Acting on its Torah-informed conscience in its Torah framed response to modernity, Modern Orthodoxy has recently endorsed what are taken in other Orthodox quarters to be really radical changes:
1. The first out-of-the-closet Orthodox female Orthodox rabbi was ordained, and is now serving as a Rabbah,
2. Women are permitted to read Megillah, not only for women, but in the presence of and for men, [at B’nai Israel of Baltimore, the Orthodox synagogue I serve, we do allow women to read Megillah],
3. Some within Modern Orthodoxy support secular policies that protect gay and lesbian civil rights, [I signed on to this policy and was criticized roundly and soundly for doing so],
4. in some Modern Orthodox quarters, partnership prayer groups have been endorsed, [these are Orthodox gender egalitarian services, stretching Judaism to but not beyond a reasonable reading of the letter of the law–I believe that partnership prayers violate no law but I do not permit these rites in practice because of B’nai Israel’s Orthodox Union charter that requires that we follow Rabbinical Council policy]. The arguments against partnership prayers do reflect legitimate policy concerns but do not convince me that the partnership prayers themselves violate any explicit normative Oral Torah rule or statute. As will be shown below, historical Orthodox precedent has allowed for far more radical changes than those put into practice at partnership prayers.
5. Many Modern Orthodox rabbis allow double-ring Orthodox marriage services, [I also permit modified double ring ceremonies, to be discussed below, for those who want them as I am convinced they are permitted and a marriage is a private ceremony which not subject to public policy discipline or rulings],
6. and some Modern Orthodox rabbis have been known to object to the Orthodox “blessing” that mandates men to praise God for “not being created a female.” [Following the letter of the law and the spirit of our times, this rabbinically mandated blessing in my view was not originally intended to be said in women’s presence and perhaps not be said out loud when women are present. My practice is to say this blessing, following the Oral Torah mandate.]
These modernity inspired changes have been challenged by other Orthodox rabbis who see themselves as “traditional” and who believe that Tradition is to be mediated by their inherited and conditioned sense of propriety.
1. Consider the Agudath Israel statement:
Rabbi Avi Weiss has conferred “semikha” upon a woman, has made her an Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where she carries out certain traditional rabbinical functions, and has now given her the title of “Rabbah” (formerly “Maharat”). He has stated that the change in title is designed to “make it clear that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice.”
These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.
After accurately describing what was done using detached, restrained, objective, and descriptive narrative, Agudath Israel’s statement then makes value judgments that tell the attentive reader much more about Agudath Israel’s own world view than it does about the Modern Orthodox target of its animosity:
- It is the social radicality of the change and dislocative dissonance and not the real, actual laws of Jewish Tradition that determines what
Agudath Israel’s version of Judaism
- It is Masorah, “Tradition,” –as defined and understood by the Great Sages of Agudath Israel–that defines Judaism, and not the actual, philologically parsed words of Torah—or the sacred documents of Israel’s official religion Tradition—that define Torah and God’s mandate in our time. Agudath Israel rabbis seem to believe in a continuous revelation whereby Judaism evolves through the intuitive insights of its own select rabbinic leadership. Although the Agudath Israel agenda for change is different, this same idea—continuous revelation—also appears in the liberal Jewish movement called “Conservative Judaism” and in the non-Jewish movement called Mormonism as well.
- By advocating the “Rabbah” innovation, the Orthodox identity and religious bona fides of the advocates of the ordination of women in Orthodoxy is for Agudath Israel forfeit. No Jewish law is even cited; for Agudath Israel, deviation from the Tradition as understood by its leaders is not error, it rises to the benchmark of heresy. To be acceptable, the “deviation” must be approved by Agudath Israel’s Great Rabbis, in which case the deviation itself becomes “Masorah,” or Tradition, and then the change becomes religiously acceptable.
- Masorah/”Tradition” is for these rabbis not the Tradition of Maimonides, when ends with the Talmud of Rabina and Rav Ashi, [bBava Mezia 86a] but the inherited mimetic culture of street Judaism Orthodox society over which Agudath Israel presumes to preside; the former Tradition is covenental, the latter Tradition is conventional. The claim that mimetic “Tradition” is holy is proclaimed but proven by Agudath Israel. For Maimonides, a religious ruling is valid if and only if it does not violate any explicit Talmudic statute, and as long as the mara de-atra/local rabbi stays within these legitimating, validating and defining Talmudic parameters, his rulings are valid, at least according to the Maimonidean paradigm, the legitamacy of which is difficult to contest.
The great Modern Orthodox scholar and decisor, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, the world expert on Jewish custom, found no legal reason why women may not be ordained to the Orthodox rabbinate, he examined the lady rabbinical candidate’s competency in Jewish law, and he then agreed to ordain her.
2. It has been argued that women may not read Megillah. We are told by some rabbinic voices that the women reading Megillah violates “Tradition,” here taken to be the familiar “street Judaism” we are used to seeing, and Jewish law which in its canonical textual version seems to allow women to sing in the presence of men which we are [wrongly] told is without qualification immodest and is therefore forbidden. [note well that a close reading OH 75:3 does not forbid women singing in the presence of men other than during the recitation of sh’ma and even this position is marked by the idiom, yesh le-hizaher, one ought but is not bound by rule to be restrictive! See also R. Jacob Weinberg, Seridei Esh 3:8]. How we “know” that this behavior, women singing, is by halakhic definition immodest is proclaimed but not explained. Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a classic responsum demonstrating that women share men’s obligation to read Megillah, and may therefore read Megillah for men. [“Women and the Reading of the Megillah,” ed. Jacob J. Schacter, The Torah U-Madda Journal VIII (1998-1999 (New York, 1999), pp. 295-310] Since the Oral Torah considered women reading Megillah to be allowed, invoking the category of
“modesty” to forbid the act is a wrongful and to our view a rather immodest proposal, because it impugns the integrity of the Oral Torah rabbis who by religious definition would not permit immodest behavior, and appealing to culture Tradition sensibilities as opposed to the most rational reading the Tradition of the Oral Law sacred library is not at all Traditional. We do have a right—on policy grounds– to disallow women to read Megillah; we may not invoke the Talmud and Talmudic Tradition to do so. It is true that the Tosefta disallows women reading Megillah, but the Talmudic permissive reading overrides and trumps the Tosefta’s nornative authority. Rabbi Herschel Schachter disagrees with our analysis; he maintains that just because an act is not forbidden does not mean that the act is really permitted. Great rabbis are to this—and his–view somehow authorized to intuit the mind of God and to “know” what God really requires of Israel and humankind. For R. Schachter, only “great rabbis” have a right to intuit what “Tradition” really means. Modern Orthodox rabbis, following Maimonidean jurisprudence, advocate a more legal formalist approach to Jewish legal application than does R. Schachter.
3. It is one matter to argue that Judaism accepts homosexuality as proper, which Modern Orthodoxy has not done and cannot do], and quite another to advocate opposition to discrimination against that community. Would it not be more proper, argue many modern Orthodox rabbis, to advocate minority rights for all and let God be the judge of human behavior, unlike the parochial Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Levin who in his “wisdom” “knowingly” attributes earthly natural disasters to the sinful human advocacy of homosexual rights?
4. Partnership prayer groups are Orthodox egalitarian communities that will allow female participation except when and where Orthodox halakhah explicitly and without ambiguity restricts that participation. For Partnership prayer groups and for Modern Orthodoxy, Tradition is the Judaism of the sacred library, i.e., the letter of the publically revealed Divine law. No rabbi is in possession of a secret, subjective “spirit” of the Law that is empowered to trump other rational, even if radical, readings of that law. This position, that Partnership prayer is a legitimate rite, is also endorsed by the noted above Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University. In an oral communication, Rabbi Sperber argued that the Reformers permit the forbidden while Modern Orthodoxy “permits the permitted.” The Rabbinical Council of America forbids Partnership prayer groups because it is a “break with Tradition,” which seems to be the conventionally accepted culture that the Orthodox street accepts as familiarly “orthodox.” As I understand these Partnership prayer groups, they require ten men and ten women for a quorum [a stricture, or humra], women may lead the Qabbalat Shabbat prayers, and they may read the Torah. It has been argued that Jewish law requires a real cantor, i.e., a male, to lead Qabbalat Shabbat services because customs “have” to follow the model of law. This claim is affirmed but not demonstrated by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed and sainted memory, who also disapproved of women’s saying Kaddish because of “Feminism.” For Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, policy grounds indeed do allow us to forbid the permitted; like his stellar student and spiritual successor, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, who advances an understanding of Tradition structurally and theologically similar to that of Agudath Israel, only great rabbis indeed are authorized to read the mind of God. Who a great rabbi is must be determined by power and not prowess. Alternatively, for Rabbi Sperber, policy grounds would also allow us to permit the permitted and restrictive intuitive hunches have to be explained and not merely declared in order for those hunches to be normatively binding upon others.
5. I can accept the disallowing of women’s saying Kaddish, reading Megillah, Partnership prayer groups, and double ring ceremonies on policy grounds. But let’s have an honest and open conversation regarding the propriety of suggested change; invoking “Tradition” that is not congruent with the Talmud of Rabina and Rav Ashi will simply not do. While I approve of and insist upon gender segregation for prayers, I remain unconvinced that outlawing the shofar blowing on the Jewish New Year without gender segregation is a proper policy, because hearing the shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah, like the “Who has not made me a woman” blessing, is in our reality a rabbinic mandate. If gender segregation is a Torah or rabbinic law, then we must cite the source in the Written and Oral law that clearly mandates the requirement. If a policy is indeed sufficient to override a rabbinic law, some strong, convincing arguments are waiting to be made. One Orthodox rabbi wrote to me that the synagogue gender partition is “Tradition.” I agree! But shofar is a documented mandate—no less than saying the “Who has not made me a woman” blessing— and given the shofar’s documented presence in Scripture– the shofar rite has an even greater claim to being called “Tradition” than does the traditionally mandated synagogue gender partition.
6. It has been argued that double ring wedding services, an admittedly modern, egalitarian gesture, violates “Tradition,” women’s historical role in Judaism, and is forbidden because the innovative rite appears, it is claimed, that the bride is rejecting the nuptial ring. According to the classical codes, when the bride walks willingly to the marriage canopy, she “proclaims” by walking down the aisle to the wedding canopy gesture “I do” to her marriage. When the ring reaches her accepting hand, she is irrevocably married. Furthermore, as noted above, Shulhan Aruch Even ha-Ezer 38:34 seems to corroborate our reading. Thus, if the officiating rabbi announces that the now married bride is clearly giving a ring as a gift to her halakhic husband after getting her nuptial wedding ring first, no violation of Jewish law is taking place! If Hillel and Shammai can disagree regarding which marriage partner is proper—without a call for schism– then the claim that the double ring wedding ceremony is grounds for schism is totally out of order. [See bYevamot 14b] Thus, the very call for schism is unorthodox because it reifies the taste of some authorities as an expression of the divinely revealed Torah of all Israel and the historically conditioned sacred intuition of some rabbis to be the unchanging will of God.
7. My friend and colleague Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, claimed on the MoreOrthodoxy web site that he cannot in good conscience say the blessing ordained by the Sages “Who has not made me a woman.” Extremists have said that his statement is heretical, and to remain legitimate, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America must define itself as Orthodox by defining Rabbi Kanefsky as a heretic and removing him from the RCA rolls. Like Partnership prayer groups and women rabbis, it is not claimed that the proponents of these changes are in unquestionable exegetical error; instead, an undefined “Tradition” is invoked in order to revoke the good standing of dissenting others.
I recently asked several Orthodox rabbinical colleagues if they allow the recitation of the “who gives strength to the weary” blessing and the bobby-prize non-blessing, “Who has made me according His will” that women are to my mind wrongly instructed to recite, which are post-Talmudic blessings unattested in and therefore not authorized by the Oral Tradition called “Torah,” the word of God. [Isaiah 2:3][See Bet Yosef OH 46:6 for a very sharp criticism of this “blessing,” codified in Shulhan Aruch, supra. Note that R. Isserles allows the “who gives strength to the weary ‘blessing’” because Ashkenazic mimetic usage has adopted this rite. Would it be improper for an Ashkenazi Jew to adopt the Sefardic stringency and delete the blessing? After all, Nusah Sefard is itself an Ashkenazi innovation and an innovative “tradition” at that! Although some “traditionalist” rabbis do not allow women to serve in the Israeli armed services, bSota 44b requires and does not disallow the drafting of women into the Jewish army for a defensive war—a law that enjoys greater canonical documented precedent than the gender segregation in the synagogue—and no one, not one Orthodox rabbi whom I surveyed, expressed discomfort with the Tamudically unattested “blessing,” “Who has made me according His will.” The Chazon Ish sees women serving in the Israeli army as a most serious sin. Yet the Talmud, which is also considered, de jure if not de facto, to be “Tradition” of recorded official record, requires this service. [See however Abraham Karelitz, Letters 1:111, pp. 122-3, “Voluntary National Service for Girls: Compromise of a Nation’s Purity,” Jewish Observer 4 (1971), p. 21, and Alfred Cohen, “Drafting Women for the Israreli Army,” in Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 16 (Fall 1988), pp. 26-43].
What makes the above referenced deviation of the Chazon Ish right and Rabbi Kanefsky’s complaint—with which I respectfully do not happen to concur–wrong? The opposition to women’s military service seems, according to a common sense reading of the Talmudic source, to be a frontal rejection of an explicit Oral Torah norm. At stake in this conflict regarding the defining of Orthodoxy is whether Judaism is a Torah of ethical law or a culture of that celebrates intuitive, ethnic otherness, with the Law being cited selectively and programmatically only by great rabbis endowed with a sacred intuition sufficient to determine what in the Oral Torah applies in our time and what does not.
For Chazon Ish, Agudath Israel, and Rabbi Schachter, the Jew learns Torah because learning Torah is a commandment. One who learns Torah, to this view, dares not learn Torah in order to actually learn how in practice to obey God; normative usage is for this view intuited oracularly and proclaimed apodictically, without review, explanation, or justification bt great sages who are intuitively endowed. Alternatively, Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 25 distinguishes between errors in statute [devar Mishnah] and judgment [shiqqul ha-daat]. Given the reasoned explanations that appear in Bet Yosef, it would seem that R. Caro, the author of Bet Yosef and Shulhan Aruch, would side with his contemporary namesake, R. Yosef Kanefsky, even in dissent. Now, my own view follows tBerachot 6:18, which mandates reciting the “who has not made me [because I am a male] a woman.” However, we have reviewed several practices, accepted as “Tradition”/street culture Orthodoxy, that are equally if not more problematic—because they are deviationist– than R. Kanefsky’s controversial proposal, that are accepted without conversation by the Orthodox street.
Street culture Orthodoxy does allow the avoiding of blessings mandated by law, if its temporal mores are threatened by Oral Torah mandate. At
http://www.ravaviner.com/2009/10/bircat-ha-gomel-for-women.html, Rabbi Shelomo Aviner examines women reciting birkat ha-gomeil, the thank-you blessing required to be recited [tserichin le-hodot (!)] by those who traversed the sea, the wilderness, was ill and was restored to health, and those who have been released from prison. [bBerachot 54b] Since this obligation is occasioned by circumstance and not time, woman are, one would think, obliged to observe this rite. R. Aviner lists three possible responses to this obligation of a woman who recovered from an illness and was released from the hospital. The woman may say the blessing from the synagogue women’s section or she may assemble and ad hoc quorum of ten men as we require a quorum for such a recitation. He curiously adds that “some women do not recite it because of the complications surrounding the issue of modesty.” However, Jewish law requires women to recite this blessing, no less than the Tosefta requires men to praise Heaven for not being created women. When I first instructed women to recite the ha-gomeil blessing, the practice was wrongly mistaken by some to be a Feminist inspired reformist innovation; since the act was unfamiliar, there “must” be a reason great not to observe this rite because learned rabbis did not insist that women recite the blessing. The Talmud did at no occasion relieve women of the obligation to recite this blessing. It seems to me that the culture modesty of the Orthodox street represents an ethic that is inconsistent with what the Talmud actually requires of Jewry. [by statute, women may slaughter animals. bHullin 2a-b, Bet Yosef Yoreh Deah 1:1, mEduyyot 2:2, but some voices argue, as noted above, that if we do not see an act being done, the act may not be done.] And the culture modesty code is authorized by social convention to override the explicit Talmudic and implicitly the Divine mandate as well that would oblige women to recite the ha-gomeil blessing. Street culture Orthodoxy and Rabbi Kanefsky actually and ironically agree that social taste does impact Halakhic change; they disagree on the agenda for change and the identity of the authorities who are authorized to approve of religious change.
At http://torahmusings.com/2011/08/womens-changing-status-and-liturgical-reform, Rabbi Gil Student carefully outlines his objections to Rabbi Kanefsky’s position, but thankfully and graciously does not yet call schism. He argues that “I am generally uncomfortable with the changing of texts for grammatical or historical reasons. Historically, those who have tried to ‘improve’ the liturgy have often inadvertently caused more harm.” R. Student accepts Orthodox street culture uncritically by not objecting to the “Who has made me according to His will” and “Who gives strength to the weary” “blessings.” He also objects to changing texts for “ideological purposes.” Abudaram says that the “Who has made me according to His will” “blessing” is a confession of an acceptance of the decree of a disability. His view, like the “blessing” he reports and records, sounds to me to be an ideological “reform”; what the Orthodox street does “must” be an authentic social revelation of unchanging God’s changing will.
R. Student’s actual ideology may be teased out of his comment:
It must be remembered that a substantial segment of the Orthodox community considers the advanced learning of the Oral Torah by women to be forbidden. This is not an obscurantist position but a well-established halakhic view that is amply supported by traditional sources.
These “Traditionalist” rabbis whose opinions are by definition legitimate and whose approval R. Student seems to solicit, maintain a parochial policy:
I [earlier] outlined the prohibition to confirm the Heterodox in their positions. It is very likely that ordaining women as rabbis falls under this prohibition and, therefore, must not be done. The contra-halakhic trends of egalitarianism are still very much with us and we may not support them, even indirectly or unintentionally. Let us not be naive about these very real matters.
I failed to find this putative “prohibition” anywhere on my Bar Ilan 19+ CD Rom. It just might be the case that great rabbis are indeed authorized in this version of Orthodoxy to legislate Torah for all Israel. They alone may speak in the name of Orthodox “Tradition.” For this version of Orthodoxy, no argument is tolerated and no alternatives may be offered because only the great rabbis know how to “learn” and read between the lines of Torah in order to read the mind of God. [See however Deuteronomy 4:2 for an alternative, Biblically ancient yet also modern Orthodox canonical view, that God’s will and Torah really do not change.]
Now, R. Student correctly concedes that clapping on the Sabbath and Holidays is problematic at hirhurim.blogspot.com/2007/11/clapping-dancing-and-musical.html.
He concedes that bBetsa 36b indeed forbids clapping and dancing on holy days, but he does not—because according to his Judaic system he may not–criticize the great rabbis who [to my mind inconsistently and wrongly] justify the holy day clapping practice. [Aruch Ha-Shulchan OH 339:3, 7,9, Rema., supra., Igrot Moshe OH 2:100, Ovadia Yosef, Yehavveh Daat 2:58, Tosafot Beitsa 30a, Aruch Hashulchan OH 339:9, and Mishna Berura 338:2,4]. If deviating from a Talmudic norm is really forbidden according to the Orthodoxy of R. Kanefsky’s opponents, then Rabbi Kanefsky finds himself in very good and fine company indeed. My own practice is not to clap or dance on Shabbat or Holidays, Tosafot’s, supra., dispensation not withstanding. R. Student’s Judaism, and the version of Orthodoxy opposing R. Kanefsky, upon our analysis, is grounded in a Tradition of culture consensus but not the Tradition/covenant of Sinai which is publically documented and given to all Israel for review, study, and compliance. At http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2009/09/when-values-collide-womens-ordination.html, R. Student’s revealed religion is further revealed to his careful readers. He seems to suggest, like the great rabbis to whom he by conviction and habit defers, that there are values that transcend recorded Jewish law. In point of fact, Jewish law does not forbid [but rather explicitly permits at Shulhan Aruch YD 1:1] women to slaughter animals. R. Shabbasai Cohen forbids the practice because it [women slaughtering animal] “was not seen” in practice. [supra.] R. Caro, Bet Yosef, supra., cites mEduyyot 2:2, requiring a canonical prohibition in order to formally disallow women’s performing ritual slaughtering. Thus, in order to insure stability in the Jewish social Tradition, the lenient and open Orthodox norms of the covenantal Orthodox Tradition are reconstructed and reformulated, without objections from the sociologically conservative Ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel and without any demurral or objection from R. Student.
At http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2005/08/women-learning-gemara.html, R. Student believes that Jewish Tradition frowns upon if not to forbids women’s Torah study, following a descriptive, i.e. not prescriptive, observation that teaching women Torah is the moral equivalency of teaching lewdness. He summarizes: “The Mishnah (Sotah 20a) quotes R. Eliezer who states that one who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he had taught her tiflus (I’ll leave that untranslated and we can just assume that it is a bad thing). The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 246:6) quotes this law and states that this applies only to the Oral Torah but one should not really teach women the Written Torah either. However, the Rem”a points out that women need to learn the basic laws that they must fulfill and the Taz (ad loc., 4) argues that women are also allowed to learn the simple meaning of the Written Torah.”
Note well that the plain sense of R Eliezer’s words indicates that for him, women’s Torah study is a “bad thing” but is by no means absolutely or necessarily forbidden by rule. How else did the Palestinian Rebbitzin Beruriah [the spouse of R. Meir] or the Babylonian Rebbitzin Yalta [the distaff of R. Nachman] learn their Torah? On the other hand, subsequent rabbis of lesser stature have chiseled room for leniency. An authentic Modern Orthodox approach must have faith that the Oral Torah rules are always right, but canonically recorded words must be understood correctly, i.e., philologically, grammatically, and in social context. What we see is what we get! As noted, R. Eliezer’s precise words are descriptive and not prescriptive, i.e., normative. Happily, the official, normative and religiously binding tBerachot 2:12 confirms our reading and explicitly allows/authorizes women to study Oral Torah, rendering R. Eliezer’s view as popularly understood a less than statutory or “Traditional” position. Note well that in street culture Orthodox culture, the great sages of Israel are not held to the same Halakhic benchmark review that Rabbi Kanefsky is being held, [we are forbidden to show preference when making legal judgments, Deuteronomy 1:17 and bSanhedrin 17b] as he is subject to accounting and rebuke but they, even though they are known to be great rabbis, somehow missed tBerachot 2:12, are not subject to accounting, review, or rebuttal. Perhaps there is an unrecorded but unquestionable rule that rabbis who are higher on the theological—political food chain are not to be reviewed by those lower than they on that chain.
R. Student regards the opinion of a “substantial segment” of Orthodoxy to carry normative valence. Yet no one amongst the restrictive cultural Tradition school even addresses the normative Tradition of tBerachot 2:12, which provides an explicit—and undeniable–license for women to study the Oral Law. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik did not flinch when he permitted women to study the Oral Law at Stern College for Women. I strongly suspect that R. Solovetichik was well aware of tBerachot 2:12. For Rabbi Student, the locus of Torah authority resides in the person/gavra of the living sacred sage and not in the canonical document/heftsa of the sacred text; he also seems to concede that Ultra-Orthodox recognition of his own Orthodox bona fides is also a concern. For some Orthodox affiliates, the fear of suffering human rebuke is greater than the fear of losing God’s approval.
A claim similar to Rabbi Student’s is made by the urbane Haredi Rav Yitzchak Adlerstein in Ami Magazine (Nitsavim Va-Yelech 2011), whose critique is both cited and addressed below:
• Very few on the left can show the competence with text that comes with many years of serious immersion in learning. It just doesn’t have such members, neither as role models, nor as products of their institutions.
This statement is plainly and blatantly untrue. The so-called Orthodox Left applies the tools of academic Judaic studies which empowers the individual rabbi and student to make their own critical judgments. See Daniel Sperber, Legitimacy and Necessity: Scientific Disciplines and the Learning of Talmud (Jerusalem: Bet Morasha, 2006). This approach and its advocates are not recognized as Orthodox by their detractors. Their “sin” is not their infidelity to a defensible reading of Jewish legal texts; their error/aapostasy is reflected in their wanton insubordination to those persons who claim be the great sages of Haredi Orthodoxy who to their view, must be accepted witout question, and whose legal readings are not subject to review or conversation.
* In traditional halacha, very serious questions are taken to the greatest contemporary halachic minds as a kind of “reality check.” This is true both in deciding about new areas of halacha, as well as
weighing and deciding between competing opinions stated in the past.
This view is as noted above explicitly rejected by Maimonides in his introduction to his code. As long as a post-Rabina/Rav Ashi ruling does not overrule the actual, real rules of the halakhic legal order, like disallowing female conscription in the Israeli army or the allowing the “Who has made me according to His will” formula, the ruling remains valid. Unless we wish to read Maimonides out of the Orthodox Tradition, his mindset remains at minimum legitimate and his legal theory must be regarded to be normative. And it is the community rabbi and not the dean of the yeshiva that “traditionally” holds legal office, as it is the sitting judge and not the law school professor who in everyday life determines the content and application of the law.
- The left balks at this, seeing this as an affront to individual autonomy. It also believes that talmidei chachamim should have input, but it should be one of many contributions, alongside great academic
scholars, who have much to add in their view to halachic debate.
Ironically, this statement is correct. The Orthodox Left regards the texts of the Torah and empirical reality as essential to authentic decision making. However, rabbis who have not studied college math and science have no business dealing with or ruling on those subjects. Only Torah contributes moral halakhic vectors, but the so-called Orthodox “Left” does not feel obliged to concede to the so-called “Right” that the Right’s culture biases are themselves sacred and definitive but its own sensibilities, experiences and intuitions are not.
- Taking questions to its own gedolim or stellar halachists is not an option anyway. It doesn’t have any, at least not according to the definition that has held sway for centuries.
This statement is circular at best, and scandalously and maliciously evil at worse. Rabbis Daniel Sperber, Rason Arusi, Nahum Rabinowitz, Dov Linzer, Yosef Faur [my own rav muvhaq], and David Halivni are great rabbis who are “recognized” by their constituents. For Haredi Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy cannot by definition may not possess a great rabbi/godol because a great rabbi cannot, by Haredi definition, be both Orthodox and “modern.” A modern Orthodox great rabbi/gadol is, for this view, both a definitional impossibility and a theological oxymoron. Thus, by dint of his modernity, even the learned, saintly Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik cannot be considered a gadol. [See N. Wolpin’s mean-spirited screed in Agudath Israel’s Jewish Observer, May 1993, 43] The “definitions that held sway for centuries” are proclaimed but not demonstrated “to have held sway for centuries.” Specifically, we recall that Maimonides did not demand that the local rabbi’s judgment undergo great rabbi/godol review but Maimonides did maintain that the local rabbi may rule within the limits of Talmudic statute, and need not submit to the office or charisma of other rabbinic persons holding office outside of his jurisdiction. So much for the views that “have held sway for centuries.”
Rabbi Kanefsky’s greatest “sin” was expressing the audacity to ask a probing question, which was mistakenly framed to be a rejection of the Oral Law. Numbers 21:9 speaks of a one time ritually licit serpent statue which, when it was [ab]used for idolatry, it was destroyed. II Kings 17. Thus, Torah application may, should, and did change with changing circumstances. R. Kanefsky challenged the public recitation of a blessing which was at its origin not a public rite and it remains a private rite in the Edot ha-Mizrah usage to this day. Nowhere in canonical, i.e. Written and Oral Torah, do we find a source that forbids asking pointed or probing questions of God or humans. Furthermore, Abraham asked God “will the judge of all the world not act justly,” [Genesis 18:25] Moses asks God why God appears to be angry with the entire community when only one man sins, [Numbers 16:22] and David asks God “why have you forsaken me?” [Psalms 22:2] If Abraham, Moses, and David did not sin by questioning God’s justice, then the explict norm supposedly violated by R. Kanefsky should have been cited by his detractors, or it is they, i.e. his detractors, are guilty of defamation.
According to bPesahim 108a, important women are obliged to recline at the Passover seder; at Orah Hayyim 472:4 Rabbi Moses Isserles claims that “all our women are important” yet their custom is not to recline. It would be their obligation and not merely their discretion or custom to recline. It seems to me that if R. Isserles’ codification is legitimate, than so is R. Kanefsky’s; if we wish to criticize R. Kanefsky, we must out of integrity apply the same benchmark to R. Isserles!
If there will be a schism in Jewish life, it will not be caused by the modern Orthodox, for whom Torah law does not change but the times do change, which necessitates changes in usage that are situationally appropriate