Friday, July 29, 2005

Book Review: One People, Two Worlds

Orthodox and Reform rabbis engage in serious dialogue about as often as the Red Sea splits or the Red Sox win the World Series. Orthodox leaders generally forbid rabbis from participating in interdenominational forums, fearing that sharing a platform with a Reform rabbi would legitimize the Reform position. As a result, most direct communication between the two groups is limited to the occasional condemnation or accusation. The two groups may believe they belong to one people, but they clearly live in two separate worlds.

That's why the aptly named One People, Two Worlds is so refreshing. The book consists of an email dialogue between Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Reinman and Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch over a period of nearly two years. In long, deliberate posts, the rabbis debate the most contentious issues that divide their worlds, including the origin of Torah, halacha vs. personal autonomy, Zionism, the role of women in Jewish life, and the role of Jews in the world. Both are talented writers who believe passionately in their ideology. They maintain a friendly tone throughout, but an underlying tension remains tangible.

Both rabbis spend most of the book laying out the standard arguments for their positions. But as the book progresses they also develop a fascinating dynamic. Both writers admit they are trying to reach the same audience - non-Orthodox readers - but for entirely different reasons. Reinman want to teach them the "classic" Torah position and maybe bring a few readers into his camp. Hirsch just wants Reform readers to see that he can debate his Orthodox colleague as an equal.

To advance his personal agenda, Hirsch tries to bridge the gap between him and Reinman as much as possible, ostensibly to show how open and accepting the Reform worldview is, but also to show how much common ground there is between Reform and Orthodox ideology. He also makes extensive use of Talmudic passages and quotes from the classic Torah commentators. His goal, of course, is to show that Reform did not spring to life fully formed in the liberal tradition of the Enlightenment. In Hirsch's hands, Reform Jews, not the Orthodox, are the true heirs of the Talmudic tradition, at least in spirit. If they don't always follow the letter of the law as expressed by the Talmudic sages, it's because times have changed. And, as Hirsch demonstrates, no one was more concerned with the need for change than Chazal.

In contrast, Reinman wants to show how far Reform has drifted from the sources and how shakey his colleague's knowledge of Torah really is. He completely rejects every single Torah reference Hirsch makes as either "distorted," "misinterpreted," or "wrong." The two have a lengthy debate on the meaning of a single, ultra-ambiguous line from Ibn Ezra. Reinman is appalled that Hirsch tries to suggest Ibn Ezra supported a Reform methodology. Other quotes are treated in the same manner - Reinman complements Hirsch on his erudition in finding the references, then tells him what they "really" mean. His message is clear: Reform rabbis have no authority to interpret the verses because they don't accept their traditional meaning. If one lacks an insight into what the tradition is teaching us, Reinman seems to be saying, how can that person know when the tradition needs to change?

Another theme running through the book is the question of absolute certainty. Hirsch tries to show that people can never be absolutely certain about spiritual matters, that there is a difference between religious knowledge and scientific knowledge. When Reinman suggests that Jewish life revolves around the search for absolute truth, Hirsch answers that the Orthodox are not searching for truth, but rather claim to own it. And people who believe they own the truth are dangerous, he says.

Reinman responds that Orthodox Jews are searching for the truth and claim to own it in the form of the Torah. "Absolute truth is certainly revealed in the divine Torah, but we cannot simply open to to, let's say, page 134 to check it out," Reinman writes. "We have to study and think over and over again until we can discern the transcendent truth of existance within the pages of the Torah."

By the end of the book, both writers made strong cases for their positions. Personally, I found Hirsch more interesting because the Reform views were new to me. But I found Rienman more convincing, perhaps because I agreed with him from the beginning. Reinman also seemed to write considerably more pages. His posts tended to be longer than Hirsch's and he wrote more of them.

The rabbis stated at the start they did not expect to overcome the gaps between them, and they were right. The differences in their views remain acute. But I, for one, am grateful they made the effort. They remain one people, even if they live in different worlds, a condition infinitely preferable to its alternative: two people living in one world.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

How to Bring Moshiach

Thursday, July 14, 2005

One Went Nuts

There is a famous story of four sages that went to Pardes (the Four Worlds of Kabbalah) in search of ultimate truth (Hagigah 14B).

Ben Azzai gazed at the ultimate truth and died.
Ben Zoma gazed and went crazy.
Acher (one who shan't be named) gazed and became a heretic.
Only Rabbi Akiva went up in peace and returned in peace.

Of the four, I find Ben Zoma the most interesting. He is credited with one of my favorite Mishnas in Pirke Avot: Who is the rich man? One who is happy with his lot. He is also mentioned in the Pesach Hagaddah for explaining why the Exodus from Egypt must be mentioned on the night of the seder. The verse says, "That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life. " Ben Zoma explained that the "days of your life" refers to daytime. The extra word "all" refers to the nights as well.

In those two places, he teaches us to focus on what we have, not what we lack, and to look beyond what we see in front of us. These are two lessons I would do well to remember.

Friday, July 08, 2005

A Wall Called Arafat: How to Honor a Real Obstacle

A group of businessmen in El Salvador, looking to honor the deceased Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, dedicated a park in his memory in San Salvador last month. Turns out, much of the El Salvadoran population, including President Tony Saca, descend from Palestinians who emigrated to the South American state in the late 1800s.

The park runs along a street called Jerusalem, where the businessmen installed a life-size bust of the PLO founder - a reference to their dream of a Palestinian state with a capital in Israel's holy city.

"We are making a monument to the maximum leader of the struggle for the liberation of Palestine," explained John Nasser, one of the businessmen involved in the project.

Nasser may consider Arafat a maximum leader, but then, he lives in El Salvador, not the Palestinian territories. Had he lived in Jenin or Ramallah, odds are he would be like most Palestinians: unemployed, impoverished, and angry with the Palestinian government and its leaders for creating a corrupt and ineffective regime.

Honoring Arafat with a park is like marking last year's tsunami with a pool party. The two things simply don't fit together. Arafat remained a terrorist until his dying breaths. In the end, he was considered incapable of making peace with Israel. In fact, many believe he was the real obstacle.

That's why you don't honor Arafat with a park. You honor him by acknowledging his contribution to the region. No one did more to force Israel to build a security barrier around the West Bank. It was the barrier no one wanted, not the government, the opposition, nor the people. But after three years of non-stop terror it became clear that Arafat had no intention of stopping the violence. After much debate, the government ordered a barrier between Israel and the Palestinians.

That wall is Arafat's real legacy, and it should bear his name as a sign of honor. It captures everything he gave his people, the sum total of forty years as their leader.

There is the Allenby Bridge, the Begin Highway, and now, the Arafat Wall. May this legacy endure for generations.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Free Hugs in Kikar Zion

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Hangover

I admit it. I love seeing the flags come out in Spring as Israel prepares to celebrate Independence Day. And I love it when those flags are still waving on Jerusalem Day three weeks later.

The flags - crisp, clean, shiny and new - remind me how much people struggled to build the state and how much they accomplished. The flags express a feeling of pride, and fill me with awe when I see so many on display all across the country.

But as we enter Summer, some of those flags are still hanging on the rooftops and doorways, and they aren't so crisp and clean. Some have twisted up into knots around gates or wires. Others have started to fray at the edges.

They don't express a feeling of pride anymore. They look neglected, like no one cares about them and maybe never did. Do people really care about something they can't be bothered to look after?

But maybe the opposite is true. Maybe people simply can't bring themselves to take them down. The flags become a part of them, and the fraying edges only add to their uniqueness. Like our favorite pair of jeans, we keep wearing them until we wear them out.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Fries with That?