Interdenominational Dialogue in an Age of Cancel Culture

Recently, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Beracha and author of the popular Peninei Halakha series, has come under fire for participating in an online panel discussion this Summer, where he appeared together with Delphine Horvilleur, a Reform rabbi from France.

In the Torah periodical Beit Yosef, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef harshly criticized Rabbi Melamed for appearing on the panel, even going as far as suggesting that there is good reason to excommunicate Rabbi Melamed, should he not recant. In response, a number of senior Religious Zionist rabbis, including rabbis Dov Lior, Shmuel Eliahu, Tzvi Tau, Yehoshua Shapiro, and Elyakim Levanon, issued a strong letter, condemning any dialogue with members of the Reform movement, describing any such dialogue as “a terrible desecration of God’s name.”

In an age of ‘Cancel Culture,’ when an individual can be ostracized and subject to public censure after having done or said something considered objectionable or offensive, Rabbi Melamed was effectively ‘cancelled’ by his peers. More recently, another group of rabbis issued a public letter, garnering signatures of dozens of rabbis (this author included), in support of Rabbi Melamed and in support of building bridges with all Jews.

But does Jewish law allow for interdenominational dialogue?

The mitzvah to love one’s fellow Jew applies to all, regardless of their religious affiliation or background. But the concern in participating together with non-Orthodox denominations, or visiting non-Orthodox institutions, is that perhaps it lends legitimacy to their beliefs and philosophy, which can be at odds with Orthodoxy.

In a number of responsa, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein drew very clear lines in the sand between Orthodoxy and other denominations. He prohibited Orthodox rabbis from joining a mixed board of rabbis together with their Conservative and Reform colleagues, as well Orthodox synagogues from joining the Synagogue Council of America, a non-denominational umbrella organization (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:50).

When asked about holding Orthodox prayer services inside of a Conservative synagogue – in a room other than the sanctuary – Rabbi Feinstein ruled that it is indeed prohibited, as we must distance ourselves from other denominations (Ibid., Orah Hayyim 4:91). Even attending a wedding in a Conservative synagogue, he ruled, is prohibited (Ibid., Even ha-Ezer 2:17). And while he permitted Orthodox teachers to teach in non-Orthodox congregational schools, he was clear that it is far from ideal, and expressed a number of serious concerns (Ibid., Yoreh De’ah 1:139; 2:106; 2:107).

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously ruled that it is preferable to pray at home on Rosh Hashanah, rather than pray in a synagogue without a mechitza, even if that means not listening to the shofar (Divrei ha-Rav, pp. 156-157).

But in 1954, when asked if the Rabbinical Council of America could join the Synagogue Council of America, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, “When we are faced with a problem for Jews and Jewish interests toward the world without, regarding the defense of Jewish rights in the non-Jewish world, then all groups and movements must be united. In this area there may not be any division, because any friction in the Jewish camp may be disastrous for the entire people. In this realm we must consider the ideal of unity, as a political-historical nation, which includes everyone…” (Community, Covenant and Commitment, p. 145).

While refusing to recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox beliefs – and prohibiting religious dialogue between Orthodox rabbis and their non-Orthodox colleagues – Rabbi Soloveitchik allowed for participation with non-Orthodox leaders for the sake of the political and social welfare of the greater Jewish community. For the sake of the ‘greater good.’ He recognized that we have shared interests – and a shared destiny.

In response, the Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages issued a letter in 1956 forbidding any and all alumni of their yeshivot from joining the Synagogue Council, and joining together with any Reform or Conservative rabbis in a professional organization.

The Synagogue Council is long defunct, but this fascinating footnote to Jewish History demonstrates just how controversial interdenominational relations can be. Historically, this came at a time when the lines between Orthodoxy and other denominations were still blurry. Today, Orthodoxy in America is strong and vibrant. The differences between the denominations are as clear as day. And this should inform our approach to other denominations. Stronger and more confident in our own identity, we need not fear engaging with those who share different beliefs. The proverbial ‘war,’ is over.

In December, 2015, when Naftali Bennett – then Minister of Education – visited the Solomon Schechter Day School in New York City, he drew heavy criticism from Chief Rabbi David Lau. Rabbi Lau criticized Bennett for visiting the Conservative day school which, the Chief Rabbi said, “distances Jews from the tradition of the Jewish Nation.” In response, Bennett’s office issued a statement that, “Minister Bennett believes that public leaders in Israel need to draw Jews close,” and that “he will continue to meet Jews from all denominations.”

In an opinion piece published in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin defended Bennett’s visit and wrote, “I view Conservative rabbis in America as my partners, not as my enemies. My enemy is assimilation, the tragic loss of American Jewry to assimilation and intermarriage.” Rabbi Riskin went on to describe how the first Chief Rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, “spent many Sabbaths in the most secular kibbutzim and moshavim, bringing his own food and without any chastising or even preaching. He merely embraced the kibbutznikim, sang with them, danced with them and regaled them with stories.”

In fact, a famous story relates how Rabbi Kook was once informed that a group of Jewish workers, under pressure to complete work on a particular building in Jerusalem, continued working on Rosh Hashanah. Instead of organizing a protest, or even rebuking the workers, Rabbi Kook sent his personal Ba’al Toke’a – shofar in hand – to blow the shofar for these men. The blasts of the shofar pierced their hearts. Some were even moved to tears. They put down their tools, quickly changed their clothes, and joined the holiday prayers in Rabbi Kook’s synagogue (See Mo’adei ha-Re’iyah, pp. 65-66).

Rabbi Kook understood that the ways of the Torah “are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17), and embraced every Jew. Perhaps today’s Chief Rabbis can learn from our first Chief Rabbi.

In defense of his own actions, Rabbi Melamed said that “safeguarding our unity is in the category of national Piku’ah Nefesh,” invoking the mitzvah of saving life, which is paramount in Judaism.

While we may have our differences, if we shun Conservative and Reform Jews today, how can we expect them to deepen their commitment to Judaism? If our desire is that non-Orthodox Jews embrace a more traditional life, shouldn’t we embrace them? And doesn’t Diaspora Jewry – regardless of affiliation – need our help now more than ever?

About the Author
Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef.
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