learned from these non-Orthodox rabbis about tikkun olam and interfaith work which has largely been forgotten by Orthodoxy, despite our responsibility to teach all of humanity compassionate righteousness and moral justice.
Finally, I would urge the 22 signatories to remember the Mishna in Tractate Avot: “Love peace, pursue peace, love humanity and bring everyone closer to Torah.”
The writer is the founding rabbi of Efrat and founder and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone