Thursday, February 09, 2017

Hubris and Inconsistency

Conservative Movement's Louis Ginzberg
One of the first things the founders of the Conservative Movement did was to remove the Mechtiza from their synagogues. They argued that since this idea was no where mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch there was no reason not to allow the American custom of family type seating in houses of worship. 

They felt secure in the claim that they were still a Halachic movement; and were just being sensitive to the ethos of their times. They believed they had to do this in order to conserve Judaism in America since its inherent freedoms and ‘melting pot’ spirit would cause Jews to leave Judaism entirely - siding with the American cultural ethos over the Torah’s ethos.

The Conservative Movement was not a frivolous one. They were sincere in their beliefs. Their founding founders were brilliant Talmidei Chacham, some of whom were educated in the finest Yeshivas in Europe. These European Yeshiva trained European architects of Conservative Judaism believed that the survival of Judaism required taking some innovative measures. They attributed objections to it from their right to the old fashioned European mentality these rabbis brought with them from Europe – being completely unaware of the ways of America.

If this scenario sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the same thing is happening again. But with a different issue. When the Conservative movement was founded, they saw the tradition of separating the sexes in a Shul to be an impediment not sourced in clear Halacha. So they addressed it by eliminating it… using some of the finest Talmudic minds of their time to bolster their argument.

Today, the same argument is being made by rabbis on the extreme left of Modern Orthodoxy about a different issue: The ordination of women as rabbis. They argue that there is no clear Halacha to prevent it. By not accepting this innovation they say we will lose some of our best, brightest, and most highly motivated people in Judaism. They point to the inherent inequality of denying a woman this opportunity who have only the most altruistic of reasons for seeking to serve as rabbis: which is to serve God and the Jewish people. They further argue that by denying them this opportunity Judaism will fail to be enriched by these very knowledgeable women. Whose perspective has been sorely lacking in our lives as a Jewish nation.

This kind of thinking has picked up speed by some Modern Orthodox rabbis on the extreme left. There are now seminaries that are dedicated to ordaining women. And they have some very vocal grass roots supporters. Another glass ceiling that has impeded women from achieving their full potential has now been broken - they will say.

Arguments against it by the mainstream of Orthodoxy are challenged as having no Halachic basis. It therefore allows us to incorporate innovations based on the current cultural ethos which they say outweighs arguments based on tradition. And like therefore just like the  Conservative movement of old, they claim to still be a Halachic movement.

I can’t help but notice the parallels here. In both cases there was a plausible reason to innovate against centuries of tradition. In both cases the claim was made that it did not violate Halacha. In both cases there was some merit to that argument. And in both cases rabbis that supported those innovations were highly knowledgeable of Jewish law. This was especially true of the European Yeshiva trained founders of the Conservative movement. One of them, Rabbi Louis (Levi) Ginzberg was referred to as a gaon (Talmudic genius) by R’ Elya Meir Bloch one of the founding Roshei Yeshiva of Telshe in America. He put it writing in the forward of a Sefer – thanking HaGoan R’ Levi Ginzberg for his help in getting it published.

Not so sure that  today’s Left wing defenders of female rabbis are anywhere near Rabbi Ginzberg’s league. I think they might even acknowledge that if you asked any of them. And yet not a single one of those rabbis would today remove the Mechitza from their shuls today. Nor would they likely even Daven in one. The Orthodox opposition at the time was unanimous. Modern Orthodox leaders of our time – even those on the extreme left still adhere to that prohibition. Juts to cit a rather famous example: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin staked his career on it when he insisted that Lincoln Square Synagogue install a Mechitza if  they wanted him to serve as their rabbi. Which brings me to an article by one of Rabbi Riskin’s colleagues.

Rabbi Herzl Hefter
I don’t know much about Rabbi Herzl Hefter. But I’m told he is quite brilliant and a Talmud Chacham.  Rabbi Hefter is the founder of Beit Midrash Harel, a seminary in Israel that confers the title of rabbi upon women that have studied and passed his exams. Which I’m told are similar to the ones male rabbis take.

The rejection of this innovation by a long list of mainstream Orthodox rabbis in both the right wing Charedi world and Modern Orthodox Centrist world has been unanimous. Most recently the Orthodox Union (OU) – which is guided by Centrist rabbis have added their own prestigious name to that list with a lengthy explanation written by those rabbis in defense of their position.

The left has dismissed it saying (as they have many times in the past in defense of their own position) that Orthodox opposition is not based on Halacha and instead base on arcane ideas about tradition that are irrelevant to the ethos of modern man.

In an incredible act of hubris, Rabbi Hefter has compared the arguments used in the OU statement to those made by Rabbi Dr. M.J. Raphall of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.  Rabbi Raphall was an Orthodox Civil War era rabbi who defended slavery as a biblically sanctioned practice. While Rabbi Hefter immediately clarifies that evil of slavery as practiced in the antebellum South is nowhere near the same thing as the ‘plight’ of Orthodox Jewish women today, he nevertheless believes the arguments used by Rabbi Raphall are practically identical to the ones made in the OU statement.

Despite his claim that he is not saying the OU statement as an endorsement of slavery… and despite his concession that the opposition is idealistic and sincere - I find this comparison to be disgusting, regardless of how he views the similarity of argument.  

The imagery evoked by the slavery of the antebellum South used in any context with the rabbis that oppose him suggests a sort of guilt by association. As if any of these rabbis would have made the same arguments to support slavery in its day. Rabbi Hefter wants us to conclude that if that argument is good enough to deny women their ‘freedom’ it is good enough to deny black slaves their freedom. Which he knows they would not do thereby suggesting they rethink their argument.

The differences between enslaving people – especially the way it was done in the pre-Civil War South and denying a women a degree as rabbi are so vast that comparisons between them can have only one objective. To smear the opposition. That is what Rabbi Hefter has done. Even if he doesn’t realize it.   

The fact is that Orthodox Jewish women are not ‘enslaved’ in any way. Their contributions are as important as those of men. Their learning deserves to be recognized – and is in many ways. And we are all richer for their contributions whether they be mandated by Halacha or discretionary. Orthodox Jewish women are free to pursue any endeavor they choose.

But the one thing they can’t do by virtue of our traditions and by virtue of the unanimous opinion by virtually all of Orthodoxy’s mainstream leadership - is to become rabbis. That standard will prevail just as the standard of requiring a Shul to have a Mechtiza has prevailed, despite the best efforts of the well intended to try and change it.

At the end of the day what we have here is an inconsistent response to 2 issues that have the same parameters. Rabbi Hefter accepts one and rejects the other. And I’m not particularly fond of the way he tried to do it either. In fact I lost any respect I might have otherwise had for him because of it.