Wednesday, October 14, 2015

An Angry and Threatening Letter

Rabbi Ysocher Katz
I like Rabbi Ysocher Katz. I really do.  Although I never met him, I believe him to be a highly intelligent, sincere individual who has changed his Hashkafos from those of Satmar Chasidus where he was raised and educated to those of Modern Orthodoxy.

I am a big fan of thinking people. Of which he is one. He is highly educated Jewishly - having received a legitimate Semicha (rabbinic ordination) from a renowned Chasidic Posek, Rav Yechezkel Roth. And yet he chose what he believed to be a superior Hashkafa.

That said I could not disagree more with the Hashkafos he has adopted. He refers to these Hashkafos as Modern Orthodox.  But it turns out that much of those Hashkafos border on Conservative Judaism as it was originally conceived by its founders.  He has even entertained the possibility of looking at modern scholarship on the bible more favorably. Here is how he put it in a recent Facebook post (available on Cross Currents): 
‘(W)e should have a discussion about the parameters of faith.’ 
No doubt that was a veiled reference to a criticism by virtually all Orthodox rabbis of a respected Musmach of YCT who has embraced the bible critics view that the events at Sinai are a fairy tale. What kind of discussion is he talking about?

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer has been in the forefront of making the case that OO (Open Orthodoxy - of which Rabbi Katz is an adherent and which he considers to be within the parameters of Modern Orthodoxy) is really Neo-Conservative Judaism. It is really hard to argue with that considering how close OO has become with heterodox movements. And how much they have internalized current concepts of feminism and other controversial ideas as justification for innovations. Innovations that no other segment of Orthodoxy accepts. To name just one – the ordination of women.

I tend to see things Rabbi Gordimer’s way. As do Charedi leaders and most of the rest of Modern Orthodoxy (e.g. YU, the RCA, and most other Centrists). Rav Soloveitchik openly rejected the kinds of innovations implemented by OO. A fact conceded to by its founder Rabbi Avi Weiss.

I have lamented in the past (many times) the loss of the left. While I did not agree with them on many things, I believe there is a place for them. There are thoughtful Jews living modern lifestyles whose values found a home in Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy. But as I have also said many times, they are now on a path similar to the one taken a hundred years ago by the Conservative movement. The parallels are so striking that it is really hard to dispute. The only thing that has changed is the particular Zeitgeist that moved them. 

They have vehemently disputed this -  to the point where Rabbi Katz has threatened legal action if these criticisms (which he call attacks - and even lies) aren’t stopped. He says his views were deliberately misrepresented for purposes of de-legitimizing him, YCT, and all other OO type institutions.

And yet it seems that he has not been misquoted at all – as the editors and writers of Cross Currents noted in their response. Here’s the money quote: 
In regard to your claim that AG distorted your intent about revising the siddur, here is what you wrote: “Tefilot have a very short shelf life. After a while they become outdated, losing their power to inspire… Revamping the entire liturgy is a rather ambitious project which could eventually happen but for now one needs to start small, doing it incrementally and let it expand with time.” Readers may decide if Rabbi Gordimer was faithful to your words’ intent, or not. 
I think Rabbi Gordimer was indeed faithful to Rabbi Katz’s words. What may really be bothering Rabbi Katz is regret at some of the things he actually said. Even if he didn’t mean them the way they were taken, Rabbi Gordimer’s take is the more likely one in my view.

What makes Rabbi Katz’s threatening letter even more odd is that in a subsequent Facebook quote (reproduced in the same CC article) he seems to be saying the opposite of his letter. He actually encourages Rabbi Gordimer to continue the dialogue.

I do not believe for a moment that Rabbi Katz plans to sue Cross Currents or Rabbi Gordimer. But I do understand why he lashed out the way he did. It cannot be easy for anyone to be publicly accused of supporting heresy and being a rabbinic leader at a Yeshiva  accused of being Neo Conservative. Especially when he so strongly believes it fully Orthodox. I know what that’s like. I have been threatened in similar ways in the past too for some of my posts.

I believe the greater good is served by debate. Let Rabbis Katz and Gordimer state their views and let the reader decide for themselves who is right on the issues.

Rabbi Katz’s stated motives (and those of OO) are valid ones. I share them. In his Facebook entry he says in so many words that OO’s entire motivation for its policies is Kiruv. I know he doesn’t use that word. But he may as well have. He accuses Centrists of allowing millenials to leave Modern Orthodoxy in droves by sticking to an old version that has atrophied and has no currency with the younger generation. It lacks passion, courage, or creativity. He believes that OO is changing that paradigm and attracting them in ways heretofore unavailable.

I am all for doing things that will attract disinterested youth. But not at the expense of theologically questionable tactics. Just to use an extreme example of this for illustrative purposes - you can’t tell a Jew that it’s OK to worship Jesus for Kiruv purposes.

Doing things that will never be accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy in either the Charedi or Centrist world is not a valid tactic. It is counterproductive to the goal of acceptance. If you want to be considered Orthodox you cannot do things that the entirety of its leadership rejects. You cannot claim to be a member of a club that doesn’t accept you. No matter how many times or how loud you say so.