Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Just Like Everyone Else

Hat Tip: The Rebbitzen's Husband

Sometimes things happen that just make you wonder: what was this guy thinking?  As a follow up to the previous post, I would like to discuss this article from The Forward which deals with another Morethodox rabbi who, caught between doing "the right thing" and following halacha chose to do the former.
What was once an auspicious future leading Maine’s Jewish community became an uncertain world filled with passions almost entirely and forever out of reach. But then a hand reached out from the blurry abyss. Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, of Portland’s Modern Orthodox synagogue Shaarey Tphiloh, straddled the denominational aisle and invited Goldfinger to help him lead Friday night services and say Kaddish for her mother, who died when Goldfinger was 15.
The nine-mile drive to Shaarey Tphiloh from Goldfinger’s home is too far for her to make on her own, so we rode together — past Portland’s tree-lined streets and New England-style homes. Herzfeld greeted us at the synagogue, with open arms and fresh pita made by a local Iraqi refugee. Then he led us inside to talk.
“I tried to imagine what it would be like for me to be a female Reform rabbi. I thought, what if I were her and she was me? I would want him to ask me to lead services,” said Herzfeld, 34, who joined Shaarey Tphiloh, Maine’s oldest synagogue, five years ago. He spoke effortlessly, almost motionlessly, his red hair and pale skin standing out against stained-glass windows behind him. Goldfinger sat nearby, listening to the man who helped guide her spiritual ship of state.
Once again, it is quite clear that Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is not trying to rebel against God, rule against halacha or give the finger to anyone.  I'm willing to bet, in fact, that he's the kind of guy who will let everyone else rush the post-Yom Kippur food table while he stands back so as not to get in anyone's way.  This is therefore not meant to be a personal criticism of him.
There is so much in this story it's hard to know where to begin but it's easy to know where to end.
One of the things that bothers non-Orthodox folks about the frum world is our lack of acceptance of non-Orthodox practices as being genuinely Jewish.  We are not like Chrisians who, while they spread across dozens of denominations, don't deny that other groups are legitimately Chrisian as well.  We Orthodox do.  We don't think that non-Orthodox rabbis are real rabbis.  We don't think it's okay to have mixed seating at services and we don't think that driving to shul is more important than keeping Shabbos properly.  It's not that we don't do such things.  We think it's wrong for other Jews to do it, especially when they create a hyphenated Judaism for themselves and say that in their version of Judaism it's okay.
And this lack of acceptance is one of the hallmark features of Orthodoxy.  You don't want to keep kosher?  That's between you and God but don't tell me and expect my response to be "Well that's perfectly fine". 
It seems to me that this is where Morthodoxy diverges from Orthodoxy.  Reading this story one gets the feeling that Rabbi Herzfield, while personally committed  to halacha in his own life, does not see that Orthodoxy does demand a certain judgementalism, that he can tolerate different "streams" of Judaism without having to accept their legitimacy.  For him there is Jewish moral relativism.  A rabbi is a rabbi is a rabbi in his worldview so he would have little problem, his meagre protestations in the article notwithstanding, treating her as "one of the crowd".  It would be no different, one imagines, if a Conservative rabbi visited a Reform temple or vice versa.  Herzfield, in a dealous effort to be empathic and kind, has reinterpreted Orthodoxy to allow in those for whom the Torah is a nice book but certainly not authentic or authoritative.
One can be welcoming and tolerant, after all, without going too far.  A kind welcome, a mention that there was a distinguished visitor, letting the visitor say kaddish, all this could have been done but despite Herzfield saying he was going out of his comfort zone in letting Alice Goldfinger lead services one gets the feeling that the opposite was happening.  This was a chance to be progressive, inclusive, to make a positive impression on someone non-Orthodox and he was going to grab the opportunity.
That no one in his congregation complained is hardly a surprise either.  If this is how he practices his rabbinical position the folks who care about proper Orthodoxy probably decamped to the Chabad shul a while ago.
It seems therefore that we finally have a definition of Morthodoxy that pushes them out of genuine Orthodoxy.  The moral relativism that places halachic Jewish observance on the same level as make-it-up-as-you-go Judaism would be the breaking point.


RAM said...

For some, "go with the flow" and "do your thing" are the two supreme commandments.

FrumGeek said...


SJ said...

Atheodox Jew said...

I know this issue drives you nuts, and I could see you endeavored to write this post respectfully and with a "kaf zechut". Halavai everyone would disagree like that. Now, in terms of the argument...

The moral relativism that places halachic Jewish observance on the same level as make-it-up-as-you-go Judaism would be the breaking point.

Maybe, but do you really think R. Herzfeld puts Halacha "on the same level as make-it-up-as-you-go Judaism"?

1. At most, you might call this a kind of "eis la'asos" where just once he went outside the system as a matter of conscience, but that 99.9% of the time he conducts things in a "normative" halachic manner and has every intent to continue doing so. Hardly seems fair to say he puts make-it-up Judaism "on the same level" as Halacha.

2. But he didn't even necessarily go outside the system! What you left out is this:

With her children standing nearby, Goldfinger led parts of the Kabbalat Shabbat service welcoming the Sabbath, as congregants sang along, helping when her memory failed.

From your post, I'd think she led the entire tefila, but it turns out it was Kabbalat Shabbat, which as you know is the subject of debate, and there's a "tzad" (even if you don't agree with the "lamdus") to say that it's permissible.

I think that's a significant point to mention, no? From his perspective, it was a one-time deal, and he wasn't "making it up" because there's precedent for doing it.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

> R. Herzfeld puts Halacha "on the same level as make-it-up-as-you-go Judaism"?

I think he has two categories: those areas which don't conflict with his secular liberal values and those that do. I doubt he adjusts his lulav and sukkah in any way from the accepted traditions but then there's nothing in a lulav and sukkah that would offend a secular liberal. I do think that when he is forced to say "No" because a jewish value conflicts with a secular one he has a real problem and wants to err to the secular side.

> I'd think she led the entire tefila

I don't think she was capable because of her injury. Eis la'asos is not something the average rav is allowed to avail himself of either except in extreme circumstances. This was not that. I mean, a simple "Hi, we're honoured to have joining us tonight..." would have been a great thing to do. And I disagree that there was any lamdus involved in his decision. These things are never a one-time deal, they become a precedent and that's dangerous.

Shira Salamone said...

It's always the same song and dance--take a practice that's not strictly forbid for women, and some will find an excuse to forbid it for women anyway. Kabbalat Shabbat is *not* davar sheh-bi-k'dushah, a prayer or group of prayers for which the presence of a minyan is required--all it is is a group of psalms and one piyut (L'cha Dodi). Since when is a woman forbidden to recite psalms?

Nishma said...

There is a famous story regarding the Rav which -- while we could question whether it is true or not -- is really applicable to this case. The question, it seems, was asked of the Rav whether it was okay, halachically, for Golda Meir to be PM of Israel (obviously referring to the question of women and communal authority). The Rav responded -- and it was okay for Ben Gurion to be PM?

The issue here did involve the question of women and communal tefilla and that is, indeed, an issue within Halacha.* The greater problem, however, is in how we relate to the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. This is not a question of how we relate to non-Orthodox individuals but to the institutions and individuals representing these institutions. To me, there is a problem in ignoring the great theological divides that exist. It is, furthermore, my belief that attempting to ignore these divisions because of some argument of unity only makes the problems of Jewish unity even worse. See my article on this at

* I always find it interesting (and sad) that each side on the debate about women presents their view as the only one -- negating the other as having any validity. The fact is, however, that there are differing viewpoints with the substantial majority maintaining a negative view. This majority is still wrong for completely downplaying the singular Torah scholars who support this new practice. Nevertheless, those who follow this minority are, at least, equally at fault for declaring the majority not to be honestly presenting a differing halachic view which they believe to be more correct. If someone believes that it is correct to follow a certain daas yachid, I may be called upon to respect that person even as I fully disagree with this view. The presentation of this view as THE halacha, negating the majority view as having a solid basis, however, is totally unacceptable

Rabbi Ben Hecht

M. said...

As far as your estimation of Rabbi Herzfeld's personality, I can just say that I visited Maine one summer and davened shacharis at his shul a few times. He is indeed a very nice, thoughtful person. I even gave him a few bucks for the shul, considering I got a minyan there! This despite that this story was already posted on the bulletin board from some Jewish paper more small-time than the Forward, so it hadn't hit the blogosphere yet, and I was duly (privately) scandalized (let's say I'm from the more 'charedi' end of the spectrum). As far as the 'folks who care about proper orthodoxy' I don't think you'll find too many in Portland, ME, *besides* the local Chabad people, except during tourist season.