In her recent “Open letter to Naftali Bennett,” Allison Kaplan Sommer made the case for why the national religious public in Israel should embrace non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, in the wake of the ongoing controversy about Women of the Wall. I applaud Kaplan Sommer for her analysis and her contribution, much of which was spot on, but at the same time, parts of her letter made me uneasy. I have little doubt that this was not her intention, but some of the letter seemed predicated on the notion that Orthodox Judaism is authentic Judaism, while the purpose of non-Orthodox Judaism is that it allows people to stay involved in Jewish life.
I can understand why the letter read that way to me; after all, it was addressed to the national religious public, and therefore its underlying assumption was that its audience sees Orthodox Judaism as the only true Judaism. Of course, my experience has shown otherwise, and I know many self-professed Orthodox Jews, living in Israel and abroad, who believe there is validity and truth to non-Orthodox Judaism as well.
That Orthodox approach, which I greatly respect, echoes the description of the disagreements between the schools of Hillel and Shammai as quoted in the Eiruvin tractate of the Talmud: “these (of Hillel) and those (of Shammai) are both the living words of God, but the law is according to Hillel.” Such pluralistic Orthodox Jews are pluralistic in recognizing multiple truths, but orthodox in seeing one practice as the right way.
However, even that approach is not the only one found in our Jewish tradition. The Mishna, the first law code of rabbinic Judaism, is replete with multiple opinions toward the same concept, and the Talmud has many unresolved debates in which the final halacha is not made clear. The schools of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva had completely different understandings of the biblical word "ger," stranger, and the laws they taught reflected those differences. It would indeed be difficult for someone to claim that one of those rabbis practiced authentic Judaism while the other simply created a compromised version that made Judaism more palatable.
Despite the insistence of some, I simply cannot accept the claim that what I call “Orthodox” Judaism is really “true” Judaism, “Torah” Judaism, or some other term that denies the validity of my practice and beliefs. To those who claim that there is only true Judaism, I ask how Rabbeinu Tam and the Rambam, both writing in the 12th century, could have come to opposite conclusions about the permissibility of Jewish business dealings with Christians? If Judaism were always universal and true, why would Karo and Isserles appear side by side in the Shulchan Aruch, offering different legal rulings?
And so, to all those who can accept that Judaism is more complex than a singularly accepted set of practices, I’d like to emphasize that my brand of Judaism, Masorti (Conservative) Judaism, is not a watered-down version of some truer Judaism, but a valid interpretation of Judaism with its own merits. I believe the same is true of the other streams, but I will leave it to their adherents to proclaim their value. For my Judaism is rooted in Jewish law and in Jewish morals, in a Jewish decision-making progress and a Jewish sense of love formy fellow human beings and respect for all humanity.
I am the first to admit that I do not adhere strictly to every aspect of Jewish law as it has been determined by arbiters in previous generations. Yet even in these cases I have firm grounding in our tradition. For example, I will gladly drink wine with a non-Jew at the dinner table. I recognize that the prohibition on non-sacramental non-Jewish wine is a rabbinic one, and as our tradition teaches us, respect for humanity has the power to outweigh a rabbinic prohibition. I respect those who disagree with me and avoid all wine touched by non-Jews, but I believe that my decision is a decidedly Jewish one, rooted both in Jewish values and legal precedent.
I also feel that the validity of our Judaism need not be determined by how learned we are in Jewish texts and how strictly we observe Jewish ritual. I recognize that not all Jews in my movement feel committed to Jewish observance in the way that I do. Yet I firmly believe that it is not my place to determine what ritual behavior is beyond the pale of acceptance. Ethical behavior, though, is a different matter. Somebody who decides to eat pork is making a decision to break with Jewish ritual law, but I would much sooner honor such a person at my synagogue than one who is dishonest in business dealings. Does the fact that I have different priorities—all of which are grounded in Judaism—make my Judaism less authentic?
I understand that there are some who will always see my brand of Judaism as a threat to theirs not only because it looks different than theirs does, but because it accepts multiple interpretations as having validity. I am happy to know that I have partners in this pluralist vision amongst different streams of Judaism who understand that the truth is more complex than just what the previous generations’ poskim (law arbiters) determined was the proper law.
I encourage all people - secular, traditional, and religious - to try to understand the perspectives of those with different practices and beliefs. One need not give up her own truth and practice in order to understand those of others.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
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