Encore Archive

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(from Sh'ma 13/245, January 7, 1983)

Pluralism: The Fruit of Democracy

By Seymour Siegel

I appreciate the ironic tone of Rabbi Spero's statement, though I do not find it completely satisfactory.

Rabbi Spero has the right, of course, to interpret Orthodox Judaism as he sees fit to do. However, many of his colleagues have frequently asserted that Orthodoxy has within it the power to change. For example, the attitude toward secular education has changed; the attitude toward women's leadership of organizations and synagogue bodies has changed; the attitude toward political Zionism has changed. We are frequently assured that if the halachic process were unshackled and the gedolim (leaders) would see fit to act, solutions to many problems would be found. A good example of this is the solution to the aguna (deserted wife) question. We non-Orthodox have a right to ask why the changes so frequently promised are not carried through, especially since the failure to bring about change deeply affects our own goals for the Jewish community.

I also find the remark that since we live in "imperfect, non-messianic times, Orthodox Judaism does not have the obligation of hochiach tochiach, of constantly chastising them and sitting in judgment upon them (the non-Orthodox)." This idea results in an ironic situation. All Jews pray for the speedy coming of the messiah. In the light of what has been said, we should temper the fer­vor of our prayers, since when the Moshiach does come, we non-Orthodox will then be fair game for abusive "chastisement."

The Meaning of Pluralism

Most of all, Rabbi Spero misunderstands the spirit of pluralism which we non-Orthodox Jews are ad­vocating. Pluralism does not mean that it is held that each branch of Judaism "is an equally valid version of Judaism, an equally correct approach to God, an equally correct approach to the Jewish way of life." As a conservative Jew, I do not believe that Orthodoxy is correct (either historical­ly, theologically, or morally). Nor do I believe that Reform Judaism is correct. What distinguishes us from the Orthodox is that, in spite of the fact that I believe that Orthodoxy is wrong in important respects, this error does not remove Orthodoxy from participation in the ongoing life of the community. This is in much the same way that Bet Hillel believed that Bet Shammai was in­correct, but showed respect, even deference, to their opponents. It is the democratic view that when we all adhere to a basic, overarching set of commitments, we can differ in the application of these principles without risking delegitimation. This may be a newer concept in traditional Judaism, but it is the fruit of our democractic spirit. I am, for example, a fervent Republican. I do not believe, however, that Democrats are not entitled to respectful and courteous consideration.

Since many in Orthodoxy adhere to the ancient Catholic doctrine "error has no rights," they can­not adhere to Voltaire's famous aphorism: "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Orthodoxy Seeks A Monopoly

Rabbi Spero is disingenuous when he speaks about non-Orthodox conversions. The logic of his asser­tion would make it possible to accept Conser­vative conversions, since they are done according to the halacha. The fact that the Orthodox establishment refuses to honor Conservative or Reform conversions done according to the halacha means that it is not principle which is at stake, but the retention of the Orthodox monopoly, especially in Israel.

Therefore Rabbi Spero's pleas to the Reform and Conservative movements to "bring their pro­cedures for marriage, divorce, and conversions in­to line with the Orthodox" is belied by the fact that when Conservative rabbis and some Reform rabbis follow the halacha in their ritual actions, there is no positive response. The Orthodox establishment is not so much interested in the halacha being observed as they are in preserving their hegemony.

I believe, taking a leaf from Rabbi Spero, that we non-Orthodox should lay down some ground rules:

1) We will not work with Orthodox groups or leaders unless the elementary rules of courtesy and good manners are followed. We will not cooperate with those who will not call our rabbis, rabbis; our synagogues, synagogues; our scholars, scholars.

2) We will not support Orthodox institutions which propagate a sense of delegitimation of the religious leaders of fellow Jews.

3) We will not invite Orthodox leaders to speak to our groups or synagogues unless we are granted the same courtesy by them.

4) We will not tolerate the disqualification of our ritual actions when they are done according to the halacha, just because we are not Orthodox.

Roger Klein (Sh'ma, December 10, 1982) strikes an important note in the ongoing battle against fundamentalism and a self-righteous Orthodoxy. Theologically speaking, all statements about God are true and false, except negative statements. Thus to say that God lives is only partially true since life is a word derived from our own ex­perience. However, to say that God is dead is wrong. This is, of course, Maimonidean theology. As Franz Rosenzweig said: "Truth is a noun only for God. For us it is an adverb: we try to live authentically and truthfully." Roger Klein is right.

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