Friday, August 20, 2010

Book explores what it means to be Jewish

It's Friday and time, yet again, for another posting of "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" (IJS&F). Today I offer a review of a book that essentially allows two rabbis -- one Reform, the other Orthodox -- to share their worldviews and debate who is the "real" Jew.

How Jewish do you have to be to be a real Jew? That's the convoluted question that uneasily rests at the heart of the book, "One People, Two Worlds" (Schocken Books, $26), written by two rabbis who share the same religion but practice their faith in dramatically different fashion.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, a leading Reform advocate for religious pluralism, and Rabbi Yosef Reinman, an Orthodox Talmudic scholar, were brought together by a mutual friend who convinced them to embark on an e-mail dialogue about the issues that polarize the Jewish community.

The two men spend only a few pages introducing themselves before tackling the thorny philosophical concept of "truth." It's a subject that colors much of their discussion over a 21-month period as they tap dance around a mixed bag of theologically sensitive topics within the Jewish community.

The rabbis manage, for the most part, to keep their emotions in check as they debate such explosive topics as the divine nature of the Torah and the stories it contains; the status and treatment of women; assimilation and marriage; sabbath observance and synagogue rituals; divorce; and homosexuality.

But eventually both men grow weary – and frustrated. After 15 months of sparring, Hirsch writes: "Your writing is replete with terms like 'distortion,' 'scandalous distortion,' 'appalling distortion,' 'lies,' 'big lie' . . . The tone of your writing betrays a certain defensiveness . . . Your efforts to project certainty reveal uncertainty."

Reinman responds: "Well, it appears the debate has gotten down to the tone of my remarks rather than the substance. You cannot refute my arguments, so instead you point to my occasional use of rather strong language as proof that I am covering up undetected flaws. 'Efforts to project certainty,' you argue, 'reveal uncertainty.' How clever."

In fact, Hirsch and Reinman both appear clever after 300 pages of give and take. Neither is moved by the other's arguments and both continue to hold tightly to their own version of truth. Perhaps Reinman captures the ultimate truth when he shares an old Yiddish story with Hirsch at the beginning of their dialogue.

"You remind me of the rabbi who agreed to mediate a dispute between two congregants," he writes. "After listening carefully to one of the litigants, he scratched his chin and said, 'You know, you're right!' "He then listened to the arguments of the other litigant. Again, he scratched his chin and said, 'You're right!'

"The rebbetzin [rabbi's wife] objected. 'My dear husband, if he is right, then the other is wrong, and if the other is right, then he is wrong. How can they both be right?' The rabbi thought for a moment, then he said, 'You're also right!'"

Reinman and Hirsch rest comfortably at opposite ends of a theological spectrum. One end remains firmly rooted in ancient beliefs that continue to offer profound meaning to many Jews; the other end pokes into the 21st century, still linked to the same biblical concepts, but constantly changing and adapting to the modern world.

Can Reinman and Hirsch both be right and bearers of truth? Is one rabbi just as Jewish as the other? Possibly. Probably. Just ask the rabbi in the old Yiddish tale – and the millions of Jews in the Orthodox and Reform movements.

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