There is a great deal of merit in Rabbi Ben Greenberg’s view that shared Torah study can do more to foster Jewish inclusiveness than shared ritual. As an Orthodox Jew I have benefitted from shared study with Jews of non-Orthodox denominations, as well as shared efforts in matters of community interest, and the benefits went far beyond just understanding my fellow Jew better.
Nonetheless, three objections may be raised to the argument he makes in Moving Beyond Ritual, published in On the Square. The first is that shared ritual never has been as central to interaction among denominations as Rabbi Greenberg suggests. The second is that joint Torah study raises difficulties quite as irksome as shared ritual. And the third, and perhaps most important, is that any framework for interdenominational dialogue depends on a change of attitude among all the participants.
Let us examine these three objections in turn.
Rabbi Greenberg states that for a generation we have relied on shared ritual as the paradigm for Jewish inclusiveness. But the most prominent platform for inclusiveness has not been ritual, but interdenominational bodies formed to address issues of concern to the larger Jewish community. The successes as well as the failures of these efforts are the best gauge of our efforts on behalf of inclusiveness.
In 1926, for example, the Orthodox Union joined the Synagogue Council along with Conservative and Reform Jews. For a time it thrived. (The story is told by Dr. Jonathan Sarna in a recent essay entitled The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Believing Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews.) In a joint resolution from 1925, representatives of these groups stated that,
recognizing the fundamental spiritual unity that binds us as Jews, believing that the Synagog is the basic and essential unit in our Jewish life, and believing in the desirability of taking counsel together for the sacred purpose of preserving and fostering Judaism in America, [they] recommend to the organizations represented at this meeting, that a Conference composed of national congregations and rabbinical organizations of America be formed for the purpose of enabling them to speak and act unitedly in furthering such religious interests as all these constituent national organizations share in common, it being clearly provided that such proposed Conference in no way interfere with the religious administrative autonomy of any of the constituent organizations.
As Sarna explains, the key concession [that brought the orthodox to the organization] was a commitment to act only upon unanimous consent. As a result, the Orthodox Union had no qualms about joining because they could not be overruled.
Sadly, the Council did not live up to initial expectations. The arrival of European rabbis with a deep-seeded distrust of other Jewish movements hardened the Orthodox position. Some Orthodox leaders, including Rabbi Joesph Soloveitchik, looked for a middle course that would encourage joint effort on non-religious matters, but even this approach narrowed the scope of the Council’s purpose.
Ultimately large portions of the Orthodox community backed away from cooperation with the non-Orthodox denominations. As this breakdown in relations began, Rabbi Soloveitchik lamented, I strongly disapprove of the method and the manner in which the whole problem has been handled, of the personal and political overtones, of the hysterical climate which has been created and of the unfairness displayed by certain individuals and groups.
Second, it is not at all clear that shared Torah study will promote Jewish inclusiveness. It can be just as divisive as shared ritual. The problem is not simply that other denominations do not share the Orthodox view that Torah is divine revelation, rather than an historical document or a vaguely inspired work. Many non-Orthodox Jews are intolerant of our belief that, for example, homosexual practices are sinful, and our separation of gender roles- positions that derive directly from said Torah study.
If we subordinate Torah study to the aim of Jewish inclusiveness, in my experience, the result too often dilutes the content of Torah and creates a situation- with which, in Rabbi Greenberg’s words, no one is comfortable. Such interdenominational gatherings cultivate discomfort by inhibiting participants from expressing their views candidly. Rabbinical students from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Orthodox Yeshiva University well may benefit from joint learning, but only when both can bring their unique perspective to bear in the search of truth, rather than for an instrumental purpose.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s most prominent pupils, notes all the benefits of Torah study in joint settings, and asks what would be gained by abstaining from such exercises. He concludes:
We have averted”or, at least, believe we have deferred” the hobgoblin of parity and have made it unequivocally clear that we regard ourselves as the only genuine alternative in town. Second, we have avoided the exposure of some of our constituency to winds of strange doctrine and to their evangels.
These are no small pickings. But so may that be true of a possibly exorbitant price”and hence, the dilemma. In all likelihood, the most effective response should be differential. The attitudinal stance of the speakers, the prevailing ideological climate, the social venue, the degree of implicit parity, the texts to be discussed, the religious and intellectual maturity of the audience”all require careful consideration in assessing the likely impact and the relevant risk-benefit ratio.
His sensible, measured approach to combined Torah study requires that we find the proper participants, topics, and settings in order to avoid coming out worse off than we went in.
And that raises the third question, namely, the attitude of the denominations toward each other. Rabbi Lichtenstein adds:
Before we choose a course of action, we must effect a change of mindset and a change of heart. We must, at the very least, reduce the level and the scope of mutual demonization. So long as communal leaders are viewed, respectively, as nothing but power-hungry iconoclasts or as benighted obscurantists, we shall, collectively, pay a heavy price.
Unless”and until”we develop a propensity for mutual respect, acknowledging that there may be mediocrities and charlatans in various camps, but steadfastly refusing to tar indiscriminately . . . . . . the interests of klal Israel [congregation of Israel] . . . will be adversely affected.
Where we most agree among the Jewish denominations is just in this matter, the interest of the whole congregation of Israel. Joint religious observance, whether it involves ritual or study, requires careful preparation and guidance. It is not a solution for all times and places. But our national interest as a people unites all Jews, and it is here that Jewish denominations must come together with mutual respect and without prejudice to foster the unity that the Jewish people requires.
David Lasher is a junior fellow at First Things .
Rabbi Greenberg’s Moving Beyond Ritual .
Dr. Jonathan Sarna’s The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Believing Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews .
Aharon Lichtenstein’s Beyond the Pale? Reflections Regarding Contemporary Relations with Non-Orthodox Jews .