July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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While I agree with Rabbi Heshie Billet’s conclusion that “Orthodox Rabbis Should Speak to Other Streams of Judaism” (January 28, 2021), I take issue with how he reaches that conclusion. According to Rabbi Billet, such interdenominational dialogue should now take place because “giving legitimacy to a deviant theology”—Orthodox Jews’ traditional reason for avoiding interdenominational dialogue—is “based on an outdated strategy.” With respect, the “strategy” of responding to “deviant theology” by avoiding dialogue should be rejected not because it is “outdated” but because it is nonsensical. Here’s why.

First, what sort of activities constitute “dialogue” or “engagement”? Theological discussions (e.g. biblical criticism, anthropomorphism, etc.)? Halakhic discussions (e.g. kashrut, mechitza)? Political discussions (e.g. Israel, school choice)? Normal human relationships (e.g. friendships, birthday parties, sports games)? Is everything off limits or just areas of disagreement?

Second, what type of participants in such a dialogue cause concern—rabbinic leaders, lay leaders, ordinary Jews? What about, for example, Orthodox rabbis and Conservative congregants, or the presidents of different denominational synagogues, or just two Jews having lunch? And what does it say about the strength of a religious theology if its “legitimacy” somehow hangs in the balance every time some Jews have a discussion?

Third, what do we mean by “Orthodox” and “non-Orthodox?” Do we draw the line based on practice, belief, self-identification? And how do we make that determination? What if, for example, someone identifies as “Orthodox” but practices in a manner we personally consider “non-Orthodox” or identifies as a “Conservative” Jew but practices in a manner we personally consider “Orthodox?” And if we are concerned about problematic theologies “on the left,” shouldn’t we be equally concerned about problematic theologies “on the right?”

Fourth, do we really think debating a person “legitimizes” that with which we disagree? Isn’t it the opposite? Would we argue that liberals and conservatives who debate somehow “legitimize” the points they say they oppose? On the contrary, engaging in debate shows conviction in one’s own views; it is running away from debate which does not.

Fifth, minorities typically don’t “legitimize” majorities. The Libertarian Party would raise eyebrows if it questioned the “legitimacy” of the Democratic or Republican Party. Accordingly, the Orthodox community (which by some counts constitutes only 10 percent of world Jewry) may want to approach the “legitimacy” of movements which dwarf its size with a degree of humility.

Finally, we focus on the potential risks of dialogue with non-Orthodox Jews but why do we not also consider its benefits? How about fulfilling our responsibility toward fellow Jews? Or strengthening our own faith through such dialogue? Or otherwise learning something from those with whom we disagree?

The reality is that throughout history, Jews often engaged in dialogue with those who did not share their religious outlook. When they did, Jews have both themselves grown and contributed to their counterparties in such dialogues, and we have much to gain by continuing such dialogues.

Yigal M. Gross
Teaneck
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