Is Tolerance in the Orthodox Lexicon? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

January 14, 2014

There is no classical Hebrew word for “tolerance”. The modern Hebrew term is “sovlanut”, but this word never appears with this meaning in rabbinic literature. This isn’t surprising of course, as the contemporary notion of tolerating differing views is born of modern humanist perspectives, and democratic political systems. Our classical literature blossomed long before those concepts were current.

But does this mean that there is no equivalent to tolerance within Orthodox thought and discourse? This question takes on increasing urgency as the practice of publically excoriating and debasing one’s ideological opponents has become de rigueur in Orthodox circles, particularly in the blogosphere. This trend has developed even among those of us who proudly regard ourselves as possessing modern sensibilities. Is there nothing in our tradition that constrains us from mimicking the broader culture’s increasingly intolerant and debasing discourse, in which the invalidation and delegitimization of others is routine?

I’d argue that there is, in fact, a classical Halachic articulation of the imperative to exercise tolerance, one which is listed by Rambam and by Sefer HaChinuch as a Biblical commandment, and which is codified as such in Jewish law. It is recorded immediately following the Biblical Mitzvah to rebuke one’s fellow for misdeeds that the latter has committed (Vayikra 19:17). That same verse concludes with the admonition to “not bear sin on his account”. There are two primary interpretations of this phrase:

(1) Yes, rebuke your fellow, but do not do so in a manner that will result in the sin of humiliating your fellow publically. In the Talmud’s words, “I might think that you should rebuke even in a manner which causes his countenance to redden. Therefore Scripture adds, ‘you shall not bear sin on his account.”

(2) Yes, rebuke you fellow, but do so as an antidote and alternative to hating him. (“Thou shall not hate your brother in your heart” are the Biblical words that immediately precede the Mitzvah to rebuke.) The underlying idea is that if we remain silent about the misdeeds that we perceive in the other, we will slowly, but surely, grow to hate him. Whereas, if we privately address these issues with him, we are far more likely to step off the road toward enmity and hatred. The prevention of hatred is the intended outcome of – and the implicit justification for – the directive to rebuke.

Jews are going to disagree. Orthodox Jews are going to disagree. It is only when we are able to ultimately tolerate one another, i.e. when we are able to disagree and offer rebuke that neither humiliates nor fosters hatred, that we are permitted to speak. If we cannot exercise tolerance, the Biblical permission to rebuke is withdrawn. This is the Halacha.

No one captured the danger and folly of intra-Orthodox vilification and intolerance better than Netziv did, in his introduction to Breishit. Netziv’s understanding of the sin of the generation of the Second Destruction – a generation filled with Torah scholars – is that “they presumed that anyone who differed from their particular way of fearing God, was a heretic or a Sadducee. And as a result [of this intolerance] they came to bloodshed (in a figurative sense) and to all of the evils in the world, until finally the Temple was destroyed.”

The good news, is that together, we can stem this tide. Together, as we read what’s being written out there, and listen to what’s being said out there, we must discriminate between legitimate, crucially important debate, and degrading, debasing, intolerant attacks (not to mention the terribly destructive practice of painting entire groups with broad brushes). And, privately and discreetly, we can rebuke our teachers and friends, who are unquestionably well-meaning and sincere, but who have fallen into the same bad habit as did their predecessors of two millennia ago, and are routinely violating the Torah’s constraints on the Mitzvah of rebuke. We can still save and sanctify our intra-Orthodox discourse, if together we simply draw the line where God drew the line.

The last Mishna in Shas teaches that God identified exactly one vessel that can hold Israel’s blessings, preventing these blessings from all coming to naught. And that vessel is peace. Had the word existed in Mishnaic times, that blessing would have been “savlonut”.

Of Fish Tacos and Otherness –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 3, 2014

I grew up in the 1970’s in one of the only Orthodox Jewish families in a small Connecticut town.  I did not know then that kosher keeping Jews could eat in a restaurant.  I never had eaten in one and the thought of doing so did not even cross my mind.   Once a year we would make the three hour drive to Manhattan where there were, I think three or four kosher restaurants.


I was recently in Los Angeles walking along Pico Boulevard near Robertson where almost every restaurant, perhaps 20 or so, is kosher.  Sitting in one of the LA kosher Chinese restaurants as my company critically evaluated the food, I remembered myself as a child eating my once-a-year lunch at Moshe Peking, eating such “exotic” food, and thinking, this must be the best food in the entire world, how lucky am I, how lucky are the Jewish people to have such a gift, a fancy restaurant to eat at in New York City. 


Fast forward to last week, eating fish tacos on MalibuBeach where the only restaurant, and indeed prominently located across from the Malibu Pier, is kosher.  One would not have known if they did not look for the hashgacho, the kosher supervision symbol, that it was kosher, and no doubt the many non-Jewish Asian tourists eating there did not. 


It seems in 40 years the relationship of Jews to restaurants has revolved 180 degrees.   To sit in one of the few kosher restaurants in the 1970’s was to feel that one had been given a perhaps all too indulgent gift, taken a bit of the non-Jew’s ambrosia.  Now the restaurant itself is Jewish and it is the non-Jew who must enter our domain if they wish to have the most trendy food on the trendiest beach. 


Perhaps there is a danger in this, the Jew riding at the crest of the popular wave, the Jew becoming the measure of society instead of the outcast who is allowed periodically to feel a bit like everyman when eating out.  Perhaps suddenly, the other has become everyman, the outsider can now feel not only like the insider but like the measure of all things.  I wonder how this might take its toll on what it means to be a Jew in exile, on what it means to be a Jew at all. 


Perhaps the greatest irony is in that our rabbis created certain food laws to keep the Jew separate from the non-Jew, for instance not eating their cooking or their bread and so making it more difficult to socialize with them, in their world.  Never did they imagine that those boundaries would erode due to the non-Jew eating the cooking of the Jew, that the Jew would become the measure of society at large, or at least of the trendy fish taco joint in the most prime location on Malibu beach.  

All Rabbinics Is Local – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 30, 2013

The most basic question is – who is a real leader? And the pertinent question for our generation is: are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation?

This quote, from this article by Rav Adin Steinsaltz reminded me of a conversation I was involved with a few years ago at a meeting of the Houston Rabbinical Association.

An internationally known, media savvy Rabbi spent a 1/2 hour telling a group of 20 or so communal Rabbis that focusing our attention on communal needs (visiting the sick, kashrut, Torah classes, counseling etc.) was not the best use of our time. Really what we should be focusing on is how we could be impacting the general community. If only we could show the world that Judaism had a universal message, we would be successful.

While Rav Steinsaltz’s article is more far reaching, there is a connection between his search for a “head” and the role of community Rabbis.

Rabbi Steinsaltz relates this touching episode in his article.

My sandak, Rabbi Avraham Chen, wrote a very emotional book about his father, Rabbi David Zvi Chen, who was a great man in many ways and the rabbi of Chernigov, in the Ukraine. In this book he relates how a young man came to his father to register for marriage. While formally examining his documents, Rabbi Chen discovered that the young man, who was also a Torah scholar, was actually a mamzer. There was not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that this man was indeed a mamzer. It was not even a question. He held the papers in his hand, and the young man, who realized that something was amiss, asked: “Rabbi, what about my match?” and the Rabbi said: “It cannot be.” The young man said: “I understand that there is a reason why this match cannot work, so what do you suggest I do?” At that point the rabbi had to reveal to him that the match could not be, not because the specific bride was unworthy of him, but because, being a mamzer, he could not marry at all. At this point, the son discloses that eventually he found the young man sitting in the rabbi’s lap and both were weeping.


Local Rabbis are the ones who know about the personal challenges of community members. Community Rabbis understand family dynamics and relationships precisely because of the time spent locally as opposed to on the road. Community Rabbis are the ones who can sincerely cry with their members.

This is one of the challenges of a centralized Rabbinate/Rabbinic authority. Local Rabbis are best suited to establish local halachik practice. All too often communities look for what “other communities” are doing, without considering that what they do may not be best for their community. Lay leaders should encourage Rabbis to lead locally by first and foremost focusing on what is really needed for religious growth within their community.

While this approach may not help identifying “The” head – that Rav Steinsaltz is looking for, it does remind us that if we are to have any hope of meaningful rabbinic leadership that Rabbis and community members should focus on local needs.  Neither Rabbis or community members should judge success by how they “play” in the media, but by how well they address local religious and pastoral needs.

Partnership Minyanim: Let’s Live and Let Live. by R. Yosef Kanefsky

December 24, 2013

I might be wrong, and hope that I am. But I have a growing sense that a full-scale assault on Partnership Minyanim is brewing, the goal of which is to define these Minyanim as being “over the red line”, outside the pale of Orthodoxy. I do understand what might motivate such an effort, and I recognize the religious sincerity and constructive intentions of colleagues who might feel it’s an important thing to do. And at the same time, I am absolutely positive that doing this would constitute a terrible, even tragic mistake. And I would plead that they reconsider.

The reason that it would be a terrible and tragic mistake is that it would have precisely the opposite effect than the one intended. The move to write Partnership Minyanim, and the Orthodox Jews who daven in them, out of Orthodoxy is animated by the desire to prevent a slide toward (non-Halachik) egalitarianism. But the reality is that Partnership Minyanim are precisely the greatest bulwark against exactly that slide.

Contrary to common assumption, people who choose to daven in Partnership Minyanim are not doing so because they are seeking to evade or erode Halacha. They are choosing to daven in Partnership Minyanim davka because they are seeking to live within Halacha. Partnership Minyanim are the one and only way that these Orthodox Jews can simultaneously affirm their commitment to Halacha, and be true to their deeply held ideals concerning the religious dignity of both men and women. The Minyan is a lifeline.

But is the Halachik argument which supports Partnership Minyanim correct? This is the subject of passionate debate, with many Orthodox rabbis having written in opposition to it, and a small number having written in support. When determining our communal policy however, the pertinent question is not whether the halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is correct. It is rather whether the Halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is viable, is defensible. Because this determines whether these Minyanim are a threat to – or a safeguard of – people’s Halachik commitment.

And the answer to the question of Halachik viability is a firm “yes”. The Halachik argument is built upon a viable, defensible reading of the Talmud in Megilla, which in principle includes women among the public readers of the Torah. And it is built upon ample evidence that the concern for the “dignity of the congregation”, on which basis the Talmud rejects the inclusion of women as Torah readers, is a concern that is subject to change. Numerous Halachik sources in a variety of other contexts support the idea that a congregation may decide that its dignity is not compromised, despite the Talmud’s concern. There are, of course, other ways to interpret these sources. But the salient points here are that Partnership Minyanim conform with a viable reading of the Halachik sources, and that they are deliberately and thoughtfully conceived, designed and brought to life within a commitment to the Halachik framework. One may disagree with the interpretation of the sources. But one cannot deny the conscious Orthodox quality of the endeavor.

As such, Partnership Minyanim are clearly serving as the place within the Orthodox tent where people are able to remain faithful both to Halacha and to their commitment to the spiritual and ethical value of equal dignity. Take these Minyanim away, and you create a new and forbidding landscape in which young people raised with these twin passions are left with nowhere in the Orthodox world to turn. And even more tragically these young people will conclude, with justification, that the Orthodox rabbinate knowingly denied and suppressed viable halachik readings in order to bar women from greater participation in Jewish ritual life.

In 1956, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l expressed his opposition to Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and ruled that it is forbidden to mark a Bat Mitzvah in shul. We must count ourselves fortunate that Rav Moshe didn’t go so far as to draw a “red line” and categorize any shul in which a Bat Mitzvah ceremony took place as being “not Orthodox”. It’s hard to imagine the kind of hemorrhaging from Orthodoxy that such a decision would have caused over the ensuing decades.

We all need to be responsible and realistic about the consequences of our actions. The vocal opponents of Partnership Minyanim should of course, for the sake of Heaven, express their opposition, and explain their halachik objections. But I urge with all my soul that they resist the calls to draw a “red line”. Nothing good will come of it, and a huge amount of damage would certainly be done.

Making sense of our world –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 12, 2013

We have just finished reading the story of Joseph and his brothers.  In it Joseph’s brothers experience confusion, despondency, and powerlessness as their brother secretively manipulates them, falsely accusing them of being spies and thieves.  One can imagine being in their shoes and asking: Why?  Why are all these terrible things happening?  Ultimately their worst nightmare comes true, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin hostage. 


We, the readers, see both sides of the story.   We see Yosef pulling the strings orchestrating the entire situation.  But for the brothers, for the Jewish people of the time, it is one inexplicable tragedy after another.   They search their deeds and ask: Why is this happening to us?  They blame themselves.  Ultimately they engage in self scrutiny, in repentance, in self sacrifice and as people and Jews development themselves from those who sold their brother to those to suffer to save a brother.


With one climactic sentence all the times of pain and confusion collapse into focus:  “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”   This might not remove all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, and the self blame, but it does, in one fell swoop, make sense of the seemingly nonsensical series of episodes through which they have lived and suffered.  


The Rabbis tell us that Yosef and his brothers go down to Egypt to, “pave the way” for the Jewish people’s exile and ultimate redemption; an exile of much darkness and confusion ultimately culminating in exodus, and perhaps, in hindsight, making some meaning of the years of darkness.  Perhaps this is one reason the story of Yosef and his brothers is told just before the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, for in it the Jewish people are like Joseph’s brothers.


This all feels a lot like our world.   We are Yosef’s brothers too.  We live lives that are anything but simple and clear, anything but controllable.  Perhaps the lesson is to have hope and faith that ultimately those six words will be spoken, “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive,” and things will come into focus, things will make sense.  And through it all not to give in but to utilize the experience as a catalyst for self reflection, and as the brothers and especially Yehudah do, for personal, interpersonal, and religious growth.   If we find meaning in the darkness and care for others in it then perhaps we can avoid the strife that led the brothers down to Egypt in the first place.  Though redemption is not a solution or an erasing of the exilic past, perhaps it is a making of meaning from the past, and ultimately, through it, we can hear, speedily in our days, the six words of explanation that bring all into focus: “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”



Concentric Circles of Victims

December 10, 2013

In 2010, my teachers, Rabbis Nati Helfgot, Yitzchak Blau, and Aryeh Klapper, drafted a “Statement of Principles” on the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The statement was signed and endorsed by dozens of Orthodox rabbis, mental health professionals, and educators. The document was carefully drafted, edited, and revised before publication, and the success of this consensus document can be seen in the list of contributors. The list includes many names of Liberal Orthodoxy’s “usual suspects” but also quite a few names of individuals with significant reputations within the Centrist Orthodox establishment. At the same time, the list generated a fair amount of controversy, even inspiring a reactionary “counter-statement,” which suggests that the statement was sufficiently significant to generate controversy. 

In my recollection, the most controversial element of the Statement of Principles was paragraph 7 which reads:

“Jews struggling to live their lives in accordance with halakhic values need and deserve our support. Accordingly, we believe that the decision as to whether to be open about one’s sexual orientation should be left to such individuals, who should consider their own needs and those of the community. We are opposed on ethical and moral grounds to both the “outing” of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.”

Some of the critics of the Statement of Principles argued, as I recall, that a benign regime of “don’t ask, don’t tell” could enable gay Jews to join our communities with subtly, but that openly gay Jews should not be integrated into our communities, shuls, and schools.

The New York Times published an op-ed this past Sunday that provides some quantitative support to the assertion of the Statement of Principles that encouraging individuals to be open about their identity and orientation is a positive step for Orthodoxy. 

The article by Seth Stephens Davidowitz cites research showing that while the number of openly gay men is greater in regions of the country with greater acceptance of homosexuality, relevant Google searches suggest that the percentage of the population that is homosexual is common among the fifty states (about 5%). The element of Davidowtiz’s article, however, that was most evocative for me was the description of the different Google searches in different parts of the country:

“In the United States, of all Google Searches that begin “Is my husband…,” the most common word to follow is “gay.”  “Gay” is 10 percent more common in such word searches than the second-place word, ‘cheating.’ It is 8 times more common than “an alcoholic” and 10 times more common than “depressed.”  Searches questioning a husband’s sexuality are far more common in the least tolerant states.”

When individuals are pressured, by their community, to treat core elements of their identity as a shameful secret, the circle of suffering expands, claiming new victims.


IRF Hanukkah Holiday Packet 5774

November 22, 2013

IRF Hanukkah Holiday Packet 5774

Table of Contents
1.Please Light Responsibly by R. Yosef Kanefsky

2. Laws and Customs of Hanukkah by R. Steven Exler

3. Guest Contribution: Do We Recite Hallel in a Shiva House on Hanukkah by M. Ruth Balinsky Friedman

4. Is There an Obligation to Publicize the Miracle of Hanukkah to Non-Jews by R. Zach Truboff

The Other 75% -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 21, 2013

I would like draw our attention to the other 75%.  The approximately 75% of Jews who, according to the Pew report, do not attend a shul and do not feel that Jewish community or Jewish observance is a necessary part of being a Jew.  We spend a lot of time thinking about, teaching, and interacting with the 25% who come to a shul, but how do we reach the majority of our people?  What would make them want to be part of Judaism in more than name?

We all worry about this and many of us commit our lives to addressing this poor state of our people.  We make our shuls more welcoming so Jews can easily come in, we offer Chanukah menorah lightings at the mall to bring Jewish ritual outward, and invite all who will come for Shabbat meals.  But in fact we touch only a relatively small number of individuals this way.  Our efforts have certainly not begun to stem the tide of assimilation, and worse the ingrained sense most Jews have that Judaism has little of value to offer them or the world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested, in a recent address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, (thank you to my father for bringing it to my attention), a way of engaging the 75% that I think deserves our attention.  Rabbi Sacks begins by pointing out what we all know -that many Jews today often see no good reason to be Jewish, and unlike in the past, no one from the Jewish or non-Jewish surrounding society is compelling them to practice, or to be labeled, as a Jew.  They will connect only if there is a good reason to, if Judaism has something unique to say to their concerns and the concerns of the larger world.

If Judaism has a positive voice in general society, says Rabbi Sacks, if it can make people proud in the public arena to be a Jew, then it may have a chance of engaging the other 75%.  Judaism can and must, speak loudly and publicly to the moral, intellectual, and spiritual challenges of our time.  If we can bring a voice that non-Jews find compelling then jews will also.

Rabbi Sacks did this by spending a great deal of time as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth offering inspiring words in the national media and writing books about Judaism’s deep and positive message for the larger world.  Of course if one is the chief rabbi of a country, assuming one speaks well and has something to say, the job of bringing Jewish thought to the public is an easier one.  But alas, one chief rabbi does not a Jewish renaissance make.   What kinds of things can all of us do, the 25% of our people who are involved, to bring to society at large the deeply important messages Judaism is supposed to bring to the world, the guidance it can extend and light it can spread?

I think we live often as Jews today in response to the holocaust.  We live as Jews in our homes but do not bring our Judaism into the public sphere.  We tend to take an insular stance.  We are not for the most part interested in sitting on local school boards, taking part in city politics, or being present at general city or community events, unless it can further our personal Jewish agenda.  Some would say this is how it should be, that we should only be involved with the larger world when we must do so in service of the Orthodox community.   But it is this attitude that stops us from engaging the larger world, being a blessing to it, and in our particular culture today -from engaging a wider array of the 75%.

Here are a few suggestions, though I am sure there are many more to be had.

1. Let us take advantage of opportunities to be present in interfaith environments.   Meet the non-Jewish clergy in your area and find out how you can bring the Jewish voice to the religious and general civic community.  America is a non-Jewish country in which Christian voices are present, but Judaism has a lot to say that is meaningful and our Christian neighbors often really do want to hear it.

2. Community service is a valuable venue in which the Orthodox and general Jewish community can be present in the bigger society and bring something to it.   The common refrain, every time the opportunity for general community service arises that, “we need to help other Jews in our community first”, stops us from ever moving outside the walls of our own.  Yes, we should help other Jews first, but if we do not ever get beyond our own walls we will not succeed in bringing a Jewish voice to the larger world.  Perhaps we can think of fellow Jews as our brothers and sisters and non-Jews as our cousins.

3. Let us not be afraid to quote from our tradition.   Why keep the Torah a secret?  Next time you find yourself at a meeting within a non-Jewish or wider Jewish population and you think, “Pirkey Avot says something that would really bring depth and insight to this,” -say it.  We must not hold back in today’s world from bringing our deeply Jewish selves into our workplaces or civic life.  We live in a society that touts the benefits of multiculturalism, of the value of being an individual, let us help them, and us, live it.

There are many other opportunities to bring our Jewish selves and our Jewish voices into the public arena and the general culture.  First though, we must realize how important it is, we must reach beyond our fears and our insularity, and we must know that God gave us the Torah so we could share it with the world and with fellow Jews.   Let us not be afraid.

Guest Post by Dr. Ben Elton: “Walter Wurzberger on the Boundaries of Orthodoxy”

November 20, 2013

The Jewish internet has been alive over recent months with attempts to draw denominational boundaries. In particular there has been much discussion about whether Open Orthodoxy, the cluster of ideas coming from Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is an expression of Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. This is a problematic question. It implies there are Platonic forms of Orthodoxy and Conservatism which can be measured against the facts on the ground and an adjudication made. In fact, all Jewish denominations are creations of particular times and places and can only be understood in those contexts. Another approach is to ask whether specified views and methodologies are valid expressions of authentic Judaism, or whether they constitute a break with the Mesorah, the chain of tradition beginning at Sinai. However, that is not a historical but a religious question. We each have our own view on what is ‘valid’ and ‘authentic’ and those commitments do not derive from scholarship but from faith. I am a historian, so I am drawn to a third approach, which is to ask whether Open Orthodoxy adopts the same principles as earlier religious expressions, which were generally regarded as Orthodox.

I want to use an important review essay by Rabbi Dr Walter S. Wurzberger, ‘The Oral Law and the Conservative Dilemma’, which appeared in Tradition in 1960.[1] This article is pertinent for our purposes because it attempts to explain exactly what differentiates Modern Orthodoxy from Conservative Judaism, even in the latter’s most traditionalist form. It does not concentrate on practices among members of the two movements, or even on different halakhic rulings emanating from each. Rather it examines the theological and philosophical underpinnings of each denomination. If Open Orthodoxy shares the principles set out by Wurzberger and accepted by the then Modern Orthodox community as a valid definition of its position, it follows that while the spokespeople for Open Orthodoxy might be mistaken in some regards, and their halakhic positions might be considered wrong, even reckless, they remain within accepted definitions of Orthodoxy, because of the understanding of the Mesorah which guides them.

Wurzberger’s article was a review of Boaz Cohen’s Law and Tradition in Judaism (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary 1959), which attempted to explain the Conservative approach to halakhah. Cohen’s halakhic conclusions were extremely traditionalist in this work. He rejected important decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly as against halakhah, for example riding in a car to the synagogue on Shabbat and mixed seating in services. He therefore could not be criticised for undue leniency in practice. Wurzberger therefore critiqued the very foundations of Cohen’s approach. In Wurzberger’s reading, Cohen believed that as the Rabbis developed the Oral Law they modified the original law, either deliberately to adapt to the needs of the time, or inadvertently because they did not understand the texts they were dealing with. In other words, the Sages effectively created the halakhah as we have it today. They were innovators, even if they appeared to themselves or others to be merely expounding and applying. Ultimately Jewish Law as we have it did not grow out of an original revelation but was the invention of the Rabbis.

Whether this is an accurate description of Cohen’s position is not important for our purposes. What matters for this discussion is the Orthodox position which Wurzberger placed in contrast, an approach which represented the mainstream Modern Orthodoxy of his day.

Long before the advent of the Historical school, the traditionalists fully recognized that they were entrusted with a Torat Chayyim – a living Law…Because the halakhic process is characterized by a continuous interaction between subjective and objective components, it is natural that changes in historical conditions will lead to far reaching repercussions in the realm of Halakhah. This is not at all a question of “adapting” or “adjusting” the law to meet novel conditions, but of interpreting and applying it within the frame of reference of new circumstances…It must be borne in mind that this dynamic character of the law is an integral part of the Massorah, the chain of tradition dating back to Sinai , not something that was grafted upon the Torah later on to prevent its obsolescence and decay…It is the function of the Halakhah scholar, employing creative halakhic processes, to unravel the specific meaning which the timeless message of Sinai holds for his own time.

Rabbi Wurzberger wrote so clearly that a gloss would be redundant. Rather, we can turn immediately and compare this understanding of the Mesorah with Rabbi Weiss’s, which he put forward in his article on the graduation from Yeshivat Maharat of students ordained as clergy:

Mesorah is not solely rooted in the past. Rather our mesorah is, that within proper parameters, we ought to innovate to address the issues of our time and continue the work. This innovation is not straying from mesorah, it is demanded by it. This involves two steps.  


The first step is to assess the law and evaluate whether it is in conflict with other central principles of Torah. Consider, for example, the Torah’s position on polygamy, slavery or yefat to’ar, the laws of a female war-captive. These laws seem in conflict with other values of Torah, values like tzelem Elohim – every human being created in the image of God or kavod ha-bryiot – human dignity or kedoshim ti’hiyu – and you shall be holy.  

If conflict exists, mesorah includes a second step: a systematic means by which halakha can evolve. The Torah makes this very point when it declares that in every generation, when challenging issues arise, one is to go to the judge of his or her generation. (Deuteronomy 17:8-9) Mesorah includes a sophisticated network of rabbinic law, some interpretive (dinin she-ho’tzi’u al darkei hasevara) and some legislative (takanot u’gezeirot). After an extensive, in-depth analysis of the law, new applications may be possible.

This is classic Wurzbergian analysis. The Mesorah draws its strength from the Torah itself, it allows timeless principles to be applied to the needs of the day, it enables the full realization, through careful thought, of the original wishes of the Torah, which will reveal themselves differently in each generation, sometimes leading to ‘far reaching repercussions in the realm of halakhah’. One can argue whether Rabbi Weiss has made the right judgement about women’s roles, but it is difficult to claim that his basic approach to change within Judaism and the role of the Mesorah is substantively different to approaches which were not only accepted but promoted in Modern Orthodox circles half a century ago.

Not all self-identified Modern Orthodox rabbis maintain this understanding of the Mesorah and the way it works. That may explain a difference of view between the most distinguished representative of the old school and a representative of the new.

In 2009 Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm was reported as follows in the Jerusalem Post:

Regarding the ordination of female rabbis, Lamm said his opposition was “social, not religious…Change has to come to religion when feasible, but it should not be rushed. Women have just come into their own from an educational perspective. I would prefer not to have this innovation right now. It is simply too early. What will happen later…I am not a prophet.”

He clarified his remarks shortly afterwards to the YU Commentator:

“I was criticized, of course. People asked, ‘You mean that al pi din [by law] they’re allowed to become rabbis?’ My response: ‘I don’t know. Are you sure they’re not allowed to?”

Rabbi Lamm went on to say, however, “It is too early to tell where this is all headed and I think they are moving much too quickly. Do I think having women rabbis is a good thing? I do not know. I am, however, concerned that, before long, we will find ourselves overly feminized, and I would not want to see that happen.”

Rabbi Lamm’s words were recently characterized as a mis-speak due to failing powers. In fact they seem to match entirely the approach of his old colleague Walter Wurzberger. The Mesorah has the capacity to make far reaching halakhic changes, all of them rooted in the revelation at Sinai. Whether they should be made, or should be made now, is a different matter. This is a very different point of view to the one implied by this statement, also reported in the Commentator:

The RCA’s Rabbi Kletenik, however, was unequivocal. “To ordain a woman as a rabbi,” he told The Jewish Press, “is a breach of our mesorah and not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue.”

It is entirely reasonable to take a different view of the boundary between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy and on the workings of the Mesorah. People always did. Wurzberger described his section of Orthodoxy as a ‘tiny but articulate minority’. However, it is not fair to claim that the understanding held by Rabbi Weiss and others associated with Open Orthodoxy has no precedent. The application might be wrong, and that is something to debate as part of an internal Orthodox conversation, but to call it neo-Conservative would come as a great surprise to one of Conservative Judaism’s great critics, Walter Wurzberger.


Dr. Ben Elton is a student at YCT Rabbinical School

[1] Tradition in 1960 (3:1), just before Wurzberger became editor of the journal, and was reprinted in A Treasury of “Tradition” (ed. Norman Lamm and Walter S. Wurzberger, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company 1967, pp. 436-443). I am not the first person to identify Wurzberger and this article. See Alan Brill, ‘A Tiny but Articulate Minority’ (Tradition 41:2, 2008)

“Words from the Heart” posted by Yosef Kanefsky

November 11, 2013

Garnel Ironheart is an avid – and mostly critical – reader of Morethodoxy. But I was very taken with a comment he submitted last week and reproduce it here in full (and I apologize for the negative remarks about Chabad. They do not reflect my views at all.)

Look, I’m not a big fan of Morethodoxy. Frankly I think it’s only about 10 years until you’re the right wing of UTJ, full-on Conservativism with a mechitza (hopefully). But in the interest of achdus let me give you some free advice.
Look at Chabad. If you think you’re having troubles with the Agudah then think about what they’ve gone through. The Agudah’s PR flacks attack you in print. Chabadniks have gone through physical attacks from that part of the Jewish community. You get called “Unorthodox”. They’ve been called heretics, non-Jewish and neo-Christians. Remember all the abuse heaped on the Rebbe, zt”l by Rav Shach, zt”l?
Yet years later, after all the abuse, after all the ongoing sex scandals, after all the messianism, Chabad is incredibly successful and growing stronger. Why? Because they have a message (Believe in the Rebbe and ye shall be saved) and they stay on it. They push the positive, drumming their ideology into anyone who will sit still long enough . They don’t take time to respond to outside attacks. They plow forward with their agenda no matter what. And it has worked for them in spades.
If you want this Morethodoxy thing of yours to amount to something more than a bunch of new-age feel-good rabbis sitting around talking about kindness and love then you have to develop a concrete message and start pushing it. Playing defense all the time will just get you shoved into a corner.

I’ve never met Garnel (unless he also goes by some other name, in which case maybe I have!), and as I said, I don’t agree with all of what he says here. But I do appreciate the humanity and sincerity with which he wrote this. I read it as “words that emanate from the heart” (which, as we know, “enter the heart”) So here a few things that I’d like to share in response:
(1) I have never, and still don’t really think about Morethodoxy as being a “thing” – a movement, a distinct ideological sub-group. Like most of the “founding” Morethodoxy crew, I am a musmach (ordainee) of YU, a member of the RCA , and a full-time rabbi in an OU-affiliated shul. But I understand and appreciate the perspective that Garnel and many others have, namely that Morthodoxy is a forum for the ideas and religious philosophy that have become identified with the students of Yeshivat Chovevai Torah (YCT) and members of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and that in reality -though not by conscious design – the three, along with Yeshivat Maharat and several other organizations as well, have effectively coalesced into a distinct movement within Orthodoxy. While I – and most of my friends and colleagues – reject this perspective, the perception is both significant and real. (And, in fact, I am the current president of the IRF, and my co-blogger Rabbi Gelman is a past-president.)
(2) I’m sure our wives and kids wish that we were just “feel-good rabbis sitting around talking about kindness and love!” Like my Morethodoxy companions, and so many of the rabbis who are members of the IRF, we are out in the trenches, day and night, pastoring, teaching, programming and building, as rabbis of shuls, as teachers and principals in schools and as campus rabbis and chaplains around the country. In fact, this is a large part of why we lack the laser-like focus of an organization like Chabad. We are an integrated part of the Orthodox community’s multifaceted rabbinic leadership, serving in numerous and various institutions, each with its own complex set of unique challenges.
(3) Having said all of this, I think that Garnel’s challenge needs to be taken seriously. Not to satisfy our critics, and not as a means of carving out a place for ourselves as a distinct wing of Orthodoxy. Rather in order to better serve Klal Yisrael generally, and the Orthodox community especially, through bringing our vision forward in coordinated and concrete ways. We are reaching a critical mass in terms of the numbers of Orthodox rabbis and Jews who are passionate about living and teaching an Orthodoxy that is (choose your adjective) engaged / progressive / inclusive / connected , and for the sake of God, Torah, and Israel, we need to have greater focus in terms of agenda, message, and action. And – as Garnel implies – we mustn’t get pre-occupied with playing defense.

Is this easier said than done? Sure. But let’s get to work. I’ll do my share. It’s not upon any one of us to complete the work, but none of us is exempt from participating.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 368 other followers