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Orthodox Pressure Causes Rabbi to Pull Out of Book Tour; British Chief Rabbi Changes Book Called “Heresy”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2003

An ultra-Orthodox rabbi under fire for co-writing a book with a Reform rabbi pulled out of a 17-city promotional tour. Rabbi Yosef Reinman, reports The Forward (Nov. 1, 2002), “made his decision after two leading groups of ... ultra-Orthodox rabbis issued statements condemning the book, One People, Two Worlds (Schocken). The book, co-written with Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s Zionist organization, Arza/World Union, consists of letters by the two rabbis in which they debate their theological differences.”  

Statements condemning the book were issued by the governing rabbinical council of Agudath Israel of America and leaders of the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., a leading yeshiva from which Reinman received his ordination. The Aguda’s rabbinic council worried that the book and efforts to promote it would leave people with the impression that Reform is a legitimate, albeit competing, alternative for all Jews.  

The Aguda statement declared: “Light cannot coexist with darkness, nor can falsehood be peddled along with truth. ... The book, therefore, is an entirely unacceptable enterprise, one to which we forcefully object. Furthermore, all who recognize our responsibility to not ‘veer after your hearts,’ to shun all that denies the truth of our nation, should keep far away from our homes any book like this one.”  

Rabbi Hirsch said of Rabbi Reinman’s decision to abandon the book tour: “Obviously, I’m deeply disappointed in him. I suspected at some point that he would come under a lot of pressure. He assured not only me, but all of us involved, that ... he would withstand the pressure in the charedi camp.”  

At the same time, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes The Forward, “has caved in to demands to change passages in his latest book, after several Orthodox rabbis charged that they were heretical. ... The controversy stemmed from the publication in September of The Dignity of Difference, in which Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argued for greater interfaith understanding in an effort to avoid a clash of civilizations.  

The book was widely praised in the press, but Sacks’ Orthodox colleagues objected to several statements, including ‘no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth’ and ‘God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians and Islam to Muslims.’”  

Rabbi Yossi Chazan of the Holy Law South Broughton Hebrew Congregation in Manchester, attacked Sacks’ book in a sermon, calling it “potentially heretical.” Shortly after the sermon, Sacks was summoned to Manchester for a three-hour meeting with 20 fellow rabbis where, according to press reports, some charged him with heresy. After the meeting, Sacks declared that he would release “a clarification - not a retraction - to prevent further misunderstanding of my position on a matter of such importance.”  

These overtures did not satisfy Sacks’ critics. Two prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis placed an advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle, a London newspaper, calling for Sacks to withdraw the book from publication. “Any implication that Judaism does not contain the absolute truth represents a grave deviation from the pathways of traditional and authentic Judaism,” wrote Rabbi Bezalel Rakow, head of the Gateshead Hebrew Congregation, and Rabbi J.H. Dunner, head of a prominent ultra-Orthodox group in England. The London beit din, or rabbinical court, charged that sections of the book could be open “to an interpretation that is inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs.” Rabbi Rakow said that, “It’s against our emunah (belief) to say that you recognize Christianity, that you recognize Islam. This book cannot be distributed. It cannot be in a Jewish home.”  

In another instance of apparent censorship, the book Making of a Godol: A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities, which describes the world of pre-World War II Lithuanian, or non-chasidic Orthodoxy, has been banned by leading yeshiva heads and was publicly burnt at a yeshiva in Lakewood.  

Lawrence Grossman, co-editor of the American Jewish Year Book 2002, writes that different from the earlier “instances of intolerance” regarding Rabbis Reinman and Sacks, “the complaints about Making of a Godol reflect charedi fears of divulging facts about their own history ... The book should destroy, once and for all, any lingering idyllic notion that pre-war Eastern European Jewry lived a religiously untroubled existence. Already at the turn of the century the world of Jewish tradition was dissolving, as many Jews jettisoned ritual observance. ... The bitter ideological divisions within the late 19th and early 20th century Jewish community found expression even within the walls of the yeshivas ...”  

The book’s author, Nathan Kamenetsky, appears to have expected criticism of his book. He acknowledges the existence of a school of thought within Orthodoxy that denies the importance of factual history, preferring the production of “stories” of the past that teach acceptable religious lessons. He quotes one rabbinic advocate of this approach as saying, “We do not need realism: we need inspiration from our forefathers.”  

In Grossman’s view, “Kamenetsky has gone a different route, following the dictum of another rabbi who said, ‘You cannot educate through lies.’ In doing so, he has charted a new and exciting path to Orthodox historiography.”

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