Monday, January 3, 2011

Interdenominational Smackdown

[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.


  1. An observer of the short-lived road-show debate/discussion series between Rabbis Hirsch and Reinman (related to their book, "One People Two Worlds") described it as follows:

    "There's the great wrestling match between Joe "The Crusher" Smithfield and Bob "The Bruiser" McCoy. It's supposed to be this huge death-cage match, and a grudge match too; on the other hand, they're doing this tonight in Poughkeepsie, tomorrow night in Albany, the night after that in Schenectady. You know they can only wound each other so much each time."

  2. What about panel discussions that don't involve issues of core belief? I understand why Shabbat would be a no-go for debate, but how about an issue which is not a matter of halacha and where there might be more room for give-and-take?

    It might not be as entertaining as a smackdown, but the audience could learn something from different approaches to an issue such as tzedaka priorities, or the definition of a good Jewish education.

  3. It would seem from your post that you've never participated in any kind of interdenominational group discussion of any kind. If you have, it doesn't seem to be reflected in your post.

    In my experience of such groups, nothing of what you describe plays out at all. There is no "going at each other's throats" and no one asks you to justify your beliefs or attack others. It's simply a forum for sharing your beliefs and educating others. It usually involves taking questions and answering thoughtfully and honestly.

    What you're describing sounds more like the medieval debates that many rabbonim were forced to participate in upon pain of death. Sorry, this is the 21st century. The inquisition is long gone.

    If you refuse to participate in such discussions because you refuse to give legitimacy to other denominations, that's your business. But to turn these types of discussions into something they're not is simply incorrect.

  4. Shalom-
    Yes, something like that.


    Commenter Abbi-
    I think we're discussing two different things; given the misunderstanding, I'll go back and re-word some of my post. I'm talking about debates before an audience. I spent eight years as part of an interdenominational clergy group, and enjoyed many fine discussions within that group.

  5. I post this hoping that I misunderstood the intention in the post. It appears that you are saying that you are willing to fain pleasantness in order to sit with non-orthodox Jews and talk about Shabbat.

    Yet, if someone else presents a different view, you are just pretending, so in reality, you don't think it is worth the time of talking.(?)

    While you would disagree with Eric Yoffie on Shabbat, would you disagree with him on Postville? Is it so important to create a division that the possibility of eilu v'eilu cannot enter into the conversation or such a setting?

    What, of the texts that Jews of all stripes share would inform you (and the rest of us) of the need, desire, or possibility to create and share an understanding...even of our differences? What might we learn here that the stage would not afford us the chance to take in?


    Jim Egolf (a Reform Rabbi)

  6. Rabbi Egolf-
    Thanks for commenting.
    I'm getting the sense, between your comment and that of Abbi above, that I really didn't express myself properly in this post. But I've re-read it, and I don't see any way to change it; suggestions would be welcome.
    I am absolutely in favor of dialogue, and I spent a fair number of years doing it, when I was in the rabbinate. It wasn't about feigned pleasantness in the least.
    My problem is solely with the debate format - the audience, and the expected opposition between the parties.

  7. I think your original post you had the term "discussion panel". To me, that sounded more like a "dialogue group" rather than a formal debate. Maybe you can expand on the differences between the two, because I've never really heard of these types of debates.

  8. Funny. I'll chime in as an 'Orthodox' person (unabashedly, but I dislike labels on Jews) and say, "well said."

    So now, I'm wondering what is it that divides our perceptions so that Abbi and Rabbi Egolf *don't* see it; and is that something part of understanding the underlying issue of this post?

  9. First, thank you for responding.

    I think that the problem which you alluded to in the initial post is that 2 or more rabbis fighting on a stage is not really a great sight and is not 'good for the Jews.'

    So, let me return to my request that you suggest a text that we all might share that would capture either your understanding or your hope for the understanding that you would like to see. I think you have many people who would like to learn, myself included.

    Kol Tuv,


  10. Well, I guess I'll chime in as an Orthodox person as well, since I am. I'm FFB and am currently raising my family as such in Israel as well.

    Despite being Orthodox, I don't find it at all problematic to fully participate in pluralistic discussions and even debates if they are respectful of all involved. I believe in the Orthodox way of life but I have no illusions that every Jew believes the same way and I still think I have a lot to learn from other Jews, despite our differences in belief. And I don't think this delegitimizes my Orthodoxy or the concept of Orthodoxy or Orthodoxy or however you want to phrase it.

    Put it this way: I think a lot of charedi or "frum" bein adam l'chavero behavior does a lot more damage to Torah and "Orthodoxy" than discussing Judaism with other Jews.

  11. The very first line in the original post spoke of "debates", not cozy little discussions. There is a critical difference. A legitimate debate of any sort must recognize either a common premise, or it must recognize all premises introduced. So, either the debate is ab initio limited to a certain range of notions/beliefs; or the debate legitimizes an open range of notions. That can be a very difficult proposition for someone who is deeply committed to a belief system where 'all options are NOT equal or legitimate.' And, I think that for many Jews committed to Torah, a Judaism without God or without Torah commanded at Sinai isn't to be debated. Hence the struggle to this day to contend with the question of 'are there certain inviolable principles that a believing Jew must subscribe to.' A struggle, I would point out, that most modern believing Jews are quite ignorant of.

    As for Abbi's caveat of maintaining decorum/respect: it was already pointed out that sometimes just doesn't happen. The reality violates the wished-for.

    There's little need or usefulness on a community level, in my opinion, to create awareness sessions to learn what someone else is thinking, believing, practicing. Such 'panels', 'debates', 'discussions' are usually quite shallow. Exceptions are rare. For one thing, we know much of that about each other in any community, Jew and non-Jew too. For another thing, it is far better done in a small group over coffee or dinner. As a young man, I often sat up late into the night with friends on non-religious kibbutzim or in milium, and we could really discuss the issues. Seating people on a dais and hearing their soundbites is of little real use, and has all the disadvantages mentioned.

    So, in our community we haven't had such debates. But we do try to sit down together at the same Shabbat table. We have friends, including the rabbi, over on Shabbat from the local Reform temple. We have a normal Shabbat meal with all the social components - divrei Torah (by anyone), zmirot, conversation. That has been a real and beneficial way to continue getting to know each other. Not contrived debates.

    Sadly, one of the things that some of the friends from the Reform temple have realized is that, as much as we truly enjoy each other's company, they can't equally reciprocate (their words). They are committed to a manner of living which precludes their hosting observant Jews at a casual Shabbat meal in their home/kitchen. I think they literally did not realize that a real commitment to commandments creates obligation that we cannot violate; and an abandonment of tradition (for intellectually honest reasons) creates some unbridgeable gaps among Jews. We do make the efforts, despite that, to be friends in an uncontrived, unscripted manner. Far better than debates, in my opinion; and a better model for the community.

  12. Abbi-
    I'm glad you haven't seen them, but I have been invited to them. What can I tell you?

    Rabbi Egolf-
    Do you think an audience is necessary? To me, that's the first thing I would eliminate. I'd much prefer a participatory discussion, and formats like those suggested by R' Mordechai.

  13. Mordechai, you're reading an edited version of the post. The first version he described them as "discussion panels" not the same thing as debates at all, in my mind at least.

  14. To be fair, I did use both in the first draft - but Abbi is correct regarding the first use in the document; see Comments 3 and 4 in this thread.

  15. I think that it is a challenging situation, especially for a pulpit rabbi. While it should be easy in theory to sit with others and say that you disagree it is not always possible to do it in a manner that doesn't upset people.

    I often find myself straddling worlds. I can sit at the Shabbos table of most Orthodox Jews and be comfortable with whatever topic is being discussed. Comfort meaning familiarity and an ability to engage, be it Torah, Gemara talk what have you.

    But I have also found at times that some of my Frum friends are shocked that my Conservative background has provided me with an education/understanding.

    And every now and then the suggestion has been made that I am no different from Korach or any other enemy of the Jewish people.

    That may sound strongly worded, but when you are told that raising children in anything other than Torah True home is bad...

    Clearly there are extremes, but I understand your caution and concern.