Rabbi Angel’s Lament

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This post deals only with Rabbi Angel’s views, not with MO, in general, and was written and published last month before the piece on Noah Feldman. Steve Brizel, who was critical of the Feldman piece, urged me to post this one. In short, I have no wish to revisit the general issue of Modern Orthodoxy. Any criticisms with respect to this post itself are, of course, welcome.

Rabbi Marc Angel, former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, is retiring after 38 years as the spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel. But he is not going quietly into the night. In a recent interview with the Jewish Week, Rabbi Angel charged that Orthodoxy, including his own Modern Orthodox movement, is “to a certain extent slipping over the line to a cultic, superstitious kind of religion.” He bewailed the loss of creativity within modern Orthodoxy and the growing resort to “so-called authorities” by local rabbis.

The Angel interview was reminiscent of last year’s valedictory address of Ismar Schorsch as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), in which Schorsch excoriated the movement he had headed for years. But whereas Schorsch complained that his movement increasingly has no standards, Rabbi Angel complained that the standards of Orthodoxy are ever stricter.

For all the harshness of his critique, Rabbi Angel offered few concrete examples of what precisely is bothering him. He mentions the question of whether it is permitted for men to attend the opera, but it is hard to believe that issue is what is exercising him. Recently, he has vociferously dissented from the view that geirus (conversion) requires an acceptance of yoke of mitzvos — a view that was axiomatic to his mentor at Yeshiva University Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik — and he even called for the dissolution of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, in part, because of its failure to convert more immigrants from the FSU.

In an op-ed in the Jewish Press, Rabbi Angel asserted the right of every rabbi to establish his own standards for geirus, and his opposition to any effort to impose a universal standard based of kabolos ol mitzvos. That same insistence on rabbinic autonomy is the dominant theme of his Jewish Week interview, in which he continuously recurs to his criticism of today’s Orthodox rabbis for deferring too many shaylos to higher authorities.

But while greater halachic knowledge on the part of congregational rabbis is always a desideratum, there will inevitably remain a hierarchy of halachic expertise. Possessing a certificate of ordination does not make all rabbis equal. As Rabbi Kenneth Auman, another past president of the RCA, noted in a letter to the Jewish Week the week after Rabbi Angel’s interview, the claim “we are all equal” has an unhappy pedigree going all the way back to Korach.

The story is told — perhaps apocryphally — of a rabbi who publicly challenged the opinion of Rav Moshe Feinstein concerning an eruv, and noted that he too possessed semichah. Reb Moshe ended the discussion by asking the rabbi how many daf there are in Tractate Eruvin (a tractate Reb Moshe had learned hundreds of times).

Presumably if Rabbi Angel or a loved one had a serious medical problem, he would want the opinion of an expert, not the boy next door doing his first year of internship. And rather than condemning an intern or resident who insisted on consulting a more senior physician, he would praise him for his sense of responsibility. The corpus of material relevant to psak halacha is even greater than that related to human physiology, and the range of experience and expertise within the rabbinate is as great as that within the medical profession.

Nor is the resort by younger, less experienced rabbis to those with great knowledge a new phenomenon. More than thirty years ago, the joke was that all a young rabbi needed was a luach z’manim (timetable) and Rav Moshe Feinstein’s phone number.

Rabbi Angel’s jeremiad does not analyze the many reasons that rabbis consult other authorities. In some cases, an individual rabbi may be unwilling to decide an issue alone because it has implications for all Klal Yisrael. Geirus — the determination of who is a member of Klal Yisrael — is one such issue. Many times even the greatest authorities have refused to issue a psak on a particular question because they felt the matter was one that demanded a widespread consensus among the leading halachic decisions. Other times, the congregational rabbi seeks a leniency in a matter involving great personal suffering, and knows that only a leading posek will have the “broad shoulders” necessary.

Rabbi Angel charges Modern Orthodoxy with shunning innovative thought and creative expression, resulting in shutting out people with independent opinions. But the creativity and innovation that he stresses are not necessarily Torah values, and in matters of halachah can be dangerous. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in a very famous passage (Meshech Chochma to VaYikra 26:44), attributes the flight of German Jews from Torah observance to the natural human desire to make a name for themselves, coupled with their recognition that they would be unable to do so in the realm of Torah learning.

Each Jew is born with the power to transform the world for the better and to open up pipelines of blessings through his actions. But that creative power is the outgrowth of his Torah learning and mitzvah observance, not something pursued as an end in itself. Reb Chaim Brisker, the most innovative Talmudic thinker of the last 150 years, once defined a chiddush in learning as achieving a proper understanding of the Rishonim.

One suspects that what ultimately troubles Rabbi Angel is not that younger rabbis refer the shaylos that they consider beyond their ability to answer to more experienced or knowledgeable authorities, or even that Orthodoxy is no longer capable of providing a “message for other Jews and the world.” Rather it is that the younger rabbis are not referring their shaylos to Rabbi Angel, and that the Orthodoxy that he espouses is not that which has attracted thousands of ba’alei teshuva to full Torah observance.

The impact of community kollelim across America over the last quarter century is proof that Torah has not lost its power to speak to the non-Orthodox Jews. In little more than a decade, for instance, the Dallas Area Torah Association has helped hundreds of families find their way to full Torah observance.

But that process of Jews discovering the power of Torah to speak to their deepest concerns as parents, spouses, and human beings is not helped by one of the leading lights of Modern Orthodoxy proclaiming contemporary Orthodoxy to be something dark and cultish.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on July 27, 2007

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51 Responses

  1. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Regarding Comment by Bob Miller — September 3, 2007 @ 7:07 am

    I follow the principle of and rely on “rov” until proven otherwise. If you add one’s personal interest, then together with religious and political orientation much can be explained and predicted.

    But that aside, I sat next to a wonderful Rav from Israel, a few days ago before the comment, and asked him his opinion on the (non-jewish) russian olim in general and the case referenced in particular. Since I do not know the details, there is little point in giving you his short comments. It supported what you labeled my ““religious-political” default view.” We all have biases; I believe mine are just closer to reality.

    As I indicated, I do not have the facts and I sincerely look forward to reading the learned defense of R. Atia’s opinion. We can then both judge how well it reflects “pure” halachic reasoning independant of personal, political and religious views. (yes – there exist religious views on all sides that may not reflect our halachic traditions.

    Until then, and perhaps even after, I will respect my instincts.

    Shana Tova