In Defense of Progressive Orthodoxy

25 Jan

In the past several years, a highly disturbing sociological phenomenon has been observed. The U.S. Modern Orthodox community, historically dominated by elements affiliated with Yeshiva University and its affiliated institutions (especially the Rabbinical Council of America- ha Histadrut haRabbanim d’America), has, in the words of sociologist Samuel Heilman, purused a steady course of “sliding to the right” on areas of halakhic and theological significance, leading many, including the author of this blog, to believe that the “centrist” Orthodox community has become a mere tool in the Haredi world’s quest for religious hegemony. Halakhic decisions issued and statements made by the RCA’s affiliated posqim, including R’ Hershel Schachter, R’ Dovid Cohen, and R’ Mordechai Willig, who are largely considered the “gedolim” of this allegedly Modern Orthodox community indicate a total abandonment of moderate, normative halakhic standards and applications of text, and communal attitudes increasingly place charisma and personality above text, closely approximating the revolutionary doctrine popularly known as “Daas Torah” in Haredi circles.

As a student of Judaism’s Dual Canon (Torah she bikhatav and Torah she ba’al peh) and the halakhic and theological texts which follow from our authoritative mesorah (which, according to the Rambam, ended with Ravina and Rav Ashi, the last on his list of the Hakhmei haMesorah, in his haqdama to the Mishneh Torah), and a practitioner of traditional, halakhic Judaism, it is of deep concern to me that the vernacular, folk standards of modern-day Orthodox Jewish culture have supplanted objective, halakhic standards in many areas, including, but not limited to, geirut (conversion), kashrut, gittin, women’s religious and ritual participation, organ donation, and a plethora of other areas. While my religious life as an Orthodox Jew has brought me to different sectors of communal affiliation and varying group identities, I have come to a place of open-mindedness, tolerance, and an embrace of progressive religious ideals, combined with a robust and punctilious commitment to the minutiae of halakhic observance. While I have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal of Torah from the yeshivish and centrist communities (there is little, if any, difference between moderate yeshivish norms and the norms of the YU community, as black hats, not saying Hallel on Yom ha Atzma’ut, an antagonism towards feminism, interfaith relations, social justice, and pluralism, and a profound dislike of academic methodologies link the two communities in more ways than one, and are all in vogue at the batei midrash of Amsterdam Avenue), my hashqafic norms and religious values place me at variance with most of American Orthodoxy.

The positions I have reached on feminism, pluralism, universalism, social justice, humanism, environmentalism, the scope and nature of rabbinic authority, klalei psaq and darkhei hora’ah, and academic, scientific, and critical methodologies as applied to limmud hatorah have been the result of thousands of hours of study of both primary and secondary meqorot. I have reached these positions inductively, and I feel that my hashqafik orientation, while shared by a limited number of individuals, demands my obedience and commitment because my shitot have emerged from limmud hatorah. I am reminded of the ma’amar of R. Yehoshua ben Korha in b.Sanhedrin 6a, where, quoting Devarim 1:17, tells us to not defer to any temporal or earthly forces which counter the authoritative, accepted, objective codified standards of halakhic Truth. Contrary to those shitot which elevate rabbinical authority to a level equal to or dominant over the objective, codified textual standards of halakha, this gemara tells us not to defer to such authority when Truth is at stake. In fact, failure to counter religious decisions made contrary to our authoritative textual standards constitutes a violation of the Biblical commandment to avoid falsehood (Shemot 23:7; “Midvar sheker tirchak..”), and this has been codified as authoritative halakha by the Rambam, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 22:2, and the Tur and Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 9:7. which admonishes even a talmid to counter  error and falsehood committed by his rebbi (although this must be done in a respectful manner). Unlike Roman Catholicism, which endows temporal authority with the status of infallibility, Judaism has never in any of its texts allowed for such a stance. The very existence of masekhet Horayot is a testament to this fact; the entire masekhet deals with errors in rabbinical judgment and psaq, rendering the existence of “daas torah” and its associated attitudes (including those granting halakhic status to denominationalism) completely un-Jewish.

As a matter of affiliation, rather than remaining isolated (which counters Judaism’s innate communitarian tendencies; see mAvot 2:4), I have instead chosen to affiliate with those institutions and rabbanim who share my sensitivites and hashkafiq orientation. In spite of the criticism that comes my way from elements associated with Centrist and yeshivish orthodoxy, which often entails mere sinat hinam, ona’at devarim, and motzi shem ra, I have instead chosen to follow a derekh of halakha v’ samkhuta, emunah tzerufah, yosher da’at, limmud hatorah, and tefillah u’ mitzvot that comports with the majesty of the halakhic process and millennia of authoritative Jewish tradition and also suits my needs (Rav Yehuda haNasi, in the same pereq of mAvot, instructs that the right path for an individual to follow is the derekh which is harmonious for the one who undertakes it, and harmonious for humanity as a whole). I have chosen to affiliate with institutions including Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Union for Traditional Judaism, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Uri L’ Tzedek, Beit Morasha, Ne’emanei Torah v’ Avodah, Oz Ve Hadar-Netivot Shalom, and other organizations advocating a just, inclusive, tolerant, and traditional approach to Halakhic Judaism. The rabbinical teachers I believe best embody this approach include Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Rabbi David Weiss haLivni, Hakham Isaac Sassoon, Rabbi Avraham Weiss, Rabbi Binyamin Lau, Rabbi Chaim Amsallem, Rabbi Marc Angel, Morah Nechama Leibowitz, zt’l, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, zt’l, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, zt’l, the Grash Lieberman (Rabbi Saul Lieberman, zt’l), Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, zt’l, Shadal (R’ Shmuel David Luzzatto, zt’l), Shir (R’ Shlomo Yehuda Leib Rapaport, zt’l), Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, zt’l, Rabbi David Hartman, Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson, zt’l, Rabbi Yosef Messas, zt’l, Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, zt’l, and countless others. I also embody a great admiration for the teaching of Rabbi Ethan Tucker, whom I believe to be one of today’s gedolei hatorah, and many others in more right-wing sectors of observant Jewish life who present mekorot well, notwithstanding their being hashqafically-challenged. (Sadly, this tolerance and elevation of talmud torah over other considerations is not reciprocated by those communal and social elements).

Hopefully, the thoughts presented here can serve as a starting point for a broader conversation on the various issues affecting contemporary Jewish life. And I hope this is a conversation all of us can delve into without compromising derekh eretz, kavod habriot, and the halakhot of lashon hara.

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