Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Night to Remember- Learning, Teaching and Sharing Torah in a Reform Temple

It is somewhat frustrating that I feel the need to explain the purpose of an event I took part in last night, and what it was and wasn't about. Still, I am not going to pretend that for some, my involvement at a program in a Reform temple, talking respectfully with a Reform rabbi, requires justification.

Let me start by saying what the event was not. It was not a way to surreptitiously do kiruv, where I pretend I am interested in a dialogue only so that I can bring an audience to realize that I have the truth. I was not trying to “make” anyone frum. What I was trying to do was have an honest an open dialogue with my friend Rabbi Ben David, and his congregants. I was interested in sharing Torah. I was interested in learning from others and being challenged, and seeing if I could break some stereotypes without pandering to the audience or pretending that there are not real differences between us.

I had never met Ben in person. Years ago, we connected through running after I read an article in Runner's World about the “Running Rabbis”. Being a running rabbi myself, and one who liked to use running to help raise money for worthy causes as well, I reached out to Ben. For the past five years or so, we have been virtual friends with shared interests in Judaism, Daf Yomi, and running, among other things. We talked from time to time about getting together, and going for a run. While the run will have to wait a bit longer, last night's program, suggested by Rabbi David, was the get together.

On the way down, I davened mincha with a lot more kavvanah than I had mustered in a while. I davened that I should choose my words wisely, speak with honesty and nuance, and that I should not cause anyone pain with my words. Ben and I met for a few minutes to discuss the “ground rules”. We agreed that no question was off limits and that we would focus on areas where we agreed and disagreed. Rabbi David began with a devar Torah, where he quoted the Baal Shem Tov, and we were off.

I'm not going to offer a word for word description of what happened, but just some general thoughts. There were more than 100 people who showed up. Just that fact alone says something. Rabbi David asked me what the perception of Reform Judaism was in my community and I said that many if not most Orthodox Jews see Reform Jews as being apathetic. This crowd, showed that, as with most generalizations, that perception is wrong. Every man, woman and child who attended was there to learn, listen and talk.

Of course, I was asked about patrilineal descent. I honestly explained what I understand the Orthodox position to be, trying to be both delicate and truthful. From the responses, I think I was successful.

I quoted the Kuzari, Kant and Kierkegaard. I shared a few borscht belt jokes and my favorite joke about religion. I shared my own struggles and questions. Rabbi David asked great questions and we talked about our mutual love for Torah, even as we understand it quite differently.

Perhaps the saddest moment was when I was asked if the next step could be a meeting like this in my community. I didn't sugarcoat it. I honestly stated that there was not an Orthodox shul in my community that would host such an event. My answered saddened me, because it is time to learn Torah with other Jews on terms that show mutual respect, even while disagreeing. I am troubled by the fact that we fight the battles of at least 50 years ago, instead of dealing with a very changed reality. It is time for rabbis much bigger and wiser than me to share their Torah, and meet Jews who are passionate, articulate and curious, which brings me to my final point.

I did not and can not speak for Orthodox Judaism. It goes without saying that I spoke for no one but myself. I shared my vision of Modern Orthodoxy, one which is open to being challenged while standing proudly for Torah observance and learning, as a way of engaging the Metzaveh and Nosein HaTorah. I don't know how successful I was in my goal, but I am happy and proud to have tried. It is my hope that, for myself and others, last night was just a beginning.

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