Thursday, December 19, 2013

Neshama Carlebach and Interfaith Dialogue

Neshama Carlebach recently posted that she has made Aliyah to Reform Judaism.  One of the points that she makes in her post was that her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was ostracized by the Orthodox establishment because of his interfaith activities.  She feels that the Reform movement is a home where she can carry on her father's tradition of finding true unity for all of God's children.

In this I think she expresses what is a common belief among many Jews - Reform Jews are better equipped to engage in meaningful interfaith dialogue than Orthodox Jews. 

It is a common belief that I believe is a great misconception.

As an Orthodox Rabbi in Omaha, Nebraska every year, literally hundreds of people from other faiths seek me out because they want to learn about Judaism.  More often than not they are aware of the different Jewish denominations and they specifically want to speak to an Orthodox Rabbi for a variety of different reasons.

  • They perceive that Reform Judaism espouses values that are universal but do not express anything that is uniquely Jewish.  They learn kindness, charity, and social justice from their own traditions.  They do not feel they need to learn those values from Jews.  They want to learn about uniquely Jewish practices like Shabbos, Kosher, Eruv (incredible how many people want to learn about that), tefilin, Yarmulka and tzitzit (for men) and head covering (for women).  These are practices that they perceive are more prevalent in the Orthodox Jewish world then the Reform world.
  • They perceive that their value systems conform with the values of Orthodox Jews and that their values are at odds with the values of Reform Jews.  Many Muslim and Christian groups in America have staunch conservative values and express relief when they learn on the Internet that there are actually Jews who share those values rather than advocate for values and positions that they believe to be anti religious and culturally destructive.  
  • They believe in the Bible and they are offended when they hear Jews -of all people - say that the Bible is a fictitious man made document with values that express, at best, the good intentions of primitive authors.  They believe that the Bible is divine, binding, and eternal and they seek out Jews who share that belief.  
While it may be true that the Reform movement is more involved in official interfaith activities, there are millions of Americans who look to the Orthodox Jewish community to learn about Judaism.  These individuals and groups look to the Hareidi world to learn how to successfully maintain an authentic counter culture in the face of pervasive and incredible societal pressures to conform to the dominant culture.  They look towards modern Orthodox Jews to learn how to successfully integrate an ancient tradition with the modern world.  They ask us questions in the hopes of learning our secret.  

So while there is no denying that the Reform community is a place for those who want to engage in meaningful interfaith discussion, the Orthodox community serves as a resource to millions of religious Americans who are looking to learn about a Judaism that they can understand and relate to.

Neshama Carlebach's other points have validity.  The traumatic experiences that she describes as a little girl would be enough to make anyone leave, and as a female singer she certainly will be able to reach more people in the Reform community then if she was in the Orthodox community.  

But I don't think that being reform will lead her towards more meaningful interfaith dialogue.  I suggest that if she has meaningful dialogue, which I have no doubt that she does, it is because she is so seeped in Judaism as a result of being her father's daughter.  My hope is that her Aliyah to the Reform movement puts her in a position to have great influence on Reform Jews and bring their masses back to traditional uniquely Jewish practices like Shabbos, Kosher, tefilin, along with traditional Jewish beliefs, and I hope that through her aliyah she can give the Jewish people an aliyah as well.  


  1. You don't seriously believe that we Reform Jews do not celebrate what you call Shabbos and we call Shabbat....We respect the way you practice Judaism, and wish you could do the same for us. To Christians familiar with all the tokens of their faiths, to want to see, for instance,tefilin, does not surprise me. To consider the wearing of tefilin an essential component of our faith, well, let's just say we differ there.