Despite a tumultuous, even hostile, history, Orthodox and Reform Judaism have a shared interest in outreach to keep followers from disengaging from Jewish life.
That was the heart of the message delivered by Dr. Jonathan Cohen, the dean of the Cincinnati campus of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in an Oct. 19 talk at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, the Reform congregation in New Brunswick.
The tension between Judaism’s traditional and liberal branches was the topic of Cohen’s talks Oct. 17-19 as the Syril & Dr. Norman Reitman Scholar-in-Residence weekend.
Over the weekend, Cohen explored texts that divide the Jewish community, used caricatures and cartoons to look at the fractured Jewish world, and delved into old and new interpretations of Genesis.
Cohen also focused on how rabbinic texts encourage a connection to and love of Judaism.
The Israeli-born Cohen noted that Orthodoxy as a distinct “movement” came about as a reaction to the founding of the Reform movement in Germany, which itself was a product of Napoleon’s emancipation of French Jews.
“The first time the word ‘Orthodox’ was used, to the best of our knowledge, was 1842,” he said. “Before the 19th century, there were no Orthodox; there were only Jews.”
As equality was extended to Jews throughout Central and Western Europe, traditionalists grew alarmed as Jews “ran from the ghetto,” said Cohen.
“Jews wanted to be acculturated and embrace the world of scholarship, embrace the world of science and finance, and embrace trade,” he said. “They wanted to be accepted by everyone and sought to integrate themselves into non-Jewish society.”
However, traditionalists claimed that Judaism was incompatible with enlightenment attitudes and argued that Jewish continuity was contingent on following rituals and practices in accordance with historic convention.
“The resurgence of Orthodoxy today is based on this argument,” said Cohen. “After the Holocaust, Orthodox leaders said, ‘We told you so that in places like Germany and Austria, where you thought you were integrated, where you thought they were enlightened and you were like everyone else, when it came down to it, you were Jews.’”
The traditionalists were prescient, as Cohen explained with tongue in cheek. “Before you know it Jews will be playing organs in synagogue. Before you know it men will be walking around without a kipa. Before you know it there will be women rabbis. Before you know it, Jews will not keep kosher. Oy vey.”
While their arguments gained a significant following, liberal Jews countered that it was a prescription for disenfranchisement and poverty.
And yet some major Orthodox figures felt that traditionalists could not afford to “circle their wagons” and abandon outreach.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Natziv and dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania, promoted the study and teaching of Torah to the multitudes as a defense against assimilation, said Cohen.
“What the Natziv was saying was that the Orthodox have a responsibility to reach all people,” said Cohen. “Stop worrying about whether someone parked their car two blocks away from synagogue. Stop checking whether they arrive at 7:30 or 7:45. Go out and create a community of learners. This is where Orthodox outreach comes from.”
That message has resonated among the Orthodox and led to its modern resurgence, said Cohen; Reform Jews could learn much from them, he added.
The Reform should focus on convincing Jews, including interfaith families, about the value of leading a Jewish life.
“This is not the time to give up and be despondent and circle the wagons,” said Cohen. “We must go out and spread our message to learn and develop our story and relationship to Judaism, God, and our people.”
While Cohen described the Orthodox as “wonderful people with a wonderful paradigm,” he disagreed with their message, especially their arm’s-length attitude toward interfaith families and egalitarianism.
“We should welcome non-Jews as equals, bring them in and explain we are the place for them, and their children will benefit from being Jewish,” said Cohen. “I don’t think that 50 percent of our population, women, should be excluded from roles of leadership.
“I don’t want any of you to think I’m anti-Orthodox. I just think they got it wrong. We deliver the right message.”