Monday, February 10, 2014

Tradition Versus Halachic Innovation

I have written extensively in opposition to some of the innovations by the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy. I believe that innovations that are outside the mainstream and that have their root in non Jewish movements and agendas are not the way God wants us to serve Him even if they technically qualify as Halachic.

I have argued that the way to serve God is to do what His Torah tells us to do. Put differently, Judaism is not a rights based religion, nor is it a religion that asks us to do what we feel is the best way to serve God. It is a religion that tells us what to do.  Voluntary service that may be subject to ulterior motives is very suspect.

That is why I have been opposed to things like Women’s Tefillah Groups, Partnership Minyanim, and women wearing Tefillin. As I’ve said many times, there may not be anything technically wrong with these things. But no matter how sincere are its participants and supporters, I believe much of this kind of innovation is at its core is based on the spirit of the times. Which is not the kind of motivation God seeks for voluntary service. He seeks the kind of service that does not have any additional ulterior motives.

This brings up Rabbi Adlerstein’s article on Cross Currents. Not that I disagree with attitude on this subject. But I do have some disagreements with some of what he said. First he mentions the range of views in the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) from sympathy; to indifference; to outright hostility to ‘innovators’ like Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) and Open Orthodoxy (OO). And then he points to an upcoming  article by Rav Hershel Shachter in Tradition Magazine that seems to support a more hostile approach. From Cross Currents
Rav Schachter begins with trenchant criticism of those who write teshuvos when they are not qualified to do so…
He next plunges straight into the issue of determining what kinds of non-halachically mandated activities are proper, and which are not. He turns to the gemara (Shabbos 23a) that establishes our requirement to abide by new rabbinic takanos/ edicts through the pasuk in Haazinu sh’al avichah v’yagedcha, zikeinecha vayomru lach. How, asks R Schachter, could a pasuk that is not recognized as one of the 613 mitzvos create an halachic imperative?
R Schachter opines that the true source is the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem, which decidedly does number among the 613. That mitzvah requires attitudinal and emotional responses which often have to spill over into concrete action. How are we to determine what behaviors are bona fide reflections of true love for Hashem – ones that will bring Him nachas ruach? Fools, he says, can imagine that instituting abrisah /circumcision ceremony for infant girls might be doing a good thing, but we understand that they are not bringing pleasure, kivayachol, to HKBH.
This is the real intent of the gemara. When our souls are filled with enthusiasm to draw closer to Hashem and we hit upon activities that we think will best express our love for Him, we need to pause. Any such activity needs to be scrutinized by “recognized gedolei Torah.” They are the embodiment of the zikeinim that the gemara references in Shabbos. Without their approval, any such activity may be devoid of any real meaning.
R Schachter goes on to argue that not only has no one of any Torah stature approved of the partnership minyanim protocols, but that they would disapprove for multiple reasons. 
Rabbi Adlerstein correctly observes that the left will dismiss this as Drush with no Halachic import. Maybe so.  But Jewish behavior does not begin or end with Halacha. There are other considerations to consider. Like tradition. Breaking with tradition in favor of an innovation should only come when our very existence as a people is at stake.

I have to take issue with Rabbi Addlerstein’s comparison of the removal from the Shul of the Mechitza by the Conservative Movement.  He compares that to today’s opposition to the innovations by the left. Orthodoxy drew a hard line then despite the fact that many Shuls joined the Conservative movement and tore down this Mechitzos. That became the ‘litmus test’ for Orthodoxy that allowed us to flourish. And he argues that these innovations by the left are no different.

In point of fact, however, this was not entirely so. There was a movement within Orthodoxy that actually encouraged rabbis to take Shuls that tore down their Mechitzos. It was called the Traditional Movement. And this movement had the imprimatur of a major Talmid Chacham who clearly fit the parameters of Psak mentioned by Rav Shachter. Although he was severely criticized for allowing it by all other Poskim, those Shuls existed. Orthodox rabbis took pulpits in them. And for a short period of time they flourished. At least here in Chicago.

Those rabbis were fully Orthodox. They felt that the spirit of the times (the more American prayer setting where families could worship together) is what caused Mechitzos to be removed by the Conservative Movement. These rabbis took these non Mechitza Shuls in order to keep them within the Orthodox fold. And unlike the left of today, those rabbis had an actual high level Posek that permitted them to do it.  

I was opposed to the Traditional Movement  for the same reasons I am opposed to the newer innovations. But those who favored it felt that doing so would reach out to those who might otherwise find a home in the Conservative Movement.

And to some extent, it worked. There were many children of those Shul members that were steered into Orthodox day schools who are today fully Orthodox and would never set foot into a non Mechitza Shul. Nonetheless many religious leaders of that time were vehemently opposed to Non Mehcitza Shuls, including my own Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik. He was in the forefront of fighting those Shuls and probably accelerated their demise.

But it is my contention that they would have died out anyway, much the same way the much bigger Conservative Movement is dying out, today. The children of those members either became completely Orthodox – rejecting those non Mechitza Shuls – or they abandoned observance. The Traditional Movement is practically gone.

It is interesting to note that even the most left wing Modern Orthodox rabbi would never take a non Mechitza Shul.  And yet they are willing to bend over backwards to do similar things for similar reasons.  

I therefore strongly believe that the best thing we can do about these leftward innovations is to pretty much ignore them. Those innovations will never become mainstream and will most likely die with the times just as they arose with the times. Strident opposition will only encourage push-back. Which in my view is unnecessary and divisive.

How should we treat the young YCT rabbis who have learned from their mentors and implemented some of these innovations? I think we should take a lesson from Rav Ahron. While he opposed the movement vehemently, he did not treat rabbis who had non Mechitza Shuls badly. He in fact advised them how to run their Shuls Halachicly – realizing that they were only following the Psak of another Posek.

As long as a Traditional rabbi did not try to fight him, Rav Ahron was quite favorably disposed to him. And in the end some of those rabbis actually joined him in opposition to the movement - after having retired from their Shuls.  That makes for a far better relationship than the kind of vehement opposition I sometimes see. And it is why I am glad that the RCA has not seen fit to expel members that support them.