Orthodoxy and Diversity: How Open Should Our Communities Be?

Orthodoxy, in that it is a term coined and way of being formed in response to the European enlightenment’s openness to new ideas, is by definition something that has walls and limits, protecting those inside from potential, and perceived potential evils without.  But what happens when those walls keep out important Jewish values such as Jewish unity, loving the Jewish people and one’s neighbors, and engaging all the Jewish people in Jewish life?  To ask the question the opposite way, many Jewish communities claim that being welcoming is of importance, but what happens when welcoming comes up against other values such as fears of the slippery slope of approval of things we may not want to approve of, or feel Judaism should not condone?

For instance, if an intermarried family wanted to be part of our shul would we let them?   Where would we draw the line?  Could they have a family membership?  An aliyah?  Could the non-Jewish spouse if it was a man have peticha (opening the ark) or gelilah (rolling up the torah), honors  that do not technically require one to be Jewish but might, for many Jews, feel like giving tacit approval to someone, all of whose actions the torah may not approve of?   What about fears of legitimating what others are doing and unwittingly putting our approbation on things we do not think are in consonance with Torah, such as driving on Shabbat, gay Jews and their partners, Jews who do not keep kosher or pay their taxes?  Should we welcome all of them?

Often we can not have both.  I believe we must err, in an extreme way, on the side of welcoming.  I learned this from one of my long time mentors and teachers, the saintly Rabbi Abraham Magence.  Rabbi Magence was the rabbi of my shul for 35 years before he asked me to take his place.  I was his congregant for 8 years while I worked at the Hillel at nearby Washington University and davened at Bais Abraham.

No matter who walked into our shul, Bais Abraham, Rabbi Magence hugged them, and truly loved them.  A non-Jewish homeless person, an intermarried person, or a Jew convicted of crimes.  I will never forget that our first week in St. Louis 13 years ago Rabbi Magence invited myself and my wife over for dinner with one of the pillars of the shul and his wife.  This pillar was a humble man who spent many hours fixing parts of our (at the time) crumbling shul building with his hands.  I saw the man in shul after that every Shabbat, he always received aliyot, and was treated like any other member of the shul.

It was only years latter when this man’s wife passed away and I asked if he needed me to do anything for the funeral when he answered that he did not since his wife’s priest and her church would be taking care of it.  I was amazed and pleasantly surprised.  I think  Rabbi Magence, and probably Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Bardichev, would have composed the following blessing.  “Master of the Universe, how wonderful are your people Israel, even though this man’s wife was not a Jew, in fact a committed Christian, this does not stop him from coming to shul, loving G-d and serving the Jewish people.”

As one of Rabbi Magence’s children told me so correctly, “People think he was lenient with halacha.  Just the opposite was true.  He was machmir (strict), but more so in the realm of laws between us and others than between us and G-d.”   Indeed when the two realms are in conflict, laws between us and others and between us and G-d, I have no doubt we must be machmir (strict) on the bain adam lichavero (those between us and other people) and lenient on the one between us and G-d.  Abraham our ancestor did this when G-d was talking to him and he saw three people, nomads in the distance, and he left God to welcome them.  As Rabbi Magence used to say, “Those three people Avraham saw were not Jews, there were of course no Jews or monotheists other than Abraham, those three men Abraham left God’s presence for were idol worshipers.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein uses this logic at times in his response also when commandments between us and God are in conflict with those between us and other people.  In a tishuvah I was recently learning in which Rav Moshe was asked is a convert can be a certain type of communal leader he makes the point that in halacha the power we are allowed to give converts over the community is limited.  Rav Moshe then writes that we must consciously be lenient on the Torah’s commandment of “mikerev achecha” (which limits power given to a convert) since the Torah also commands “lo tonu et ha’ger,” “do not pain the convert.”

Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I will examine what I think our (Morethodox) attitudes should be with regard to non-Jews, intermarried Jews, gay Jews, Jews who do not keep kosher, and Jews who cheat on their taxes.

Shabbat Shalom,


7 Responses to Orthodoxy and Diversity: How Open Should Our Communities Be?

  1. Lilee says:

    Certainly over the last many years we have seen that sitting shiva or excommunicating an intermarried spouse serves know productive purpose. It only inflames and causes antagonism.

    Why not try bringing both closer to Judaism in a positive manner?

  2. Hyim Shafner says:

    Part of the question is how to accept people. Sometimes we don’t really accept them but what we want them to be, ie more observant Jews. Perhaps first and maybe only we need to accept them as the people they are.

  3. This resonates very deeply wtih the way I would like to live my life and the way in which I understand the implications of our being created in the divine image. I look forward to more fully developed ideas about the importance of this issue in our tradition and welcome the stories of powerful guides like Rabbi Magence. Kol hakavod.

  4. The problem with accomodation is that it can lead to dilution. In an effort to make everyone welcome, it is inevitable that compromises will have to be made, sometimes important ones.
    One could welcome an intermarried couple to shul but deny the Jewish partner honours during the service. Or one could give them honours but then what does that say about the shul’s position on intermarriage? That it’s acceptable?
    Any self-confident organization has an ability to say: We have standards. If you don’t meet them, then we can’t accept you. We’re sorry that you feel rejected but we don’t want to compromise those standards.
    An example of how successful this approach can be is Chabad.
    In the end, if accept everyone equally then you stand for nothing. And if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything.

  5. Hyim Shafner says:

    I think if our embracing of all Jews (not the same as approving of all they do) is combined with a strong passion for Torah we will not end up with a parave Judaism but a vibrant one. How is it different from Chabad? Not very different, indeed I have great admiration for and appreciation of Chabad. The difference is being able to see the strengths in all people and groups as they are. I agree all people should grow in their relationship to God; but the breadth of Chabad’s vision with regard to different groups of Jews, different spiritual tools and people who see the world and Judaism decidedly different than themselves is limited. I don’t think the difference between Morethodoxy and Chabad is so vast though with regard to this.

  6. Juliane Dharna says:

    Though Garnel makes interesting points about accommodation and dilution, his tone, to my way of thinking, is abrasive, which prevents me from focusing on the deeper passion he’s invested in his comment, i.e., I must work too hard to locate his love of Judaism. In fact, what endures from what he writes is that “being welcoming” and “having standards” are mutually exclusive. I couldn’t disagree more, and I regret that I am left with this understanding.

    I agree with Rabbi Shafner that “embracing” and “approving” are not the same thing–and my life’s goal is in accord: to do what I can with what I have (a growing passion for Torah) to attain the ideal of an ever-evolving, ever-closer relationship with G-d and that, in this, I provide for my children a worthy example for them to return to.

    Regarding Chabad, I’m puzzled by the assessment of exclusivity since my experience teaches that the Chabad community is wide-open welcoming. And my origin is not Orthodox.

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