Thursday, November 02, 2006

Message to Agudath Israel of America

I owe a debt of gratitude to the Internet version of the Yated Ne’eman. They often give me the best material for my blog. And they have done so again. This time they have written about the upcoming Agudah convention and have included a very predictable critique of Orthodox blogs. It is a quote of Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel an executive vice president of Agudah. Here is the quote:

"In recent years, though due to a variety of factors, the authority of daas Torah has been significantly undermined, even within our own chareidi circles. Most troubling has been the proliferation of Internet 'blogs' where misguided individuals feel free to spread every bit of rechilus and loshon hora about rabbonim and roshei yeshiva, all with the intended effect of undermining any semblance of Torah authority in our community. It is most appropriate for an organization like Agudath Israel, whose very essence was built on the recognition of the authority of Torah leaders, to address this issue head on, and formulate concrete plans to reinvigorate public awareness of this essential element of the Torah way of life."

I’m not sure how he would characterize my own blog but my very strong feeling is that he would not like it. That being said, I agree that some Orthodox blogs do cross some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. And that is equally true of the commenters on these blogs, perhaps even more so because of the anonymity feature available to them. But I don’t think that Rabbi Zweibel is talking about only those blogs or those commenters. I believe he is talking about blogs like mine as well. That remains to be seen.

At this point I do not feel the need yet to specifically defend what I write. I’ll wait until after the convention and see what they say. But if my suspicions are correct they are going to blast bogs like mine and by implication people like me for lacking Kavod HaTorah and undermining Daas Torah. They will accuse me of an agenda to “undermine any semblance of Torah authority”. This is of course untrue. Although my approach to Daas Torah is not their approach, I have absolutely no agenda to undermine it. My intent is only to improve it, and make it more inclusive. And to define what, who, and when I believe that Daas Torah even applies. I differ with Agudah on that. But that is not undermining it. It is only defining it differently. And I base my beliefs on those of Gedolim outside of Agudah like those of my Rebbe, Rav Aaron Soloveichik.

It is really too bad that Agudah chose to address Orthodox blogs and bloggers in this indirect way. Don’t they realize that we are all on the same team here? Most of the respectable blogs like Hirhurim and Cross currents want to promote Kavod haTorah not denigrate it. The only question is how to do it properly.

All this is related to the famous essay written by Ner Israel Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Aharon Feldman who blamed Rabbi Nosson Slifkin and the bloggers for the deterioration of Kavod HaTorah. Yes, this entire episode has generated a tremendous denigration of Kavod HaTorah. But the blame cannot be placed on only one side. The denigration by one side was caused by the denigration of it by other.

The genesis for this horrible condition is not Rabbi Slifkin and his supporters, although I freely admit that there is a lot of that going on there. But it is mostly reaction. The genesis of the denigration is the Charedi condemnations of what was until then mainstream thought on issues of science and Torah on the part of educated people. This is what has caused this backlash.

Doesn’t Agudah leadership like Rabbi Zwiebel see that? You can’t call beliefs of sincere and educated Orthodox Jews heretical and expect them to just say… OK, sorry about that. I’ll change my beliefs now. You cannot expect intelligent people to suddenly reject everything they’ve learned about the origins of the universe that was perfectly acceptable until that point. No intelligent person is going to do that, including most educated Charedim. Not everyone is going to get down on their knees and ask forgiveness and say, “What can I do to atone for my here-to-fore heretical beliefs?” And it doesn’t help when they try and absolve large portions of Orthodox Klal Yisroel by saying, “You can’t blame them for believing in heresy, they know what they do!” This only makes matters worse and puts a cloud over geniuses who are accepted by the Charedi world, like Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan who had those self same beliefs.

No, this is not the way to win friends and influence people. Trashing those of us who seek Emes without even talking to us isn’t the way to promote Kavod HaTorah.

A far better approach (and it’s not too late to do this) would be to invite successful and intelligent bloggers like Rabbi Gil Student to address the Agudah Convention. Rabbi Student would give the convention the much needed balance it is missing. What is to be gained after all by preaching to the choir? Agudah knows full well that its audience generally rubber stamps its pronouncements. Why not be the broader based umbrella institution of Orthodoxy that Agudah claims to be? Why not include non-Charedi rabbinic leaders to address the crowd on these issues? Why not Include Rabbinic leaders of Modern Orthodoxy, like Rav Hershel Shachter or Rabbi Yosef Blau to speak about these issues as well? Why not bring other perspectives to the fore? If the goal is to increase Kaovod HaTorah this would be a far better and broader way of doing it.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a version of an address I wished an Aguda keynoter might say. I wrote it tongue firmly implanted in cheek. I wish it would happen, although I know it won’t, certainly not after reading this quote from Rabbi Zweibel. And that’s too bad.

The Yated article states that Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman is going to be addressing the convention as a featured speaker. He is a dynamic and very entertaining speaker. I have heard him speak here in Chicago and can testify to that. But if history is any indicator of what to expect, this won’t be good. Rabbi Wachsman is guilty of precisely what Agudah wants to stop. He alienates all people whose Hashkafos are different than his which will cause even more denigration of Kavod HaTroah. He will likely condemn most, if not all Orthodox blogs. He will be very convincing and derogatory with his words. I hope I’m wrong. But I doubt that I am. The convention is worthy of boycotting based just on this man alone.