The sun shone brighter not long ago, and all earthlings had more pep in their step, with the news that a new rabbinical organization was launched – the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Ostensibly, it was formed in order to counter what they perceive as the too-dominant influence of Roshei Yeshiva in psak (Jewish legal decision-making) and communal life. In reality, it is an organization with a narrow agenda – to push the envelope of halacha so wide that it can accommodate the demands of feminists, homosexuals, and other assorted causes blowing in the cultural winds, and in a way that it senses that neither the Rabbinical Council of America nor the “right-wing” Yeshiva world will, properly, ever tolerate.
Ordinarily, the founding of a new rabbinical organization would not be an occasion for comment, or even much general interest, as Jews are well known for organizations that are either redundant or promote – even just for vanity – the interests of one person. And since not all doctors belong to the AMA, not all lawyers belong to the ABA, and not all seasoned citizens belong to the AARP, why should all Orthodox Rabbis belong to any of the current five, six or seven existing rabbinical organizations ? If in the rest of Jewish communal life, the slightest difference in tinge, color or philosophy warrants a new organization (with overhead costs, officers, fund-raising, dinners, etc.), why should Rabbis be different ? Indeed, everyone knows (although few admit) that the quest for “unity” in Jewish life usually means “agree with ME or I will go my own way” (and everyone is a ME to himself). As such, the formation of any new organization is rather unsurprising.
There is an interest, though, in highlighting the stated objectives of this new organization, if only out of a desire to propagate the Torah truth and safeguard the Mesora, as I see it. If several dozen Rabbis find fault with the ideological direction of the more than 1000 member RCA, not to mention the thousands of Orthodox Rabbis who are considered as part of the right-wing world, it is legitimate to inquire as to the nature of the disagreements, and whether they contain any substance.
Clearly, they find the influence of the “Roshei Yeshiva” as stultifying – certainly those in the Yeshiva world but perhaps even most at Yeshiva University. They are perceived – probably justifiably – as resistant to the “changes” in Jewish life, first made by the Conservative movement in the last century but now embraced as a legitimate expression of “Torah” by proponents of this new organization. Actually, the rivalry between Roshei Yeshiva and shul (or town) Rabbis is not new, but was a staple of Jewish communal life in Eastern Europe. There, the balance of power favored the town Rabbis – and not the Roshei Yeshiva – as the town Rabbis were considered both scholars and pragmatists, and were more actively involved in people’s lives. Indeed, in Europe, it was considered more prestigious to be a town Rabbi than a Rosh Yeshiva.
Today, the balance of power has shifted somewhat, and Roshei Yeshiva are, if not more respected (I have no complaints in that regard), then at least widely construed as more reliable and consistent interpreters of halacha. This is perhaps an over-generalization, and is shaped by three distinct phenomena: one, many people do not have a Rosh Yeshiva, and for them their Rabbi remains the exclusive address for Torah advice and guidance (that is a good part of my job); two, many students who spend years learning with a particular teacher develop a warm personal relationship with him, which is quite natural and understandable; three, Roshei Yeshiva generally train the pulpit Rabbis, and the burden of proof is on the Rabbi to justify why he deviated from his teacher’s path.
It is not my place to judge the relative Torah scholarship of Roshei Yeshiva vs. pulpit Rabbis, as there are many pulpit Rabbis (and Roshei Yeshiva) who are fine, outstanding Talmidei Chachamim. To be a pulpit Rabbi or a Rosh Yeshiva requires a different set of skills. Because pulpit Rabbis live in the grass roots, their decisions are often rooted in a greater awareness of communal concerns; conversely, Roshei Yeshiva can be in an “ivory tower,” unaware of how their decisions will affect a community beyond the individual who questioned them. Even to suggest that the world of Roshei Yeshiva is monolithic, or that their decisions are necessarily correct, would be misleading. And no one is infallible.
But the pulpit Rabbi is also subject to pressures that the Rosh Yeshiva is not, and therefore Roshei Yeshiva today have become – fairly or not – perceived as more coherent defenders of the Mesora against the onslaught of modern cultures and its insatiable demands on halacha and minhag Yisrael. Undoubtedly, that underlies the discomfort (distaste ?) this new organization feels toward the authority of the “Roshei Yeshiva” who have not been forthcoming on issues of importance to them.
Three examples suffice: the nascent movement among some liberal-Orthodox Rabbis to find a place for practicing homosexuals in Orthodox life, usually by embracing the politicized conclusions of academics that homosexuality is innate, and it is therefore wrong – even immoral – to term homosexuality an abomination or homosexuals sinners. I’ll address that another time, but the attempt to accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and even support the legalization of homosexual marriage, may be an expression of sensitivity and compassion on some level but is clearly driven by the popular culture. That itself erodes the respect that these Rabbis think should be theirs, and increases in inverse proportion the ire they feel towards the “Roshei Yeshiva.” That is to say, they lose credibility as representatives of Torah when they adopt such trendy views, and founding five or ten new organizations will not change that one iota. Simply put, the mass of Torah-faithful Klal Yisrael will not stand for it.
Secondly, “liberal” Orthodox Rabbis call for relaxed standards for converts, and dissent from the standards promulgated several years ago by the RCA. They would rather revert to the practices of the recent past, where Rabbis were often compelled to look away from insincerity, or pretend that halachic commitment existed where it patently did not. See http://www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/30621 . But an individual Rabbi retains the autonomy to pronounce a particular restaurant kosher or not, based on standards that others can accept or reject; he does not have the right to dictate to the nation of Israel who will properly be termed a citizen. (I refer here not to the State of Israel but to the Jewish people. Membership in the Jewish people is not determined by the predilections of individual rabbis but by generally-accepted standards. Nor was the State of Israel endowed with the authority to declare “who is a Jew;” they can only decide “who is an Israeli.”)
The third issue is that (now) century-old bugaboo of women’s rights and feminism. I have no doubt that the International Rabbinic Fellowship will find a way to admit women as members, and as Rabbis, and thereby in the short-term necessitate a change in their name (already!) to International Rabbinic Fellowship and Galship (IRFG).
More seriously, I sense their inner turmoil. They would like to ordain women as rabbis, but fear the obvious repercussions. Similarly, they must chafe at the mechitza, women’s inadmissibility as witnesses, judges, or in a minyan, or the restrictions on women in public prayer, or the very notion that the Torah ideal is based on a division of roles and responsibilities between men and women (analogous to the division between kohanim, leviim and yisraelim). They recognize the “mechitza” as a political statement – a clear sign of Orthodoxy in a synagogue, as lack of a mechitza is a clear sign of non-Orthodoxy. So they are stuck – emotionally, intellectually, halachically and spiritually – and therefore bristle at organizations – RCA, Young Israel, Aguda – that do not give them cover or succor, and at people – “Roshei Yeshiva” – whose authority, popularity and credibility they resent, and crave for themselves. It must be hard to explain these encroachments on the altar of egalitarianism to their constituents who have learned to expect flexibility-on-demand in halacha.
So they skirt the issues, and implausibly think they can introduce gimmicks for women (sheva brachot in English, serve as Rabbis without the title, etc.) that do not really satiate the demand for equality, and are themselves rationalized by cherry-picking halachic sources and ignoring the mesora. Women’s prayer groups and the Yoetzet movement (the latter, more understandable in Israel where the Rabbinate is largely dysfunctional) are just two examples of the straight line one can draw from the Reform ordination of women in the early 1970’s and the Conservative ordination in the 1980’s until today. What changed ? Why did Orthodoxy vehemently oppose those ordinations then, and a few support it today ? Were we sexist, male chauvinists then, and more enlightened today ? Did it take thirty years to find the sources to rationalize it ? Not at all. The secular world changed, and for those whose halachic foundations shift with every change in the secular world, their world had to change as well.
In brief, one has to line up a number of halachic ducks in a row (permitting women to learn Torah she-be-al peh, sing in public, speak before male audiences, decide matters of Jewish law, et al – each one somewhat controversial, some more controversial than others) in order to entertain these changes. The outcome is predetermined, because the psak is not based on an honest appraisal of sources but on finding the supportive sources and ignoring the rest. And then one has to wantonly discount Minhag Yisrael.
Some of my dearest colleagues who endorsed either (or both) women’s prayer groups or yoatzot (I didn’t) now find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Each move raised expectations, each move fostered the idea that we were revising the traditional role of women in Jewish life, or entirely abandoning it as both antiquated and repugnant – and so each move just encouraged the next one and the one after that.
We can always play with halacha in an attempt to devise new roles. A husband is as capable of lighting Shabbat candles as his wife is, and usually less harried. How uplifting it would be if men went to the mikveh monthly, as well as women. Nothing wrong with that; some men go every day. We can also find a way to eat milk right after meat; we don’t, because that has no lobby. We also don’t, because that is not our tradition. The Torah – not liberal society – also determines our values, not just our practices.
The real dividing line in Jewish life today is between those who are happy with the mesora and those unhappy with the mesora. Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim (acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship) demands that we accept the mesora even if we deem ourselves “more enlightened;” otherwise, we – like Nadav and Avihu before us – are worshipping ourselves, and not the Almighty. And isn’t that the ultimate reality of Western man today – self-worship ? If I am unhappy with the Mesora, it is because of something within me that needs rectification. I have to bend to the Torah’s will, and not bend the Torah to suit my will. Those who live with grievances against the Torah must recognize that on some level, as Moshe once said to his flock, “…your complaints are not against us, but against G-d” (Sh’mot 16:8).
The feminist movement ravaged the American family, with skyrocketing rates of divorce that have only recently begun to level off, with a majority of children born out-of-wedlock, and with the continuing unreliability of the home as the transmitter of values. The Jewish world has suffered from this as well, and we should not look to repeat the mistakes from which American society is already retreating.
Sometimes, the answer to a she’ela is “no” – like the answer a wise parent has to give to a child on occasion. Any organization founded on the principle that a leniency can always be found to justify what we want to do (women, converts, homosexuals, Shabbat, you name it) will attract like-minded, tenuously-committed Jews but will soon be an anachronism, leaving only the questions: how much damage can it do to Jewish life ? How many well-meaning Jews will be misled into thinking that the Torah is a ball of wax that can be shaped any way they want in order to satisfy their needs ? How will pulpit Rabbis retain the respect of Torah Jews ? And how long before the Torah world rejects these notions, and this new organization merges with some form of Conservative Judaism that posited the same approach in the last century, with devastating results for Jewish life ?
The reality is that men are the transmitters of the Mesora, and therefore entrusted with responsibilities of psak and leadership. Man’s nature is such that he will not regularly seek out a female teacher of any sort – and certainly not Torah – and those who doubt this should behold the steep decline in male attendance at female-led temples. Any attempt to tamper with the Mesora will not succeed, and the very framework of this new organization will be self-marginalizing. The “Roshei Yeshiva” will reject it, and so will most of the RCA, and the Yeshiva world, and the educated young people of today – men and women – and the religious world in Israel. It will be a curiosity, like Edah that came and went. And the second reality is that women are partners in transmitting the Mesora, but with a different role, different responsibilities, and, yes, different skill sets to help them fulfill their role. Their contributions are indispensable, their growth in Torah is a marvelous development – but neither should lead to a diminution or elimination of their traditional role on which the Jewish family depends, literally, for its survival.
Should these individuals be purged from the RCA ? I am not enamored of purges, and the RCA can certainly accommodate a wide range of thinking, something natural to the study of Torah in any event. But anyone who thinks that a particular rabbinical organization no longer suits them should probably resign; I know I would. The saddest aspect is that many of the individuals involved – I am not familiar with all of them – are very talented teachers and leaders, with much to offer the Jewish people. Indeed, their greatest weakness might be a boundless love of every Jew that precludes them from inflicting on Jews the slightest pain – even the pain that comes from hearing the word “no.” With Jewish identity under attack (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/books/24jews.html?pagewanted=2&em) and the target of the most vulgar distortions and lies, we need all Jews and especially all Rabbis to strengthen the Torah and not to dilute it. We need clarity and consistency – from generation to generation. There needs to be the expectation that halacha will not change because of interest-group politics.
In America, everyone has the right to found an organization that propounds any philosophy. And everyone has the right – sometimes the obligation – to challenge that organization, to defend what is pure and holy, to expose (where possible) hidden motivations, and to underscore the beauty of our mesora – the tree of life of Torah, for those who want to grasp it.