Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Well Intended but Tragic Error in Judgment

Professor Aaron J. Koller (YU faculty page)
Aaron J Koller, Yeshiva University Professor of Near Eastern Studies has a dilemma. He is conflicted about what he sees as a clash of values between the Torah and our own modern sensibilities thereof. He bases his conflict on one of the hot button issues of our day. Which is how we should treat the LGBT. Although he focuses on homosexuality.

On the one hand, there is Halacha which forbids the act most associated with a sexual relationship between two men. The Torah considers it a capital crime. On the other hand there is what he believes is a valid high ethic for our times which he describes as follows:
Respect for each human being’s right to love whom they wish, live with whom they wish, and build stable relationships built on mutual love and respect with whomever they wish…
He seems to be saying that these are two valid but opposing approaches that are unforgiving in their ethical demands. He then justifies that equation by pointing to what he believes are similar conflicts discussed by the sages in the Talmud.

One of the quintessential proofs about our requirement to be subservient to Halacha over our own sense of ethics is the story of the Akeida, Where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Yitzchok.

Obviously killing an innocent human being is a highly unethical enterprise. No less true for killing one’s own son. Abraham immediately complies and submits to the will of God. This is the ultimate test about following God’s will.  Which is essentially what Halacha is. Abraham passes that test with flying colors and is ‘rewarded’ by being stopped moments before he slices his son’s throat.

Professor Koller dismisses that proof - saying that since Yitzchok was not killed, God never really intended him to be killed. In the end, says Professor Koller, God told Abraham NOT to harm his son, thereby teaching us that religious devotion may not come through the harm of others. He also notes that this is not really about self sacrifice. It is about sacrificing the life of another (Yitzchak). (More about that later.)

He then offers several examples where the sages seemed to modify Halacha based on society's ethical considerations. Which he wants to apply in our day in resolution of the conflict between the Halachic demands of the Torah (God’s word) and ethical considerations of our day. But concedes that we do not have the religious bona fides nor legal authority today that the sages of the Talmud had.

But then he goes a bridge too far and concludes with the following: 
In the absence of the authority to change the law, I have no choice but to choose against it…
In a clash between humanity and halakha, opt for humanity, and have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved. And if somehow the conflict remains intractable, I would rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of my religiosity. 
This is clearly a break from our obligations to follow the word of God. To suggest that his personal or societal view of morality is in any way worthy of rejecting God’s laws is fallacy of major proportion! We are not sacrificing anyone if we follow God’s law.

God wants us to follow Halacha. He does NOT want us to even imply otherwise.  It follows that an end runs that appear to permit the impermissible is not looked at favorably by God either. 

To repeat what I have said a gazillion times, this does not mean we should dishonor LGBT people. As I always say they were created in the image of God just like the rest of humanity. And as Jews – they too are part of God’s chosen people. But treating a lifestyle conducive to major violations of Halacha as equivalent to a lifestyle conducive to what the Torah says is holy is the wrong message and it does not make you a ‘good person’ when you do so. What it does instead is make you a celebrant of something God clearly despises. Not the people. But the forbidden behavior associated with it.

Professor Koller seems to be endorsing concrete demonstrations of LGBT acceptance – like the idea of gay marriage ceremonies.  I do not believe for a moment that doing something like that is pleasing in the eyes of God. It makes absolutely no sense to say it does.

I further believe that his description of the Akeida is not about self sacrifice but about sacrificing someone else is mistaken. The Akeida was about Yitzchak’s submission to God’s will too. Not just about Abraham’s submission. And if he thinks that slicing the neck of a beloved son isn’t a personal sacrifice, I have to question his sanity!

One more thing. Professor Koller uses examples in the Talmud as a model of authenticity that speaks to us across the great chasm of time. It demonstrates that sociological moral and ethical considerations can trump Halacha. But in my view that is based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what they did and does not justify that claim. 

For example he cites the fact that they rescinded certain edicts they considered them unreasonable despite their intentions being in service of God’s law. While that is true – nothing they rescinded was at the expense of appearing to support biblical level Halachic violations.  

Yes the ways of the Torah are pleasant. But they are also binding. And if our own perceptions of what is and isn’t moral or ethical changes, it does not change Halacha. Not in our day and not in the days of the sages.

That said, I have to take issue with what Gil Student suggested based on this article. Which is: 
It might be time to start preparing eulogies for Modern Orthodoxy. 
I actually agree that a ‘new world order’ with respect to Orthodoxy will eventually ensue - populated by sociological centrists comprised of mostly moderate Charedim and the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy. 

But I reject the notion that Professor Koller’s article is a harbinger of Modern Orthodoxy’s demise. 

What I believe it indicates instead is that the pull of the left wing - is having a major impact on some of us. But not on all of us. Theological Centrists  (right wing of modern orthodox) are alive and well. Professor Koller is not  a Centrist by any definition. Or at least not mine.