Rabbi Saul J. Berman: The Lost Interview

Way back in 1999 when I was a senior in YU I worked for both of the major undergradutate publications: as a co-techie/webmaster with Ben for The Commentator and a short-lived editor-in-chief for Hamevaser (alav hashalom). So when Edah organized their first conference, I scored a free press pass to cover the new Modern Orthodoxy for either paper.
I also scored an interview with Rabbi Saul J. Berman himself.
It wasn’t a long interview; Rabbi Berman was extermely busy and preoccupied and the fact that he gave me any time at all was generous on his part. However, while Ben’s analysis got printed in The Commentator, my interview got buried in Hamevaser’s quagmire and was never published.
A recent cleaning of my YUCS account turned up this lost piece of history, still in its Word Perfect format. Since the interview was intented for publication, and it’s not like Hamevaser will do anything about it, I don’t see too much of a problem posting it up here.
And of course, many thanks to Fresh Samantha for the loan of her tape-recorder.1


Joshua Yuter: You had mentioned earlier in the day that the Modern Orthodoxy should enrich the outside world. What are some specific ways in which Modern Orthodoxy can enrich the outside world?
Rabbi Berman: I think there are a whole host of different values that are essential for us as Jews which could enrich the external society. For example, our understanding even take a very contemporary issue, the whole question of the abortion debate. Where the torah has a distinctive position which excludes the two dominant positions in the debate, where it says on one hand the fetus is not a legal person until birth, on the other hand the fetus is entitled to protection from the moment of either conception or from forty one days, certainly until birth in increasing quantities. So on one hand you can’t say as the catholoic church says that the fetus is already a legal person from the (moment of birth?) On the other hand, you can’t say that the fetus has no rights. Now, we need to bring that position to the society. The same thing is true with regard to a whole host of ethical positions. The Torah teaches us about genaivat da’at and about (ona’at d’varim?) and about loshon hara and about r’chilut and all of these are fundamental (issues?) Of our values that we can bring to the society. We need to bring them to them in two ways. One, by general teaching, and the other by modeling. We have to shape our own conduct in the society so that people will look at us and say, “yes, these are the values that we need to consider for adoption in our society.”
JY: Do you consider Modern Orthodoxy as a sociological community or a religious community?2
RB: I think it’s a religious community. It is a community of people who have a set of religious convictions that are orthodox in character and that have a particular attitude toward bringing those values into society. The term Modern Orthodoxy is in the sense it’s a transposed epithet. It doesn’t mean orthodoxy which is modernized it means orthodoxy which has a particular perspective on the relationship to modernity.
JY: You mentioned before the value and necessity for “intellectual integrity.” On the other hand, you said that we are responding to changes. When you look at a text, are you doing so with an a priori notion of responding to change or external factors, or are you then formulating your ideas through the text directly?
RB: I think that in any reading of text there is a complex interplay. When hazal said “shivim panim latorah,” what they are really saying is that any given text has multiple meanings. So when we’re dealing with legal texts, we need for the interest for communal consistency to narrow the alternatives and adopt a reading of the text as the normative reading of the text to the extent possible or to narrow it so that there are only a narrow number of reading of the text. By contrast, in regard to texts which are not normative in character, we allow Torah has always allowed for a breadth of reading in which you can see the complex interplay between the subjectivity of the individual, the reality of the external envirionment, the nuanced potentials of the words themselves of the text and all of those words create a complex interplay which leads to multiple readings. Now, as the society changes, obviously the range of possible readings changes. As the individual grows, what any one of us was capable of from our subjective poential what we were capable of at age fifteen is different from that which we were capable at age thirty or at age fifty or at age seventy. So, in each of those dimensions there is a constant evolution that takes place. And ultimately the reading of a text is dependent on that complex interaction. And all of that is done with integrity. That is integrity means bringing an honest internal reading combined with an honest perspective of what the society causes to be brought to that and an honest reading of the potential meanings of the text. There are of course dishonest readings. Dishonest readings are these situations where the text simply cannot meant that; where you are forcing the text to mean something in consequence of one of those two either internal or external factors. But intellectual integrity demands we bring with integrity our internal and external states to the text to determine what possible readings it has. When a text is legal in character, then obviously the legal parameters are always narrower than philosophical parameters, are always narrower than general attitudinal parameters. And therefore, you need a narrower focus.
JY: One of your staunchest if not most vocal opposition has been Rabbi Tendler of Yeshiva University. Specifically, regarding the three issues of interacting with the Reform and Conservative Jews. Ha claimed an unwillingness on your part to denounce them for patrilineal descent, gitten, and homosexual marriages. What are your positions on these issues, and how do you respond to Rabbi Tendler on these issues?
RB: Well, I think unfortunately Rabbi Tendler is wrong on the facts. That is, firstly Edah does not have a position on the question of the relationship to the Conservative and Reform movements. We don’t engage in dialogue; it’s not our mission to do so. On the other hand, we are committed to the proposition that it is important for us to sustain a relationship to the Conservative and Reform movements that emerges from the mitzvah of Tochaha. That is I don’t believe that it is useful to stand on the street corners and condemn Conservative and Reform Jews. I believe that it is important for them to understand where we stand. And they do. I mean there is no doubt in the mind of the Conservative and Reform rabbis as to where Edah stands as an Orthodox organization on questions of patralineality, on the impermissibility of homosexual intercourse or on the question of gitten. On the other hand, we believe that it is possible for us to make greater progress in moving them in relation to these issues by maintaining a kind of relationship with them that is expressive of what is necessary in Tochaha, which means Tochacha yotzeit meahava. When Tochacha emerges from love, when they know that there is a loving concern on our part for their well being as Jews, then there is a possibility of movement. If they believe that we simply hate them and have dismissed them from the Jewish people, then anything that we say is irrelevant to them, and then we don’t fulfill the mitzvah of Tochacha at all.
JY: Yeshiva University has been touted as the center for Modern Orthodoxy, yet many of the roshei yeshiva involved, (obviously not all) take issue with Edah. How do you reconcile on one hand a Modern Orthodox group that seems to be against what you are doing and yourself as being called Modern Orthodox.
RB: Well, I think that Yeshiva University is Modern Orthodox, and I think that most of the roshei yeshiva are Modern Orthodox. No one could characterize R. Herschel Schachter’s position on religious Zionism as anything other than Modern Orthodox. No one could characterize R. Moshe Dovid Tendler’s position on the relationship between Torah and science as anything but Modern Orthodox. No one could characterize R. Willig’s commitment to the resolution of the aggunnah problem as anything other than Modern Orthodox. The fact that there are some ideological disagreements, so there are ideological disagreements. I mean I regret the fact that some of those disagreements have descended to mischaracterizations of who we are and what we represent, but I absolutely believe that they are part of and critical to the future of the Modern Orthodox community. I hope that what they may perceive at this point as significant divergences will eventually not be perceived by them in that fashion. We certainly have no interest in being alianated from them and certainly have no interest in seeing Yeshiva identified as anything else but what it is, which is the at this point the intellectual core of the Modern Orthodox community.

1. Funny story about that. She didn’t want me to listen to one side of the tape because it had the Stern a capella group’s practice. I said that if it was a problem of kol isha I could also ask Rabbi Berman what he thought. Ok, so it was funnier at the time.
2. I really didn’t want to ask this question but one of the hockers wanted it asked.