Of course, within all bifurcated intellectual frameworks there are shades of gray and disagreement over the facts or applications. For example, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, was of the view that interdenominational boards of rabbis were permissible so long as they did not meet to discuss matters of halacha or theology, but were limited to matters of social, political, or economic concern.
Others disagreed with him, asserting that a “board of rabbis” inherently validates all its members as legitimate expositors of Judaism.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, wrote half a century ago that an Orthodox minyan may not rent space or run religious programming in Reform or Conservative synagogues, as participants will grow confused as to whether the Orthodox view all services in the non-Orthodox synagogues as valid forms of worship.
Many rabbis of the last two decades have disagreed, and think that ordinary people can distinguish between the location of an event and its sponsors.
Likewise, over the last many years, Orthodox rabbis have seen the wisdom of participating in the public teaching of Jewish values at places like a Jewish community center – the basic rationale being that each instructor teaches his own material and everyone knows that. The appearance under a single roof, the claim is made, does not create endorsement.
Reality plays a strong role in these determinations. Therefore, I do think that Orthodox students can pray in the Orthodox minyan at Hillel even though that same institution hosts Reform and Conservative services precisely because the students in such a minyan do not perceive Hillel as compelling the Orthodox students to validate the Conservative service.
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Let us return to our starting point. Orthodoxy is far from monolithic and has quite a bit of diversity within its own walls. However, it is not ever-pliable, and Orthodoxy has limits of both deed and creed.
One of the most central ideas of Orthodox creed is the view that halacha is binding as a matter of covenantal theology, whether or not people actually observe it.
When dealing with the denominations that theologically inhabit the space outside those bounds in acts and beliefs, Orthodox individuals and institutions must conduct themselves with both integrity and respect. Respect must motivate us to treat fellow Jews with honor, love, and dignity. Integrity compels us to treat our own ideology wth seriousness and not allow us to compromise our identity as Orthodox Jews or our adherence to Orthodox ideology.
Rav Soloveitchik expresses this dichotomy theologically in his classic work Kol Dodi Dofek. The Rav states that as members of the Jewish people we feel linked to other Jews by the covenant of Abraham (brit hagoral) and seek to help and support them, even while we must acknowledge that they do not all share fully in the covenant of Moses (brit h-ye’ud) that we regard as mandatory and binding.
The common Abrahamic covenant of Jewish history explains why I would refuse to worship in an Orthodox minyan at a Jewish Students Center that had a Jews for Jesus service, too, but am glad to be a practical pluralist at a Hillel with a Reform service. The latter is part of the Abrahamic covenant, the former is antithetical to it.
We must succeed in expressing both values if we are to accomplish our mission. I have always understood these two obligations as directing us to participate as much as possible in the general Jewish community while avoiding participation in religious and educational events whose message is that whatever religious choices a person makes are legitimate, or that all models of Judaism role-modeled in America are valid, as both of these ideas deny a central creed of Orthodox Judaism, which is that Jewish law really is binding.
In sum, Orthodoxy must insist on the uniquely binding nature of halacha for Jews, and cannot be perceived as validating expressions of Judaism that violate this tenet, even if these expressions have other positive qualities and even if we seek to work together with them in mutual dignity on a variety of issues.
Orthodox Jews, therefore, need to think carefully about our participation in non-Orthodox events and institutions within the Jewish community, to make sure that we remain true to ourselves and to Jewish law.
May we be blessed to live in a society where our diversity does not lead to divisiveness, and our unity is not contingent on our uniformity.