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One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Themby Ammiel Hirsch
January 21, 2000
Dear Ammi (if I may take the liberty),
Since this is my first communication directly to you, I suppose it should begin with something clever and profound, but nothing comes to mind.
I understand that our shadchan (a seasoned matchmaker named Richard Curtis) has arranged a dinner meeting as an icebreaker. As far as I'm concerned, there is no ice to be broken, just a little unfamiliarity.
I look forward to meeting you for a number of reasons--the book, the project, the contact with a Jewish world that is quite alien to me at this point, as is mine to you, no doubt. But there is also a personal reason. Over the last month, Ammi Hirsch, of whom I had never heard, has materialized for me as an individual, a fellow Jew with a past and a future, someone who is a little apprehensive about meeting me (which is endearing but unnecessary)--just as I have materialized for you as a real person. Doesn't it therefore behoove us, two Jews passing in the night, to stop and say hello to each other? So, no matter what comes of this, I wish you shalom aleichem, and I am happy to make your acquaintance. Perhaps some day it will develop into a friendship. I hope so.
January 26, 2000
I just returned from Israel and was delighted to receive your note. February 2 at 6 p.m. is perfect.
See you then.
February 9, 2000
It was a pleasure meeting you in person last week. The setting was good, and the two and a half hours flew by quickly. I'm sure we could have continued talking for several hours more had the maître d' not pointed to the long line of people waiting for tables.
I wonder what the staff and the other patrons thought about the two of us sitting there, me with my beard, peyot, and long caftan and you beardless and bareheaded. What could two people like us have in common? Perhaps they thought we were discussing a real estate venture. I'm sure it never occurred to them that we were discussing some of the fundamental issues that divide the Jewish people and how those chasms can be bridged.
But the truth is we do have a lot in common. We are bound together by blood, history, and some shared religious beliefs. We both carry the burdens of the same thousands of years of Jewish experience, although we may choose to shoulder them differently. We share a bond that is sometimes forgotten when we deal with each other in the impersonal abstract, but when we encounter each other in the living, breathing flesh, that bond is instantly manifested. Whatever differences we may have, ideological or political, we are brothers, and we should care about each other. One of the greatest Jewish values is Ahavat Yisrael, instinctive love for another Jew. I believe this is an ideal we both embrace passionately, and it certainly would make a good foundation for what we are about to undertake here.
I am sure that, as we go on, the discussion will reach scorching temperatures, and that is a good thing. If we pull our punches, we will be defeating our purpose. But those punches must never be thrown with anger or malice, only to convince and clarify. After all, we are already brothers, and I am confident that, as we continue along this adventure together, we will also become good friends.
Over dinner, we touched on numerous thorny issues, and there is nothing that is not open to merciless scrutiny and discussion. It would be premature, however, to address some of these issues, especially the hot political ones, without first exploring who we are, what we believe, and what we stand for. How can we deal with solutions to political differences when we don't even understand each other? Should we try to beat each other into submission regardless of the human cost to the other side?
I admit that we may never find an accommodation that will satisfy both sides. I admit that after all our correspondence we may just agree to disagree. I admit that there may be no choice but to fight it out in the political arena and let the better fighter win. But let us be aware of the fears, hopes, and concerns of the other side. Let us be aware that we may inflict pain on our brothers and do our best to minimize that pain. At the very least, let us be saddened by it.
So let us begin at the beginning. Let us talk about truth. Over dinner, you quoted the philosopher Isaiah Berlin as saying that the greatest danger to the world is when people believe there is only one truth and that they have it, and you applied this concept to Orthodoxy. Berlin made this statement with regard to the proponents of communism and fascism who believed they had discovered a single, overarching truth that justified the sacrifice of individual humans to grand abstractions. He was speaking about the outlook that "you are either with us or against us." Do you believe that applies to the Orthodox view?
Orthodox Judaism is without question about the search for absolute truth. We believe without question that there is an absolute truth, and that it is contained in our holy Torah. Does that make us dangerous? I don't think so. We have never sought to impose our beliefs on other people. We actually discourage conversion. We believe in the election of the Jewish people to live by a higher standard, to be a "light unto the nations," to teach by example. Our daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, are a different story, of course. But that is an entire discussion in itself.
I would, therefore, like to begin our correspondence by discussing the concept of truth. Do you really believe that there is no absolute truth? That there are many truths? In one of the articles you sent me, you wrote that you accept "the authenticity and validity of Orthodoxy." At the same time, you obviously accept the authenticity and validity of Reform. How do you reconcile these views when Orthodoxy by its very nature rejects the authenticity and validity of Reform? You also told me over dinner that "Reform needs the continued existence of Orthodoxy." I find this intriguing, but I don't really know what you mean by it. Let us use these questions as a springboard to our correspondence.
February 16, 2000
Thank you for your initial comments. I entirely agree with you regarding your sentiments on Ahavat Yisrael. At its core, Judaism is about the covenant in action. This covenant binds the Jewish people to God and to each other. Thus, the notion of love for fellow Jews is at the heart of the Jewish experience. "All Jews are responsible one for the other" is no mere slogan for me. It constitutes the very essence of my understanding of Judaism. (Hence my disappointment with the rhetoric and actions of many Orthodox Jews and their spokesmen, who so often convey not unconditional love, but intolerant antagonism.)
You mention the concept of absolute truth. Great evil has been perpetrated by people who were convinced that they possessed absolute truth. The implication of this belief is that all other beliefs are, by definition, not true. Taken seriously, this leads to terrible consequences.
Sooner or later, the belief that you possess absolute truth and others do not leaves you essentially alone at the pinnacle of piety.
You skirted the fundamental issue in your letter to me. You write that [Orthodox Jews] "believe without question that there is an absolute truth and that it is contained in our holy Torah." At the same time, you write: "Orthodox Judaism is without question about the search for truth."
What is it? Are you in possession of truth, or are you searching for truth?
If you are searching for truth, then I am with you. It is not Orthodox Judaism alone that is about the search for truth. Many others are so engaged, including all of the Jewish movements. I too believe that the Torah is the fundamental place where Jews begin the search for truth. It is this search for truth--interpretation and reinterpretation of ancient texts--that constitutes the Jewish way. This effort by successive generations of Jews to ascertain the meaning and consequences of the ancient texts has produced what we call today Jewish thought and tradition. Every important Jewish work--Talmud, responsa, commentary, Midrash, Jewish philosophy, and even liturgy--is essentially an attempt to answer the question "What does the Torah mean?"
However, if you say that you are in possession of absolute truth, I find this most troubling--and yes--it makes those who so believe dangerous. Here is where I raised the thinking of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin writes: "One belief more than any other is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. . . . This is the belief that somewhere in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the single heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a FINAL SOLUTION."
Much of Judaism was more modest than the way contemporary Orthodox spokesmen present it. If talmudic rabbis, for example, were primarily interested in presenting one, absolute truth, they would not have argued and debated every jot and tittle of Torah verses and subsequent commentaries. And they would certainly not have left these arguments on every page of Talmud--usually unresolved--for all future generations to see!
If Judaism was interested in presenting absolute truth, the Talmud itself would not have cited passages which are entirely inconsistent with this notion. For example, the famous passage in the Talmud describing the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages over the purity of an oven. (Baba Metzia 59b) Eliezer defended his ruling by turning to the heavens. "If the law accords with me, let this carob tree prove it," he said. Whereupon the tree was uprooted from its place. The sages remained unconvinced. "If the law accords with me, let the water canal prove it," Eliezer insisted. Whereupon the water in the canal flowed backward. "You cannot bring proof from a water canal," the sages insisted. "If the law accords with me," said Eliezer, "let the study hall prove it." Whereupon the walls of the study hall leaned and were about to fall. The sages remained unconvinced. Finally, Eliezer said, "If the law accords with me, let the heavens themselves prove it." Whereupon a heavenly voice went forth and proclaimed, "The law accords with Eliezer!" Upon hearing this Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and declared: "The Torah is not in the heavens!"
The passage concludes by citing Yehoshua's response to the heavenly voice: "According to the majority shall matters be decided." Upon hearing this God is described as having burst out in laughter: "My children have prevailed over Me, my children have prevailed over Me."
The basic point of this passage is that people must make decisions based upon the circumstances of the day. Even the heavenly voice itself proclaiming God's original intention could not alter the earthly practice. What is the truth? God's original intention, as confirmed by the heavenly voice, or the practice that was followed thousands of years later?
We read elsewhere in the Talmud that Moses--he whom tradition regards as having heard the word of God directly--was transported many centuries ahead into the academy of the venerated sage Akiva. During the lesson, one of the students asked Akiva how he knew that his interpretation of a law was the proper one. Akiva answered that it was given to Moses at Sinai. Moses, however, could not understand the reasoning and could not remember ever having received this law from God. Nonetheless, it is regarded as having been given to Moses. (Menachot 29b)
These passages practically plead for theological modesty. We are human beings, created in the image of God and yet fallible. How audacious is the notion that I alone possess divine truth!
It is not the search for truth that worries me. All people who strive to understand things larger than themselves search for truth--whether secular or religious. This is how we develop and progress. But to actually discover religious truth, well, that is a whole other matter.
I think that Jewish tradition was always quite skeptical of those who claimed to possess and pronounced divine truth. There is a traditional passage that asks what should a person do if a messenger runs into a village and announces that the Messiah has come--and you are in the middle of planting your vineyard. "First finish planting," is the advice, "and then go and check out the news of the Messiah."
I mentioned to you that I accept Orthodoxy, even fundamentalist Orthodoxy, as a legitimate endeavor. After all, it is possible--and looking around the world, obviously popular--to conclude that the original texts should be interpreted in a fundamental way. If there are many pathways to truth--as tradition states, seventy faces to the Torah--then it is conceivable that one such pathway is fundamentalism. I know full well that such a fundamentalist worldview--Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other--has no room for nonfundamentalist interpretations.
There are still things that we in other camps can learn. I am most impressed with the seriousness of Orthodox Jews in seeking to discover the will of God. Their passion for study is admirable. Many treatises have been produced by Orthodox thinkers that contain relevant and important wisdom. It is good for the wider Jewish community that part of us solves moral and other daily dilemmas through engagement with Halakhah--Jewish law. It keeps that important part of Jewish tradition current and vibrant.
That a part of the Jewish community is fundamentalist is neither surprising nor particularly worrisome. It becomes a problem when such forces acquire political power and seek to use it to impose their fundamentalist worldview on others. And since fundamentalists have a tendency to "rectify" the "sinful" behavior of the "sinners," nonfundamentalists must always be vigilant.
Yosef, you are deluding yourself when you write, "We have never sought to impose our beliefs on other people." I spend a considerable part of my professional life struggling against the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose their beliefs on other people. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox parties use the force of law to impose their beliefs. The primary reason that they do not behave similarly in the United States is their inaccessibility to the legislative process.
After all, if you believe you possess truth, why should you not feel compelled to impose it on others? Why not bring other people the good news? The American Southern Baptists have used this argument recently to justify their efforts to convert Jews.
How do you know that the Torah is the literal word of God? Do you not have any shred of doubt? Moreover, do you really believe that the thousands of pages in the Talmud were literally transcribed by Moses on Sinai? Do you ever harbor any doubts? Is everything always clear to you?
From the Hardcover edition.
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