Shmuel Goldin
Rabbi, Educator, Author

Understanding Orthodoxy: Addressing the elephant in the room

I have decided to address the elephant in the room.

A few weeks ago, in an introductory column in the Standard, I proposed the idea of an ongoing series presenting the viewpoint of Modern Orthodoxy on theological, social, and communal issues of the day. I explained that my decision was motivated by a sense of growing distance between my own Orthodox community and the Jewish community at large; a distance created, in large measure, by a lack of understanding between us. I closed with the hope that this effort would help open up a critical dialogue between us and invited readers to suggest topics to be addressed in future columns.

While I did receive some responses to my invitation, I quickly came to the conclusion that we have some preliminary work to do. We have to address the issue I’m calling the elephant in the room. This topic is best articulated by a sentiment often expressed to me by individuals outside the Orthodox community over the course of my rabbinic career.

I can’t help but feel that Orthodox Jews look down on anyone who does not believe or observe like them. Sometimes I even feel that they don’t consider us Jewish. Why should my personal religious practice be judged against their point of view? Why can’t they accept a pluralistic approach, allowing for multiple possible paths in Jewish belief and practice?”

Before we go any further, let me share with you a fundamental truth that I arrived at as a young rabbi: You can’t judge Judaism by the Jews.

There are good people and bad people, good Jews and bad Jews. A true understanding of Judaism requires knowledge of what Judaism preaches and not what the Jews practice. So too, I would contend that the Orthodox view of other Jews needs to be gauged by the tenets of Orthodox Judaism and not by the actions and attitudes of each Orthodox Jew you might meet.

That said, however, how would I answer the basic question? What is the Orthodox attitude toward non-Orthodox Jews?

I can put it quite simply. I view non-Orthodox Jews as siblings with whom I have a family disagreement. Despite oft-stated accusations to the contrary, as an Orthodox rabbi, I question neither the Jewishness of non-Orthodox Jews nor their right to believe and practice as they see fit.

Does that make me pluralistic? I suppose it depends on your definition of pluralism. If pluralism means that I have to accept that everyone is right, I’m afraid that our discussion ends before it starts.

As an Orthodox Jew, my Judaism is based on specific core principles that I believe to be true. I believe, for example, in the divine sanctity of every word of the Torah text. I interpret halachic process in the way that I learned in yeshiva, and that interpretation is critical to my understanding of the unfolding of Jewish law. I firmly maintain that adherence to Jewish tradition has united us as a people across the centuries, and that such adherence remains the single phenomenon capable of ensuring our future as a people. If you do not agree with these fundamentals, or if you interpret them differently, from my perspective you can’t be right — because if you’re right, I’m wrong. Moral relativism robs society of any kind of ethical standard. Religious relativism robs us of our ability to believe in anything at all.

Please understand, I am not simply staking out my own turf here. I would expect no less from those outside my community. Conservative or Reform Jews, committed to Conservative or Reform theology, believe in certain things that I don’t. From their perspective, I am not right.

If I cannot accept pluralism as meaning that we are all right, is there a pluralistic model that my Orthodox Judaism can accept? I believe that the answer is resoundingly “Yes.” We just have to redefine our terms. I would contend that pluralism does not mean that we are all right; but it does that we all have a right.

Bechira chafshit — free will — is the essential pillar upon which Jewish belief is built. I can disagree vehemently with your choice, but I cannot disagree with your right to choose. Religious coercion is antithetical to Jewish thought and counterproductive as a strategy. It simply does not work.

If we can come to understand that each of us has our own belief system and a right to that system — and if we can accept that each of us also has boundaries created by those systems over which we cannot cross — then, I maintain, we will be able to learn to value without validating. We will be able to value the positive contributions that we each make to the fabric of Jewish life without feeling that by doing so we are validating each other’s belief systems and thereby compromising our own.

This may sound easy, but it’s not. As long as our boundaries are intact there are going to be points of conflict, and even more, there are going to be points of deep personal pain. Consider the following scenario: I have a dear friend who is a Reform rabbi. I have come to respect and admire him as a person and as a Jew. We spend time talking and learning together. When I officiate at a wedding, however, I will not accept him as an ayd, a formal witness to the wedding ceremony.

It’s certainly not personal. Jewish law maintains that the most important people at a wedding, aside from the bride and groom, are the witnesses who are charged with validating the proceedings. Further, the law mandates that only an individual who buys into the halachic system can serve as a halachic witness. Therefore, someone who is not shomer Shabbat, for example — and my friend is not — cannot serve as a witness at an Orthodox wedding.

I know that it takes a tremendous amount of understanding on my friend’s part to accept this decision, and I am pained by the hurt that it must cause him. But we have reached a boundary that I cannot cross.

Even deeper challenges are mirrored on a broader scale, when we consider basic issues facing the Jewish community today. As I mentioned earlier, I do not question the Jewishness of non-Orthodox Jews. Specific actions taken over the years by the non-Orthodox movements, however, have forced me to question who is a non-Orthodox Jew.

The Reform movement’s decision to accept patrilineal descent as a determinant of Jewish identity — and the proliferation of conversions to Judaism absent the critical component of kabalat ol mitzvot, the binding acceptance of Jewish law — have created populations within the Jewish community that I and my Orthodox colleagues simply cannot consider to be Jewish. The Orthodox community finds itself in the unenviable position of having 3,000-year-old rules changed on us against our will and then being criticized for not accepting the new rules.

Chagrined as we are by this phenomenon and its ramifications, we once again face boundaries that we cannot cross without sacrificing principles essential to our belief.

As we move toward the future, we cannot and should not sweep these issues under the rug. We must acknowledge them clearly, even when they defy solution. Where we go from there, however, is up to us. We can choose to demonize and attack each other, or we can understand and respect each other’s positions and boundaries even when we disagree with them deeply. We can decide to value without validating, to refrain from asking each other that which we cannot give, and to move forward together as best we can.

In the end, after all, we are family. And family members, even when they disagree, somehow find a way…

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood NJ where he served as Senior Rabbi for over three decades. He is past president of the Rabbinical Council of America and the author of a 5 volume set on the Torah, “Unlocking the Torah Text” and "Unlocking the Haggada." During his tenure as Senior Rabbi he led numerous missions to Israel, particularly during difficult times such as the two Intifadas, the Iraqi Gulf War, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Fire and Operation Protective Edge. Rabbi Goldin made Aliyah to Israel with his wife, Barbara, in 2017 and currently lives in Jerusalem. He continues to lecture, teach and write in a variety of settings throughout the world.
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