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.”


19 responses to “Authority

  1. R’ Elyashiv maintains that one must wait six hours after pizza to eat meat and that the haredi internet is assur, among other things. I don’t see him as “the final, ultimate authority whose decision will be obeyed by all serious Jews” in the haredi world.

    • Think “mainstream” views. Even Moshe Rabbenu clearly wasn’t obeyed by 100% of his followers. But Rav Elyashiv’s (and others’) sway is much more dominant than anyone in the ModO world.

      • Additionally, there are legitimate machlokot among poskim that are not necessarily resolved by an “ultimate” authority. But that does not mean in an individual’s life he cannot designate someone as an “authority” – but that is much less common in the ModO world where “psak shopping” is de riguer for those who even ask she’elot.

  2. Bravo.
    I grew up under 2 influences:

    The remnant of Rav Hirsch’s kehillah in Washington Heights

    The burgeoning community of Riverdale, which spans from the Avi Weiss/Blu Greenberg left to the traditional position exemplified by Rav Mordechai Willig.

    It was clear to me from early on that many people calling themselves “Modern Orthodox” were in fact succumbing to intellectual and social fashions.

    The example of Rav Hirsch’s kelliha and it’s Torah-true engagement of the modern world made the distinction crystal clear – not just in honest devotion to G-d and Torah, but in willingness to do the heavy lifting intellectually.

    Unfortunately when I wound up in YU I saw confusion and a “split personality” approach to engaging modernity. There was no attempt to spark real discussion – instead the “yeshiva program” and the secular studies program existed in isolated boxes, and students were encouraged to compartmentalize. “Torah U’mada” exist in separate parallel realms, while Hirschian “Torah Im Derech Eretz” does not concede any sphere – scientific, artistic, social – to the secular worldview.

    You write that the MO world has adopted Western notions of individual autonomy. Consider that we did this *after* we accepted Western notions of separation of church and state – the YU experience was one in which Torah study was already boxed off from secular studies, the same way post-Enlightenment democracies box off religion itself from the public square, reducing moral imperatives to “personal preferences”…

    Jews were happy to play this game in exchange for living unmolested – but it has corroded any sense of Torah as THE binding moral yardstick of communal or personal conduct.

  3. Rabbi Pruzansky, I enjoy your writings. And I agree with the thrust of your ultiamate point, concerning the riddiculous “rabbah” notion. But you overstate your case in the buildup to your point, by claiming Modern Orthodoxy has no final arbiter whilst other streams of orthodoxy do.

    That is manifestly incorrect. RM Feinstein enjoyed very wide support, but since his death Aguduist orthodoxy has been just as bereft of a final authority as their more modern brethern. You cannot seriously claim they follow Rabbi Eliashiv or any of the other Charedim in Israel. Not even the Charedim in Israel follow him.

    Moreover, while RMF was widely respected and admired, dont overestimate his influence. There are thousands of Jews who carry, every shabbos in Boro Park and now even in parts of Flatbush. Thousands of Jews refuse to drink regular milk, even though RMF said you can. These are but two examples.

    I can elaborate, but point is, it’s not just MO who espouse the “dont tell me what to do” philopsohy, it’s all Jews. Only differecne is that the MO actually articulate that point in words, while the rest of the oilam just does it in practice.

  4. Yossi Ginzberg

    You missed one- Rabba is also a synonym for “komer” in Nach!

  5. >even Professor Saul Lieberman of JTS reportedly opposed just 30 years ago ?

    Lieberman was Orthodox, or at very least truly conservative. A more potent example is Halivni who was and is much less conservative theologically and academically.

  6. HaRav HaGaon Shaul Lieberman was nifter in March 1983. JTS voted to ordain women in October of that year. I think you are referring to HaRav HaGaon David HaLivni Weiss, who resigned from JTS because of the impending vote on women’s ordination and then went on to found UTJ, before eventually moving to Israel where he currently resides.

    • Yes – but he opposed it. Did JTS wait until he died before passing it ? History will decide.
      And I noted UTJ’s founding primarily because of this issue. It is a sign of how far afield this is.

  7. What you write is substantially true, but not entirely so. There is no ultimate authority in the Charedi world with, say, powers of excommunication. But each Rebbi is an ultimate authority for his flock, and R. Moshe’s influence was almost universal.
    Bear in mind that the examples you cite – eruv and milk – are situations in which the people you mention declined to follow a leniency of R. Moshe. Just because something is permitted does not make it mandatory. They simply declined to exercise the leniency, and in the milk case, even R. Moshe wrote that a “baal nefesh” should be machmir.
    Thank you.

  8. In the case of Eruv, they decline to follow a chumra of R. Moshe, not a leniency. Same thing for shabbos clocks.

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  10. Israeli Perspective

    The Orthodoxy R. Pruzansky describes is simply alien to all mainstream modern orthodoxy — save for the American experience, which moves further and further away from Dati Leumi or anything else in the British/French diaspora. Therein lies the core problem with American orthodoxy, an experience I can no longer relate to after years in Israel as Dati Leumi. R. Henkin & Feinstein served as de facto Chief Rabbis, R. Solovetchik was posthumously turned into a marketing brand for use of the YU Rabbinic alumni, but no one was fooled for a moment. There is no bet din structure, there is no organizational criteria any Jewish movement would comprehend let alone recognize. There is nothing more than chaos, and an increasingly corrupt local Rabbinate getting caught in scandal after scandal as the Rabbinate in their form turns into a very Big Business for profit, be it kashrut, education, divorce or any other scandal of the month. Female Rabbis is a minor symptom of the underlying cancer.

    • A tad harsh, don’t you think ?

      • Israeli Perspective

        No more harsh than recognizing the impossible Obama budget is also primarily a product if organizational design flaw rather than ideology. Until American Judaism addressesses the invisible elephant present since the death of R Jacob Joseph de jure, and Ravs Henkin, Feinstein and Soloveitick de facto, the organizational flaw guarantees scandal after scandal and chaos. As you describe, no legal system can exist without district court oversight and an appeals process. That is parshat Yitro.

  11. ModO generally ask their shailos of their LOR (local Orthodox rabbi) as was done in klall yisroel for 1000s of years. The LOR rabbis generally recognize their abilities and limitations and ask their shailos to their rebbeim and roshei yeshiva.
    The problem is that there are some LOR who dont recognize (or deny) their limitations and will push the envelope of modernity.
    Truth be told there is no paucity of Charedi and yeshivishe LO maarei dasra who also exceed their abilities and competency both l’chumra and l’kulah.

  12. Very good piece and as someone who grew up in Boston under the Rav’s hashpa’ah, i too lament the lack of a posek that the MO world can universally accept. Your point that some of the blame falls on the populus is very valid, but i also wonder if there is a lack of Torah leader in the MO world who is touching the soul of the rabim. i appreciated R. Lamm’s writings and machshava and likewise support many of the works and efforts of Lord Rabbi Sacks… but neither of them enjoy universal support or anything close to that.
    on a differnent note where you ID R. Saul Lieberman, tz’l. It is a curiosity to me why more of the MO world continues to slam the door shut on the UTJ, when it is evident from their piskei halakha that they have moved to the “right” of where they started 20 yrs ago. My impression is where YCT has tried to challenge the boundries of halakha, the UTJ has seen the errors of the C Movement and has moved from a “change” mentality.

  13. Let me add my voice to what others have said, I’m not sure there is a recognized right wing American Posek. Certainly not one with the stature of R’ Moshe. He was universally accepted my most of the misnagdic world RW LW MO and all other O. The chassidim did not share that view entirely.

    I believe that sociologically the longevity of many of the European/American gedolim stunted the development of American Poskim. In addition the demographic growth and the impetus for minor rabbinic figures to denigrate other Orthodox streams has fragmented American orthodoxy so no one is widely accepted.

    Rabbi Hershel Schachter has several times been heard to lament, that even within YU, talmidim think their rav is the only one with the proper answers.

    Certainly, this should be or is the case where there is a new Yeshiva Gedolah with a new Rosh Yeshiva opens every year.

    On top of that the LOR is disrespected in favor of the Rosh Yeshiva and the Rosh Yeshiva only is followed by his group of talmidim. There is no central authority.

    It is depressing. A lot of it reminds me of kids talking baseball — Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays vs. Duke Snider. — my godol is greater than your godol.

    • Rav Moshe was about equally accepted universally in the Chareidi world as Rav Elyashiv is currently. Even Rav Moshe in his lifetime had disagreements with contemporary Chareidi poskim (Satmar Rebbe, Rav Henkin, etc.) and Rav Moshe’s word was not necessarily the final say across the Chareidi spectrum.

      Nevertheless, then as now, it is correct to state as Rav Pruzansky indicated, that Chareidim have a “final, ultimate authority” in a very strong (although not entirely) sense.