One People, Two Worlds A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them

ISBN-10: 0805211403

ISBN-13: 9780805211405

Edition: N/A

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After being introduced by a mutual friend in the winter of 2000, Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Reinman embarked on an unprecedented eighteen-month e-mail correspondence on the fundamental principles of Jewish faith and practice. What resulted is this book: an honest, intelligent, no-holds-barred discussion of virtually every hot button issue on which Reform and Orthodox Jews differ, among them the existence of a Supreme Being, the origins and authenticity of the Bible and the Oral Law, the role of women, assimilation, the value of secular culture, and Israel.Sometimes they agree; more often than not they disagreeand quite sharply, too. But the important thing is that, as they keep talking to each other, they discover that they actually like each other, and, above all, they respect each other. Their journey from mutual suspicion to mutual regard is an extraordinary one; from it, both Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds can learn a great deal about the practice of Judaism today and about the continuity of the Jewish people into the future.
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Book details

List price: $19.95
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 8/26/2003
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 336
Size: 4.75" wide x 8.00" long x 0.10" tall
Weight: 0.792

January 21, 2000 Dear Ammi (if I may take the liberty), Since this is my first communication directly to you, I suppose it should begin with something clever and profound, but nothing comes to mind.
I understand that our shadchan (a seasoned matchmaker named Richard Curtis) has arranged a dinner meeting as an icebreaker. As far as I'm concerned, there is no ice to be broken, just a little unfamiliarity.
I look forward to meeting you for a number of reasons--the book, the project, the contact with a Jewish world that is quite alien to me at this point, as is mine to you, no doubt. But there is also a personal reason. Over the last month, Ammi Hirsch, of whom I had never heard, has materialized for me as an individual, a fellow Jew with a past and a future, someone who is a little apprehensive about meeting me (which is endearing but unnecessary)--just as I have materialized for you as a real person. Doesn't it therefore behoove us, two Jews passing in the night, to stop and say hello to each other? So, no matter what comes of this, I wish you shalom aleichem, and I am happy to make your acquaintance. Perhaps some day it will develop into a friendship. I hope so. Yosef Reinman
January 26, 2000 Yosef: I just returned from Israel and was delighted to receive your note. February 2 at 6 p.m. is perfect. See you then. Ammi
February 9, 2000 Dear Ammi, It was a pleasure meeting you in person last week. The setting was good, and the two and a half hours flew by quickly. I'm sure we could have continued talking for several hours more had the ma�tre d' not pointed to the long line of people waiting for tables.
I wonder what the staff and the other patrons thought about the two of us sitting there, me with my beard, peyot, and long caftan and you beardless and bareheaded. What could two people like us have in common? Perhaps they thought we were discussing a real estate venture. I'm sure it never occurred to them that we were discussing some of the fundamental issues that divide the Jewish people and how those chasms can be bridged.
But the truth is we do have a lot in common. We are bound together by blood, history, and some shared religious beliefs. We both carry the burdens of the same thousands of years of Jewish experience, although we may choose to shoulder them differently. We share a bond that is sometimes forgotten when we deal with each other in the impersonal abstract, but when we encounter each other in the living, breathing flesh, that bond is instantly manifested. Whatever differences we may have, ideological or political, we are brothers, and we should care about each other. One of the greatest Jewish values is Ahavat Yisrael, instinctive love for another Jew. I believe this is an ideal we both embrace passionately, and it certainly would make a good foundation for what we are about to undertake here.
I am sure that, as we go on, the discussion will reach scorching temperatures, and that is a good thing. If we pull our punches, we will be defeating our purpose. But those punches must never be thrown with anger or malice, only to convince and clarify. After all, we are already brothers, and I am confident that, as we continue along this adventure together, we will also become good friends.
Over dinner, we touched on numerous thorny issues, and there is nothing that is not open to merciless scrutiny and discussion. It would be premature, however, to address some of these issues, especially the hot political ones, without first exploring who we are, what we believe, and what we stand for. How can we deal with solutions to political differences when we don't even understand each other? Should we try to beat each other into submission regardless of the human cost to the other side? I admit that we may never find an accommodation that will satisfy both sides. I admit that after all our correspondence we may just agree to disagree. I admit that there may be no choice but to fight it out in the political arena and let the better fighter win. But let us be aware of the fears, hopes, and concerns of the other side. Let us be aware that we may inflict pain on our brothers and do our best to minimize that pain. At the very least, let us be saddened by it.
So let us begin at the beginning. Let us talk about truth. Over dinner, you quoted the philosopher Isaiah Berlin as saying that the greatest danger to the world is when people believe there is only one truth and that they have it, and you applied this concept to Orthodoxy. Berlin made this statement with regard to the proponents of communism and fascism who believed they had discovered a single, overarching truth that justified the sacrifice of individual humans to grand abstractions. He was speaking about the outlook that "you are either with us or against us." Do you believe that applies to the Orthodox view? Orthodox Judaism is without question about the search for absolute truth. We believe without question that there is an absolute truth, and that it is contained in our holy Torah. Does that make us dangerous? I don't think so. We have never sought to impose our beliefs on other people. We actually discourage conversion. We believe in the election of the Jewish people to live by a higher standard, to be a "light unto the nations," to teach by example. Our daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, are a different story, of course. But that is an entire discussion in itself.
I would, therefore, like to begin our correspondence by discussing the concept of truth. Do you really believe that there is no absolute truth? That there are many truths? In one of the articles you sent me, you wrote that you accept "the authenticity and validity of Orthodoxy." At the same time, you obviously accept the authenticity and validity of Reform. How do you reconcile these views when Orthodoxy by its very nature rejects the authenticity and validity of Reform? You also told me over dinner that "Reform needs the continued existence of Orthodoxy." I find this intriguing, but I don't really know what you mean by it. Let us use these questions as a springboard to our correspondence. Yosef
February 16, 2000 Dear Yosef: Thank you for your initial comments. I entirely agree with you regarding your sentiments on Ahavat Yisrael. At its core, Judaism is about the covenant in action. This covenant binds the Jewish people to God and to each other. Thus, the notion of love for fellow Jews is at the heart of the Jewish experience. "All Jews are responsible one for the other" is no mere slogan for me. It constitutes the very essence of my understanding of Judaism. (Hence my disappointment with the rhetoric and actions of many Orthodox Jews and their spokesmen, who so often convey not unconditional love, but intolerant antagonism.) You mention the concept of absolute truth. Great evil has been perpetrated by people who were convinced that they possessed absolute truth. The implication of this belief is that all other beliefs are, by definition, not true. Taken seriously, this leads to terrible consequences.
Sooner or later, the belief that you possess absolute truth and others do not leaves you essentially alone at the pinnacle of piety.
I think that Jewish tradition was always quite skeptical of those who claimed to possess and pronounced divine truth. There is a traditional passage that asks what should a person do if a messenger runs into a village and announces that the Messiah has come--and you are in the middle of planting your vineyard. "First finish planting," is the advice, "and then go and check out the news of the Messiah." I mentioned to you that I accept Orthodoxy, even fundamentalist Orthodoxy, as a legitimate endeavor. After all, it is possible--and looking around the world, obviously popular--to conclude that the original texts should be interpreted in a fundamental way. If there are many pathways to truth--as tradition states, seventy faces to the Torah--then it is conceivable that one such pathway is fundamentalism. I know full well that such a fundamentalist worldview--Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other--has no room for nonfundamentalist interpretations.
There are still things that we in other camps can learn. I am most impressed with the seriousness of Orthodox Jews in seeking to discover the will of God. Their passion for study is admirable. Many treatises have been produced by Orthodox thinkers that contain relevant and important wisdom. It is good for the wider Jewish community that part of us solves moral and other daily dilemmas through engagement with Halakhah--Jewish law. It keeps that important part of Jewish tradition current and vibrant.
That a part of the Jewish community is fundamentalist is neither surprising nor particularly worrisome. It becomes a problem when such forces acquire political power and seek to use it to impose their fundamentalist worldview on others. And since fundamentalists have a tendency to "rectify" the "sinful" behavior of the "sinners," nonfundamentalists must always be vigilant.
Yosef, you are deluding yourself when you write, "We have never sought to impose our beliefs on other people." I spend a considerable part of my professional life struggling against the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose their beliefs on other people. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox parties use the force of law to impose their beliefs. The primary reason that they do not behave similarly in the United States is their inaccessibility to the legislative process.
After all, if you believe you possess truth, why should you not feel compelled to impose it on others? Why not bring other people the good news? The American Southern Baptists have used this argument recently to justify their efforts to convert Jews.
How do you know that the Torah is the literal word of God? Do you not have any shred of doubt? Moreover, do you really believe that the thousands of pages in the Talmud were literally transcribed by Moses on Sinai? Do you ever harbor any doubts? Is everything always clear to you? Ammi
From the Hardcover edition.
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