Friday, February 14, 2014

Of Halakhic Integrity, Halakhic Change and Kavod ha-Torah

It is the fate of careful thinking to be the victim of ever shorter news cycles. That is probably for the best, as the types of polemics the engulf the Jewish World, generally, and the Orthodox Community, in particular, generate far more heat than light. It is, in my view, better to let things calm down and review this dispassionately; thereby fulfilling the dictum of our Sages: הוו מתונים בדין.

This morning, enveloped by a glorious Judean Erev Shabbat, I finally had the opportunity to review the recent Tefillin Controversy, and many of the attendant responses. Others, are going to address the halakhic particulars, so I would like to proffer some observations solely regarding the ongoing debate that was engendered by the two long statements that were issued on the subject by HaRav Hershel Schachter שליט"א.

I will start by stating that I consider Rav Schachter to be my teacher, by dint of the four years that I was privileged to learn in the Kollel which he still heads. I revere him as a גדול בתורה, the scope of whose knowledge, and the depth of whose sincerity and piety engender, for me and many others, both reverence and respect. Following in the tradition of our mutual Rebbe, Rabban shel Yisrael, HaRav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik זצ"ל, I maintain my own opinions on many issues; opinions that diverge from those of Rav Schachter. Nevertheless, these do not diminish to any degree the honor, respect and deference which is his due. Therefore, I must start by protesting in the strongest terms possible the arrogant, disrespect with which Rav Schachter was treated in the various threads that discussed his responses. I do not care how strongly one might disagree with him. אין זו דרכה של תורה. Period.

In his letters, Rav Schachter makes three basic points. 1) Not every learned person has the right to offer a normative Halakhic opinion. 2) The motivations, and the context, of those seeking radical changes in Jewish Law are legitimate halakhic concerns 3) Specific changes suggested by various Feminist advocates are legally problematic. Here, I will briefly address only numbers 1 and 2.

In principle, anyone with any reverence for Orthodox Jewish Tradition should have no issue, in principle, with any of these stated positions. They are bread and butter for כל בר בי רב דחד יומא. The question at bar, in my opinion, is the application of each assertion. And it is here, with all respect, that I find that my position diverges somewhat from that of Rav Schachter.

If I learned anything from the Rav, it was that a rav needs to make up his own mind, and bear responsibility for his actions. It is the responsibility of the מורה הוראה to do his homework, and rule based upon learning and the specifics of the case before him. Of course, assuming that one is qualified in learning, has practical experience, and posseses both יראת שמים and יראת הוראה). The Rav was wont to chide us for constantly asking him to decide for us, for that very reason. On the other hand, anyone who has ever read a responsum in his life knows that even the greatest Poskim consulted with colleagues on questions of significant import. There is a hierarchy of learning in the world of Halakhah, one based upon merit and scholarship. (Indeed, Rav Schachter notes a particularly poignant example involving R. SZ Auerbach זצ"ל and R. Moshe Feinstein זצ"ל). In addition, it was the Rav who admonished R. YY Weinberg זצ"ל, author of the שרידי אש, to consult with R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski זצ,ל before issuing a far-reaching allowance that would have facilitated Shehita in Nazi Germany. With no relation to the rabbis involved in allowing women to wear Tefillin in their schools (whom I both know and respect), the cavalier way in which many on Blogs and Facebook have discussed serious, repurcussive changes to Jewish Life is the antithesis of this.

There are profoundly committed, learned Orthodox Women who strive for ever greater Avodat haShem, and their aspirations can and must stimulate the search for (and discovery of) commensurate modes of religious growth and self-expression, from within the modalities of Traditional approaches to Torah and Mesorah (a word that has been abused by some beyond recognition). On the other hand, Feminism, Egalitarianism and Post-Modernism represent integrated world views which, in many ways, can or do contradict core Orthodox axioms. To blithely 'adapt' Rabbinic Tradition to their dictates would be a violation of the former's integrity, which we believe is rooted in the Word of God. This, after all, is precisely what the Rav referred to in his discussion of Korah, viz. the autonomy of Torah.

Learning how to engage them, to see to what degree they are commensurate and to what degree not, and knowing where to place the boundaries of that engagement, is a core challenge to the Orthodox World. Conservative and Reform Judaism are no longer the challenge to Orthodoxy that they were sixty years ago. The question is setting the parameters of Orthodoxy. It is my conviction that these are broader than many would have it, and narrower than many woould like. As the Rav taught us, at the end one must surrender to the Will of God. If a position is, as we say, אויסגעהאלטען, those who demur are duty bound to respect it. If the Torah can't accomodate a desired end or change, if one wishes to remain within Orthodoxy, then one is bound to bow to the Torah's verdict.

We live, the Rambam says (פ"ב יסוה"ת ה"א-ה"ב) in a dialectic of growth and withdrawal, audacity and surrender. The conditio qua non of all of this is יראת שמים,
שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את מי שאמר והיה העולם.


Dov Kaiser said...

If you are going to give Rabbis Grodzinski, Auerbach and Feinstein the honorific זצ"ל, I think R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg deserves the same.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

Thank you for pointing that out. It was a typo.

Anonymous said...

Dov good it is to see you here...far from HAPPY THRONG and the waters of Kaful Bay..and the Congregation of Israel.
From a friend who always said: there's more to yiddishkeit than being a litvak.

Anonymous said...

C&R may not be much of a threat to a great deal of the O world, but it remains so for what is often called LWMO. In fact, the girls who generated the controversy are from C homes while attending an O school. Clearly at certain points the line between O and C are still porous.

Also, I must say, where exactly do you disagree with RHS?

Anonymous said...

"I must say, where exactly do you disagree with RHS?"

I'd be interested in Rabbi Woolf's take on differences or apparent differences between RHS and RYBS. I am aware of Prof Kaplan's article about Revisionism and the Rav but that is about 15 years old. Many new issues have come up-eg ability of local Rabbonim to pasken local sheilas, not standing behind geirus that was performed as much as half a century ago etc. I suspect many of the positions taken would not necessarily be those of the Rav.