Thursday, July 28, 2016

The View to My Left

Rabbi Chai Posner, Associate Rabbi of Cong. Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore 
One of the obvious defining characteristics of being a Centrist in Orthodox Judaism is that you have legitimate Hashkafos both to your right and to your left. That there are Hashkafos to my right is very clear. Charedim are very much to my right Hashkaficly. But what about my left? I once thought there were legitimate Hashkafos there. But Open Orthodoxy (OO) seems to have hijacked the left. I and many others have questioned their legitimacy as Orthodox.

Orthodoxy in Judaism is by definition Halachic, Which means that one is required to follow Halacha as we understand it today via the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries. Of equal importance is Orthodoxy’s theology. Requiring a belief in the fundamentals of our faith. Which includes the belief in the Divine authorship of the Torah - and that the events at Sinai actually happened.

Open Orthodoxy’s flagship institution,Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) had been challenged along those line because one of its brightest products had questioned it. Mostly by buying into the arguments made by the modern scholarship of the bible which has concluded that the Torah must have been written by different people at different times in history. Thus making the events at Sinai at best allegorical never to have actually happened.

YCT head, Rabbi Asher Lopatin was quick to publicly assert that YCT believes in those fundamental principles and teaches their students accordingly. And yet the questions remained because some of their rabbinical students expressed similar doubt and had not been dismissed from their Semicha program. So questions remained about Open Orthodoxy’s tolerance of questionable theology. Which of course leaves a possible void to my left - making Centrism a misnomer. You can’t be in the center if there is no one to your left.

I am not happy about this. Orthodoxy needs a left. There are too many sincere Jews that are fully observant and do not feel at home in any other Hashkafa. Even though I do not agree with many of their innovations, I refused to see observant Jews to my left as anything but Orthodox. But if there is a possibility that their fundamental beliefs are unacceptable, observance alone doesn’t help. The underlying belief must first be there.

Until the advent of Open Orthodoxy, I used to see Rabbi Avi Weiss as the quintessential leader of the left. A place where that type of observant Jew could find a home. So that things like Women’s Teffilah Groups that are frowned upon by rabbinic leaders of both the right and center can still take place without being ‘expelled’ from Orthodoxy. For whatever reason some people need things like that. And they ought to have a place in Orthodoxy to go for them lest they find a home elsewhere. 

But that option seems to be gone – replaced by an Open Orthodoxy that has gone way too far in some of these practices – coming perilously close to violating Halacha. Perhaps even crossing that line in some instances. But none of that comes close to tolerating a theology that discards a fundamental principle of our faith.

That has made me very sad. Observant Jews on the left are now finding OO their home. Thus possibly placing themselves outside the orbit of Orthodoxy albeit in some cases unintentionally. I don’t want to lose those Jews. I want to reach out to them and keep them within the fold. I want to consider them to be Orthodox even if they are far to my left. As I always have. Disagreement does not have to mean rejection.

I was heartened by a recent article by YCT Musmach, Rabbi Chai Posner in the Times of Israel. It included a statement about these issues made by a group of YCT Musmachim (ordainees). In my view this establishes the existence of a viable left wing. Here in part is what they said: 
We, the undersigned musmachim of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah… felt it necessary to clarify our stance on two critical issues: Torah miSinai (the divine authorship of the Torah) and Partnership Minyanim. We should add that we believe that many in the YCT community share our values and the positions we express below.
We are committed to the principles of faith as understood by the Rishonim  and  Achronim  (medieval and modern authorities), and as accepted by the Orthodox community. We believe the Torah is Divine. We believe that the Written and Oral Torah were given by God to Moses and that that is the same Torah that we have in our midst. This is a sine qua non of Orthodoxy. Nothing different has ever been taught or suggested by our rabbeim  (rabbis/teachers).
The Torah connects us to previous generations, to our ancestors who experienced the Revelation at Mount Sinai. This ultimate transformational moment is inextricably linked to our practice of Halacha (Jewish Law) and engaging with God’s Will in this world. It is the foundation of our values and morals, our rituals and traditions. It touches our very souls when we hear the words of theRibbono shel Olam (Creator of the world) speaking to us through the Torah.
The question of Partnership Minyanim is more complex... We wish to affirm and uplift the motivation of men and women who are searching for an increased connection with our Creator. Their desire to enhance their relationship with God resonates with us deeply. 
However, we do not and would not attend a Partnership Minyan, nor would we sanction them we follow the serious concerns that were voiced by HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz shlita and HaRav Yehuda Herzl Henkin shlita on this matter, and we, together with many of our colleagues, musmachim of YCT, RIETS, and other rabbinical schools, are deeply uncomfortable with Partnership Minyanim and their place within the Orthodox community. We do not believe that a consensus of poskim (halachic authorities) currently exists to allow a departure from existing norms. 
This is good news. If this is indeed the majority view of YCT Musmachim it gives me hope that a viable left wing in Orthodoxy is still here.

I will close with a personal observation I made a few years ago about one YCT ordained rabbi. He was the Mesader Kedushin (officiating rabbi) at the wedding of the daughter of some friends of mine. 

I recall his demeanor and the respect he had for every detail of Halacha regarding those nuptials. From the Kabbolas Panim; through the Chupah; through the Yichud (which takes place immediately after the Chupah). 

One of the 2 witnesses was a prominent Rosh Yeshiva and Posek whose Hashkafos are virtually identical to Rav Ahron Soloveichik. He stood there under the Chupah and watched as a woman read the Kesubah. (I should add that she read it much more clearly and smoothly than many male Orthodox rabbis I’ve heard do it.) This was obviously not something this Rosh Yeshiva would have done. But it would have been something he would have protested immediately if it violated Halacha in any way.  

Just before the Yichud took place, there was a Halachic problem this Rosh Yeshiva noticed. When he told the Mesader Kidushin about it, he did not question it. He instead asked what could be done to rectify it. And followed the recommendation of that Rosh Yeshiva even though it was inconvenient and created a bit of a delay.

I remember thinking that if all YCT graduates were like this, I would have no problem accepting them. There would be far less controversy about them. Well it seems there are more. Perhaps a lot more.