Sunday, February 12, 2017

Deciding Orthodox Practice

R' Hershel Schachter - a signatory to the OU Psak
The debate goes on. And it is as divisive as ever. Those who seek an egalitarian goal in Orthodoxy see denying women the ability to be serve as rabbis as a denial of their basic human rights. There is no argument that will dissuade them. Having been raised in a culture that sees  egalitarianism as an inviolable  value makes them seek to insert into Judaism wherever they can. 

It is as though these advocates of egalitarianism believe that this value is on par with all the Mitzvos of the Torah. Denying them this perceived right is seen as denying them their ability to be fulfilled as a Jewish woman… or even as Jew… or perhaps even as a human being!

How sad it is that the concept of equality between the sexes - a value which is otherwise quite noble - is used to attack the rabbis of our generation as nearancient relics of the past who refuse to recognize how badly they treat half of their own people. They deny them the right to serve God in ways they feel they best could. That these rabbis do not in any way have that as their motivation does not even occur to them. But the truth is that they are only motivated by what they believe God wants of His people. And as the most Torah knowledgeable Jews of our generation who are very aware of the culture in which they live, it is they who are most qualified to determine that. Certainly not JOFA or rabbis of far lesser stature that are sympathetic to their egalitarian cause.

But this post it is not really about that. It is to point out a comment made by Rabbi Gil Student in his own defense of the OU’s statement. Because of the hot debate over this topic, that point can easily be overlooked. I think it is too important to let slide. Here is what he said: 
In terms of process, the OU followed the right path. It did not turn to poskim in Israel, who might not fully understand the situation in the US. It turned to poskim in the U.S. – rabbis who lead their own shuls and/or visit communities across the country. They received written and oral input from leaders of many different communities. And after reaching a decision, they communicated it to the public in a lengthy document explaining their reasoning and providing their sources. 
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of what Rabbi Student said here. As I have said in the past, the 2 worlds of Orthodoxy cannot be farther apart on a variety of issues. Although there is the obvious commonality of following Halacha that all of Orhtodoxy shares, the Hashkafos seem to divide us more than they unite us. It is wishful thinking to say that the Charedi Hashkafa of the US and Israel are the same. (I should add that even in America there are communities like Satmar that fall more into the Israeli camp than they do into the American camp. But the divisions are clear.)

Just to cite a few examples of the differences: the way the internet and smartphones are treated; the way secular studies in elementary and high schools are treated; the way participatory sports are treated; (or even spectator sports in some cases)… all of these issues are treated in an almost opposite fashion by the US and by Israel. It is almost as if there were 2 Torahs. One for America and one for Israel (and Satmar like communities).

The problem is that after the Petirah (death) of major Poskim in America like Rav Moshe Feinstein, his successors have looked eastward for guidance in some cases. So that even after they had ruled on a public matter, they allowed themselves to be overruled by Israeli Poskim.

The most famous (or should I say infamous) case of this was when Rabbi Natan Slifikn’s books attempting to reconcile Torah and science were deemed to be heretical by major Charedi Poskim in Israel . Rabbi Slifkin had vetted his books via a number of Poskim who gave them their approbation. But when senior Israeli Poskim ruled that those books contained heresy, those rabbis withdrew their approbation.

I am not going to get into the exact issues that led to this ban. (Been there and done that.) I am only pointing out how looking at Israel whose culture is so radically different than ours is not the way American Poskim should feel obligated to rule. And I’m happy to see that the OU Poskim followed that principle.

That episode caused untold grief to Rabbi Slifkin and his family. And it caused many American –even Charedi Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva that were teaching that the views expressed in Rabbi Slifkin’s books were acceptable - to have to backpedal. I recall speaking to one Charedi Rosh Kollel in America who told me that his outreach efforts would now be hampered by  the Psak of those Senior Israeli Poskim. In the past he allowed people who advocated Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to speak to even in his own Avreichim about that view, right in his own Beis HaMedrash! But… no more. I asked him what he was going to do. He basically shrugged – not really having an answer.

This is why it is important to know the environment in which one Paskins. So that a Posek will not just arbitrarily take the Israeli Psak and apply it to his own environment. This is why the OU took the opportunity of their statement to not only forbid, but to permit… ruling where the role of women may be expanded within the limits of Orthodoxy. Even if not always applicable in all circumstances.

The Poskim of the OU have gone out on a limb here to do the right thing. My hope is that the leading Poskim to their right will follow their lead in this regard and allow for such an expansion when circumstances demand it. They have broken ranks with Israeli Poskim in other areas, as mentioned above. I hope they will do it here as well.