Excuse Me, non-Orthodox Rabbis Don’t Need Your Lip Service

It wasn’t surprising when a Modern Orthodox yeshiva was lambasted for inviting non-Orthodox rabbis to a round-table discussion. What hurt was the response of one of the yeshiva’s students.

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Agudath Israel of America recently released a statement in which it lambasted the inclusion of non-Orthodox rabbis in a round-table discussion marking the installation of a new president of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

AIA’s position was clear:

“That an ostensibly Orthodox rabbinical seminary would now provide a prominent public platform for leaders of [non-Orthodox] movements to share their wisdom on the subject of training new rabbis is irony of the most bitter kind.”

As a Conservative rabbi and as a Jew who grew up in the Orthodox community, the remarks by the AIA remind me of a line of thinking that is all too familiar. When a friend asked one of our day school “rebbes” about whether we could go to a non-Orthodox synagogue to listen to the teachings of a rabbi there, he responded, with a fist in the air, “Their Torah isn’t real Torah.”

The AIA’s statement was not shocking, nor, to be honest, was it particularly outrageous. I wouldn’t expect anything else from such a conservative organization.

But, it seems at least one YCT student expected more from the AIA. It was with tremendous disappointment that I read a blog by YCT student Ben Elton, in which he responded to the AIA’s statement by seeking its approval and recognition. In his blog, Elton outlines the historic debate in Orthodoxy about how to address the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism and its leaders, and reminds his readers that AIA’s position is a historically grounded Orthodox view. Elton’s blog makes painfully clear that his version of Modern Orthodoxy rejects non-Orthodox leadership and its positions on religion and faith. If this is the case, his Orthodoxy isn’t modern at all:

“[Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new president of YCT] wants to begin his term by modeling what it means to learn from whoever has good ideas on matters, like pedagogy, which are not in dispute, even if we disagree on some very fundamental questions of theology or practice …”

“Of course, it was necessary to make clear where the theological disagreements lay, and how important they were. It is essential that non-Orthodox ideas should not be legitimised, even while discussion remains civilised and respectful …”

“Co-operation and dialogue need not become an expression of pluralism.”

In Elton’s conception, there is no alternative to Orthodox Judaism. He believes Orthodox Jews should learn from other streams on matters of pedagogy and other non-religious questions, but not when it comes to Torah and its implications in daily life, lest they legitimate other views.

In Elton’s view, pluralism is dangerous because it has the ability to authenticate another way of seeing the mesorah, the religious tradition. He ingratiates AIA by telling it that YCT is not legitimizing non-Orthodox Judaism and its leaders, but simply letting them sit by the table without honoring or respecting their views of Torah.

This position - being welcoming on the outside but intolerant on the inside, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing - is much more dangerous than the AIA’s original statement. For it is insufficient to simply host dialogue: one must respect the ideas, interpretations, leadership and authority of a person or group who views the Torah differently.

While I am neither Orthodox nor Reform, I believe they both offer the world and the Jewish community valuable, authentic and authoritative views of mesorah. The deepest way to embrace the concept of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, is by seeing in other Jews the authenticity, value and authority of their views on Torah and mesorah. Perhaps I disagree with Elton on the interpretation of the very famous midrash from Bamidbar (Numbers) Rabbah 13:15-16: “There are 70 faces to Torah” – a multiplicity of truths in how Torah might be interpreted and lived, each having value, authenticity and depth. Each a vision of true Torah and its authority to bringing us close to God and Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he wrote, “A central concern in Jewish thinking is to overcome the tendency to see the world in one dimension, from one perspective … The heart of the relationship of God and man is reciprocity, interdependence. The task is to humanize the sacred.” It is the sacred nature of the others’ views that makes pluralism a religious concern.

Respectfully, Ben Elton, I do hope that your version of “Modern” Orthodoxy does not reflect those of your peers, for the way you present it, “respect” means pretending to listen politely, while offering no legitimacy to their views.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com

Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah.Credit: Lior Mizrahi/Baubau

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