West Hartford rabbis swap pulpits to bridge the denominational divide
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Less than a mile apart, two synagogues bearing different denominational affiliations observe distinct “brands” of Judaism. The congregants of each express and uphold Jewish law and tradition in different ways. Or do they?
On Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17, the twain shall meet to compare notes. Rabbi Yitzchok Adler of Beth David Synagogue and Rabbi Michael Pincus of Congregation Beth Israel will host a pulpit exchange Shabbat. As guest speakers at one another’s pulpits, they will present, respectively, “What I Admire about Reform Judaism and Why I Am Not Reform,” on Friday evening, and “What I Admire about Orthodox Judaism and Why I Am Not Orthodox” on Saturday morning. Each talk will be followed by a Q&A and refreshments.
The two rabbis have been discussing the idea of a pulpit exchange for several years, Adler says. Over the summer, the date and topic were firmed up.
“The Greater Hartford Jewish community is blessed by a rich history of cooperation and respect among the variety of different Jewish expressions,” says Pincus, including several multi-synagogue events over the last several years. “I feel blessed to be able to work on a regular basis with Rabbi Adler, a mentsch and a leader of our community. I look forward to his insights and perspectives and appreciate the opportunity to share mine.”
Preparation for the program has proved to be a learning experience, Adler says. “The research I’ve been doing to prepare has served to validate, in my mind, the value of the topic,” he says. “I’ve always felt, and now I believe even more firmly, that the denominational labels which delineate mainstream Judaism in the U.S. serve more as an injustice to the Jewish community than anything else. They force people into memberships and affiliations and do not always synch with how they feel spiritually or even how Jewish tradition is intended to function.”
If asked to define “Orthodox” and “Reform,” the average American Jew would identity the former with strict adherence to the law and the latter with liberalism and personal license, Adler says.
“A person might say, ‘I don’t have to keep kosher because I am Reform.’ But when we go historically into the journey of Judaism through the centuries, or the transformation of the State of Israel from the day of the ancient Temple, when we went from a sacrificial-based worship to the liturgical-based worship today, we find that we apply the word ‘Reform’ to all of Judaism,” Adler says. “Judaism has had to morph and transform constantly to meet the reality of contemporary life of all the generations from then until now.”
The differences between Orthodox and Reform, Adler says, are more in the guidelines that govern those transformations and less about traditionalism vs. liberalism.
“The reality is that Reform Judaism has taken more liberal postures on many issues than Orthodox Judaism has but Reform Judaism considers itself to be a very structured and disciplined movement, just like Orthodoxy,” he says. “I therefore am coming to a great and increasing respect for all of the movements, but am also coming to embrace the growing discomfort with the labels that really don’t do justice to the Jewish community.”
Before the institutionalization of denominational descriptors, Adler says, these labels did not exist, but likely came about to serve the purpose of distinguishing “innovative” and “new” from “conventional” and “traditional.”
“They may have served a virtuous purpose,” he says. “But the downside today is that, as a result of those labels, Jews frequently feel compelled to identify with them. ‘I am an Orthodox Jew’ or ‘I am a Reform Jew’ speaks today to which synagogue has one’s membership, but doesn’t reflect the Judaism practiced by that person. There are people who go to Orthodox synagogues and drive on Shabbat, and people who go to Reform synagogues who keep kosher homes. The labels present problems today, just as they presented solutions decades ago. If I could wave my magic wand over this tradition, I would take away all the labels and say, ‘Pick the congregation where you feel you might be most comfortable or find the greatest sense of affinity or spiritual challenge you’re seeking in order to grow as a person.’”
In fact, Adler imagines an experiment that would bear out this idea: Identify congregations not by their names and movements, but rather by their doctrines and philosophies, then ask members of the Jewish community to select a synagogue based on those options. Most people would likely end up in congregations other than the ones they belong to now, he speculates.
Most Jews are exposed only to a very narrow band of the rich spectrum of Judaism, Pincus says, while there are many ways to be Jewish.” I believe that every movement has its strengths and things it struggles with,” he says. “Having been exposed throughout my life to the diversity within the Jewish community, it frustrates me when Jews speak ignorantly about various branches of Judaism, or think there aren’t options in Jewish living. Despite our many divisions, we are one people, one very small group of people. There is so much we can learn from each other and so much we should admire and respect, and yet most of the time we don’t engage enough. I hope that the members of Beth David and Beth Israel and others who join us for this Shabbat come away with a greater understanding of each other and a greater appreciation of their own path,” says Pincus. “May it help us continue to build deeper connections among us.”
The two synagogues are the Jewish anchors on Farmington Avenue, says Adler. “Perhaps what we are doing will prove to be inspirational to other congregations on other avenues.”
The Pulpit Swap Shabbat: Friday, Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m., Congregation Beth Israel, 701 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, and Sat., Nov. 17, 9 a.m., Beth David Synagogue, 20 Dover Road, West Hartford. Info: Beth David Synagogue, (860) 236-1241 / Congregation Beth Israel, (860) 233-8215
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