A Heretic in the Church – II

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When last I wrote, it was to report on the politically (and anatomically?) correct move of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute to add a smattering of women to its board, and to voice my wistful musing on the likelihood that strongly Orthodox Jews would ever be invited to join that august body.

Lo and behold, I read on to find that one of the three new female members of the People Policy Planning politburo is Professor Suzanne Last Stone, a highly regarded Orthodox academic. Thought I: by golly, I wonder if the Planners realize that they’ve actually chosen a strongly Orthodox woman to join the club.

Now, I’ve never made the acquaintance of Prof. Stone, nor am I at all familiar with her professional writings. All I’m going on here is my vivid recollection of her contribution to the August 1996 Commentary symposium entitled “What Do American Jews Believe?” I’ve gotten many hours of reading pleasure out of my by-now dog-eared copy of that symposium, which I heartily recommend to readers who are not allergic to even a whiff of Orthodox triumphalism.

To explain what I mean by that, I’ll quote from a review of the symposium in the February 1997 issue of First Things (our own Jonathan Rosenblum did his own excellent review at the time in the JO) by the refreshingly forthright Cifford Librach, a Reform clergyman who can be counted on to speak truth to power. Contrasting the 1996 symposium with one Commentary had featured on the identical topic thirty years earlier, Librach writes:

[T]he most striking difference between the earlier and later symposiums lies in the reversal of ideological momentum between liberal and traditional Judaism. In 1966, the plurality of respondents were Reform rabbis, who, for the most part, wrote with utter self-confidence, barely granting a nod to the struggles of Orthodox Judaism. In 1996, by contrast, the tilt is strongly toward Orthodoxy and the traditional wing of the Conservative movement. That traditionalism, moreover, has become confident and pugnacious in a way no one could have anticipated in 1966. As David Singer observes, thirty years ago “the Orthodox participants were comfortable in their modernity, but at pains to justify their Orthodoxy. In 1996, for me at least, the situation is exactly the reverse: my Orthodoxy is rock solid, but I am hard-pressed to justify any accommodation with modernity.”

Librach goes on to note that the Orthodox symposiasts in ’96

answer Commentary‘s queries positively and aggressively — and proceed to note the vacuity of most everyone else; they are bold in their self-image as representing the only kind of Judaism that can survive in North America (imagine — there isn’t even a single chareidi among them; must be contagious -EK). ‘Refrom and Conservative Judaism have failed,’ asserts David Gelernter, in an intellectual dismissal characteristic of much of Commentary‘s 1996 tone. ‘The level of ignorance of classical Jewish sources within’ liberal Judaism, observes Suzanne Last Stone, ‘is, if not unprecendented in Jewish society, certainly unprecedented among those who take it upon themselves to declare the response of Judaism to the complexities of contemporary life.’

That’s right: the very same Ms. Stone who has now been granted admittance to one of the deliberating councils of The Jewish Establishment. The questions flow fast and furious: did the People Planning politburo do its due diligence before selecting her? If not, have they by now realized there’s a heretic loose in the church? If so, will they dump her, and how (he who casts the last stone . . .) ?

While I’m on the topic, I can’t resist sharing with the readers some excerpts from her moving and delightfully written essay, which, like many others in the issue, is chock full of important insights. At several points, Prof. Stone takes direct and deadly, if slightly veiled, aim at various sacred cows of contemporary American Jewry in general and the heterodox movements in particular.

Thus: “Because my allegiance to the conceptual world of the halakhah is primary, I believe that I am obligated to evaluate present sensibilities in light of its assumptions and principles and not the reverse. . . . I can identify no intellectual basis for creating a hierarchy of commandments — except to the extent recognized by the halakhah itself — or for singling out for observance those which at present can be explained on ethical or social grounds.”

And:” But I regard as a serious distortion the still-prevalent idea that Jews were chosen to pursue a particular political agenda, or that the great figures of Israel’s past, especially the prophets, are significant only insofar as they serves as role models for modern-day social activists.” Ouch!

Later, she comes close to touching a third rail of present-day non-Torah Jewry: “From the prespective of faith, I do not view the Holocaust as presenting a challenge to Jewish belief qualitatively different in kind from that posed by prior catastrophes. . . . [t]he manner in which American Jewry focuses its energy on advancing Zionism and memorializing the Holocaust — treating both as having paramount meaning in Jewish life, completely divorced from Jewish tradition and practice — threatens to deflect attention from the main goal: to perpetuate Jewish spiritual, and not solely physical, survival.”

Finally, after landing isolated blows of this sort, the gloves come off — it’s No More Mrs. Nice Gal time. I quote her take-no-prisoners denouement in full:

Even though I am extremely troubled by the deep divisions among American Jewry, it is not the lack of religious unity per se that concerns me. I am concerned, instead, that a majority of identified Jews in America are under the umbrella of Jewish denominational bodies which, in my opinion, cannot perpetuate themselves.

First, the level of ignorance of classical Jewish sources within these bodies is, if not unprecendented in Jewish society, certainly unprecedented among those who take it upon themselves to declare the response of Judaism to the complexity of contemporary life. Second, in the final analysis, I do not believe a movement which denies the authority of the halakhah will survive over time as a Jewish movement.

Unless there is a profound change in the committment of the liberal denominational movements to a Torah education and observance of the halakhic tradition, I do not see any prospect of large-scale revival out of what is, at present, the largest segment of the American Jewish poulation. I hope there will be an increasing number of thoughtful people who jump the fence toward more traditional Jewish institutional life.

As a matter of demographics, there already has been a profound revival of Judaism among the most traditional element, and given the extremely high continuity rate in those circles and their rate of procreation, one can anticipate geometric growth in the ranks of the most strongly committed. I suspect that over time, this will become the dominant strain in American Judaism.

Whew! Them’s fightin’ words — makes Kobre look like a downright anti-triumphalist pluralist.

The truth is that the presence of someone like Stone is desperately needed in an organization whose avowed purpose it is to do serious planning for the future of the Jewish people, however presumptuous that may be. First, the reality is that, by all indications, the Orthodox will play a leading role, and others a waning role, in that future, and so, it just makes good sense to include an Orthodox perspective.

Second, if the non-Orthodox are to get their acts together in terms of continuity, they’ll have to summon up the intellectual honesty and emotional fortitude to learn from the long-villified, yet phenomenally successful, Orthodox about how one goes about perpetuating Judaic commitment in the next generation, all the while trying to retain their basic non-Orthodox principles. A tough act, indeed, and, perhaps, an impossible one; the alternative, however, is to continue down the road to insignificance.

Heaven knows that the Orthodox have their own learning to do in this regard and their own act to get together. Yet, in so many of the areas that the heterodox care about, such as Jewish education, attachment to Israel, fostering giving to Jewish causes, and plain and simple commitment of time, energy and resources to Jewish living, it will be necessary for the non-Orthodox to find it within themselves, as individuals and as institutions, to begin learning from the Orthos how its done. That can’t be easy.

One wonders if the invitation for Prof. Stone to join the JPPPI wasn’t engineered by someone well aware of her worldview who decided to put the Jewish future ahead of petty denominational politics and give her views a hearing.

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14 Responses

  1. mycroft says:

    Unfortunately since Hardison v TWA-litigation has not been too fruitful.’

    There is an attempt in Congress to remedy this:

    http://www.ou.org/public_affairs/article/workplace_religious_freedom_act_some_questions_and_answers/

    It never went anywhere under the Republicans despite bipartisan sponsorship by some of the most conservative members of both houses, and almost ten years of trying. Its opponents are an unlikely coalition of absolute church/state separationists and business lobbyists. A similar law was enacted in New York and has caused businesses few problems. Hopefully the federal bill will do better under the Democrats.

    Comment by Charles B. Hall

    By memory-the first time I ran into Hardison was when the Court of Appeals agreed with Hardison-I remember that and being excited-UNFORTUNATELY the Supreme Court reversed. They reversed a good quarter of a century ago-probably more-the Court of Appeals decision in Hardison was more than 30 years ago. Nothing has happened since to change the result.

    But of more interest to a blog of cross-currents is to discuss the ethics of making others suffer because of ones religion-eg in the Hardison case would make someone with less seniority work on Sabbath to let Hardison take off. I believe RYBS was bothered by that point of making others suffer because of ones religion-certainly Prof. Kaplan is a big expert on RYBS and he apparently monitors this blog as well.

  2. mycroft says:

    Mycroft: As you know very well, Prof. Waxman’s father-in-law was Rav Dovid Lifshitz, the Suvalker Rav and for many years a prominent Rosh Yeshiva in RIETS.

    Comment by LAWRENCE KAPLAN —
    Prof. Kaplan writing Rav Lifshitz’s first English name with an “o” rather than “a” as the second letter. I ghave seen stationary of Rav David Z”TL with the English name spelt David-of course well known is Rabbi Moses Feinstein ZT”L and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik ZT”L. Their letterheades in English were as I spelt them-not Dovid, Yoseph, or Moshe. Just food for thought.

  3. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘Unfortunately since Hardison v TWA-litigation has not been too fruitful.’

    There is an attempt in Congress to remedy this:

    http://www.ou.org/public_affairs/article/workplace_religious_freedom_act_some_questions_and_answers/

    It never went anywhere under the Republicans despite bipartisan sponsorship by some of the most conservative members of both houses, and almost ten years of trying. Its opponents are an unlikely coalition of absolute church/state separationists and business lobbyists. A similar law was enacted in New York and has caused businesses few problems. Hopefully the federal bill will do better under the Democrats.

  4. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Mycroft: As you know very well, Prof. Waxman’s father-in-law was Rav Dovid Lifshitz, the Suvalker Rav and for many years a prominent Rosh Yeshiva in RIETS.

  5. mycroft says:

    Her husband is Professor Richard Stone of Columbia Law School, who is chairman of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs

    Leading tax lawyer who was involved with Nat Lewin for a time with COLPA-litigating Sabbath rights etc. Unfortunately since Hardison v TWA-litigation has not been too fruitful.

  6. mycroft says:

    I’m not sure I understand why you think JPPPI is not open to Orthodox Jews? They have plenty on their staff. Dr. Chaim Waxman, a noted sociologist, is one

    Not only is Prof. Waxman probably the leading Orthodox sociologist- but is also a musmach. His late father-in-law was head of Ezras Torah for many years, his father was a Rav in Lakewood when Rav A Kotler established Lakewood. BTW not coincidentally-Prof. Waxman’s father was a close talmid of Rav A Kotler’s father-in-law and helped get Baal Batim aid for Lakewood to be established there.

  7. Hillel (Sabba) Markowitz says:

    amechad asked why the staff members who are Orthodox should not be counted. While it is probable that they helped move the organization, a member of the board, which sets policy rather than carries it out, is qualitatively different. It appears that many organizations would welcome an Orthodox member onto its staff, but would never allow an Orthodox Jew to be put into a policy making position.

  8. Nachum says:

    Incidentally, Professor Stone teaches at Cardozo Law School, Yeshiva University. I believe she runs a program in Jewish Law there. Her husband is Professor Richard Stone of Columbia Law School, who is chairman of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs.

    Full disclosure: I took a class with Professor Stone, and worked for her briefly, when I was a student at Cardozo.

  9. anonymous says:

    Again, I may agree. However, your statement is conclusory. I still would like an explanation — and am still interested in Eytan’s views as to — what the “ban” meant and still means and why it does not apply here.

  10. Reb Yid says:

    The JPPPI is a “think tank” and is an arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

    More about it can be found here:
    http://www.jpppi.org.il/JPPPI/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=84&FID=323

    While those on this list may or may not agree with some of its analysis and conclusions (frankly, my own take and personal experience with it is that the organization is frankly too conservative and blinded by Israel-centric views at times), the JPPPI does not fall into the “Board of Rabbis”-type of organization that some Orthodox rabbis chose/choose to boycott.

  11. amechad says:

    I’m not sure I understand why you think JPPPI is not open to Orthodox Jews? They have plenty on their staff. Dr. Chaim Waxman, a noted sociologist, is one. Ms. Ahava Zarembski had been on JPPPI’s staff for several years and is also an Orthodox seminary graduate. Dr. Dov Maimon is an important fellow there and expert on Jewish theology.

    JPPPI is open to whomever is the most qualified.

    If you are correct, perhaps you should be asking why there aren’t many Orthodox scholars of Jewish sociology?

  12. anonymous says:

    Eytan – while I personally may agree with your analysis, perhaps you can explain why association with and participation in the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute would not violate the “ban” from the ’50s (– which specific language I admittedly do not have in front of me currently but which, rightly or otherwise, has been broadly interpreted to encompass a ban –)on membership in non-Orthodox groups which deal with religious-oriented matters. I know nothing about the JPPPI but can not but imagine that it deals with policy issues and topics touching upon halacha. If I am mistaken about the role of JPPPI and/or (as most likely) imprecise about the “ban”, please correct my misimpression.

  13. Barbara says:

    There is Orthodox, and there is ORTHODOX (or at least that is how they want you to feel about them). How would you ever get a female “highly regarded Orthodox academic” if you are adherents of those described in this story
    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=808316
    which I first saw mentioned on another blog
    http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2007_01_01_archive.html and go to January 2nd.
    The story title (if you don’t want to bother with the link) is
    “Rabbinical panel bars ultra-Orthodox women from continuing education programs”.
    This kind of thing is one of the bigger turn-offs for even the more observant of what you describe as “non-Torah Jewry”. If you follow the psak of those described in the Ha’aretz story, Professor Stone would be the last of her kind.

  14. Bob Miller says:

    The evolving facts on the ground will have far more effect than symposia, study/planning commissions, etc.