Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 10 April 2008

The Medical Model of Orthodoxy Part 1: The Arrangement of Rabbinic Authority

With all due respect to Rav Dr. Norman Lamm, there is a fundamental flaw to his important book, Torah Umadda. For those who haven't read it, the book is a thorough review of many of the major Jewish philosophies of our time. Rav Lamm, searching for a model that Modern Orthodoxy can rally around, examines them, notes their strengths and weaknesses and then suggests how various feature of the models can be incorporated into a new form of Modern Orthodoxy.
There's only one problem, really. None of the systems studied in the book are simplistic. They are all fully encompassing, complete philosophies. Why would someone want to take pieces of various functioning systems and assemble a new entity out of them when simply adopting oneself into an existing system would be far easier? Rav Lamm does not answer this.
But further, the book's presentation itself is a major strike against the theological important of Modern Orthodoxy. For example, Rav Lamm is presented as the author. He is noted to be a former president of Yeshiva University. He is a PhD. What's missing? Well, is he a rav or not? I actually had to ask someone this because nowhere in the book is there mention of this particular title. I doubt any Mizrachi or Chareidi book would have missed sticking "Harav" in front of the author's name. That Torah Umadda doesn't speaks to one of the systemic failing in Modern Orthodoxy - the failure to realize the supreme importance the rav, the teacher, plays in the Jewish community.
There is also the style of the book. Now I accept that Rav Lamm was writing to a specific audience, one that doesn't necessarily spend much time learning and might not be engaged by a more "yeshivish" style of writing. However, that does not change the fact that this book's important is downgraded by the style chosen. To use a medical analogy, there are scientific papers and then there are patient handouts. Each is written in a different style for its own target audience but if I want to present a definitive paper, I'm not going to write it like a patient handout.

So with due humility and deference to Rav Lamm, I would like to suggest that Modern Orthodoxy, to develop its own format, must develop a style of its own instead of cribbing from existing comprehensive schools of thought. With that in mind, I would like to introduce my proposed model, The Medical Model of Orthodoxy.
Now, much of it is based on my day job. I work as a physician in Ontario, Canada within the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Year ago I came to realize that if I were to analogize medicine to Torah (not as far-fatched as some might thing) I would come to see my relationship to my patients in the same way a community rav is connected to his congregants. From this understanding, I developed this model that I am now presenting.
First, the medical background. In Ontario, there are two types of physicians - primary care and specialists. The former include family doctors, walk-in clinic doctors and emergency physicians. Access to the system is generally through primary care physicians. If a person has a problem, then he presents to his family doctor or the local emergency room. If the problem is within the ability of of the primary care physician in question, then he handles it. If not, he refers the patient on to a consultant with expertise in this particular area. Once the consultant has dealt with the problem, the patient is discharge from that doctor's care and back to his family doctor. But even while the patient is under the consultant's care, any othe problems must first go through the family or emergency doctor before reaching another specialist.
Not all doctors work within this system. There are many academic doctors who spend time engaged in research and teaching. They may see the occasional patient but their strength is not in direct patient care but in expanding the knowledge base of medicine.
Finally, there is a trend in medicine towards emphasizing practice based on scientific evidence. Trials and studies, not gut feelings and anecdotes, guide our practice for our patients.

Now consider how this would apply within the Torah world. One of the more recent features of halachic decision making, especially within the Chareid world, is the tendency to defer to great authorities. Why ask the local rab when you can call up some rosh yeshivah or crack open the latest tome from Feldheim or Artscroll? This, however, is a problem because it reduces the usefulness and relevance of the local rav to one of being the guy who does funerals and bar mitzvahs. In the Chareidi world, he still might have a role giving a shiur or learning with congregants but within Modern Orthodoxy and its relative de-emphasis on Torah study, this really turns him reduces his role as spiritual leader.
So consider how the Medical Model would apply. A congregant has a question. He has his Rav's phone number and the number of the Rosh Yeshivah his son learns under. Who gets called? Imagine, if you will, that he calls the Rosh Yeshivah and, before he can ask the question, he instead has to answer this: Did you call your Rav first? I'm sorry, I only take questions through referral.
Rabbonim who wish to serve as pulpit rabbis could be required to demonstrate competency in certain areas: Shabbos, Taharas Mishpachah, Kashrus and Orach Chayim while others who wish to learn in a more intensive environment like a kollel could develop areas of special expertise in halachah.
At first blush, it sounds absurd, but consider: which Rav is usually more likely to be specialized and have a greater depth of knowledge? The local guy or the one learning amidst dozens of other scholars? That's not to denigrate the ability and skills of the local Rav. Indeed, this system would allow him to attain a whole new importance. And if the question is beyond his ability to answer, then he could easily call up his Rosh Yeshivah and get an answer. And so on.
But what's more, it also allows for prioritizing within the halachic world. One of the complaints I read out in the Chareidi world is that everyone calls their Gedolim these days with their questions, no matter how mundane. The pot might be kosher but they'd rather hear it from Rav Eliashiv, shlita than Rav Fishel Lipshitz from Yenesville. Is this the best use of time for these outstanding scholars? Do they have nothing better to do than the work that the local Rav is paid to do?

In future posts, I will expand on this model to examine how the relationship between the Rav and the congregants develops as well as that within the facets of the educational system.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are you serious about everyone contacting gedolim for simple questions (like whether pots are kosher)? I have never observed that. I have only heard of people going to gedolim with questions that are extremely sensitive to them or else halachically difficult. Ordinary stuff goes to your local Rav (or your own Rosh Yeshiva, if you have that relationship with him). The only real variation I have seen is that a lot of people have a personal Rav who lives in another town, someone with whom they formed a relationship with and whom they trust to answer their everyday questions.