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A Chance To Ask Rabbis Tough Questions

Gary Rosenblatt

Feb 13, 2019

Have you ever wondered how your rabbi would respond to what’s the most difficult commandment in the Torah to deal with, or why Jews should attend synagogue or what represents idolatry today?

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Have you ever wondered how your rabbi would respond to what’s the most difficult commandment in the Torah to deal with, or why Jews should attend synagogue or what represents idolatry today?

Scott Shay, whose longtime interest and involvement in Jewish life and thought prompted him to write “In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism” (Post Hill Press), a fresh and impressive re-evaluation of faith and skepticism, had the opportunity to put a series of probing questions to three leading local rabbis last Thursday evening.

The Jewish Week Forum was held in partnership with the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion, at HUC-JIR.

The rabbis being questioned were Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue (Reform), Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue (Conservative) and Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (Orthodox).

To this observer, the rabbis seemed to be more on the same page than anticipated, despite their theological differences. And an underlying subtext of the lively discussion was that there is no one answer to questions of faith and observance.

Shay, a co-founder and chairman of Signature Bank whose previous book was titled “Getting Our Groove Back: How To Energize American Jewry,” is also a community activist and educator. He noted at the outset of the discussion the fundamental theme of his new book: “idolatry is the greatest danger humanity faces.” And he began by asking each rabbi to talk about a modern form of idolatry. The responses echoed each other.

Rabbi Cosgrove asserted that “we have made idols of our own beliefs to the point where we can’t countenance the possibility that we may be wrong.” He pointed out that the Talmudic rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, disagreed on many points of Jewish law and that we tend to follow Hillel’s views, in part because he made a point of always stating Shammai’s opinions with respect. The need to hear the other’s truth is paramount, Rabbi Cosgrove said.

Rabbi Buchdahl agreed and amplified the point, referencing the Talmud’s dictum that arguments in the name of God are holy: “These and these are the words of the living God.”

Rabbi Steinmetz suggested that there are many aspects of idolatry today and that Judaism emphasizes a higher purpose than our various worldly pursuits, all of which should be infused with an element of humility.

Responding to Shay’s question about how synagogues can promote business ethics, Rabbi Buchdahl cited Central Synagogue’s work in the area of economic disparity. For the past three years congregants have been involved in a bail reform project, together with a neighborhood church. The rabbi said the effort is to help many prisoners at Rikers Island who have not been convicted but cannot make the bail of $500. As a result, they often lose their jobs.

As for dealing with troubling traditional texts, Rabbi Steinmetz acknowledged he struggles with the concept of bastards in Jewish law, who by dint of birth are excluded from much of Jewish life. “Does this really fit with our concept of justice?” he asked, adding that the oral text often allows for a variety of interpretations.

Rabbi Cosgrove, too, said he is “deeply grateful for the rabbinic tradition to help me wiggle out” of conflicts by offering contemporary solutions.

Rabbi Buchdahl spoke of her problem with how women are and aren’t mentioned in the Torah, either not named or referred to as “the wife of.”

“There is an inherent sexism that still isn’t challenged,” she said.

On the benefits of synagogue worship, Rabbi Steinmetz noted the ability to provide community to people who spend more and more of their time on screens, at work and at home. Rabbi Buchdahl spoke of how people can find “meaning and identity” in their often-lonely lives. And Rabbi Cosgrove said the goal was “to try to meet Jews where they are and inspire them to be where they hope to be.”

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