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When Rabbis Disagree, Can They Do So Respectfully?

It is easy to condemn the views of others. We Jews particularly need not be afraid or enraged when someone makes theological claims that challenge our views. Unlike extremists in other religious groups, Jews allow for every argument about and with God.

I faced just that situation when a rabbi I did not know called a recent Torah commentary I wrote a “chillul Hashem” (an action that disgraces, harms or shames God).

On March 1st, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles printed God’s Road Rage, my Torah commentary on Ki Tisa. Arguably edgy, with a few lines that I would edit out in the future (“There God goes again, getting pissed off!”), the commentary makes a theological claim that was sure to make traditionalists uncomfortable: that God is not perfect, but learns and grows and changes.

In response, Conservative Rabbi Robert Elias (Knesset Israel of Hollywood) wrote:

Describing the Almighty as a terrible tot, throwing temper tantrums and much worse, is shocking and unworthy for the author and the publisher. If this is the God [Rabbi] Kipnes believes in, why become a rabbi? Why bother to pray? Why stand up for the Torah?

If you were in my shoes, would you dismiss the critique as theological fundamentalism? Or would you want to defend your position?

Here’s what I did:

Upon receiving the comments of Rabbis Elias, whom I did not know, I did what any thinking person should do when confronted by those who seem offended by my comments: I picked up the phone and called. Then I met for coffee with Rabbi Elias.

Rabbi Elias and I spent over an hour, talking, getting to know each other, speaking about our families, our lives and careers. We talked about the ideas, which he found so offensive – mostly the theological claim that God is not perfect – but equally the way I couched the idea within the article. We shared the fact that we both believe deeply in God, and that we love the multifaceted nature of Torah. We agreed to disagree on this God concept.

As I hoped, the conversation became a learning opportunity to bridge the theological gap, explain perspectives, and perhaps build a connection Jew to Jew, rabbi to rabbi. That’s how Jews disagree and yet remain one community.

I thanked Rabbi Elias for agreeing to meet. He said he was surprised to hear from me, and thanked me for picking up the phone to talk about his concerns.

I apologized that my words so offended him. He suggested that I include those words in my response to the Jewish Journal. And so I did.

As I concluded my response to the Jewish Journal:

We encounter [those who disagree with us] with thoughtfulness to discern where there might be truth that we overlooked. I believe in God with all my heart, soul and might. And I humbly apologize to those for whom my words offended their understanding of God.

5 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi Kipnes, thank you for your attempt to apologize for the article.

    If one looks on Hashem as a parent, the ultimate of all parents, the parent of creation – the article is truly worthy of contrition, shame and apology. To marginalize Hashem in the way Rabbi Kipnes did in the Jewish Journal is not offensive to me, but it is terrifying.

    It terrifies me that a rabbi sees fit to both marginalize the creator and set this example to an entire Jewish community (of his synagogue, Or Ami). To expound these views in a publication only spreads this negativity even further.

    I know Rabbi Kipnes apologized in the best way he knew how. I hope that the process of tshuvah is begun to lead him to a spiritual fulfillment that allows him to promote the positivity of Hashem with honor, respect and a greater reverence that seems to still as of yet escape him.

    Hashem forgives those who do tshuvah, but to those who we affect when we misstep – they are lead into situations that can oblige them as well to have a need for tshuvah. We can only hope that Rabbi Kipnes will know sometime sooner or later that the mantle of being a rabbi is more than just being able to spout off whatever theological observations wander into one's mind. Sometimes the crime of yelling fire in a crowded shul is what we all need to be wary of. Those of us who aren't rabbis may not be spiritually equipped to conceptualize Hashem as an infantile brat. We do not need that kind of perspective in this modern day, mixed up world.

    Whether or not the rabbi would characterize his father, mother or anyone else's parent in this way is dubious, as well as whether he would even see fit to characterize any human person in so disparaging a manner. To characterize Hashem in a way that we'd hesitate to view others seems beyond the reach of propriety.

    Thanks for your patience and forbearance. Shabbat Shalom.

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