One of my favorite things in the world – and I really mean that – is to observe learned people debating topics I know only somewhat. It’s very enlightening, and I gain insights into why they believe what they do. I find these exchanges most interesting and useful when presented without any attempts at narrative-shaping. This is why the oral history format is my favorite for non-fiction.
So this book seems like it was made just for me. I stumbled upon it in West Side Judaica a few months ago while looking for all the bargains I imagined I’d find there, in light of the store’s supposedly imminent closure. (Spoiler alert: There were no bargains. But it looks like customers are doing their part to keep them open.)
In it, a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi exchange a series of messages in which they debate everything about Judaism on which they disagree. I’m not going to list every topic they argue about, because people who know Jewish in-fighting will know exactly what they are.
I would have been happy if this book had been 3,000 pages long. Alas, it clocks in at just over 300. So I forced myself to read it as slowly as possible, because it’s really hard for me to find books I find this engaging and difficult to put down. It helps that I fall asleep no more than 20 minutes into my post-lunch Shabbos reading every week.
Even though I am definitely of an Orthodox hashkafa (within which there is a variety of opinion on almost everything), I was surprised to find myself often agreeing and disagreeing with each of these rabbis. Upon reflection, I think my disagreements with the Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Reinman, were more about his methods of coming to conclusions than the conclusions themselves. Even when I was aligned with his viewpoint, I found the route he took to get there very different from my own. Since he’s the Talmudic scholar, I am only stating this as a factual observation, not a commentary on his accuracy.
There’s something else that’s striking and disturbing about this 18 month conversation: Neither one of these men truly understand one another’s beliefs.
If you want to come out on top in a debate, you have to know your opponent’s assertions so well that you can argue them better than he can. It is clear from both the content and tone of the rabbis’ remarks that they lack empathy for one another’s positions, which means they can’t actually get anywhere in their discussion.
That said, because I love seeing what people think and how they frame their positions, I still loved this book. It was written in 2001 and I’d love an update, but considering how much of a beating Rabbi Reinman took for participating in it in the first place, that’s not going to happen. Neither Rabbi Reinman nor Rabbi Hirsch seem to be on Twitter, which shows they are at least basically sane people.