Letter To The Editor: Rabbinic Thought, Individual Roles, & Communal Discourse In Modern Judaism

Editor’s Note: This letter from an anonymous reader is published in response to R. Yitzchak Blau’s article in the YU Commentator entitled “Greek Thought, Women’s Roles, and Rabbinic Discourse at YU”.

Dear Editor,

As you know, the issue revolving around women’s roles in contemporary Judaism recently resurfaced when a Rabbi from one of the American gap-year yeshivos in Israel published an article in YU’s student newspaper. Therein, he attempted — in a somewhat crass, and certainly disrespectful way — to respond to a sichas mussar that was delivered several months prior in YU by REITS Rosh Yeshiva R. Aaron Kahn. It is not my intention to voice opposition to you in this letter as to the relative merits, or lack thereof, of his argument, and/or what I believe to be appropriate policy for Klal Yisrael. Unlike seemingly all too many today, I am aware of who is ultimately of appropriate stature, scholarship, and position to do so. The aforementioned point, coupled with the fact that on this issue all halachik authorities are in agreement, leaves little-to-nothing up for debate. Rather, it is my hope that my words will give credence and support to those who wish to retain an authentic relationship with Orthodoxy and its societal views; to those who, despite the mounting external pressures of Western culture, wish retain their relationship with the millennia-old fixtures of our faith which have been a major factor in the keeping of our identity as Orthodox Jews; and finally to those who understand that choosing our way of life sometimes does mean that who we are, what we do, and how we see the world is sometimes incongruent with that very world around us.

I felt it important to express myself particularly against the backdrop of what has become a repugnant, repetitive, and oversimplified assault on our religion's values, and a reprehensible push to sidestep the authority of our leaders in an effort to construct a religion and set of norms with which the dissenters feel comfortable. Collectively, these efforts are illustrative of someone who neglects to recognize the beauty of being “set in the image of God,” and the tradition that comes along with it, and instead opts to set God — and by extension Orthodox Judaism — in his or her image.

The Mesorah Debate

Several months ago, R. Jeremy Wieder, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva, touched on the topic of women’s roles in modern Judaism as it relates to the ordaining of women rabbis1. Before declaring opposition to the practice, one argument raised was the “Slippery Slope Argument.” Often quoted as a point of justification by those on the “ideological left” of this debate, this argument contains a basic premise: It argues that humanity in all its stages of development is akin to the skier’s decent down a mountain. “It is true,” they argue, “that if you go down the mountain you might slip and fall. But is it not too true that if you stay at the top of the mountain that you will freeze? That your supply levels will deplete?” In this metaphor, the skier’s altitude on the mountain is of course a representation of ideological standards vis-à-vis those around us. Without a willingness to adjust, the skier will inevitably perish. As it relates to our topic, those on the left of this argument contend that without the adaptation to Western norms — and by extension adjustment of our standards — our mission, movement, and, more broadly, faith will evaporate before our very eyes. What I would like to suggest to you, however, is that based on historical realities and hard facts, the truth is very much the opposite of this imagined reality.

To be sure, there is some legitimacy to this argument. It is true that at times this premise has been accepted as at least partially the explanation behind the adjustment of Orthodoxy’s views and policies on various matters2. Still, one cannot seem to be anything but troubled by this argument as the sole cornerstone of a policy. This is because those arguing as such often lack backing, and neglect to see the broader implications of choosing such a path.

You’ll recall that several Gedoli Yisroel have considered this argument as they have carefully navigated the question of moving our people forward in the right way and at the right pace. One difference that emerges from these gedolim to many making such arguments today is the fact that the gedolim were of a stature to do so. When the late R. Ahron Soloveichik considered the implications of allowing women to say kaddish in our Shuls he did so with the wisdom that several decades of pure Talmud Torah provided him with. Prior to his passing, the late leader of Sephardic world Jewry R. Ovadia Yosef was asked about the permissibility of a woman saying birkas ha’gomel. In order to answer the question he searched his encyclopedic mind, carefully navigating what was likely the entire corpus of Rabbinic literature. Suffice it to say that both of their decisions on these respective matters were not predicated on a folly search made possible by an online Torah database and whatever results it happened to provide at that moment. As it happens, history and passed time reveals that their decisions, despite their somewhat innovative nature, did not yield major issues.

Take that in sharp contrast with those that contend “if it’s not assur, why not do it?” This svarah seems a direct echo of those that led the Conservative Movement, particularly at their point of schism with Orthodoxy. I’ll remind you that it was less than one hundred years ago that in the halls of J.T.S (The Jewish Theological Seminary) the Conservative movement began to make decisions under the same pretenses, yet more or less “within the bounds of halacha3.” Their leaders contended that such changes would renew the commitment of those who were fractionally engaged in regular Jewish life. Initially, people were unsure of what to make of such “innocuous” adjustments to daily ritual life. Constituents in many instances thought that such a small change like the lowering of mechitzah standards could even be within the bounds of halacha. This led them to wonder: what harm could possibly come? As time passed, however, and their stances became more progressive in nature, they catalyzed strong Rabbinic opposition.

Then, like today, this opposition was mocked by “left wing Orthodoxy” as “outdated” and “unnecessarily exclusive” given that, after all, their actions were contended to be within the confines of halacha. Years since then, however, have left a mockery not of traditional Rabbinic Judaism, but of those mocking it at the onset of the schism they induced. Indeed, decades on, those who pushed so strongly for progressive amendments to religious life are left with 72% of their constituents intermarrying, their “leadership” in a desperate attempt to salvage what they can of their communities which find themselves encountering constant entropy, evaporating synagogue attendance, and a general reduction of communal involvement. All this emerged from the “harmless” nature of the changes that the “left wing Orthodoxy” of the time pushed for against the advice of Rabbinic leadership.

I wonder, as we are in an irksomely similar situation today, where those on the left (whether they be in our communities or “across the river”) stand on the explicit lav of placing a stumbling block in front of a blind person, let alone an entire community given the aforementioned example?

It is important to note here that despite their overt and many points of departure with Western culture, those more ideologically right leaning — in particular the American Ultra-Orthodox (Yeshivish & Chasiddish) communities, and their Israeli counterparts — have, and continue to experience, rapid religious growth both in across their community infrastructure and the literature they produce. What has emerged there, against a more overt opposition to the same Western culture as we are discussing, is a successful community structure, the outgrowth of a strong educational system. Their efforts to retain a more “right wing” and traditional stance did not push everyone away, but instead kept people close.

To be sure, I am too aware of the challenges that are associated with the lifestyle and communal structure of those communities on the ideological right, and I trust that there is no such thing as a purely smooth sailing through life. Still, given all the above — the status of our educational system, the state of our communities, and what the coming years look like — are we really in a position to suggest that what we are doing is so on-the-dot, or even that the changes so many wish to continue to make are really sensible?

The Marginalization Argument

Frequently mentioned hand-in-hand with the “it’s harmless” argument is a bundle of concern that a concrete stance on the issue at hand will marginalize those on the fringes of Orthodoxy. Outsiders frequently suggest — granted it may be in a rhetorical fashion — that those whose world view is not in sync with the new and more liberal proposed mission of “Modern Orthodoxy” should consider alternative employment, membership in different communities, and even suggest that students should consider seeking alternative places of education.

Again, I am genuinely unsure of why it makes much sense for someone like me to give career advice to those who lead the institutions that are holding up our communities and educating our children, be they our shuls or schools. Still, a quick note on the matter of driving smicha students to other programs and potential students to other schools is worthwhile. I, like many others, would venture to say that the issue concerning the worry of “marginalization” stretches far beyond where students may seek their education. While I in part touched on this argument in the preceding section of this letter, I think that it warrants its own attention.

I was particularly taken aback by the unilateral nature of this argument. Is it not a double standard to verbally and passive-aggressively reprimand our Rebbeim for not completely adhering to a hashkafah that they did not create, do not see as viable, and debatably did not inherit from their Rebbeim; particularly as many community members on the other side of the isle have not and do not hold their side of the responsibility to prioritize Torah study and the primacy of halacha?

After all, does not “Modern Orthodoxy” still possess the suffix “Orthodoxy” and, as such, by definition potentially leave those looking for an environment akin to NYU or Maryland outside the spectrum of the values we hold most dear, and perhaps our communities as well? Is it not true that at a certain point altering and reducing our standards come at the price of losing ourselves, and any legitimacy that we have? Moreover, can any one of us in our right minds suggest that we can afford these lowered standards given that a majority of our children are leaving our high schools borderline illiterate in the lingua franca of our texts, disconnected from our traditions, and unexcited to be who they are? Is it really the time to lower the benchmark for acceptable Orthodox practice, particularly at the places that are generating our future leadership (like our schools and shuls) all against the guidance of our Rabbinic and religious leadership?

I hope not to come across as offensive here — and there is not a single ounce in my body that contends that we should not be doing more to invite those in around us to feel reconnected with their roots — but again, how to go about making those moves is not for everyone with an opinion to chime in on; it’s for our leaders to determine, and those most versed in these matters. I would venture to say, though, that it most certainly doesn’t include exposing those already involved in our more modern communities to more challenges by further blurring the line, and divorcing us from our tradition and our “more strictly Orthodox counter-parts.”

Esti Rosenberg, founder of Midreshet Migdal Oz, recently echoed this point when she was quoted in a JNS.org article as saying that “We are literally crazy. We are sending our children — and ourselves — to challenges and places they don’t need to go, and they don’t have enough tools to cope with [those situations].” Reducing the religious standards of our communal and educational institutions — and by extension bringing in an even larger spectrum of members and students with an even broader world view — would certainly constitute such challenges and would reflect a poor long-term decision.

Poshet Yado Bi’Ikkar — At The Core Of The Debate

The topics covered herein are only a small fraction of the considerations surrounding the topic of progressive values as they relate to Orthodoxy. As we inch dangerously closer to a schism, fewer remain clueless about these debates, and most people seem to be establishing a stance on these issues one way or the other. As this happens, and the question regarding just how much room there is to push traditions within — or, as many increasingly contend, outside — the bounds of Orthodoxy, it seems that conversations are increasingly not sourced in either the mesorah nor halacha as much as they are sourced in personal feelings and emotions.

It is with this in mind that I feel it important to consider one final source. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 49b), in dealing with the four misos shel beis din, or methods of execution by the court, proposes something striking. In explaining what makes the case of blasphemy and idol worship the most severe of the death penalties, the Gemara invokes and considers the svarah of “sh’kain poshet yado bi’ikkar,” “because it attacks the most fundamental tenant of faith.” I hope that you’ll pardon any residual degree of crassness reflected in this example, and I hope it is clear that I do not mean in any way to suggest the implementation of such actions, nor any hate — be it verbal or in thought, or even resentment, really. Even at the most rudimental level of understanding, though, there is a sense of “poshet yado bi’ikkar” about determining policy for Klal Yisrael in a way that ignores and undermines all contemporary halachik authorities, pushes our community, and by extension our people, closer to yet another unaffordable schism, and overturns thousands of years of tradition.

Some of the proposed changes to our communities are in fact akin to a chiddush of sorts. As R. Michael Rosensweig suggested in an article entitled Personal Initiative and Creativity in Avodat Hashem, in order for a chiddush to be acceptable, it must be a “rediscovery of sorts,” rather than a true and complete innovation. An underwhelming connection of isolated opinions projecting a da’as yachid in most instances, proposed innovations like female clergy, women and tefillin, and further investing in secular education over religious infrastructure, seem far more like a shinui than a proper chiddush. Certainly, such things are deeply problematic against the backdrop and contemporary understanding of the posuk in the final chapter of Malachi that reads “ani HaShem v’lo shanisi”, “for I am Hashem and I have not changed.” This was true when Malachi related it to us against the challenges of his time, it was true in the cultural battle in the times of the Maccabees, and it is most certainly still true today.

1. Following this shuir, confusion surfaced about his precise stance on the matter. Subsequently, R. Wieder dismissed the confusion in an article published in YU’s student newspaper. Therein, he formally issued his opposition to the ordaining of women Rabbis. His open letter is available for reference here.

2. An apropos example of this that comes to mind is women’s education. Against the backdrop of a wild assimilation rate, twice in recent history Gedolei Yisroel like the Chafetz Chaim made what was considered to be a colossal change to women’s education. Several years later R. Joseph Soloveitchik too adopted this mode of thinking as he embraced cross-gender Talmudic studies.

3. It is important to point out that this may not even be the case for those pushing for change today. Numerous halachik authorities have raised issues with the challenges of today not only on the merits of srarah, but due to other halachik issues as well. One important issue not often considered is the issue of mechzei k’yuhara. R. Efrem Goldberg raised this issue in a 2014 blog post titled Avoiding The Appearance of Religious Hubris and is a relevant and worthwhile read available here.

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