Ah, for when life was simpler!
One of our readers, Shalom Simon, stuck it to me regarding my post on the grand debate at Harvard Law School. He asked whether the event (which had received approval from personages otherwise opposed to interdenominational gatherings) had really smacked of legitimizing any heterodox movement. If not, should we not rethink the usual hands-off policy to such gatherings?
This is what I responded:
Dear Reb Shalom,
I used to believe as you do. To a large extent, I still do. I am acutely aware of how many opportunities we miss by refusing all forums in which heterodox leaders share the platform. Not only do we turn down some of our only chances for being able to convey authentic Torah to people, but we perpetuate the stereotype eagerly dished out regularly by Reform and Conservative rabbis that the Orthodox do not believe anyone else to be Jewish. See – they won?t even sit down with us!
Moreover, the practice of shunning all religious edifices outside our community was not universally embraced. Rav Gustman, Z”L, held strongly that we should try hard to gain entrance to non-Orthodox establishments so that we could speak our minds.
It has been my own experience, however, that (as we say here in Hollywood) no good deed goes unpunished. Years ago I quietly made some exceptions to the general practice of avoiding joint panels etc., each time after consulting with – halachic decisors. (The Harvard event should demonstrate that there are times that poskim are willing to see the venue as very different from the usual type that we routinely stay away from). I took great pains to keep things quiet, and to specify both why I was there (which was always to unabashedly dispute what the others were saying) and that there should be no PR. Without fail, somewhere down the line, some Reform or Conservative rabbi would write something about new trends within the Orthodox community, new possibilites of acceptance and of moving closer together, etc. I never cease to be amazed by the need of heterodox rabbis to hear that the Orthodox validate them as authentic teachers of tradition. It is a validation that we cannot afford to give them. (I met one notable exception – the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. He laughed at the idea of an Orthodox hechsher, claiming that if he was secure in his beliefs, what need did he have of the Orthodox approving? He was the only non-Orthodox leader I?ve personally met who said that he had no theoretical problem with allowing an Orthodox speaker access to his flock even if he knew that the favor would not be reciprocated.)
Summing up, the issue is not monochromatic. There are nuances. We lose by not being on some of those panels, but we also gain some credibility, in a strange way. There are some people out there who understand that the difference between traditional Judaism and the other movements must be extremely pronounced if the Orthodox will not budge on the validation issue. This means that people who are very disaffected regarding the Judaism they have encountered are sometimes still open to an Orthodox experience, because they do not view their negative experiences outside of Orthodoxy as sitting on the same continuum. And even where there would be clear gain in joining some joint panel, we should not forget that there is a price we would be paying at the same time. It is not clear at all to me that we should rethink the decades-old ban on such activity.