Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Defining Orthodoxy

Hat tip: XGH

This, from Rav Gil Student's Hirhurim:
On Sunday March 21st, 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss conferred Yoreh Yoreh ordination on his congregational intern, Ms. Sara Hurwitz. The official certificate does not use the term rabbi but instead Rabbi Weiss invented a new term for this occasion – Maharat (Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit). Note also that Ms. Hurwitz has served for the past five years as a congregational intern and not as a rabbinic intern – the term rabbi is once again not being used. However, ordaining a woman in any way, even if not under the title rabbi, is a significant step in the Orthodox world. This is even more so the case when the ordainee serves in a synagogue pulpit.Click here to read moreI don’t know Rabbi Weiss or Ms. Hurwitz, and my thoughts here are not aimed at them personally but relate to the direction of the segment of the Orthodox community of which they are a part. What I see is support for the role of a woman in being ordained in rabbinic fashion and serving as a rabbi. This is a radical break with Jewish tradition. It is an intentional deviation from Minhag Yisrael, from the unanimous Orthodox view just 25 short years ago (and certainly prior to that). Regardless of what halakhic arguments can be offered on the relevant technical issues (on these issues, see this post: link which will be published in a revised and updated form in my forthcoming book, Posts Along The Way), we must remember that the Conservative movement also has halakhic arguments for its positions. In terms Jewish law rather then theology, what distinguishes the Orthodox from the Conservative is our allegiance to precedent and tradition. This latest deviation is part of a recent trend among self-identifying Orthodox Jews of deviating from traditional synagogue practices (why is the synagogue always first?). Like the Reform in the nineteenth century and the Conservative in the twentieth, these recent deviations are accompanied with detailed halakhic justifications. But that does not mean that they are correct when they act to alter the fabric of religious society in ways that had previously been unthinkable. Nowhere to be heard are concerns about communal unity, misperceptions about halakhic malleability and the effects of this decision on the non-Orthodox. Nor is there discussion about the important question – “What next?” This seems to me to be a short-sighted and historically uninformed development.Be that as it may, the question is how mainstream Orthodox leaders should respond, if at all, to this latest development which is part of a clear trend that shows no end in sight. The way I see it, there are four options:
1. Debate
Some might seek to argue the halakhic issues but I think that this approach is a mistake. First, it is easy to get bogged down in the details and never fully conclude this important discussion. Additionally, those who focus solely on the technical points leave open the possibility for making a case for allowing women rabbis. In truth, many of the innovations of the Reform and Conservative movements were also potentially justifiable on strict halakhic grounds. Looking back, we tend to focus on the more extreme decisions, like driving a car to shul on Shabbos or eliminating circumcision, which are impossible to justify. However, other innovations – such as allowing Gentiles to play music to accompany the Shabbos service or permitting the use of a swimming pool as a mikveh – can be justified, even if debatably, on purely technical grounds.
2. Retaliate
Others might decide to quietly blacklist those involved in the process as a remedy to this development. It seems to me that this will be counterproductive. Not only are the people involved not easily removed from Orthodox organizations but I can only expect that any such type of blacklisting will be portrayed in the press as a witch hunt.
3. Silence
Perhaps the proper response is silence. The midrashic tradition tells of a single frog that started the second plague in Egypt. Every time someone tried to kill the frog, it would instead multiply. Continuous attempts to destroy it led to the deluge of frogs that was the plague. R. Itzelleh Volozhiner suggested based on this that sometimes the best advice is to do nothing. Had the Egyptians done nothing, rather than try to kill the frog(s), then they would have avoided the second plague.Perhaps in our case too, ignoring the problem is the solution. Maybe the novelty will wear off and people will recognize that women in the rabbinate is not acceptable in the Orthodox Jewish community.
4. Protest
On the other hand, how can we stand by quietly and say nothing? The Haggadah discuses four sons and provides answers for each. It is curious that the response to the wicked son is not the verse associated with the question. The Vilna Gaon explained that we don’t answer the wicked son; anything we say to him will only make matters worse. However, we have to provide an answer to all the other people at the table who heard the wicked son ask his question. We cannot let his challenge of Jewish tradition stand without a response.I am not trying to equate anyone with the wicked son; this is not an exercise in name-calling. Rather, I am raising the point that answering challenges to Jewish tradition is very important even outside of a debate. If community leaders say nothing, there is a risk of widespread confusion.However, protesting in public is an option that may very well backfire. In all likelihood, the press will paint Orthodox objections to the ordination of women rabbis as a sign of fanaticism and another symptom of the much discussed “swing to the right.” Of course, this will be incredibly ironic because thirty years ago Orthodox rabbis unanimously opposed the ordination of women. But facts do not always win when confronted with press releases and talking points.
The Fifth Option: Remembering
In the end, I suspect that this time silence should win. The dangers of a public relations misstep are too great. Hopefully, our community in general has a sufficiently developed instinct for what is and is not acceptable. But that means that we, rabbis and laypeople, need to speak to each other informally and reinforce what we already know. We need to take to heart the lesson of Birkas Ha-Chamah. This is the blessing we recite on Erev Pesach this year, which is said only once every 28 years. We cannot forget what has happened since the last time we said it, in 1981. At that time, there was widespread debate in the Conservative movement over the ordination of women. Since then, they have not only accepted women as rabbis without any halakhic limitations on their functioning but they have also accepted into the rabbinate active homosexuals, all against the recommendation of the leading Conservative talmudic scholars. Cynical Conservative rabbinic students recently jokingly adjusted a famous statement by Theodore Herzl into “Im tirtzu ein zo halakhah – if you will it, it is no law.” After witnessing the quick disintegration of the Conservative movement’s allegiance to halakhah since its acceptance of women rabbis, how can we view this development in Orthodoxy with anything but pain? Aside from the meta-halakhic issues that surround this development, how can we not look at recent history and ask whether we are seeing another descent into halakhic chaos for socio-political ends?It is our duty to learn from the mistakes of history, for reasons that require no elaboration.
The fundamental question for me is: What exactly defines "Orthodoxy"? Not as easy to answer as one might think.
Remember that historically the term "Orthodox" was imposed from outside the Torah observant world. Having established their heretical movements, the Reformers and Conservatives needed a term to describe those poor misguided souls who still held to the old ways and insisted on following the Torah's dictates without compromise. As a result, they coined the phrase "Orthodox" for those Jews who insisted on identifying as practising Jews who were against compromising the Torah's principles in the face of competing secular ones.
But the result of this is that within the so-called Orthodox community, there is actually no definition of the word "Orthodox". Even today, modern Hebrew has no word for it. Dati means "religious", not Orthodox.
So from a non-observant persepective, Rav Avi Weiss and the YCT gang might fit the term Orthodox for two reasons. One is that they call themselves Orthodox and the second is that they still pay lip services to the supremacy of halacha. The question, then, is what they are from the perspective of the Torah world.
Now the knee-jerk answer would be: well with this latest step along with all the others they're just right-wing Conservative with a mechitzah (for now). But stop and think about it for a moment.
Within the Torah observant community there are a few important divisions. If I was asked to define them (and since this is my blog I'm asking myself so here goes), I would say there are three: Chareidi, Dati Leumi, and Modern Orthodoxy. Each has its own standard definition for what the term Torah-observant means.
Now today's Chareidi community has the simplest one. Basically it's "Follow the Gadol". Forget practising halacha intellectually or researching the sources for yourself. A Torah observant Jew is one who submits to the authority of those leaders the Chareidim have annointed as Gedolim. To defy their rulings, even if you have solid halachic ground to stand on, is heresy.
For the Dati Leumi it's not much different although the level of Gadol worship in that community hasn't reached Chareidi levels yet. There is still an intense respect for authority and loyalty to the shining stars of the movement, especially Rav Kook, zt"l, and his son, Rav Kook, zt"l.
In the Modern Orthodox community things get much murkier. On the right side of the community one can find important rabbonim like Rav Hershel Schechter who are pious, scholarly and nearly Chareidi in outlook except they don't quite go as far as the Chareidim do when it comes to simply living by diktat. But where does the left side end?
If you say "Well, with the loss of the mechitzah" then you're on shaky ground. Okay, mixed seating in davening disqualifies you from being Orthodox, sure. But what about mixed seating during shiurim? What about women addressing men? What about women in religious leadership positions traditionally reserved for rabbonim? The Chareidi community can marshall tremendous support for positions that reject all these activities and they can back it up with halachic sources and pronouncements from their Gedolim. If the response from the Modern Orthodox community is: Well we have our own rules and we don't care what your Gedolim, or frankly, ours think, then you have to ask the question:
What's the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Conservatism/Reform?
After all, what defines Reform and Conservatism as being non-Torah observant? Both movements openly adhere to a concept of halachic convenience - if they like a particular verse from the Torah or a homily from Chazal, they'll hold by and insist it defines their Jewishness. And if they don't, well they just ignore it or declare it obsolete. When it comes to the decision making process, they do it in reverse: the answer is pre-decided. If a proper heter can be found, great. If not, who cares? They'll do it anway.
However, before decided that this is the great difference between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy, one must keep in mind that much of the decision-making process in the Chareidi community follows a similar pattern. The Reform pre-decide the answer is "yes" while the Chareidim pre-decide it's "no" and then go looking to discredit differing opinions.
But at least the Chareidim work within the halachic system. If one of their leaders decides to forbid something, he must at least bring some support and, when confronted with an opposing point of view, find some way to discredit it. Even if the only way is to shout "Daas Torah"! In the non-observant system, the rebuttal is much simpler: We just don't care.
In that regard, how is YCT's approach to Orthodoxy any different than the Reform and Conserative attitudes towards Torah in general? Did Rav Avi Weiss ever consider telling his undoubtedly intelligent, earnest and sincere "intern" that Orthodoxy doesn't sanction women for leadership positions such as this? Or did he set out from the beginning with the final answer in mind and an intention to proceed no matter what the actual halachic truth?
I would strongly suspect it was the latter and if that's the case, then there really is no difference between YTC, JTS and HUC anymore except for the mechitzah.


SJ said...

Does the Torah really call for half of the jewish population to be kept out of being represented in the law making process?

Garnel Ironheart said...

I don't think they're kept out of the law making process. How do you think denim skirts got outlawed?

"Chayim, I saw you looked at Chanah next door in her jean skirt! Who do you think you're fooling? You got to beis din and assur them right now!"

SJ said...

>> I don't think they're kept out of the law making process.

I'll bet that's why orthodoxy don't let women issue divorces.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The focus of this discussion really has to be Rabbi Student's contention that the problem with some of the decisions of the non-Orthodox movements is in spite of the possibility of a technical halachic argument to support their position. If there is a technical halachic argument, what's the problem? Garnel seems to imply that the problem may be that people are using personal wishes in order to choose which halachic argument they may like. While that is a problem, isn't that something we all do. How else do we choose what rabbi we choose to learn from? The real question is how we mesh the external Halachic system with our internal system -- and somehow in the answer to that question is the place to find the solution to what is Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

This issue is really too big for bloggers to tackle on blogs. We all need to have a real community wherethere are competent rabbonim who set public policy on dicey issues like these. Pontificating in the blogosphere is really a waste of time unless you have a specific point that can be sharply made.

micha said...

YCT and UTJ are on different axis. For example, WRT ordaining women, haLivni left C over this issue. Are you going to say that UTJ is to the right of YCT? They are each different than mainstream O in different ways. Which is beyond your own "red line" of 70 panim leTorah is a matter for you and your poseiq.

As long as we don't confuse condemning ideologies with those who adopted them from an honest search for their way to relate to Hashem.