Well, who would’ve thought that ?
My piece on “Rabbinical News,” the implications of a new rabbinical organization, drew an avalanche of a response. I average 2000 hits a month. That column generated 2000 hits in a day. The question is: why? And what does it say about philosophical and halachic discourse in the Jewish world today ?
The torrent of comments was also fascinating. There were a significant number of favorable responses, and a number of people with reasonable, and reasonably-stated, disagreements. And then there was the invective, usually in the short-hand of the simple-minded: “anti-women, hates women, ugly, Neanderthal,” and the like. And the comments focused mostly on one issue: not my contemplations on the differences between Roshei Yeshiva and pulpit Rabbis, nor on halachic methodology, or even much about homosexuals or converts; it was almost exclusively a polemic – on both sides – about women’s issues.
Some might think that the exaggerated interest in my musings stemmed from the titillation of having Rabbis disagree, and in public no less. While that might be true, I found it hard to accept. Rabbis – like people generally, and like members of any profession – will often disagree about matters great and small. It need not be personalized, nor should one ever conclude that a disagreement means that the “other side” is necessarily wrong, or therefore “bad people” who should not be allowed in civil society.
A “machloket,” I assume, was not always perceived the way it is today. Abaye and Rava (yeah, yeah, no one is Abaye and Rava here) did not engender the support of partisan factions in their several thousand areas of conflict. (Typical conversation on the Babylonian blogs in the 4th century CE: “Supporters of Rava: ‘Have you heard? Our master Rava says that when a married woman is accused of infidelity by only one witness, and does not deny it, the one witness is still not believed. But Abaya says that the solitary witness is believed! [Kiddushin 66a] He must be anti-woman, that troglodyte!’” Typical ? Somehow, I don’t think so.)
The hostile reaction here was so visceral that I could only conclude that, contrary to traditional halachic methodology, people are emotionally vested in a certain outcome. Like the rabid sports fan who supports his favorite team and wants them to win at all costs – even if they cheat, even if the umpire or referee blows a call [“a win is a win”] – one group of polemicists wants its side to win. They have little interest in halachic process, but rather a passionate desire for a particular result. I have thought, on occasion, that what passes for “Modern Orthodox” scholarship these days is often the search for the one obscure opinion, rishon or acharon, who will permit the interested to do what they have already decided they are going to do. But that is gamesmanship. I, too, am often in the position of having a particular desire frustrated by the halacha’s conclusion of “no, you can’t” or “yes, you must,” and, to my thinking, that is the essence of the subservience to G-d that is expected of the religious personality.
Just like not “everything” should be instinctively prohibited, so too not “everything” can be permitted, our sincere, heartfelt desire for same notwithstanding. When people are quick to pejoratively label their ideological adversaries, then we have left the realm of Torah discourse and entered a world of closed minds and tunnel vision. Part of the venom (and I underscore that many of those who disagreed were quite polite, and I do not refer to them at all) came, I think, because such views from a “Charedi” can be easily dismissed, but not so readily from a non-Charedi. In truth (and can there be anything more trite and self-serving than what follows here ?), I try not to pigeonhole myself as Charedi, modern, yeshivish, centrist, etc. I try to call ‘em as I see ‘em, and so do not neatly fit in any category – laudatory of the strengths and critical of the weaknesses of each group, as I see ‘em, and myself as well. And each group plays an instrument in the great orchestra of Klal Yisrael; we just have to ensure that everyone is playing from the same sheet music.
I reiterate what I consider the central aspect of the article: “The real dividing line in Jewish life today is between those who are happy with the mesora and those unhappy with the mesora.” I have always been surrounded by men and women – family, friends and teachers (both male and female) – who are content with the Mesora, and surely that has influenced my views. But just like the Torah should not be used as “a spade with which to dig” – a tool to satisfy our wishes and desires – so too it should not be used as “a crown to aggrandize oneself” – to feel superior to those who struggle with aspects of the Mesora that fly in the face of the cultural winds that swirl around us. We are each at a different place on the continuum to complete “Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim” and we would do well to encourage each other – build each other up by having honest discussions motivated by love of Torah and the Jewish people – and not attempt to belittle dissenting opinions and those who hold them.
Then, indeed, the Torah will be “a tree of life for those who grasp it” and the source of all good and happiness for us and the world.