When the Medium is a (Misleading) Message
by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Am Echad Resources
October 8, 2002
A Lakewood, New Jersey talmudic scholar's withdrawal from a joint speaking tour with a Reform movement leader has generated disapproval, even indignation, in some circles.
The New York Jewish Week's editor, Gary Rosenblatt, for example, accused Rabbi Yosef Reinman, the Lakewood scholar, who had co-authored a book of religious dialogue with Reform Rabbi Ami Hirsch, of "bending to pressure from the religious right."
Revered senior Orthodox sages had indeed taken issue with the wisdom of the literary venture, "One People, Two Worlds." Rabbi Reinman, openly accepting their criticism, decided not to undertake the promotional tour the book's publisher had planned.
What the elder sages disapproved of was the packaging of the Jewish religious tradition alongside a philosophy that openly rejects that tradition's most basic elements.
In a statement, they asserted that the book leaves the impression "that there is some parity between two legitimate approaches to Judaism, as if to say: 'Here, dear reader, are two ways of seeing the world. Feel free to choose as you wish.'"
The Torah, in other words, does not suggest its laws; it commands them, and with divine authority. To equate its G-d-given system of morality, ethics and ritual law with an diametric approach to life that boils down to "personal autonomy" and the choosing of whatever parts of the Torah one happens to agree with, the elders feel, is wrong and misleading.
Pointedly, though, they went on to explain that they "are not unaware of the benefit, and the need in our time, of clarifying the truth of the Torah to those who have never heard it, nor. of the obligation of feeling brotherhood and love for all Jews, including those who have been brought up with and ensnared by the falsehoods of our time."
"All such Jewish souls," they continued, alluding to concepts found in Jewish tradition, "stood with us at Har Sinai and heard with us as one the never-ending word of Hashem, and in the depths of their beings their souls cry that 'our will is to do Yours.' There is undoubtedly a special duty incumbent on us all to strengthen and support them, and help return them to their spiritual home."
But, they insisted, the Reinman/Hirsch book is not the way to do so. "The Torah must be presented to the masses purely and straightforwardly, as it was presented to our people at Har Sinai, unsullied by decidedly unJewish ideas. We may not treat our perfect Torah on a par with others' casual speculations. Light cannot co-exist with darkness, nor can falsehood be peddled along with truth."
In a world where relativity rules, so unapologetically confident a stance on absolute truth is bound to ruffle feathers. But no one with any familiarity with Jewish history can doubt that the Torah's divine and immutable nature was the sine qua non of the Jewish faith for millennia - as Orthodox Jews believe it remains today.
Rabbi Reinman knows that well, and, by all accounts, did a masterful job of expressing the fact in the book. Yet, his elders felt that the medium itself was a message here, and that the truth of the Jewish tradition - the source of the Jewish people's specialness - can only be presented in an uncompromised setting, not as an item on a menu.
Mr. Rosenblatt, an Orthodox Jew himself, should understand that insistence, and should, moreover, consider the possibility that Rabbi Reinman's acceptance of the elders' judgment was motivated by sincerity, not fear; by deference, not duress.
In the Jewish tradition, accepting direction, especially from those with more wisdom and life experience, is immensely valued, and admitting error more valued still. The direction of elders, and even their rebuke, are seen by truly religious Jews as valuable gifts.
Particularly ironic was Mr. Rosenblatt's questioning, in the wake of the controversy, whether the Orthodox sages "are mindful, or care" about many non-Orthodox Jews' perception that their Orthodox brethren look down on them, or "fear any social contact" with them.
If there is indeed any such perception, it is sadly mistaken. For Orthodox Jews' love for other Jews is not only a natural expression of ethnic solidarity; it is no less than a holy commandment of the Torah. And while we Orthodox reject unequivocally the philosophies underlying the movements with which many of our fellow Jews affiliate, that in no way affects our devotion to them - and certainly bespeaks no condescension or fear.
Quite the contrary, our rejection of those philosophies, including our refusal to provide them platforms or legitimacy, is an expression precisely of our love and concern for other Jews. The very words of the sages who objected to the Reinman/Hirsch project, quoted above, say it all. The reason for their objection to a book that includes a clearly non-Jewish perspective on Torah and life is because of their deep and uncompromising concern for other Jews - and their determination not to mislead them.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of
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