[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]
From time to time, during my years in the rabbinate, I was solicited to participate in interdenominational debates. My policy was to refuse, because the possible benefits did not outweigh the likely cost.
The possible benefits:
1. An evening of entertainment;
2. A better understanding of each other;
3. A chance for the audience to hear all sides and decide for themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, these all seem like good reasons for rabbis to sit at a table and tear each others' throats out for an hour before a live studio audience.
But the likely cost is high: Either the integrity of Orthodoxy or the unity of the Jewish community would pay the price. I would either sell out Orthodoxy or bash everyone else.
Let me unpack that a bit.
The major self-segregated streams of Judaism – Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform – are all adamantly different from each other.
Ask a mainstream Orthodox rabbi why we observe Shabbos, and he’ll tell you it’s because G-d told us to do so.
Ask a mainstream Conservative rabbi and you’ll receive the same answer, but with the caveat that various halachot may be overridden by modern needs and views.
Ask a mainstream Reform rabbi and you’ll be told we observe Shabbos because we gain by doing so (cf the Shabbat sermon at the 2007 Reform Biennial).
(Reconstructionism is an entirely different ballgame; I find that one cannot easily typecast the “mainstream” of Reconstructionism, so I’ll leave that one alone.)
Shabbat is at the Torah’s foundation, tying in to Judaism’s most basic beliefs about Gd and the universe, mentioned several times biblically and so on. Shabbat observance is cited in the Talmud (Chullin 5a) as the very definition of observance, along with rejection of idolatry. And each of these major approaches to Judaism and Torah charts its own path on this most basic mitzvah.
Given the wealth of diversity regarding such a basic Jewish issue, how much greater is the diversity on less-fundamental issues? So there is little room for panel participants to agree with each other; even though we do have much in common, the discussion is generally about our disagreements.
So we enter our debate, and one of two things happens:
1. I am respectful of the others’ views, leading onlookers to assume I think all opinions are equally viable, or
2. I go Rambo and tear down opposing views, in establishing my own.
The cost of the former is the integrity of Orthodoxy; the cost of the latter is Jewish unity.
Of course, it is also possible that the panelists agree to disagree - but in the heat of the moment, in my experience, that's unlikely. Debates just don't encourage that kind of civility.
So audiences will need to find their entertainment elsewhere, and we’ll come to understand each other by hearing individual presentations. The debate format just isn't for me.