Who is the posek (Rabbinic decisor) of Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy ? Who is the final, ultimate authority whose decision will be obeyed by all serious Jews – a role served in other wings of Orthodoxy in the past or present by such luminaries as Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yosef Henkin, Rav Avraham Y. Kook, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Asher Weiss, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Shlomo Aviner, etc. ? At one time, of course, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik filled that role for the ModOs, although he never considered himself primarily a posek. But who replaced him ?
Good question. Some will undoubtedly point to the distinguished Roshei Yeshiva at YU for that designation, but clearly their piskei halacha are followed by their students and a self-selected group of questioners. They, sadly, cannot be deemed the poskim for the ModOs, because many (if not most) ModOs would not ask them, and, if they did, would not necessarily heed their decisions. So who fulfills the role of the posek for the Modern Orthodox ? Good question. No good answer, and therein lies the essence of the problem of Modern Orthodoxy today, one it came by quite honestly, and which mostly answers the question: how did a so-called “Modern Orthodox” movement begin ordaining women, a matter that even Professor Saul Lieberman of JTS reportedly opposed just 30 years ago ?
The answer is that there is no posek for Modern Orthodoxy, almost by definition. Modern Orthodoxy has always been shaped by a variety of Western imperatives, and as Western values change, Modern Orthodoxy attempts to change with it. And one staple of Western man – especially in the United States for more than two centuries – has been a clear streak of anti-authoritarianism. “Don’t tread on me” was the chest-bumping chant of nascent America that is still prevalent today in American political life. (It is the unspoken but guiding principle of today’s Tea Party movement.) And it is among the dominant trends of Modern Orthodoxy, otherwise expressed as “Who are you to tell me what to do ? I am fully capable of making my own decisions !”
To be sure, there are many fine ModOs who will ask she’elot – whether to their local Orthodox rabbi or to a Rosh Yeshiva (here or in Israel) whom they respect – and they will consider themselves bound by the decision. They would likely and justifiably dissent from what follows, but, in truth, they would not be considered genuine ModOs by the keepers of the nomenclature. They might consider themselves “modern” because of some other dimension of their lives, and clearly many Western values – especially those rooted in Torah – are positive, virtuous, and indispensable to civil society. To be called “modern” is not necessarily pejorative – but neither is it always, necessarily, affirmative or honorable.
Consequently, the ModO Rabbi will tout the virtues of local Rabbinic authority, as opposed to a centralized authority. About a decade ago, one of the leading exponents of this notion, the esteemed Rabbi Saul Berman, said at an RCA convention that pulpit Rabbis should construe themselves as akin to “District Court Judges” in the federal court system who have absolute authority in their districts, and need not turn to other districts for judicial guidance. I.e., we can make our own decisions, and we need not fear what a particular Rosh Yeshiva, Jewish community, or tradition itself, will say. When I interjected that the analogy is flawed because even district judges can be overruled by Circuit Court Judges, and they in turn by the US Supreme Court – in fact, engendering the very opposite conclusion from the one he was drawing – there was no response. Perhaps he could have said that since we have no Circuit or Supreme Courts in our system, therefore the District Judge (i.e., Rabbi) reigns supreme. But we do have judicial overseers – those entrusted with the Mesora from generation to generation, and the great body of Torah Jewry of all stripes who recognize – with great honesty and objectivity – what is an innate part of the corpus of Torah and what is a foreign graft that is not truly part of Torah and will eventually be rejected.
In a very real sense, the Rav zt”l was never replaced. Granted, he towered over the movement, and could not easily be replaced. Certainly, he was ill-disposed to the ideological direction of some of his disciples, but he was a complex individual – as many great people are – and that engendered the enduring discussion of the “Rav’s Legacy” in which a generation of his followers has eagerly engaged. But the Torah bids us to obey the “shofet asher yihiyeh bayamim hahaim,” the judges that will be in those days (Devarim 17:9). Each generation has its own leaders, and they are designated notwithstanding that they might lack the greatness of a prior generation’s leaders. There are outstanding Gedolei Torah in the ModO world; the fact that they are not perceived as “authorities” is not because they lack the magnitude of Rav Soloveitchik, but rather because many ModOs have willfully and purposely chosen not to embrace any final, absolute authority – to permit that ultimate freedom of action and to actualize that most American value: “Don’t tread on me.” (The right-wing, Yeshivish, Charedi worlds are much more hierarchical, and their deceased Torah giants are mourned, their teshuvot avidly studied and serve as precedents to be discarded reluctantly and rarely – but they do move on to the next generation of Torah leaders.) The ModOs never moved on, and in that vacuum of Rabbinic leadership, anything goes – including female Rabbis. Who’s to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” ?
Two months ago, I wrote in this space: “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 the International Rabbinic Fellowship and Galship (IRFG).” That it happened so soon is also not that surprising, as any movement that thrives on media attention needs regular injections of publicity. And there is a virtue in clarity, in dropping all the pretenses, the forced explanations and contrived titles, and being honest about intentions and objectives. (And when they ordain homosexual rabbis and officiate at same-sex marriages – first to be called “commitment ceremonies,” of course – they will be up to speed with their Reform and Conservative colleagues. Now, they are lagging by about two decades.)
By the way, what kind of title is “Rabba” anyway ? The Reform and Conservative Rabbis all call themselves “Rabbi” – male and female. Rabba is a man’s name, to boot; roughly twenty amoraim were named Rabba, including, most famously, Rabba bar Nachmani, who must be rolling in his holy grave along with his famous bar plugta, Rav Yosef. Interestingly, the great Rabba was nicknamed “okeir harim” – the uprooter of mountains – for his keen analytical skills, while Rav Yosef was nicknamed “Sinai” for his prodigious memory. Is it fair to say that this new, female Rabba is just ….okeir Sinai ? (I.e., Okeret Sinai, of course.)
And what is next – non-Jewish Rabbis ? And why not, you might ask. Is there some prohibition about having a non-Jew preach (or sing) from the pulpit ? Apparently not. Is there a prohibition against a non-Jew doing pastoral work ? Certainly not. Is there some prohibition against a non-Jew leading psukei d’zimra or Lecha Dodi ? He (she) is only reading Hebrew. Can a non-Jew not pasken she’elot – assuming, of course, that they receive the same Torah training and education as a Jew ? Hmmm. Can a non-Jew not ascertain whether a wedding ring is a shaveh pruta ? Hmmm, you read it here first. Of course, a non-Jew cannot count in a minyan or read from the Torah or be a witness, but…never mind… This was meant facetiously –neither l’halacha nor l’maaseh! – but to illustrate where the embrace of pure individual autonomy, rejection of Mesora, and intellectual “creativity” lead.
There are cogent halachic, philosophical and social objections to the ordination of women (related to serara, leadership, the normal functions of the Rabbinate that cannot be performed by women, psak, mesora, et al), but history provides the clearest instruction. The Conservative movement approved women’s ordination only after the death of Professor Lieberman, a Slabodka talmid who always seemed out of place in Morningside Heights. (Reportedly, when Professor Lieberman came to America, Rav Yitzchak Hutner asked him first to teach at Yeshivat Chaim Berlin; instead, he went to JTS… It was a different generation!) But when JTS ordained women, that decision was the primary catalyst for the founding of the Union of Traditional Judaism, a Conservative splinter group for which the ordination breach was just too much. Is it fair to conclude that, for those keeping score at home, that this puts IRFG (and its YCT patron; forget the cosmetic barrier erected between the two) somewhere to the left of UTJ, known colloquially as “right-wing Conservative”? If so, and apparently it is so, then shouldn’t YCTers now come home ? Did they originally see themselves as being outside the pale of Orthodoxy ? Did they realize that the legitimacy of their semicha would be challenged, and then rejected by the Torah world ? For most, certainly, I think not. Come home.
The slope is no longer slippery, as the bottom has already been reached, for now at least. Modern Orthodoxy, and its leading Rabbinical organization, has to clarify where it stands, drawing lines in the sand where necessary, and deciding, regretfully and sadly, what – and who – is outside the world of Torah. No one needs another intramural fight, not with Iran’s nuclear bomb looming. But in this week’s sedra, Amalek attacked a Jewish nation “she’rafu yideihem min haTorah” – whose grasp of Torah slackened, loosened, and became more tenuous. We have to re-assert the fundamental norms of Torah, or we will cease being construed as authentic representatives of the Creator.
One of those norms is the rejection of the anti-authoritarian streak of Western man, and the recognition that subservience to halachic authority is the hallmark of the Torah Jew. And the converse – the life of the libertine – is the antithesis of Torah, and the root of idolatry: the creation of G-d in man’s image. Most ModOs will reject this latest innovation, but the leftist fringe will keep pushing and pressuring, especially in small communities away from the center of Jewish life. We need to protect them, and push back, and state unequivocally – with love and tears – to those who are about to walk the plank: “This is not the way. Come home.”