Made in the USA: New Theologies, and the Limits of Orthodoxy

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This is one of those challenges we throw out to our readers. It represents thought in progress, not a finished product. Please don’t take it as such.

The Orthodox community continues to grapple with defining its own limits, particularly on the left. Many of us believe that there is not just one way to look at a slew of important issues. Yet, we firmly believe that belief is hardly a free-for-all; there are – for lack of a better word – normative expectations of belief, not just actions. These expectations shape the boundaries of Orthodoxy, and allow us to regard even those we disagree with as “insiders” rather than “outsiders.”

I can, and often do, disagree with friends about acculturation, dress, politics, authority, the Flatbush eruv, Rav Kook, Torah Codes, Rav SR Hirsch, the role of the State of Israel, and dinosaurs. Especially dinosaurs. For my part, I have no trouble seeing those with whom I disagree – on both the right and the left – as firmly within the orbit of Orthodoxy, even though I understand my mandate to convey my views to my own talmidim (students) with fervor and conviction. This is the way of Torah.

There are solutions that work some of the time. Many people like to define Orthodoxy as a belief in the Divinity of both the Written and Oral Law, finding binding instruction on practical matters within the Shulchan Aruch and accepted commentaries, and embracing the Thirteen Principles of the Rambam as the intellectual context within which one practices. There are academic challenges to these three prongs, but they are not what I wish to reflect about here.

I would like to understand if and when it ever becomes necessary for the larger part of the community to see certain approaches, attitudes, or even actions as representing such a departure from what the majority accepts – and possibly a threat to that majority – that it consigns them to a place beyond the pale of acceptability.

For many years, my family did the Pesach program route. My wife had the week off for a change, and I earned our collective keep as the scholar in residence. The clientele always came form a mix of religious backgrounds within the Orthodox community. One Yom Tov day, one of my kids accosted me with a question, having noticed that quite a few people chose to spend some of their Yom Tov afternoon mixed swimming at the pool. “What is the difference between those people and Conservative Jews? They both pick and choose, according to convenience. Sure, some of them never had the education to know or understand that what they are doing is prohibited. But that’s not true of many others. ” He assured me that he was asking a legitimate question, not trying to put people down.

I was prepared to answer, but thought that it might be more honest to get the response of a friend who serves as the rabbi in a centrist Orthodox shul, unlike my shul much further to the right. When we returned to LA, I called him with the question, which he answered with great wisdom. “The difference is simple. The Conservatives simply don’t care about halacha, or get their rabbis to rewrite it for them. Within Orthodoxy, those people who act outside halachic norms at least realize that what they are doing is wrong, and simply choose not to comply with the law.” He paused, and added with brutal frankness, “At least that is true theoretically. In practice, however, I’m not so sure that this is true for many within our shuls.”

The way I see it, picking and choosing is a good litmus test of what authentic Torah Judaism is not. Perhaps the most extreme formulation of recreating Judaism in one’s own image that I have encountered can be found in the words of Eliott Dorff, provost of the (Conservative) University of Judaism, writing several years ago in Judaism, in an article entitled “G-d in the Conservative Movement.”

A Conservative theology must seek to justify Conservative Jewish practice, including (a) a commitment to constructive action for improving the world generally, (b) observance of both the moral and ritual segments of Jewish law, (c) recognition of the need and legitimacy of making ongoing modifications of that law, and (d) tolerance for the diverse patterns of observance that result from such a methodology.

In other words, our conception of what Judaism is about will determine for us how we see G-d Himself. The premise is breathtaking in its elegance, and in being the polar opposite of everything that traditional Judaism ever was. It is hard to even imagine a more perfect departure from the naaseh v’nishmah (“we will do, and we will listen”) that always spelled out the nature of Jews’ commitment to their Creator. Picking which parts of a message resonate, and then reshaping our very conception of G-d, is an interesting proposal. Somebody ought to start a religion predicated upon it. They should be honest enough not to call it Judaism.

Puzzling, therefore, is the conclusion of an article in Volume 1 of Milim Havivim, the journal of the new left-wing Orthodox Chovevai Torah Rabbinical School. In my most critical and ungenerous moments, I would not compare its Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer, with Rabbi Elliot Dorff. I am having a hard time, however, seeing the real difference in approach with these lines (pg. 36):

Many observant Jews today are ethically conflicted by the inequitable treatment between Jews and non-Jews that is found within halakhah. The halakhic work for addressing these inequities is already being done by important posekim. In this halakhic endeavor the recovery of such original positions as we have done is largely irrelevant, inasmuch as halakhah follows the interpretation that the Gemara gives to the statements of the Tana’im and Amora’im. Nevertheless, many committed Jews are often left feeling that even when halakhic solutions are being found, they run counter to the ethos of the system, and are to some degree disingenuous and lacking in integrity. “Should we be bending the halakhah to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism?” is a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer. An honest answer requires finding within the Talmud voices that articulate those same values that are driving us.

The question is an excellent one; the answer founders on the rocks of inconsistency. If halacha indeed follows opinions other than the ones that suit Rabbi Linzer’s needs, what real solace is there in finding ancient voices of agreement that are not accepted? Is Jewish thought a huge intellectual smorgasbord, at which one dines to his or her pleasure?

Is this approach still Orthodox? I have a feeling that this question is even more difficult to answer than the one my son asked.

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29 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding Dov’s comment of March 17 2:44PM,
    “Would you invalidate Rav Moshe’s Teshuvah that it is permissible to desecrate shabbat to save a life of a non-Jew on shabbat for it is a “liberal teshuvah” that lacks clear evidence from the writings of chazal?”

    My answer is no; I would not dream of challenging it. But I would have a questioning attitude toward liberal teshuvot from R’ Linzer, for example, in light of the general liberal bias of his institution.

  2. DovBear says:

    Is Jewish thought a huge intellectual smorgasbord, at which one dines to his or her pleasure?

    Of course it is. How else do you explain the wide variety of legitimate thought within the walls of traditional Orthodox Judaism? Lubovitch, Satmar, YU, Mafdal, Chardal (among others) are all legitimately Orthodox, yet all of them think about the world in different ways. Why shouldn’t we be able to pick and choose among them? To do otherwise is to deny reality, to pretend the Judaism in monolithic, when it most certainly is not.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “thanks for your comment re the ZTL”

    no problem. always happy to nitpick where possible.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    Jewish Observer-thanks for your comment re the ZTL. It should have been a Zicronam Livracha at the end.

  5. mycroft says:

    “R’ Adlerstein’s post was whether there is an ethic outside of halacha (a la R’AL) ” I agree with Joel Rich that there is an ethic outside of halacha that God commands-it can’t be against halacha-but where Halacha is silent one must try and figure out what God would want. The Chareidi world in general follows a “daas Torah” approach ” where great men can answer sheilot by the 5th volume of the Shulcahn Aruch. RYBS in contrast stated he had no expertise in non halachik matters. Interesting sociology RAL and some other students of RYBS were in the forefront of showing that there is an ethic not strictly found in the Shulchan Aruch. Of course among those who believed that there is not ethic outside of halacha were the Chazon Ish and Yeshaya Leibowitz .

  6. Jewish Observer says:

    “Nodah BiYehudah, Chasam Sofer, Rav Kook, ZTL, CI,RMF and RSZA”

    … curious placement of the ZTL

  7. Joel Rich says:

    Dov-as I posted elsewhere-The question underlying iiuc R’ Adlerstein’s post was whether there is an ethic outside of halacha (a la R’AL) and whether this can inform upon halacha. IMHO the answer, based on the data of changes in orthodox practice over the years, is a clear yes (e.g all our women are chashuvot, aveilim no longer practice atifat harosh,treating non-Jews on shabbat). The question is whether we are self-aware enough to admit it clearly happens and the real question is who determines when and if the change is appropriate.
    KT

  8. Dov says:

    Bob –
    Would you invalidate Rav Moshe’s Teshuvah that it is permissible to desecrate shabbat to save a life of a non-Jew on shabbat for it is a “liberal teshuvah” that lacks clear evidence from the writings of chazal?
    Dov

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that if one looks hard enough in the Sifrei ShuT you will see many of the Gdolei HaPoskim who wrestle with the interaction between Halacha and their society. Look at the Nodah BiYehudah, Chasam Sofer, Rav Kook, ZTL, CI,RMF and RSZA for just a few pre-eminent Poskim who engaged in this inquiry.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Maybe the dissonance between some “liberal” psak and the commonly understood Mesorah points to the invalidity of the psak and not to any need to explore subcurrents in the Mesorah.

  11. Dov says:

    Rav Adlerstein,
    Rav Linzer was not making a radical point at all in his article. All Rav Linzer claimed is that there are times when modern day poskim give a “liberal” psak (ex. attitude towards non-Jews) which make us feel uncomfortable because we sense that it goes against much of the mesorah. Rav Linzer argued that if we are sensitive to the various layers and voices of the Talmudic text we can uncover some of those “liberal” attitudes (echoed by some modern poskim) that would make us feel more comfortable that the current “liberal” psak has some continuity with the mesorah. Rav Linzer never meant to argue that we are not bound by the shulkhan aruck or poskim. Please read the article and see for yourself – its on the Chovevei web site.
    best, dov weiss

  12. S. says:

    Harry,

    I think Dr. S realizes that the halakhic practices of his own family was/ is an elitist form of halakhic Judaism. It is clearly impossible for the entire ‘am to be as halakhically knowledgeable and able as the Soloveitchiks. IMO there is no way that RYBS or R. Chaim or the Beis Halevi honestly expected that such halakhic observance could be or should be a mass phenomenon. Given that fact, if it is a fact, I am not sure that Dr. S’s observation–not prescription, merely observation–really disagreed with his father.

  13. Jewish Observer says:

    “RYBS’s son is more in line with Dr. Berkovitz than he is with his own father”

    Reb Harry, shalom!! I am not sophisticated enough to really understand this conversation but as regards your question, I think we do see the Soloveitchiks (of this line) trending toward modern thought, so it’s really a question of how big of a leap RCS took from his father.

  14. mycroft says:

    ” his own institution’s Torah journal (Skokie yeshiva/Bais midrash L’Torah/HTC) noted that it crossed the line or at least came blurred the line distinguishing between Orthodoxy and Conservatism.”

    Unfair Skokie changed for better or worse-it is no secret that RAS and REB did not get along. It is not the first time or the last time that people in the same Yeshiva differ. Torah VAddas had a famous duo who differed to put it mildly.REB believed in Torah minhashamayim-a high percentage of Conservative Rabbis do not believe in Torah minhashamayim in principle.

  15. Harry Maryles says:

    While I think Dr. Berkovitz’s ideas are a bit radical and somewhat beyond mainstream Orthodoxy, I do believe that it has bearing on Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik’s thesis in his essay, Rapture and Reconstruction. Dr. Grach says that there is too much emphasis on the “book” and not enough on the “Mesorah” of one’s family. Could it be that RYBS’s son is more in line with Dr. Berkovitz than he is with his own father? I say this realizing that it is highly unlikely but still the comparisons seem valid to me.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    In an ideal world, halacha would not have been codified or even preserved in the Mishnah and Gemara. In an ideal world, we would all have a rav to whom we ask our questions and this rav, presumably someone a Baal Mesorah, would answer our queries. Solely due to historical and other reasons, a purely oral Torah SheBaal Peh and Klal Yisrael required a codified system for day to day halachic guidance at the very least an organized way of going thru the vast amount of subject matter contained in the Torah She Baal Peh. That development is an ongoing process every day when Gdolim apply halacha to cutting edge queries, lchumra and lkula.. Some call it Chiddushei Torah, Shut or just “halachic development.”

    I think R Linzer’s comments almost border on an exercise in apologetics for the fact that Torah, mitzvos and halacha are one of the prime ways in which we demonstrate our affinity with G-d as a people who have to live according to a different set of rules than the rest of the world.Look at Tefilah and any Birkas Hamitzva or in the Minchas Chinuch which discusses every mitzvah and how it applies to Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, women,minors and non-Jews. OBviously, although all mankind is endowed with Tzelem Elokim, there are different levels of how man relates to G-d.

  17. shmuel says:

    Those who reviewed R Berkovits book both in Tradition and in his own institution’s Torah journal (Skokie yeshiva/Bais midrash L’Torah/HTC) noted that it crossed the line or at least came blurred the line distinguishing between Orthodoxy and Conservatism.

  18. Bob Miller says:

    What comprises “the ethos of the system” as held by the second author cited is subjective, whether he knows that or not.

  19. Harry Maryles says:

    Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz has written s book entitled Lo BaShamyim he which has relavence to this essay. He actually makes the claim that the Shulchan Aruch should be discarded. I wrote about it on my blog, Emes Ve-Emunah today.

  20. Toby Katz says:

    There is a difference between hashkafa (philosophy, values) and halacha. To some extent there is a degree of latitude in the former — people are willy-nilly influencedby their own time and place, and can often find support in Torah sources for a range (albeit NOT an infinite range) of opinions. To take a hashkafic example: there is ample support in Torah sources for a hierarchical/authority based view of the world and there is also ample support for an egalitarian world-view (actually I think both are intended by the Torah and neither is THE right view — there are aspects of both). If you’re a Democrat the egalitarian side will be stressed, if you’re a Republican the hierarchical/authoritarian side might be more congenial to you.

    But if you go from there to changing the halacha — to saying, for example, that the distinction between Kohen and Yisrael is no longer valid, based on your egalitarian beliefs — then you are no longer Orthodox.

  21. David says:

    I think the key line is here:
    “Nevertheless, many committed Jews are often left feeling that even when halakhic solutions are being found, they run counter to the ethos of the system.”
    It’s not that they run counter to a personal subjective ethic, but rather “to the ethos of the [halakhic] system.”

  22. YM says:

    Sometimes the Shulchan Orech or Mishna Breua will offer a halachic approach that doesn’t square with common practice.
    For example, recently someone blogged on the fact that the MB says that the Shiliach Tzibor is supposed to say Baruch Hashem Hamevorach LeOlam Vaed WITH the Tzibor at Baruch, not repeat it afterward. The common practice is to repeat it afterward.

    In a related fashion, the Mishna, in Berachos, says that after Tashmish, a man is supposed to immerse in a mikvah before davening Shacaharis the next morning.

    Ignoring the fact that we don’t poskin from mishna, isn’t there a place in halacha for the ability or inability of a minority or majority to Jews to conform or ignore a practice? It seems like there is, in practice.

    This also relates to why someone would tell a homosexual that he has to choose between Judaism and being gay, but would never tell a Baal Lashon Harah the same thing.

    I was shocked when reading the comments to “troubled by troubled” yesterday that so many people feel so shtark about Reb Moshe’s approach, yet they are posting on the internet, which could certainly be interpreted as against halacha itself.

  23. Seth Gordon says:

    Rabbi Linzer seems to be describing two processes, a halakhic process and a historical process, which are being used for two related but distinct purposes.

    A posek uses the halakhic process to answer a question about what we are required or forbidden to do. One might look at the p’sak, however, and wonder if it truly reflects “the spirit of the law”. This is where the historical process comes in–demonstrating that the values reflected by the posek’s decision are shared by great figures in the Jewish tradition.

    This approach is still Orthodox because the historical process is not overriding the halakhic process; Rabbi Linzer is not saying “well, for this situation we’ve poskened like Beit Hillel for the past 1500 years, but times have changed, handwave handwave handwave, and Beit Shammai is more appropriate for our circumstances, so we’ll rely on Beit Shammai’s logic to permit this.”

  24. Ori Pomerantz says:

    When some Amoraim (= Talmudic sages) say one thing, and some say another, and eventually Halacha is decided one way or another, what does it mean?

    1. Some Amoraim had access to sources we don’t have, such as Ruach Hakodesh or Breitas that were not recorded in the Talmud. One of the Amoraim was wrong, they corrected him, and everybody got back to the Torah LeMoshe MiSinai (= teachings given to Moses on Mt. Sinai).

    or

    2. There were two versions of the oral tradition, that split sometimes after Moshe. The Amoraim used the same tools of logic and debate we have access to today and got to a conclusion. This conclusion may be the Torah LeMoshe MiSinai version. Or, it is possible that they were wrong, just like we are sometimes wrong, and the actual Torah LeMoshe MiSinai version was the minority view that the Talmud quoted but did not accept. If this is a real possibility, then following any Talmudic sage is as likely to lead to following the original Torah as another.

    Thanks, Ori the ignorant.

  25. S. says:

    >Is Jewish thought a huge intellectual smorgasbord, at which one dines to his or her pleasure?

    It effectively is, anyway. When posekim who tend le-chumra or towards extreme positions somehow find support in the sources, are they not the mirror image of those posekim who tend le-kula?

    As far as I can tell, the difference is in admitting it.

  26. Bob Miller says:

    Aren’t the passages quoted above articulations of the American consumerist approach to religion? There is nothing particularly Jewish about this. Mad Libs meets the Chinese menu. Mix and match. An upgrade with new bells and whistles. Having your cake and eating it.

    The object is to turn one’s personal desire (this can be emotional, material, intellectual, or even spiritual) into a virtue by re-reading the Torah and its sages according to one’s agenda. Do what you want and feel like a tzaddik.

    If the mussar approach has taught us anything, it’s the value of struggling for objectivity and approaching HaShem’s word with awe. Not beating a recalcitrant Mesorah into submission.

  27. Reuven says:

    R. Adlerstein,

    I will admit that I don’t completely grasp all of what R. Linzer was trying to say; perhaps in the fuller context of the entire article his point would be somewhat more clear. Nonetheless, I do think that there is an obvious and qualitative distinction between R. Linzer’s way of thinking and Elliot Dorff’s: put simply, Dov Linzer worships a God who, in the final analysis, still has the right to say NO. Elliot Dorff does not.

    The issue of the legitimacy of finding strands within the tradition which seem to validate our own individual values/desires and emphasizing them, or of making appeals, within clearly defined limits, to what R. Linzer refers to as “the broader ethos of the system” has been the subject of much discussion over the years and has been written about extensively by Prof. Marvin Fox, ZTZ”L, R. Lichtenstein, and of course more recently Prof. Marc Shapiro, as I presume you know.

    It is of course up to you whether or not you chose to classify R. Linzer’s type of thinking as being within Orthodoxy. But wherever one comes down on that question, it is clear that his mode of thinking is fundamentally different from Conservatism, in which a 2/3 majority vote of the Rabbinical Assembly (or even 3 JTS rabbis) can override d’orayta issurim.

  28. mycroft says:

    “Many people like to define Orthodoxy as a belief in the Divinity of both the Written and Oral Law, finding binding instruction on practical matters within the Shulchan Aruch and accepted commentaries, and embracing the Thirteen Principles of the Rambam as the intellectual context within which one practices.”

    Except for maybe the Yemenites whose “Shulchan Aruch” historically was the Rambam, one who doesn’t in principle accept the binding words on practical matters of the Shulchan Aruch–and whatever explanations his community accepts of it eg Rama for Ashkenazic Jews etc–is probably not an Orthodox Jew. You are aware that there is a serious debate about the abinding element of the Rambams 13 principles-among people committed to halacha. Divinity of Torah — except for perhaps a few verses eg last few of Devarim and according to some Rishonim a few words here and there — no dispute on Chumash being Divine, Oral Law probably biggest debate–to what extent is what we call Oral Law divine–certainly some things clearly are divine–how Omer is counted from 2nd day of Pesach. Obviously pure Rabbinic doctrines are Rabbinic doctrines-gezerot-mitzvot drabbanon etc.

    ” They both pick and choose, according to convenience”
    Unfortunately that is not only limited to the left. Many in the right as well as the left-pick and chose about dinei mamonot-vhamevin yavin.

    “certain approaches, attitudes, or even actions as representing such a departure from what the majority accepts -– and possibly a threat to that majority –- that it consigns them to a place beyond the pale of acceptability

    There certainly is some level of ttitudes beyond the pale eg someone rejecting the princile of binding halacha–what is binding halacha may be open on the margins–but it is not a political question on either side–it is a HALACHIK question to be decided on halachik grounds.

  29. Joel Rich says:

    As you continue to formulate your thoughts, I suggest you consider an approach to your analysis which includes elements of
    what iirc Robert Townsend in UP THE ORGANIZATION called “the man from Mars” approach. This would include an intellectually honest review of practices within all elements of orthodoxy which appear against what should be against accepted norms but is not shut down by leadership (one example might be talking during tfilla) or where norms have changed over time (e.g. why do mourners not practice atifat rosh [covering of the head] anymore).While there will certainly be explanations for each divergence, imho it’s not as black and white a line as it seems you are describing or perhaps there’s another line (e.g. torah min hashamayim?)

    Good topic though.
    KT