Inflection Point

Question: if an Orthodox rabbi does things that are not particularly “Orthodox,” do those actions then become defined as “Orthodox” because he did them or does he cease to be called an “Orthodox” rabbi? The answer is not entirely clear, even if it should be. Some actions are so egregious that the claim to Orthodoxy would seem to lapse, others cross or skirt the line of propriety, and still others are hailed as courageous innovations by many who are not schooled in Torah and Mesorah.

The question is general and I do not suggest that the above applies to Rav Shlomo Riskin, nor that Rav Riskin should be compelled to resign as Chief Rabbi of Efrat. I, for one, did not even know that his position was held pursuant to the authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel; I just assumed he served at the deference of his constituents in the city he was instrumental in founding. On the one hand, a retirement of age of 75 seems about right, if only to reinvigorate the rabbinate everywhere with younger blood; on the other hand, Rav Riskin is indefatigable even at 75, with an energy level that dwarfs that of many younger rabbis and he would certainly remain in Efrat whatever the Rabbanut does. I am among a group of numerous rabbis who admire and respect Rav Riskin for his accomplishments, his personality and his midot, all of which have inspired generations of Jews of all backgrounds including Orthodox. And, for sure, I would not want the Rabbanut passing judgment on American rabbis, so I will not pass judgment on their decisions even as I hope that this matter is resolved amicably and with full respect for all concerned.

Truth be told, no rabbi (and I mean, no rabbi,  from the time of Moshe Rabbenu until today) enjoys universal support and approbation. It is the nature of the profession, and Rav Riskin has begun to stake out positions on the leftist wing of Orthodoxy that has riled up many of his erstwhile supporters, some of his own constituents and perhaps even elements of the Chief Rabbinate. I have no inside information, but I can state with some degree of confidence that, in general, religious mavericks play better in the spiritual anarchy that prevails in America than in the more formalized religious establishments that exist in the State of Israel. Israel, after all, is the Jewish state, and providing that designation with substance has been a controversial endeavor since 1948, if not before.

In the United States, where the government stays out of matters of religious doctrine and where – especially today – the ethos is staunchly secular, few people really care (outside the particular denomination in question) what happens, what changes and what stays the same. If Episcopalians ordain women and Catholics do not, it is well understood that Episcopalians perceive themselves as deviating from tradition to promote a modern agenda and Catholics are clinging to their traditional norms. In our world, we have witnessed a steady erosion of commitment to traditional norms under the rubric of “Orthodoxy” and often emanating from putative Orthodox rabbis. The only recourse is censure from Orthodox Jewish organizations but that has been almost non-existent or ineffectual for reasons best known to them. Thus, the American religious environment is much more hospitable to the culture of “each man does what it right in his own eyes.”

Israel is different, for obvious reasons even beyond the integration of religion and state. Take the conversion issue, which allegedly is one dispute the Rabbanut has with Rav Riskin. (He favors the bill granting conversion authority outside the Chief Rabbinate framework to local rabbinical councils.) In Israel, conversion of a foreigner conveys not only Jewish status but also Israeli citizenship. The latter is clearly a valid concern of government even if the former is not. One can understand why conversion carries with it more than the change in personal status that it does, for example, in the United States; in Israel, there is a national dimension as well. The government – and a national entity, like the Rabbanut –

has to be involved and give its approval. And even conversion of those who are already Israeli citizens should not engender two (or more) standards of conversion – those for Israeli citizens and those who are not. The laws of conversion do not sustain such dichotomies. There cannot be one level of kabbalat hamitzvot incumbent on Israeli citizens who wish to convert and a wholly different one that pertains to non-Israeli citizens who wish to convert. Indeed, do not dual standards constitute a violation of tormenting the convert? Unless we just want to convert every Israeli citizen (just try it on the Muslims!) then the criteria for conversion to Judaism must be based on Jewish and Torah constructs and not nationalistic ones, such as IDF service. Many non-Jews also serve in the IDF.

This must remain so if for no other reason than this: I cannot dictate to the State of Israel who can or cannot be an Israeli citizen but I never agreed to delegate to the Knesset of Israel or its Government the authority to determine who is or isn’t Jewish. Those laws were made by Torah and are the province of the Sages – and not even individual Sages, but the consensus of each generation. Otherwise, the conversion anarchy that used to exist in the United States will find its way to Israel’s shores, if it hasn’t already.

No individual rabbi has the authority to unilaterally change the procedures or requirements for conversion or even to rely on minority precedent that has been rejected by generations of Jews, anymore than he can change Shabbat to Sunday for the convenience of his congregants.

So, too, the phenomenon of female clergy is alien to Israeli Orthodox life and is a hard sell, there even more than here. Indeed, its advocates are disproportionately not indigenous Israelis (i.e., they are disproportionately American) and are simply importing the disorder of American Orthodox life to Israel. Many do not know any better than to say “well, if a rabbi endorses it, it must be fine.” That is an error.

To answer the question raised at the outset requires a little history. As noted here in the recent past, we have been down this road before. Most Conservative rabbis in the early years of the movement were in fact Orthodox, both in practice and even in ideology. There was a time – the 1930s, for example – when more YU graduates went directly to JTS than to RIETS for rabbinical training. There were people who straddled the fence and people on both sides of the fence. That almost never happens today because Orthodoxy grew and became more established, but more importantly, the norms of the Torah world became more settled and deviations from those norms were quickly repudiated.

There were Orthodox rabbis who rationalized the absence of a mechitza in shul; did that then make mixed seating an “Orthodox” practice? There were Orthodox rabbis who rationalized appearing bare-headed in public; did that then make bare-headedness an “Orthodox” practice? There were Orthodox rabbis who favored changing the procedures for shechita, permitting kohanim to marry divorcees, allowing women to count for a minyan and using microphones on Shabbat. The list goes on. We have a vast literature, so there are sources for everything, or almost everything. But none of the above became “Orthodox” practice because they were never widely accepted and were indeed widely rejected, notwithstanding the occasional “source” here or there. (Similarly, one can find singular opinions in lower courts in the US that do not become established law or precedent. The “kosher switch” is a good example of something proposed, almost uniformly rejected but will no doubt live on. Many of the rabbis who promoted any of the above eventually dropped out of “Orthodoxy” because the dissonance in their lives was too much and their acceptance of the Mesorah too tenuous. They became the vanguard of the non-Orthodox movements.

To reject “change” is not necessarily a sign of stagnation or even “ultra-Orthodoxy;” it is often just a simple act of faith and a submission to G-d’s will. So, too, the passion for “change” is not always rooted in a pure understanding of Torah; sometimes it is influenced by personalities, pressure and outside (even non-Jewish) stimuli.

We are at an inflection point in Orthodoxy as the desire to dilute the Mesorah – think women rabbis, for one, something that was a hallmark of non-Orthodoxy for 40 years – has enormous media support but less popular support, and certainly no support inside the more populous Haredi world. (Personally I wish they would stop the charade of concocted titles and just call them rabbis; people can then accept it or reject it. I don’t think if Carly Fiorina is elected President she will get a different title than that of her male predecessors.) The female clergy has made inroads in some communities, often less committed to halacha generally, and that is certainly understandable; told that the forbidden is now permitted – in this and other areas – people are naturally drawn to experience the new and exotic. This is a weakness of Modern Orthodoxy, and the relative silence of the modern Orthodox organizations is significant in its own way. Endless discussions, think tanks and competing papers usurp the place of clarity and psak. If a lawyer or doctor was as indecisive, each would lose his clients or patients and rightly so. But life goes on and each organization focuses on what is important to it.

I sincerely hope that Rav Riskin resolves whatever dispute he has with the Rabbanut (or vice versa, although I haven’t read an official word of the Rabbanut at all about this matter) and we see the return of the traditional Rav Riskin who has inspired countless thousands of Jews to a greater love, appreciation and observance of Torah. The Jewish world needs his mentshlichkeit, his passion, his goodness and his Torah. We also need his leadership in preventing Orthodoxy from drifting back into the last century.



11 responses to “Inflection Point

  1. Pingback: Daily Reyd - Torah Musings

  2. Joining pro-Israel organizations might help Israel.
    Pro-Israel organizations include:

    www dot aipac dot org

    www dot HonestReporting dot com

    www dot rza dot org

    www dot zoa dot org

    May I humbly suggest that because Orthodox Jews are increasing as a percentage of American Jews, they should also increase their participation in pro-Israel organizations, to compensate for the declining numbers of non-Orthodox Jews.

  3. Boy, this article describes me to a T. Though I’m from the ballebattish Hungarian world (a not-articulated enough world unto itself, somewhere between the yeshivish world and Mizrachi world) I was always a big admirer of Rabbi Riskin. For founding Efrat alone he’s a saint. For going to Russia before it was cool, for his kiruv work in Lincoln Square – amazing Jew. But he’s really gone off the deep end, it seems. Similar in many ways to R. Rackman, actually. Which prompts the question/observation –

    Why is it so many people meet their demise – metaphorically speaking – over women’s issues? Rabbi Rackman was still considered orthodox (if very left wing) before his hafkas Get fiasco. Likewise, JTS was still producing great scholars before it started ordaining women in 1983. Similarly, Avi Weiss was tolerated bemusedly as a left-wing gadfly, but still orthodox, before the Maharat nonsense. Now R. Riskin has gone down that path too, and all his great achievements will be either forgotten or obscured by this last adventure. (Sadly, similar to Ariel Sharon in many ways, too, but a different subject.)

    No one ever throws himself off a cliff for, say, yom tov sheni abolishment. If one is going to mess with tradition, why not do away with that custom, which is on very shaky halachic grounds, and is not as fraught with bedrock issues of tznius like the notion of a woman rabbi? But no one ever does. It’s always about women’s issues. That’s always what every generation’s current neo-conservative movement falls under also. I don’t get it. Is this is a vestige of the male gene to try to help the (perceived) damsel in distress? Is there an explanation?

    • Of course there is an explanation. Abolishing yom tov sheni has no serious lobby–no offended (perhaps sincerely) constituents who feel inferior and/or unfulfilled because they need to do m’lakha on yom tov sheni. (Which by the way isn’t so shaky–khaza”l already recognized that there was no “rational” reason anymore for yom tov sheni, but declare that we observe it anyway because minhag avotenu b’yadenu–nothing’s changed since then (i.e. it is a clear d’rabanan).

      To paraphrase you, there IS a damsel in “distress” with women’s issues, where there is none with yom tov sheni. You and I may think that distress must have other solutions, but that’s the reason for this.

      Additionally, of course, is the slow but steady growth of feminism from the 19th Century onward that also influenced Orthodox life (women’s education and suffrage being two prominent ones that come to mind where there is actual p’sak from the early 20th Century from people we would otherwise respect that those things are asur).

      And really these rabbis have always wanted to push the issues, like President Obama’s “evolution” on same-sex marriage, but have waited for what they thought was the opportune time. Perhaps in R’ Riskin’s case it wasn’t. To his credit, he has taken a firm stance on Partnership minyanim.

      • I don’t share your assessment of yom tov sheni, though as I was only using it as an example to contrast with women’s issues, it’s not worth exploring further here. But I see you agree that the “damsel in distress” concept is at least a motivating factor (if not, in your view, the sole motivation.) I think any honest observer has to conclude accordingly. There is a world of customs and practices within orthodoxy that can easily be challenged by the reform-minded, and they would be met with widespread reception by many. (naturally, even the smallest of changes will also encounter resistance from some.) But its always the same tired refrain of women’s issues, women’s issues. As though the other 50% of the population didn’t exist. Knights in shining armor don’t exist anymore, so the male gene must find ways to express itself in other ways. For some people, I guess, it finds expression in attempting to rescue women from the clutches of the wicked King Halacha. Why it cannot be satisfied simply by being a provider, a role model, a leader at home or in the community, without agitating for unnecessary and unwanted change – I have no idea.

    • Obviously motivation cannot be ascertained conclusively. Without addressing Rabbi Riskin in particular, I sense that rabbis sometimes let their Ahavat Yisrael get the better of them (although of course it’s a mitzva!) and try to assuage any and every grievance.
      Even when the Halacha doesn’t support it. And that’s the problem, and this: What is permissible is not permissible because one can string together a number of minority or rejected opinions send certainly when one is trying to muster support for a pre-determined outcome, like the U.S. Supreme Court does regularly.
      I would add that modernity wars against the notion of there being any difference between the sexes. This plays into that. The anti-Yom Tov sheni crowd has no cultural appeal.
      – RSP

  4. I am very impressed by DF’s comment.

    It is almost as insightful as something Rabbi Pruzansky might say (in my humble opinion, whoch could be wrong).

  5. R’ Pruzansky–amazing essay. And don’t think I didn’t notice Carly Fiorina as the only woman candidate for President. 🙂 Just a few points:

    “And even conversion of those who are already Israeli citizens should not engender two (or more) standards of conversion – those for Israeli citizens and those who are not. The laws of conversion do not sustain such dichotomies.”

    That isn’t really true. We do indeed have different standards for people that we are trying to actively bring into the fold and those who are really coming as strangers to the Jewish people. The examples I am thinking of are non-Jewish spouses and/or people who have grownup and were raised Jewish but suddenly discover that they aren’t actually Jewish. You kind of put up a strawman, though. It’s not that we have different standards of kabalat ol, but we do fasttrack them and turn them away less than we do strangers to the Jewish people. And for good reason. But the argument can be made that we should do the same for the gerim who come to us as Israeli citizens (and perhaps who have served in the IDF). The fact that there are those non-Jews in the IDF who do not wish to become Jewish is certainly as irrelevant as the fact there are those with non-Jewish spouses who do not wish to become Jewish or those who discover they are not Jewish and go off to sow their wild oats. They’re not the ones we’re converting because they are not interested in gerut and are less likely to confuse genealogies and marriage etc. because they are staunchly and proudly non-Jewish (not that there’s anything wrong that, to quote Seinfeld).

    “No individual rabbi has the authority to unilaterally change the procedures or requirements for conversion.”

    This is true, except that it is hard to find actual “procedures or requirements for conversion” in the literature. I have read a lot on the issue and it is frustrating to say the least how ambiguous and inscrutable the literature is on the subject form khaza”l down to the rishonim and akharonim. Some say this was on purpose because each community could figure it out for themselves. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating (or unique as an area of halakha). May hashem guide us correctly in these matters.

    • The fast track should be used only when the person is already shower mitzvot, or grew up thinking he was Jewish (e.g., a child of intermarriage who became a Baal teshuva). I’m not sure how IDF service plays into this – it’s noble but that’s Israeli, and not necessarily Jewish as much as we would like it to be.
      There is a simple reason for the dearth of extensive discussions about conversion in the literature of past centuries: very few actual converts combined with conversion being a capital crime in Christian and Muslim countries. So it was never advertised, and converts could not remain for long in their home countries.