On Tone and Traditions – A Followup to Fallout

My recent post Women, Tefillin, and the Rise of the Rav seems to have struck a nerve in the Orthodox community. By far, it has elicited the greatest response, and divisiveness, than anything else I have written to this point. For those who have not been following, a quick recap is in order. In response to R. Tully Harcsztark recent decision permitting two female students to wear tefillin during school services, R. Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University wrote a scathing critique not only of the decision itself, but of how it was made, equating intellectual independence with Korach’s rebellion. My own response to R. Schachter linked above elicited extreme contrasting reactions. As to be expected with any controversy, there is bound to be some degree of partisanship with people being predisposed towards one side or another.

The astute reader noticed that while the subject of women wearing tefillin was the impetus, my main point dealt with the broader question of rabbinic authority, and it was this issue which prompted the most passionate responses. In particular, many readers took specific exception to my tone, which was characterized in various forms of “flippant,” “disrespectful,” or simply not deferential enough in that I treated R. Schachter as a peer rather than a superior. Many others had no such objections to my tone and found well within the bounds of propriety. 1 In truth, the question of “respect” and how a Torah scholar ought to communicate was, in my opinion, a distraction from the more central question of authentic Rabbinic authority. After all, if one’s status as a Torah scholar is measured by the tone of one’s discourse, then it would seem that R. Schachter would have crossed that line in his initial letter. 2 My critics contended that my post and R. Schachter’s letter are not valid subjects for equal comparison because the authors of these respective writings are not of the same “stature.” The argument may be summarized that as a more prominent rabbinic authority, R. Schachter is not only unconstrained by the rules or halakhot of proper discourse, but he is beyond reproach and not subject to any form of criticism by lesser rabbis. According to this perception of Jewish law, there are different rules for different roles. 3 Furthermore, some argued that by not giving proper deference to R. Schachter, I was essentially challenging the entire chain of Jewish halakhot tradition, very similar to the argument of R. Schachter himself.

But herein lies the point of contention; I have received a very different tradition than what is currently disseminated in the Orthodox world. While I attended and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, but I do not count R. Schachter among my primary teachers nor would most of my teachers consider themselves followers of his tradition. In fact, the three Rabbis from whom I have learned the most, my father, his teacher Haham Yosef Faur, and R. Moshe Tendler, have all been vocal critics of R. Schachter at one point or another. The latter two I even cited in my earlier post since both differentiated between the positions of Rav and Rosh Yeshiva. While I have previously addressed the logical flaws in appealing to a “gadol’s” authority, today I wish to demonstrate how, despite any assumptions to the contrary, I have been following the tradition of my own teachers.

Given the critiques I received from my essay, I decided to email my father’s teacher Haham Yosef Faur with the subject “A Question of Propriety and Kavod.” I had included links to both R. Schachter’s letter and my response, and specifically asked if he thought my response was appropriate. This was his reply, reprinted with permission:

Dear Rabbi Yuter:
Tizke la-Misvot! I fully agree with your response. The only objection would be concerning the berakha (according to Rambam, but not according to R. Tam, Rama, and the Ashkenazic practice). In my opinion women are permitted to wear tefillin and go up to the Tora even during menstruation; see MT Sefer Tora 10:8.
JF 4

In a subsequent email to another student, Haham Faur elaborated that independent of the specific question regarding women wearing tefillin, the argument offered by R. Schachter was not halakhic. 5

This haskama may serve as enough approbation regarding my content and tone, but there is much more to consider. After all, Haham Faur is not known to be one who pulls rhetorical punches, 6 so at the very least it is worth exploring in greater detail the extent to which Haham rejects a fundamental assumption of contemporary popular Orthodox thought.

Haham Faur has written extensively on Jewish law, in particular the competing approaches of Maimonides (representing the Rabbinic tradition) and opposing methodologies, philosophies, and theologies which to varying degrees had been assimilated from pagan or Christian counterparts. Space does not permit me to summarize Haham Faur’s entire oeuvre, and from experience I have learned that simply including links to sources my no means guarantees readers will refer to them, so I will focus on his article “One-Dimensional Jew, Zero-Dimensional Judaism7 which speaks directly to the question of rabbinic stature. I will intersperse my own commentary and provide supplemental citations as needed.

Haham Faur begins by introducing a distinction between “vertical” and “horizontal” societies, a distinction which would later become the subject of a two-volume work.

The principle thesis of this paper is that whereas pagan society is vertically organized along hierarchical structures, Judaism alone, by virtue of the berit (covenant) contracted by the Jewish people and God at the foot of Mt. Sinai, is horizontally structure. Hierarchical societies are, necessarily, one-dimensional. Conversely, multi-dimensional systems require horizontal organization. Intimately connected with these two types of organizations is the question of might/right. (Faur, 31)

By definition, a “vertical” society is predicated on divisions of superiority and inferiority, designations which, in order to preserve the social order, must be maintained by any means necessary. Furthermore, the powerful can claim personal validation and vindication by virtue of their vanquishing of their opponents. 8

Polytheistic systems postulate an essential conflict independent forces. The prevailing order in the world is the result of one or more forces overpowering other forces. Cosmogony celebrates the birth and battles of the forces dominating the world. “Victory” announces the formal installation and monopoly of violence by the triumphant party. Implicit in this model is the ideal of one-dimensionality and the need to monopolize power. A sine qua non common to all hierarchical systems is the belief that might constitutes right: without violence and the monopoly of violence, hierarchical structures collapse (Faur 32).

Dissent may be tolerated up to a point, provided everyone knows their place: 9

Other areas of power may be tolerated only when occupying a subordinate position, “inferior” to the dominant power. In the mental apparatus of the hierarchical cultures, the status of an area of power is determined by the ability to dominate other areas to a subordinate position. No true division of power does in fact exist: sovereignty is unlimited and indivisible. The pagan Rex is an absolute monarch. As such, “he creates law for others and so imposes legal duties or ‘limitations’ upon them whereas he is said himself to be legally unlimited and illimitable.” 10 The different areas constituting power and authority are structured as a pyramid, converging onto a single focal point of absolute sovereignty. A corollary of pyramidal organization is the hierarchical division “superior/inferior,” and “obedience” that a “subordinate” owers to the “superior” by the fiat of rank. That is why, in pagan legal theory, “law” and the power to legislate are inextricably connected to a Rex who must necessarily be above the law…According to this theory, were there any legal limitations on Rex, he would cease to be a sovereign (Faur 32-33).

It is important to distinguish here between the innate authority of “ranks” and the authority of holding an established office. Members of the Sanhedrin all held offices, and while there was some recognition as to which members were “greater” than others, this did not constitute a system of subordination. In fact, in capital cases, it was the “lower” members who would cast their votes first so that they could give their honest decision without feeling intimidated by others. 11

To be sure, there are certain privileges afforded to those who hold official communal positions, but even these dispensations have limitations. For example, someone who is serving in the office of “av beit din” would not be subject to public discipline for private indiscretions (B. Moed Katan 17a). However, where an offense constituted an abuse of power to the point it compromised the integrity of the office, then that individual would be subject to sanction and removal from his position (B. Berachot 27b, B. Sanhedrin 25a).

There is an abysmal difference between the Jewish and pagan law. In pagan ideology, the sovereign is the basis of the law, not its effect. Essential to Hebrew political thought is the belief that sovereignty, and all forms of authority, are the result, not the grounds, of the law…The Law is independent of the sovereign, of a sovereign person and of governmental bureaucracies. Those in charge of administering the Law may err, implying, thereby, that there is an objective law independent of governmental bureaucracies and institutions. (Faur, 35).

For Haham Faur, Torah law creates a Horizontal Society such everyone is equal under the same law. This is in stark contrast to whose who would claim that great rabbis are entitled to follow a different set of rules.

The Horizontality of the Hebrew Law is evident in the following doctrine. On the basis that the Torah commands everyone “that I command you” (Deut. 11:13), the rabbis conclude that “if one had heard something from the lowliest of Israel, should regard it as if he is hearing it…from the mouth of God.” 12 Without the absolute right for even “the lowliest of Israel” to be heard, and the subsequent obligation of the public to listen, freedom of speech is meaningless. This doctrine rests on the principle that one cannot be under of the mandate of the Law without having the right to be heard in the name of the same Law (Faur, 38).

Under the terms of Biblical covenant and Rabbinic law, all Jews have equal right of access to Torah. This does not mean that all Jews are born with the requisite knowledge, 13 but it ought to determine how Torah is taught. Torah education can be used to instruct and empower, or it could be employed to overwhelm, intimidate, and counter-intuitively, be used to restrict and deny the student access.

Underneath the noise produced by the anti-Maimonideans rested a single issue: is Judaism a one-dimensional or multi-dimensional system. If Judaism is one-dimensional, then any differing view ought to be repressed at all cost. The anti-Maimonideans embraced Christian ideology…”Talmud learning” – the rallying cry of the anti-Maimonideans – was nothing more than a blunt adaptation of the scholastic methodology of auctoritas (authority). In compliance with the scholastic intellectual tradition, certain auctores (authors) were invested with authority…Consequentially, the Talmud was not to be approached directly but through a prism of interpretations and opinions expressed by a hierarchy of auctores. “Proof” consisted in citing one or more of these auctores without having to have recourse to the subject matter itself (Faur,43-44).

The purpose of the de-authorization of the Mishnah Torah was to convert halakhah into “canon law,” in the precise Christian sense, whereby jurisprudence could be conditioned (from a legal perspective: manipulated) to “theological” considerations…Political leadership and the cultivation of mundane sciences were to be regarded as pernicious and obtrusive to spiritual life and faith. Faith meant, simply and plainly, obedience to the “superior.” The most fundamental duty of the Jew became faith in the infallibility of the clergy (emmunas hakhomim) especially in their transmission of lore professed to have been received through esoteric means…Accordingly, “rationalism,” i.e., the act application of critical knowledge by the fidelis, is an act of insubordination (Faur, 44-45).

In his other writings, Haham Faur elaborates on the faith of obedience to the esoteric in the context of Qabbalah. 14 I would suggest that the rhetoric employed by those who adhere to “Da’as Torah” demonstrates a slightly more rationalized logic of Torah being inaccessible except to those who can intuit the true meaning of God’s intent. 15 Some will implicitly or explicitly employ the idiom of ruach ha-halakhah or “spirit of the law” – a term which does not appear in Biblical or Rabbinic literature, but is however a core component of Pauline doctrine:

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:5-6).

Accordingly, it is only the superior who have access to the Spirit of God, and it is in this privilege in which the masses are obligated to believe. One’s faith in the Great Leaders is thus synonymous with faith in God, and to question one is tantamount to questioning the other. 16

From the above citations I believe I have demonstrated that, at least for Haham Faur, the halakhic approach of R. Schachter is not “wrong” as much as it is more closely resembles the pagan and Christian legal systems than it does Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. I have no doubt many readers will find the above objectionable if not outright heretical. However, this poses some difficult dilemmas for those who wish to appeal to the authority of tradition.

  • If one suggests that one must never contradict their tradition, then I am well within my own and it would be a violation for me to give up my masorah for someone else’s.
  • If one argues that a tradition is “wrong” then this not only assumes an objective measure by which we can evaluate the correctness of a given traditions and hold its proponents accountable. This would necessarily apply to one’s own tradition, unless one wishes to argue the tautology that their tradition is legitimate (if not superior) because their tradition said so.
  • If one must unquestioningly follow their gedolim, then I have no right to argue on Hahahm Faur’s assessments since he is certainly more knowledgeable than anyone who has commented.
  • If one wishes to criticize, insult, or otherwise treat Hahahm Faur with disrespect because he is not “big enough,” then one must assume that they are at least of the same stature to do so, and demonstrate this stature accordingly. 17
  • If one is allowed to denigrate gedolim who espouse a tradition one considers to be “wrong,” then regardless of what one thought of my tone, I would have been within my rights to do so.

I personally do not hold of these premises, but if one is going to play by these rules or variants thereof, then halakhah is essentially reduced to the juvenile taunting of, in the words of one of my congregants, “my rabbi can beat up your rabbi.” 18

I’d like to conclude by addressing those who, with varying degrees of civility, offered more personal criticisms. Ignoring the ad hominem attacks, many were concerned about my standing within the Orthodox community. These appeals generally went along the lines that if I want to have a voice in the community or be part of the conversation then I need to play by certain rules. Not giving due deference where expected would only lead to my marginization or ostracization and diminish any influence I would ever seek to have.

To a large extent there is truth in this criticism. After all, in order for two people to have an intelligible conversation, there must be shared fundamental points of agreement to serve as pureness for further arguments. R. Tendler once commented in shiur that, “You can’t quote Shulhan Aruch to Ashkenazim. To Ashkenazim he’s the ‘Mehaber‘ – he wrote a book. Lots of people wrote books. But to the Sephardim, he’s ‘Maran Hakadosh.'” If one person does not believe a text is authoritative, then citations from that text will ring hollow. There are times when in order to convince someone to change their minds, one must abandon their own biases to argue on someone else’s terms.

However, these times often have limits. My father once told me a story where he was invited to speak at an interfaith meeting, but only on the condition that he accepted the divine infallibility of the Pope. This was not a condition my father could accept, and declined accordingly. While I am happy to argue intricacies of Jewish law with anyone, and will frequently engage others on their terms, I will not pretend to subscribe to a false system for the purposes of achieving notoriety. 19

The tradition I have received never equated legitimacy or correctness with acceptance. As such, while I appreciate recognition, it has never been a motivating factor in anything I have done in my rabbinic career. I never intended to gain a broad website readership, amass over 27,000 twitter followers, or accumulate over 61,000 total downloads of my classes – all without advertising or institutional support. 20 If I have any sort of following it is precisely because I am following in the traditions of my teachers, which means sometimes taking unpopular or controversial stances for no other reason than that is where the truth leads. People are always free to disagree and to attempt to persuade me otherwise, assuming they do not assert their opinions or pureness as facts and attempt convincing arguments. I’ve also been arguing with people long enough that I know, at least on my end, to distinguish between intellectual disagreements and personal enmity. I consider many of those who levied criticisms personal friends or colleagues, and will continue to do so even if on occasion this sentiment is not reciprocated.

When I posted my father’s letter of resignation from the Rabbinical Assembly, the response was generally positive with many acknowledging the inherent risks and courage involved in making professional decisions in accordance with one’s principles. Since then he has been no less of a critic of Orthodox Judaism, ironically for pointing out similar duplicities (implicit or explicit) in what passes for Orthodox discourse. One colleague even commented that someone had approached him regarding my essay and confused its authorship as being from my father.

That, dear friends and loyal readers, is tradition.


  1. One Rabbi (not my father) actually thought I was too respectful.
  2. Assuming he had not done so long ago.
  3. I resisted the temptation to respond to certain individuals by arguing that according to this logic, no non-rabbi would have any right to argue with me on the grounds that my having rabbinic ordination would make me superior to all those who do not. While this argument is logically sound, it would have been impossible for me to make without giving the pretense of pretentiousness. There are limits to the extent that I argue with others on their terms.
  4. Haham Faur often signs his English emails with “JF,” referring to he secular name, “Jose Faur”
  5. In his exact words, “Tienes razon, pero a mi me dirigieron una pregunta halakhota, y la razones que aducen no son halakhotas.”
  6. In footnote 25 of his article, Two Models of Jewish Spirituality (Shofar 10:3, 1992, 5-46), Haham Faur described Maimonides’ Iggeret: Law and Rhetoric by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik – himself no stranger to composing acerbic critiques – as, “a highly offensive article, motivated by unresolved oedipal complexes rather than scholarship.”
  7. Faur, Jose. “One-Dimensional Jew, Zero-Dimensional Judaism.” The Review of Rabbinic Judaism 2 (1999) 31-50. All page references refer to this article.
  8. Recall such an argument made by Rabbi Daniel Stein in 2004.
  9. Compare for example the law of Dhimmi.
  10. Faur is citing H.L.A Hart’s The Concept of Law (Oxford, 1994) p. 51
  11. B. Sanhedrin 36a, Rambam Sanhedrin 11:6
  12. Sifre 41
  13. See B. Niddah 30b
  14. See in particular Faur, Jose. “Anti-Maimonidean Demons.” Review of Rabbinic Judaism 6,1 (2003) 3-52.
  15. Notably in defiance of Deut. 30:12-13 with which I introduced my essay.
  16. See my paper on Ramban where I demonstrated that his description of Rabbinic infallibility mimics that of Tertullian centuries earlier. This paper was later referenced in Hahaham Faur’s Anti-Maimonidean article as well as the second volume of Horizontal Society.
  17. I only said I wouldn’t make this argument regarding myself.
  18. It is noteworthy that these battles are not fought directly by the great rabbis themselves, but vicariously their followers, many of whom would not be on the same “level” of those whom they wish to disparage.
  19. I should add that even using the rhetoric of subservience is no guarantee of acceptance if one still challenges the decisions of the superiors. See the various responses to Rabbi Ysoschar Katz’s more politically correct essay..
  20. I also had nothing to do with the “Sexiest Rabbi” poll
Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Judaism. Tagged with , , .

4 Responses