Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover
The media have been busy for months with "One People, Two Worlds," the book I coauthored with Ammiel Hirsch, and the promotional tour from which I withdrew after two appearances in deference to the Council of Torah Sages. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I would like to add a few remarks and observations of my own.
A few weeks ago, upon his return from his now solo appearances on the tour, Ammi wrote a piece for The New York Jewish Week ("Two Authors, One Book Tour," Jan. 3) in which he lamented the missed opportunity for the Orthodox. He had met "thousands of Jews . precisely the people Rabbi Reinman wanted to reach - mostly non-Orthodox Jews eager to learn more about Torah and the Orthodox world."
It was indeed a missed opportunity. My message resonated well with the people during the first two appearances - in the "State of World Jewry" forum at the 92nd Street Y and at a book fair in Indianapolis - despite my long caftan, beard and peyot. After the presentations, many people approached me with comments, questions and an overwhelming curiosity. We also connected on a personal level, and I loved it and them. By withdrawing from the tour, I had to forego meeting hundreds of people under similar circumstances. A great loss.
So why did I withdraw? And even more important, why was this opportunity for an Orthodox rabbi to meet non-Orthodox people such a rare phenomenon?
Ammi offers the answer. "The Jewish world needs you," he calls out to the Orthodox, "to bring your love of Torah, discipline, commitment, knowledge and passion to the Jewish world ... The enemy is not Reform Judaism. The enemy is apathy, assimilation and ignorance. We should see ourselves as allies in our common struggle to sustain and ensure Jewish continuity."
You see? There are strings attached to these wonderful opportunities. So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis? Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.
But Reform rabbis are not our colleagues in the work of perpetuating Jewish continuity. Reform ideology embraces moral relativism, denies the divine authorship of the Torah, denies the divine covenant, denies the binding nature of halacha and, by doing so, rejects the Judaism of our ancestors. Reform laypeople know this full well, and that is why they are so eager to learn about Orthodoxy, the religion of their ancestors. They don't display the same interest in Conservatism and Reconstructionism, which are just different flavors of the liberal stream.
During these last few months, I have met and heard from numerous non-Orthodox people yearning for a stronger Jewish identity, and I wondered what motivated them to set themselves apart from American society. Then it struck me that the laypeople have never let go of the religion of their ancestors, that the national memory of Sinai is still etched into their chromosomes, that deep down they know the divine covenant between the Creator and His people is real.
Fifty years ago, a group of leading Orthodox sages erected a firewall between the Orthodox rabbinate and the Reform rabbinate, forbidding any official contact whatsoever between the two. The sages felt that sharing common platforms with movements so antithetical to the religion of our ancestors would give them an aura of legitimacy they did not deserve. They placed no restrictions, however, on contact with Reform Jews as individuals.
Since then, Orthodoxy has flourished, but the lines of communication with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters have been shut down. Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider them authentic Jews - absolute lies - and they have stood guard over the people to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended.
So why did I co-write the book when I knew that our revered sages disapproved of sharing platforms with Reform rabbis? Was I breaking away and setting out in a new direction? Heaven forbid.
There is a deep sense of desperation in the Orthodox community at the disintegration of the non-Orthodox world. There is a feeling that time is running out and something must be done. The rabbis who authorized and supported this project decided, based on several fine distinctions, that it was an exception to the rule. To mention just one of these distinctions, since I am an independent scholar and writer rather than a member of the rabbinate, my participation was considered "individual" rather than "official" contact; I mention this distinction in the book several times. We felt we could thus circumvent the rabbinate and speak directly to the people.
We were wrong. The media completely ignored my explicit distinctions and depicted the exchange as a breakthrough, a breach in the Orthodox wall of rejection, which it was never meant to be. Most did not even bother to read the book. They just looked at the cover and, to my horror, painted me as the Rosa Parks of interdenominational dialogue. I have yet to see one serious, in-depth review of the book.
The declaration of the Council of Sages simply reaffirmed what we already knew - that the distinctions had failed to register with all those people eager to portray the book in a light that suited them better. Under these circumstances, the tour would just compound the error.
What could I say? They were right. And so, I withdrew. Unfortunately, the media ridiculed the Council of Sages as beady-eyed ayatollahs issuing fatwas against me and my family and bans of excommunication against anyone who dared pick up the book. This was all nonsense.
The members of the Council are wise, intelligent, highly principled people, most of whom I have known for years. Two of them paid their respects when I was sitting shiva for my father last week. The sages just set policy; they never tell individuals what to do, and they certainly never threatened me in any way whatsoever. Their declaration treated me with kindness and respect, and when I issued my brief statement of acceptance and withdrew from the tour, they were surprised and responded with a nice complimentary statement. I have only good things to say about them.
In retrospect, the premise of the book was a mistake, but what is done is done. The book has taken on a life of its own, and I hope and pray that it does only good and no harm. Ultimately, the book will stand as convincing evidence that Orthodoxy is intellectually sophisticated and compelling, that our rejection of dialogue does not stem from fear and that our expressions of love for all Jews are genuine and sincere.
In the meantime, I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage. If they do not allow you to meet Orthodox rabbis, read the books I mention in the Afterword. If you need more guidance, write to me at the e-mail address that appears there.
As Ammi mentioned, when we were at the 92nd Street Y, the moderator asked me, "If someone has a choice between watching 'The Sopranos' and learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi, what would you advise him to do?" Things had been going so well, and now this bomb. I tried to wiggle out, but the moderator pinned me down. What could I do? So I took a deep breath and said, "He should watch 'The Sopranos.' "There was an audible gasp from the audience. I was mortified.
Afterward, Richard Curtis, my wise friend and agent, told me, "Don't worry. People will respect your intellectual honesty. And besides, many people will go home wondering, 'What is so bad about learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi? Why would he say something like that?' "
Yosef Reinman is an Orthodox writer, historian and scholar living in Lakewood, N.J. The above essay first appeared in the New York Jewish Week.
Distributed by Am Echad.