Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The "Put Up or Shut Up Moment"

The recent RCA convention will be remembered as one of the most significant ones in recent history.  Although people don't always realize this, the RCA is the counterpart of the Agudah in the Modern Orthodox community.  However, while the Agudah plays a prominent role in its communities, the RCA is seen by the MO's as a more benign organization, one that sets some standards that people might want to hold by and provides a good drug plans for its rabbinical employees. 
If anything, this convention seems to have changed that.  Among the main matters discussed were those of how to deal with child abuse and the role of women's ordination into the Rabbinate.  For the former, it is no surprise that the RCA came out in favour of opposing the culture of secrecy and circling the wagons that so characterizes the Agudah's response to the issue.  No, it wasn't the "hang 'em all up by their testicles" approach that some might have favoured but it is a comprehensive head-on approach to the problem. 
The issue of women's ordination also came up.  This has been a more festering issue for the Modern Orthodox community because, unlike child abuse, it is not a simple issue of right and wrong.  Over the last several decades the Modern Orthodox have encouraged women to learn Torah, often on an equal footing with men.  Participation in public and community life has also been pushed and it was inevitable that questions regarding the final frontiers of difference between men and women would come into controvery.
Certainly those in favour of bringing elements of Conservatism into the Orthodox world were sure of their position.  It wasn't so long ago that Rabbi Avi Weiss had his hand slapped by the RCA for moving too fast to upgrade Sara Hurwitz' "semichah" from maharat to rabba.  With all the conviction of people who know that they are right for the right reasons, the YCT gang came to the convention with a "can't lose" strategy.  If women's ordination was accepted, they would carry the day.  If it didn't they could label the RCA as backwards and unaware of the realities of modern society.
What is most telling, and why it is important that the forces of tradition won, is in the approach both sides used to present their opinions.  As Rav Yitzchak Adlerstein notes:
Before the vote, the delegates heard a shiur by Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a, who said that there were two reasons lehalachah that women could not be ordained. He saw such ordination as a violation of the issur of serarah, citing an Avnei Nezer that modern semichah is invested with power.

In contrast, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky's two blog pieces on the subject (linked above) are completely devoid of any halachic reasoning.  Again and again the underlying reason for permitting women's ordination relies on two arguments:
a) There is no out and out prohibition found in Shulchan Aruch
b) It's the "right" thing to do
However the "right" thing to do, while sounding nice, is not a basis for law making in any serious legal culture.  Consistency with previous legal opinions, consistency with the constitution of the legal system, consistency with the overall principles of that system are the basis for law making regardless of what the population perceives to be "right".  Rav Herschel Schechter clearly understood this by basing his entire presention not on "right" and "wrong" as seen through contemporary liberal lenses but on halacha, the only acceptable method of adapting Jewish law to novel circumstances.  Rabbi Kanesky's blog response, on the other hand, sounded more like a pouting child who was sure that he deserved chocolate ice cream and just knew that his parents were wrong for not getting him some.
This convention just may become the "put up or shut up" moment for left wing Modern Orthodoxy.  Until now they have continued to use the word "Orthodox" to describe themselves even as they moved further and further into the Conservative form of worship.  The RCA has now thrown down the gauntlet to better define what Modern Orthodoxy is and what it isn't. 
In the end, the YCT gang will spin left and merge with UTJ.  Despite this they may continue to call themselves Orthodox, just as the Conservatives still call themselves traditional.  Those within the real Modern Orthodox community will no longer be fooled.


Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Although I don't agree with him; don't dismiss Rav Kanefsky too readily. He is well educated and been around the block a few times.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, I'll point out that we don't typically forbid something without clearly stated grounds. Rav Schachter has not completely provided those grounds. Rather, he has provided the outline or bullet points of the issue. Several people have asked that he, and Rav Willig, and Rav Schwartz, and Rav Broyde, et al write t'shuvot on this issue. It requires clearly articulated presentation.

So, for now we have a stated prohibition; but we still haven't seen a clear rationale presented. Rav Schachter pointed out the obvious in his brief shiur to the RCA convention: not every one is entitled to an opinion. One may have questions. But to establish an opinion l'halachah, one needs a grasp of the breadth and depth of the issues and relevant Torah. So, we wait for this to be formulated.

Meanwhile, we do have a notion that whatever is not clearly forbidden, is theoretically permitted. Also not simple. This, for instance, is why we allow in principle many new medical technologies. We have no reason to forbid them; ergo they must be permitted.

With the 'woman rabbi' issue, we need some clear definitions and applications. Until now, little has been published to clearly and directly relate halacha to the issue. I suspect that if we get to see individual t'shuvot from our poskim on this, we will see nuanced differences in understanding and application.

You may be right that YCT will end up with UTJ. I haven't the impression from out here in the sticks, that UTJ is much of a player. I'm also not convinced that YCT really fills a critically needed role. Together or alone, they may not mean much in the end. Or, I may be kidding myself.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

I just went back and read Rav Kanefsky's comments pre-convention. His rhetoric was unfortunately shrill. Nonetheless, don't write him off as a fool. And there are quite a few of him among the IRF hevra.

Devorah said...

"However the "right" thing to do, while sounding nice, is not a basis for law making in any serious legal culture."

I've never read a more incorrect statement.

Putting aside the enormity of the fallacy of that statement, you fail to understand something about Judaism. Judaism is an adaptable religion. It is not static, it is also subject to the effects of modern times. Judaism actually owes a large part of its chumrim to Catholic influences and ideas about women. After all, there are plenty of Torah statements, such as the one where men and women used to dance in jerusalem together, at 17. That would never happen in Orthodox circles today, due to a large part to external, societal changes and influences. See Menachem Brayer's study of Jewish Women for a complete analysis of the subject.

There is no specific prohibition against women being able to answer sha'alos. We live in a society that no longer advocates slavery, that promotes equality, and where women are somehow able to overcome previous prohibitions by Rabbaim in order to get a job and work out of the house. When women need to get out and work harder, suddenly, all prohibitions melt away. Because, of course, it's the "right thing to do" - what, with tuition being so expensive and all. And men needing to go into Kollel. But suddenly, when the word "power" gets tossed around, the room gets very uncomfortable. And that, to me, is alarming. Because your motives no longer look entirely Torah-driven to me, but something quite different.

Furthermore, much like Sarah Schneirer understood that prohibitions against women learning in schools were less severe than the rate at which women were leaving the Torah life, perhaps we all better be aware that women are becoming more and more disenchanted with the narrow field to which we've been allotted. We've actually been told to "shut up", as you put it, for such a long time, than women are forming a mutiny of their own, leaving torah and decrying archaic, draconian laws designed to belittle them, their bodies, their purpose, their minds, and their souls. My God, do a search on Youtube if you don't believe me. Sometimes we have to bend, or we'll break. That's why Judaism has stayed alive for thousands of years. Because we don't always set the most restrictive path as our only standard.

I've had repeated conversations about this very topic, and I find it interesting that you've never yielded on any point once in this area. But then again, you're a man, and I probably shouldn't expect you to see the other side, or be able to think rationally about this. The ones who hold the power never do.

Anonymous said...

Devorah, I couldn't have said it better myself.