Agreeing To Disagree


It was like theater: A conversation about a new book seemed to turn into a live version of the book. As soon as we began talking, the two co-authors, both rabbis, were conversing as friends, but disagreeing with each other all the way.

“One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi in Search of Common Ground” (Schocken) by Ammiel Hirsch and Yosef Reinman is an unusual book, comprised of the e-mail correspondence between a communal leader in the Reform movement and a Talmudic scholar from the yeshiva world. Both are the sons of rabbis: Rabbi Hirsch’s father is a Reform rabbi also active in national affairs who founded the movement’s Religious Action Center; Rabbi Reinman’s father, a Holocaust survivor, was a well-known Talmudist and his grandfather was the 18th generation rabbi of their Polish town of Narol.

The two met through a literary agent who came up with the idea for this book and introduced them. About their first dinner, Rabbi Reinman writes, “… me with my beard, peyot and long caftan and you beardless and bareheaded. What could two people like us have in common?” He says that the people in the restaurant must have thought that they were involved in some sort of real estate deal, rather than “discussing some of the fundamental issues that divide and cause so much dissension among the Jewish people.”

After that dinner, they spent about 18 months in an electronic conversation, sending each other long notes, addressing points and questions raised in previous postings. Each is speaking for himself, rather than in any official capacity. Rabbi Reinman, 54, who lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, explains that although he had the approval of several rabbis he respects before going ahead with this project, he is not representing the Orthodox rabbinate in any way. Rabbi Hirsch, 43, who serves as executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union for Progressive Judaism, points out that this is very much the discussion between two individuals, noting that a different pair of rabbis would have focused the conversation differently.

Through the process, the two men have become friends — Hirsch recently traveled to Lakewood to attend the brit of Reinman’s grandson — and it’s clear that they respect and like each other. They’re both extremely articulate in print and in person, and have come to know the other’s thinking: They probably could finish each other’s sentences but each one is more interested in finishing his own, asserting his own point of view. For each question they’re asked, there are a series of answers, for each man’s statement elicits more opinions and clarifications from the other.

For all the warm feelings though, there’s little, if anything, that they agree on. When asked why he got involved with the book, Rabbi Reinman says that he is very interested in kiruv, or outreach, to the non-Orthodox community. Although the Orthodox community does not have official contacts with the Reform movement as a matter of policy, he said that they are very interested in contact on a personal level. “I was hoping to reach many thousands of them, to let them know what Orthodoxy is about, to dispel many misconceptions.” Some people in his community have objected to his very involvement in the project.

Rabbi Reinman notes that the original subtitle of the book was something about two rabbis in search of common ground. “There really is no ideological common ground,” he states, “The dividing line between us is that we [Orthodox] believe in Torah min hashamayim. We believe that the Torah is divine. We believe that there was revelation, that God articulated the covenant between the Jewish people and God. The other streams believe that [there was] human authorship of the Torah. They don’t believe in revelation or prophesy. They believe that the covenant is something that existed in the minds of our ancestors … it was something that they felt but didn’t come from God.” He pauses. “There’s no way to reconcile these points of view.

For Rabbi Hirsch, there’s more common ground than his colleague suggests. “I believe in dialogue,” he says. “I think it’s important for Jews of different persuasions to dialogue. That’s consistent with the very essence of our Jewish tradition that believes in disputation and argumentation and dialogue for the purpose of ascertaining and coming close to truth and commonality. After all if you believe in the centrality of the covenant of the Jewish people, how can you take that concept seriously if you never talk to people who don’t look like you, think like you, act like you?”

Rabbi Hirsch says that writing this book also gave him an opportunity to present the basic parameters of liberal religious thinking in a context where they could be challenged. He feels that serious readers from a non-Orthodox perspective will find fortifications of their own views and see that the “philosophies on which interpretations are based are serious and compelling.”

The two bump heads a bit when they speak of classical texts. Rabbi Hirsch says that his interpretations and positions grow out of study of classic Jewish texts, and hopes that the Orthodox will come to have greater appreciation of “our place in the Jewish tradition, that these positions are not brought out of thin air but are rooted in Jewish tradition and emerge from Jewish tradition.”

Rabbi Reinman picks up on the words thin air. “This was the major battle ground of the book. I did my best to show that it was taken out of thin air. This is for the reader to decide.”

Among the issues they discuss and dispute in the book are the nature of truth and authority, theological questions, biblical history, the role of women in Judaism, assimilation and intermarriage, education and the future of the Jewish people. While Rabbi Reinman points to singular truths and interpretations, Rabbi Hirsch sees many avenues to the truth, many possible interpretations.

Within their conversation, there are sometimes barbs, accusations and moments of condescension. When asked why they didn’t edit those things out of the text, they note that they did, that those that are left in are the “mellow barbs.” They say that neither took it personally, that sometimes the debate was quite heated.

They sum up: “On most things we agreed to disagree,” Rabbi Reinman says.

“I disagree with that,” Rabbi Hirsch interjects. “I hope the reader will be attuned to significant areas of commonality. We are all born out of the same tradition, with the same historical experiences, the same ethical traditions, common Jewish destiny. We speak the same language, study the same texts, observe the same festivals. This disagreement that we have is within these parameters. These are disagreements that all people of good faith have if they take the subject matter seriously.”

“I’ll agree,” Rabbi Reinman replies. “Except for that we come from the same tradition. We do share history and common destiny. I hope that we do share a love for each others as brothers, even though we totally disagree and there’s no way of reconciling ideologies … Every Jews is precious, has a Jewish soul.”

The experience of reading this book is like following a debating match; many readers might be hearing some of these arguments for the same time and may find themselves siding at times with Rabbi Hirsch, at times with Rabbi Reinman. In the end, they do little to bridge the gap between their worlds, but they do humanize the conflict.

The back of the book jacket is also unusual: What looks like the usual list of endorsements by well-known people at first glance is actually a collection of people across the Jewish spectrum, including Orthodox and Reform rabbis and a woman scholar, who agree on at least the importance of the endeavor and the sincerity and passion of the participants.

Rabbis Hirsch and Reinman will be participating in this year’s “State of World Jewry Address” along with journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman, author of “Jew vs. Jew” at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. They’ll be engaging in a conversation on the subject of “One People, Two Worlds,” moderated by Rabbi Phil Miller, director of the 92nd St. Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. Tickets are $18.