Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

All Together Now: We're All Individuals!

Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein's latest offering on Cross-Currents unintentionally goes a long way towards revealing the restricted outlook that the Agudah has for who is generally to be considered a Torah-observant Jew. He ostensibly tries to define what makes a Jew Orthodox and uses as his negative example Marc Shapiro, one of the favourite boogey men of the Agudah world.

The article starts out innocently enough and even seems complimentary:

I am jealous of the scholarship of Dr Marc Shapiro – even when I often disagree with his conclusions. He never lets the reader down in amassing a huge amount of relevant material regarding the many topics he has written about.

It is immediately after that the article makes a sharp right turn:

I do believe that he made a simple and perhaps understandable error in his response to Rabbi Zev Leff in the current issue of Jewish Action [not yet online].

For those not in the know, Shapiro has written a series of books that push the boundaries of Orthodox thinking. Using a multitude of sources and not restricting himself to "approved" Jewish texts and ignoring those that are inconvenient, Shapiro asks questions many in the Agudah world would rather not like to be brought up, and he suggests answers as well. He challenges assumptions that have become hallmarks of our faith in this benighted age and exploded myths that some treat as sacred. Recently, Rav Leff reviewed one of his books, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, and was quite critical of it, citing numerous examples of wher he thought Shapiro was wrong or misinterpreting historical events and halachic writing. True to form, Shapiro responded to each of these concerns with ample evidence to support his point of view. This was essentially an end-game for Rav Leff. After all, to continue to argue would require him to engage in critical scholarship and this is not something he was prepared to do. No worry though. If you can't refute the message, you can always discredit it by changing the parameters of the debate. Hence:

He ignored a construct that is enormously important for the future of the community, but that he may find unattractive.

What is this construct?

It seems to me that the essence of Rabbi Leff’s argument is that one need not be adjudged to be a heretic to nonetheless stand firmly outside the boundaries of the Torah community. The answer to Dr. Shapiro’s question is that those who maintain beliefs at the margins are not to be seen as heretics, but can be seen as beyond the pale.

Translation: Yes, Rav Leff's criticisms have all been successfully refuted by the author so instead of trying to counter his assertion we'll simply decide that his point of view is wrong ab initio, thereby disqualifying him from the debate in the first place.

Now this is a scary point if taken to its logical conclusion. Rav Adlerstein notes, correctly, that the word "heretic" is used far too often this days, mostly be the same crowd that cries Assur! at everything but he then draws a different conclusion. He seems to be saying: "True, we won't call you a heretic if you disagree with us but we can still say you're not part of our community."

Now, who defines the boundaries of the Torah community? Who chooses its membership and sets its qualifications? In other words, why might I think that Shapiro's views are outside the pale when I don't know where the pale ends and the outside world begins?

Rabbi Leff’s point, however, is that there are ideas and values so important and so widespread that they define the experience of a Torah Jew. It might not be forbidden for people to think differently, but if they should do so, it would not be inaccurate to say that they would be living something significantly different from the rest of the community. We would not be able to point an accusatory finger and brand them as violators of some prohibition; we could accurately say, however, that they were not Torah Jews in the colloquial sense.

I would agree with this statement but on the other hand who defines what "different thinking" is? Nowadays there's a push by some elements within the Chareidi world to demand a literal understanding of the first chapter of the Torah. If I insist that the story of Creation can't be understood literally because of the scientific evidence against it, am I outside the pale according to these people? Despite my observance of halachah am I now no longer a Torah Jew? The answer is not reassurance:

Many will expect the teachers of their children and the rabbanim of their shuls to share a common belief system, within limits. They will want those limits set not at the divide between the permissible and heretical, but within the experience of the vast majority of Torah Jews and Torah luminaries for hundreds of years. Situating oneself within these more narrow limits does not guarantee that one is “right,” but it does allow for a commonality of experience with more people in the same generation, and a sense of deep connection with generations that preceeded.

It must be made clear at this point: Although there are some beliefs and behaviours that have consistently been identified with the Jewish people over the millenia, there are also been radical differences between sections of the community. Much of the Chareidi community of Eastern Europe was fervently anti-Zionist, to the point where holding such a philosophy was an article of the faith. At that same time, the Mizrachi community of Rav Yitchak Reines and much of the Sephardi Torah world held that there was no difficulty associated with rebuilding the land of Israel and that it might even be seen as a religious and historical imperative. According to Rav Adlerstein's statement, who is right? Are the Satmar chasidim and their ilk on the inside while any religious Jew who is pro-Zionist can no longer be classed as a Torah Jew? If a particular group insists on Cholov Yisroel even under those circumstances that Rav Moshe Feinstein, z"tl permitted it, are they allowed to see those who drink regular milk as non-Torah Jews? There are, according to Chazal, seventy facets of Torah. Does Rav Adlerstein mean to suggest that nowadays there's only one, the one he and his particualr community approve of? Apparently so:

What can be permissible can still be so out of synch with Jewish experience that it can be rejected as outside the pale, even if not assur. This may be true of new approaches to teaching Tanach, Gemara, and to entire institutions of learning.

What about teaching men that working is forbidden because it takes away time from learning? What about forcing women to become the family breadwinners and primary child caregivers? What about giving certain rabbonim the power to dictate halachah by decree instead of discussion and interaction? Why are the examples of being outside the pale only those that Rav Adlerstein finds objectionable?

The message is simple: There can be no changes, no innovation, no honest reading of halachic sources lest one come to a different conclusion than the one assumed as normative until now. Even if Rav Yosef Karo himself says something is fine and dandy, it can now be forbidden simply because some people who have taken it upon themselves to define what Torah Judaism is don't think you should do it.

Let me be clear: I'm not talking about "ground-breaking" or "cutting edge" halachic innovations that are done not because something should be permissible but because vocal, barely attached members of the Modern Orthodox community want to impose their personal values onto the religious structure. I have no interest in legitimizing that and I'm as guilty as anyone in sometimes saying "Well yes, technically it's okay but Jews just don't do that sort of thing." In spite of this, I share Shapiro's bottom line concern: Is something allowed or not? And if it is, is there a compelling reason not to make that public?

The next time I watch a television show, I'm no longer a Torah Jew. The next time my wife wears a denim skirt, she's no longer a Torah Jew. Is this the Orthodoxy of the Agudah? If so, no wonder we're all labelled by the outside Jewish community as intolerant and closed minded.

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