The Talmud refers to Elisha ben Abuyah as acher, “other.” He is a public violator of Shabbat, obviously not condoned by the Talmudic Rabbis. Yet Rabbi Meir, a central Talmudic figure, is said to have gone to great lengths to “learn Torah from [ben Abuyah's] mouth.”
The rejection by most Orthodox Jews today of interactions with non-Orthodox Jews (excluding Chabad and other outreach groups) seems to be at odds with this story. And I certainly do not want to single out Orthodoxy as at fault. In my home city of Cincinnati, Reform and Conservative Jews can barely stomach each other and have, at the very best, a strained relationship. We are “a stiff-necked people.” If we refused to bend to God’s will at the base of Mount Sinai, how much harder will it be for us to accept different philosophies amongst our fellow Jews today? Perhaps harder, but perhaps also more necessary.
The strength of the Jewish future, in my opinion, is going to rest upon our ability to converse with and understand each other. We do not have to agree with each others’ different practices, but we must accept the validity of every individual’s choice to observe Judaism in their own way. I do not have the solution of how to make this work, but I think college campuses are good places to start. This semester, I have brought a Rabbi to the Miami University Hillel from each of the five Jewish denominations — Humanist, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox — to explain their movement, their personal beliefs, and answer student questions. This is just a small step towards understanding each other and expanding our sometimes narrow-minded (Jewish) world view.
In an effort to expand people’s horizons even more, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly Gay Orthodox Rabbi visited Hillel last week and spoke on the issue of homosexuality and the inclusion of gay individuals in religious Jewish life. While speaking to a liberal audience, he was received well by the majority of students in attendance, but the ability of everybody to be exposed to various ways of interpreting Judaism is an important step towards building a dialogue amongst Jewish leaders on a larger scale. As Rabbi Greenberg states early on in his book, Wrestling with God and Men, Judaism has been and continues to be subjected to “multiple subjectivities.” Judaism has never been monolithic; from the ancient Rabbis through today there have always been numerous acceptable opinions on many issues.
Here is to hoping that we can all create our own personal subjective religious worldview, well founded in our own blend of Jewish tradition and modernity, and that it will be accepted by others.