Joint Programming Between Orthodox and Reform Synagogues: Ahavat Chinam Should Not Be an Empty Slogan

We are now past the fast of Tisha B’Av and the restrictions of the Three Weeks, hopefully having emerged from that period of mourning as better people than we were before.  In particular, one area of focus during this time period is the grave sin of “sinat chinam,” which literally means baseless hatred.  In Orot HaKodesh, Rav Kook writes, “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with ahavat chinam, baseless love.”

Why do we hate?  Or, what function does our hatred serve?  I think one reason that hate persists is that it serves as a convenient method for dealing with differences, whether the difference is politics, religion or something else.  Perhaps we feel threatened by another perspective, another viewpoint, or another way of life.  When confronted by ideologies that call into question or attack our deeply held beliefs, labelling them as the “other” and responding with hatred makes us feel protected; I am right and they are wrong.  We may not always express that hatred, but we will distance ourselves from the other and remain in our comfortable circle, protected by a perimeter of all those who agree with us.

With that tendency in mind, how do we ensure that the message of Tisha B’Av, of ahavat chinam, will not remain an empty slogan?  In the spirit of Rav Kook’s directive, I think we need to flip the script.  Instead of running to the security of hate and seclusion, I think we must push ourselves to find concrete ways to create meaningful relationships with those very individuals or groups that may represent another perspective, another viewpoint or another way of life.  By doing so, particularly when it is hard for us, we develop the midda of ahavat chinam.

This past week, I and a small group of members from our orthodox synagogue met with the Rabbi and a small group from Temple Avodah, the local reform Temple.  The goal of the meeting was to see if we could run a few joint programs throughout the year to help create a meaningful relationship between our two synagogues.   We know that while there is much that divides our communities, there is also so much that we can do together.  We decided that we would try to run two joint programs this coming year, a Jewish-themed film night and a chesed program, and we will promote these programs heavily to try to get maximum participation from both synagogues.

Of course, as with any endeavor, there will be naysayers.  Some may have the concern that participating in a joint program with a reform Temple is tantamount to legitimizing their religious worldview.  In my view, that’s a very difficult argument to make, especially in today’s day and age when the theological differences between our denominations are so great and so profound that I can’t imagine that anyone will reasonably make that assumption.

Some people have the notion that the ultimate goal of interdenominational programming is kiruv, to perhaps influence some non-orthodox Jews to become more observant.  These people might ask, if that’s not the goal, then why bother?

I remember as a young rabbi, I went to visit Rabbi Ari Berman, now the president of Yeshiva University, then the rabbi of the Jewish Center.  I asked him for advice and he told me that the Mishna in Pirkei Avot states ohev et haberiyot u’me’karvan laTorah– love people and bring them close to Torah.  The Mishna does not state ohev et haberiyot l’karvan laTorah, that we should love people in order to bring them close to Torah; rather, we should love people just for the sake of loving them, without any ulterior motive.  His point to me at the time was that a Rabbi’s goal should not only be to raise the spiritual level of his community and bring them close to Torah, but also to be there for his congregants in their time of need, whether or not it will lead to greater religious observance on their part.

Ahavat haberiyot is a value unto itself. Similarly, ahavat chinam is a value unto itself.  Creating a meaningful relationship with another person or another group, even one that has a profoundly different religious viewpoint than we do, is a worthy goal.  Doing so in a way that doesn’t compromise either group’s core values but expresses love and affection for the other and a desire to unite in matters upon which we agree, is a beautiful endeavor.  But it’s more than that.  According to Rav Kook, it’s the key to rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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