Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Problem With Sincerity

The problem Orthodoxy has always had when interacting with heterodoxy is trying to make the following point understood: sincerity, no matter how... sincere, is not enough to qualify one for a job or a position within the Jewish people. Being a nice person, really meaning well, all that, while extremely laudable (and all too often missing in the Torah observant community) is not eo ipso all that is needed. One would not trust someone who calls himself a doctor or accountant who hasn't actually gone to a real professional school to learn the knowledge needed to perform competently. Why does the title of "rabbi" somehow get treated differently?
The difficulty, in my opinion, arises from the lack of appreciation that spiritual health gets as opposed to physical or financial health, to use my examples above. One expects a doctor to know what he is talking about because otherwise his poor advice might lead to disasterous health consequences. Given the choice, would you rather have a surgeon with lousy bedside manner or a really nice guy whose watched the appendectomy video on Youtube a few times?
One wants one's accountant to know tax law pretty well so that one never receives a dreaded phone call from Revenue Canada or the IRS. But when it comes to the spiritual Western culture encourages far more autonomy. What we feel is spiritually correct for us is what tends to guide us and the idea that there is an objective form of spiritual health, analagous to rules for physical health, is offensive.
To put it simply, imagine that I decided that three Big Macs and no exercise is the best way for me to live a physically healthy life, simply because that's what makes me feel good. My opinion in this matter would be considered ridiculous. But if, as a Jew, I announced that the rules of the Torah were irrelevant to my spiritual health and that I would decide by myself what will get me into Gan Eden, well that would make me... heterdox, I guess.
Which brings me to the following problem:
As a student rabbi, Alysa Stanton — who next month becomes the first ever African-American woman rabbi — was assigned to intern in a congregation in Dothan, Ala. But no sooner did she arrive than the president of the congregation called the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati to complain.“He said, ‘Are you kidding,?’” recalled Rabbi Ken Kanter, director of HUC’s rabbinical program. Stanton said she was told that a “black person ministering to a white congregation in the Deep South was unheard of.”However, Rabbi Kanter said, the congregation “very quickly recognized they had a rabbi who happened to be a woman and who happened to be African-American. She quickly became their rabbi ... and at
the end of the year they wanted her to stay because she was so well loved.”
Off the top, I'm going to say that I do not question Ms. Stanton's sincerity. Having davened in a number of shuls, I can say that if her congregation loves her so much that she is a special person. I am also not questioning her because of her colour, chas v'chalilah. Otherwise my good friend in Israel who is also Ethiopian would probably turn his schochet knife on me the next time I show up. I am, however, questioning her qualifications because:
“The fact that she is a convert was not a factor [in her selection],” Barondes said. “She was not the only Jew-by-choice who applied for the position. ... And the fact she is African-American played no part. During her three-day visit, she was able to impress so many people that the congregation overwhelmingly supported her candidacy.”Stanton, 45, grew up in a Pentecostal Christian home in Cleveland, Ohio. At the age of 6, her family moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.It was there that her Uncle Ed, a devout Catholic who also occasionally attended the local synagogue, explained to her what the mezuzahs meant on the neighbors’ doorposts. When she was 10 and already on her own spiritual quest, he gave her a Hebrew grammar book.“My mother is a woman of faith,” Stanton said. “She taught us that we need to have a spiritual base and she gave us the freedom to chose what that is. For me, Judaism was where I found a home.”At the age of 11, Stanton moved with her family to Lakewood, Colo., and by the time she was in her early 20s, she said she had decided to convert to Judaism. “I sought out a rabbi and each week I traveled 144 miles to meet with him in Denver for intensive, one-to-one study,” she said, adding that after a year she converted, appearing before a bet din [Jewish court] and going to the mikveh.“Initially when I converted my family was shocked,” Stanton said, adding that her mother (her father is deceased) and sister and two brothers have been “very supportive — my rock during this long journey.”For about the last 15 years, her rabbi in Denver has been Steven Foster of Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation. He said he found Stanton to be “a very spiritual person who brings the best of two different cultures together. She is a terrific person and we will be lucky in the Jewish community to have her as a rabbi.”Rabbi Foster said that although Stanton was converted by a “right-wing Conservative rabbi,” she later “connected with us because of our history with social justice issues. ... She used to teach for us and sing for us and when she decided to become a rabbi we all supported her.”
In other words, to the Torah observant community she isn't even Jewish to begin with. And this is a huge problem because, as I noted at the start of the post, while sincerity is nice, proper qualifications are even better. What's more, the article inadvertantly describes the whole reason why the Torah observant community dismisses non-Orthodox conversions in the first place. Having been done by a "right wing Conservative rabbi", she then switched to Reform because of social justice issues. For Orthodox Jews, there is no such thing as social justice, there is only the will of God. We are decent to our fellows not because it feels "right" or because of trendy terms but because the Torah tells us to. The nafka mina comes when the Torah conflicts with Western secular principles. Orthodoxy then follows the Torah's rules while the heterodox announce that God would want them to follow secular values.
Ms. Stanton is probably a wonderful person. But al pi halacha she is not a Jew, certainly not a rabbi. And when people start to realize this, it will only lead to further hostility between us and them.


E-Man said...

You are raising an interesting point. However, I would argue and tell you that she is perfectly qualified for the post she was given. A lot of Rabbis in those congregations know tons more than their followers. Just as an example, my grandmother once told me that she heard a speech from her conservative RAbbi. He quoted a midrash about Noah's ark. My grandmother went up to him afterwards to find out where that midrash was because she was curious and he was like, I honestly do not know or even where to look. He had gotten the speech from a website. This I know because the very next day my grandparents went to another conservative shul a the very same speech was given by a very different rabbi. Again, she asked the Rabbi where to find the midrash and he was unsure.

After this, my grandmother called me, a regular orthodox guy and asked me where the midrash was. I told her simply, it is a midrash quoted in Rashi on the pasuk. HELLO CONSERVATIVE RABBI! That is just funny. But it shows that a lot of congregations like these do not require a true knowledge of anything Jewish.

So I think this woman will be fine as a Reform Rabbi. If she just knows the basics that would be enough for her reform congregation.

I don't know why you think orthodox people not accepting her makes her unqualified though. The truth is, I wrote this post because I wanted to share the story of my grandma, she and I both thought it was funny.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

I agree with the general content of what you've posted here. I would like to challenge, for the sake of 'Torah l'shma', the idea that "For Orthodox Jews, there is no such thing as social justice, there is only the will of God. We are decent to our fellows not because it feels "right" or because of trendy terms but because the Torah tells us to. The nafka mina comes when the Torah conflicts with Western secular principles. Orthodoxy then follows the Torah's rules while the heterodox announce that God would want them to follow secular values."

Certainly, the Torah is the final word; especially when there is any conflict of values or sentiments. I just want to point out that doesn't necessarily preclude/exclude all notions of a 'conscience' or 'moral sensibility' that functions somewhat independently of Torah. Rav Kook, for instance, talks about 'natural morality' in Orot HaT'shuvah - though he is careful not to rely on it. More to the point, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein address this in the essay Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality, in the volume By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.

Again, we certainly would conclude that the Torah is the final word in all matters of moral choice and behaviour; but one's sensibilities may be informed by other processes as well.

Just putting it out there for your consideration.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Excellent point.

I could further add that the opposite - a naval b'rhus haTorah is also a very real option for folks. Thus it is knowing how to use the Torah to make the world a better place rather than simply carrying out its orders mindlessly that is the goal we should strive for.