Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The Halachic Process: Chareidim vs Modern Orthodoxy

A couple of years ago, the deputy mayor of Richmond Hill, Ontario attended a Lubavitch menorah lighting and was stunned when the Chabadnik rabbis running the event refused to shake her hand. The initial two reponses to the incident were typical. One group, led by the deputy mayor, played the selective cultural tolerance card, that is: in Canada we're multicultural and tolerant of different ethnic groups... until they break the rules of political correctness. The other group played the non-selective cultural tolerance card, that is: in Canada we're multicultural and tolerant of different ethnic groups, no matter how kooky we think their customs are.
A suprising middle ground was staked by The National Post's Barbara Kay. Despite being a decidedly non-observant Jew who has, on multiple occasions, happily demonstrated a hostile attitude towards Orthodox Jews who have the gall to actually expect to have their rights respected in a secular world, she managed to pull off something I never would have expected. After writing a column based on emotion, she went a step further and found a teshuvah by a bonafide Modern Orthodox posek, Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin, which permits men and women to shake hands in certain limited situations. This, she concluded, shows that the Lubavitchers were not acting in accordance with the Jewish Law they claim to observe so rigorously. If they were, they could have used this teshuva to support their shaking hands with the deputy mayer and avoided the whole confrontation.
It sounds great. It certainly is better than simply shouting insults and accusations. And it misses the point of the halachic process completely.
The principle difference between the Chareidi and Modern Orthodox communities is their approach to halachic consensus.
Within the Chareidi community, the system is simple. If you are a chosid, your Rebbe decides the rules. If you're Litvish, then you have the designated heirarchy starting with Rav Eliashiv, shlita, and moving on down as well as a list of approved poskim whose works are considered authoritative. A teshuvah from a unapproved or non-recognized source, no matter how scholarly, is a non-starter because it comes from outside the approved framework. A Dati Leumi rav could write the perfect teshuvah showing that all religious Jews should undergo compulsory military service in Israel. It'll never be mentioned in Chareidi circles, let along quoted, because it's not part of their system.
The Modern Orthodox system, on the other hand, seems to approach the idea of halachic decision making from the diametrically opposed position. Any teshuvah, any schoarly piece of work, whether by a known posek or a particularily gifted university profressor, carries equal weight when the time comes to make a decision. Rav Eliashiv and Professor Marc Shapiro both get an equal say. As a result, a Modern Orthodox person looking for the answer to an important question has a wider range of sources to choose from and greater flexibility of answers available. Does he want to shake the local female official's hand? Great, we have Rav Henkin's teshuvah. He doesn't want to? Fine, this time he'll hold with the Igros Moshe. As the old saying goes, where there's a halachic will, there seems to be a halachic way.
The problem is that this turns the whole concept of halachic inquiry within Modern Orthodoxy into a joke by removing any standards. It leads to a behaviour that decides that even when a favourable teshuvah can't be found, the desired answer can still be provided because ultimately that answer has been predecided and requires only the thinnest veneer of halachic cover.
Ultimately the cure for this problem is for the religious leadership of Modern Orthodoxy to take a stand and curtail the rampant personal autonomy that is leaving the movement without direction or coherent form. There is nothing wrong with Modern Orthodoxy saying that the teshuvos of Rav Henkin, for example, are authoritative but that means accepting the "bad" with the "good". (For example, Rav Henkin may be realtively liberal about handshaking but he has rejected the newest left-end MO trend, the partnership minyan) It means that if you're going to reject a psak by Rav Eliashiv or one of his successors, it's because you have a psak from an MO authority that you follow, not because Rav Eliashiv is "another one of those crazies from Israel". Until Modern Orthodoxy does this, there's no compelling reason to bandy any teshuvos around. No one really believes they care about that.


Baruch said...

On what halachic issue does the Modern Orthodox World just pick some random posek from out of nowhere? In my (admittedly limited) experience, those who want to be extremely lenient don't usually bother digging up teshuvas.

(vis-a-vis handshaking by the way, my rabbi told me that I can rely on the position that if she sticks her hand out first, you shake to avoid embarrasing her; I haven't been in a situation where I've had to rely on this yet. I've also dug up a bunch of sources -- including R' Reuven Feinstein's understanding of his father's psak -- for this understanding.)

Garnel Ironheart said...

The reasons you listed regarding handshaking are those brought by Rav Henkin in his teshuva. My luck isn't as good as yours. I have to rely on it almost daily in my line of work.

My experience with MO's has consisted of meeeting people with extremely lenient opinions on an issue, for example hair covering or what foods in a supermarket don't need a hechsher, who then either mention a rav I've never heard of or say that their rabbi told them it was okay and they figure he wouldn't have said so if it wasn't. Now, this certainly isn't the official MO position, I appreciate that and I think part of my frustration with MO is the gap between the official position and the actual practice out here in the periphery.

Big Mac fresser lsheim shamayim said...

You know what would be fun - do a post about the dilemmas of an MO running for and elected President of the US. Can we find Hetterim for:

Slow dancing with the wife at the inaugural ball. When she is a Niddah. With a dress that isn't so prim that it would be a Chillul Hashem. Swearing on a new testament since using an Old one would really tick people off. Wife holding the bible when she is a Niddah. Campaigning on Shabbos, since a non-Jew in the WH is Pikuach Nefesh. Entering the National Cathedral (check). Asking priests to pray to JC on your behalf...

It's mistama all muttar because if it would be found out that an O Jew couldn't be President it would hurt kiruv efforts which is pikuach nefesh.

Garnel Ironheart said...

You're not breaking any new ground here. Remember how Joe Leiberman started the 2000 presidential campaign as an Orthodox Jew, then was demoted to traditional, then wound up as committed.

Recall the news stories of how he attended a luncheon on Tisha B'Av or how he shared an aliyah with his daughter at a Reform temple?

No Chareidi Jew would ever be tapped to run for the presidency because his lifestyle would preclude him from it. It seems that some in the MO world have a source of premissiveness that allows them to get around those niggly facts.

Anonymous said...

Uh... curtailing the rampant personal autonomy in MO, would essentially transform MO into another sect of chareidim. No thanks.