Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Wishing For What You Can't Have

Rabbi Zev Farber and the YCT crowd have a fundamental problem.  On one hand they sincerely wish to be loyal observers of God's laws and traditions.  On the other, they really can't accept that those laws and traditions stand at odds with the values of secular liberalism they hold so dear.
Sometimes there is little conflict.  I doubt any YCT rabbi would counsel someone that eating pork is okay if you really, really want some bacon 'n' eggs.  When it comes to Shabbos I also doubt they'd permit driving or other gross violations of God's holy day.
But when it comes to issues that have moral underpinnings then things start to become more anxious for them.  Rabbis Hyim Shafner and Yosef Kanefsky have repeatedly written about their yearnings to somehow make homosexual marriage and intercourse permissible and accepted within Orthodoxy.  As well, who can forget Kanesky's articles on why saying "Shelo Asani Ishah" is, according to his view of Judaism, a chilul HaShem?
The underlying consistent theme in their writings is the belief that the secular liberal values of society around us are superior and preferable to traditional Torah ones and should replace them.  The frustration comes from the recognition that this is exactly what the Conservatives do - keep traditions and rules when they're harmless or in sync with society and turf them when they're not.  Rabbi Farber et al would seem to be interested in this approach but because of their desire for sincerity in worship of God they want to remain Orthodox and they know they can't have both.
That conflict is well articulated in Farber's latest piece on Morethodoxy.  His description of an Orthodox shul, for example, could have been written by any anti-Orthodox Reformer or Conservative:
Watching the Flintstones with my children one day, it struck me that our synagogues have an uncanny resemblance to lodge no. 26 of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, where Fred and Barney go to have a men’s night out. I say this in jest, but it is illustrative. The men of the LOWB wear a special garb, they have a special code and gestures which they use, and there are no women. Although our synagogues are a step advanced from the Stone Age lodge—we let our women watch—the resemblances are worth noting; only the men have the special garb, only the men know the secret handshake, and when the Grand Poobah speaks, his podium faces only men.
Perhaps his example of how only men have a special uniform betrays the ultra-modern nature of his congregation.  In most Orthodox shuls women have a definite uniform in terms of what clothes are acceptable.  No, they don't have a tallis but is that all Farber sees?  A uniform for men and not women?  Does he not appreciate the idea that there is a kiyum mitzvah involved?

I know the feeling.  In my shul one reason I started avoiding the amud many years ago was when one of the other regulars began to routinely walk through the woman's section on his way to the bimah.  The precedent was not one I wished to participate in and again, it helps to ignore the established fact that in Judaism men have an obligation to engage in public prayer and women do not.  Their presence in shul is encouraging, warm and pleasant but they don't have to be there the way men do, hence the difference in participation.  Is Rabbi Farber suggesting a sea-change in Torah law to make public prayer obligatory on women?  What authentic sources does he base this suggestion on?  And frankly, is he a posek in the first place to even suggest it?

Of course, the placement of the podium is only one way—albeit an obvious one—that Orthodox synagogues communicate to their participants that women are not really in the room. This message is also communicated by access to the holiest and most central feature of the synagogue, the Torah scroll, which is removed from the ark, inevitably by a man, during Shabbat morning services. The Torah is then handed to the man leading the services and carried around so everybody can touch it and kiss it… well, not everybody.
It is true that in some Orthodox synagogues the Torah is either passed to a woman to carry through the women’s section or is carried through the women’s section by the man leading the services. However, in most Orthodox synagogues the Torah is carried only through the men’s section; the message being that access to the Torah is only for participants in the prayer services, not for onlookers. Some synagogues that are sensitive to the problem decide on the awkward solution of carrying the Torah slowly near the meḥitza(barrier). The women can then scramble to the meḥitza and vie for access in Darwinian fashion.

Of course, Farber then throws in the whole "And they don't even wear tefillin!" argument which is so tired it's not even worth fisking over.  But it is here where he betrays his true loyalties when it comes to choosing between prioritizing Torah values or secular ones:
Modern Orthodoxy is in a bind when it comes to women in the synagogue. In a world where gender roles are constantly shifting, it becomes rather difficult for a religious group that is both modern and Orthodox to navigate the many tensions that exist between traditional practices and modern egalitarian values. Sometimes these tensions express themselves around halakhic issues: women leading devarim she-be-qedusha, wearing t’fillin, counting for a minyan, or participating in the Torah-reading ceremony. Other times the issues appear more sociological: bringing the Torah through the women’s section, women holding or carrying the Torah, placement of the podium, or women speaking from the podium.
It is certainly not shocking for me to state that the "modern" in Modern Orthodox does not mean navigating tensions between tradition and modernity when it comes to values that are in breach of the accepted standard of Torah behaviour.  Blue shirts vs white?  Fine, you have a tension.  But changing the mitvzah obligations of half the Jewish nation?  Adjusting what we consider acceptable based on what people around us think is right?  This is completely outside the pale of what the "modern" means.
Certainly this problem isn't unique to the YCT crowd.  Years ago the Union for Traditional Judaism split from the Conservatives over what they found to be unacceptable breaches in Jewish tradition like the ordaining of women rabbis.  However, unlike the YCT crowd they were starting from a position where altering inconvenient Jewish traditions, like using a mechitzah, was already acceptable which is what kept them from abandoning Conservatism completely and returning to Orthodoxy.
Farber et al have the opposite problem - they started inside the Torah-observant community and don't want to leave but have a hard time convincing other Orthodox folks to change Orthodoxy to make it more acceptable to secular liberals.  They want to call themselves Orthodox but without all the Orthodox hang-ups like different, "archaic" values that stand at odds with whatever popular culture considers "cool".
At some point they are going to have to ask themselves a hard question.  They can be Orthodox.  They can be secular liberal with a smattering of tradition but they cannot be both.  Which will they choose?


AztecQueen2000 said...

In all fairness, a lot of these gender roles were codified by the Rambam, who lived in a time before chimneys, stoves and spinning wheels. Just doing the basic jobs of feeding and clothing a family on the simplest scale took forever. There was also the mistaken belief that women's brains were inferior to men's brains--a belief that persists today.
However, I think this backlash is not against a woman's role in a synagogue, but what is becoming a woman's role in society. It is one thing for a woman to sit in the back of a synagogue. It is another to force her into the back of a bus. Unfortunately, this is what is happening now.

Adam Zur said...

the problem is simple that people like Maimonides who excelled in logic lived at a time when empirical investigation had not really gotten started. at least not like after the time of Galileo. the problem in the Jewish world is not just the lack of a person like Maimonides but that it seems that degree of rigorous thought in philosophy and religion just no longer exists. So while nowadays we benefit from the age of empirical thought, But we don't have anyone that can reason with the depth and rigor of the rambam. this makes a basic problem in the Jewish and also the Christian world that does not go away and apparently cant go away. however i do admit that in spite of this there has been some progress in Torah in the people that are able to see the depth of the rambam and in philosophy also there are a few people that are apparently doing some good work after a sad long period when western philosophy was simply vacuous. It seems to me the reform and conservative movement have not been made aware yet of how awful western philosophy has been since and including Hegel.

SJ said...

the problem in the Jewish world is not just the lack of a person like Maimonides but that it seems that degree of rigorous thought in philosophy and religion just no longer exists.

You can say that again.

Y. Ben-David said...

I suggest you read the writings of Rav Eliezer Berkowitz. It might change your mind.

I'm not a Puritan, reb Asher L. said...

The few postings on the Morethedoxy site that actually get significant comments are the ones that the anti YCT/Riverdale crowd post and disprove the politically correct lefties. I have found that the host Rabbis (and Rabba) retreat when confronted with their intellectual dishonesty.

Moreover, one of them actually had the audacity to come out with a "chiddush" suggesting that Avraham failed the test of the Akeida, and another defended this chiddush and none of the others expressed any opposition to it.

So they want to reject halacha although they would not admit to that, and they slander the avos.

By the way, I know plenty of orthodox women that are very, very happy being in communities where the women don't hold the Torah, don't have megilla readings, don't lead in the Hamotzei and other secular, egalitarian, liberal ideas the left comes up with.

Oh, and not only that but they are Doctors and Lawyers and teachers and very fulfilled at home and in the Shul.

Perhaps the shuls of which Rabbi Farber speaks are failing to provide the women with proper spiritually uplifting opportunites having nothing to do with feminism.

Or perhaps the members of these shuls are too smitten with the secular world around us, and their Yiddishkeit is dare I say tainted.

I am not definitively saying this is so, but I would like to see some introspection from the left as to whether some of their issues have to do with something lacking in the Torah being taught in their communities and perhaps the Rabbis are not challenging their kehillas to grow. After all, none of us should ever be comfortable where we hold. We are either growing spiritually or falling. If your goal is simply to make everyone feel good, then halacha is secondary.

itchiemayer the non-Puritan said...

This is my comment in regards to a posting on Morethedoxy advocating by Rabbi Gelman (I think) of making it a requirement for couples to sign a pre-nuptial agreement before a Rabbi can participate in a marriage ceremony of that couple. I posted it two days ago but still do not see it:

So your movement is obsessed with trying to validate homosexual relationships but you advocate not to marry a Jewish man and Jewish woman without a prenup.
Your movement, via Rabbi Lopatin, comes uncomfortably close to giving a stamp of approval to Chelsea Clinton’s marriage to a Jew, but chas v’shalom we should marry a ben Torah and a bas Yisroel without a prenup.
If a couple wants to do a prenup, it’s fine by me. I do, however, believe this is another area where your movement demonstrates exceedingly misguided priorities.
You want to validate what God considers to be an abomination, the act of homosexuality, but want to invalidate the possibility of a heterosexual couple building a bayis ne’eman b’yisroel simply because they don’t sign a prenup.
The Open Orthodox movement seems to be more concerned with the secularist’s view of that which is right and wrong than it is with the teachings of the Torah.
I find that my Atheist boss is closer to your way of thinking than what I was taught by my Rebbeim at my Modern Orthodox Day Schools, and what I am taught by my Rav at my Orthodox Union affiliated Shul.