Rabbi Yuter concludes the segment on Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox discussing attributions of Saul Lieberman’s scholarship and the failed attempt at creating a beit din with Conservative and Orthodox input.
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Rabbi Yuter’s Politics of Exclusion class returns, examining the hareidi reaction to Saul Lieberman
Rabbi Yuter’s Politics of Exclusion segment on Saul Lieberman continues with a specific charge against Saul Lieberman, his response, and concludes with a game changing twist.
Rabbi Josh Yuter starts a new section in his Politics of Exclusion series discussing the Orthodox reaction to Saul Lieberman after accepting his position at JTS.
All texts are from Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox by Marc Shapiro and is a highly purchase and read in its entirety.
Introduction: Rabbinic Identities
About a month after I started as rabbi of the Stanton St. Shul, the first internal conflict I had to resolve was over a question of rabbinic recognition. A scheduled academic speaker had been ordained by a non-Orthodox institution, and one member objected to addressing this person by the title “Rabbi” on the grounds that non-Orthodox institutions tend to disregard Jewish law.1 In the end, my psak wasn’t so much to address the speaker as “Rabbi” but to ask how she preferred to be addressed and follow whatever she said.2 Still, I felt the need to defend my position to the congregant.
The answer I gave to the congregant was something I had written about fifteen years ago when I was first starting to develop my thoughts on authority in Judaism. I applied a “Brisker” distinction between the shem or “title” of “Rabbi” and the halot or “status” of being a religious authority. Just as people might still call incompetent physicians “doctor,” they wouldn’t necessarily consult them for medical advice. I suggested the same ought to apply for the rabbinate. We could still call people by their “title” out of professional courtesy, but we would not bestow the halakhic status of consulting over religious matters or give deference to those who are unworthy.
The congregant was not impressed with my distinction, and I can understand why. The rabbinic title is supposed to imply religious authority as it has since its inception.3 While this may have been appropriate in the past, conflating the rabbinic title and status has gradually led to a religious reality is at best confusing and at worst manipulative.
A Facebook friend recently posted a “personal list of essential reading for a thinking Orthodox Jew.” These sorts of questions are fun exercises (especially for book geeks like myself) since it requires a degree of thought, introspection, and strategy. For a list to be useful to others it cannot be comprehensive; telling people to read everything is not terribly practical. 1 But there also has to be thought as to the criteria for the list. For example, there is a perpetual debate in professional sports over the Most Valuable Player award regarding whether it should it go to the “best” player or the one who contributes the most “value” to his team. Books are even more subjective in that what might be “essential” for one person might be irrelevant to someone else. In my capacity as a community Rav I was in a position where I could give targeted recommendations to individuals, accounting for their background, interests, and affinities. 2 The RCA has a reading list appropriate for prospective converts which may or may not be “good,” but they can service as decent “starting points” for future discussion.
Since this is my list I’m going to make my own rules and qualifications:
- I’m limiting myself to 15 books. Why 15? Because that’s how many books I came up with.
- Order does not matter.
- All books will be in English because I’m simply more familiar with English books than those in other languages.
- I’m ignoring “primary” works such as the Bible or Talmud on the grounds that these are too obvious for inclusion and someone interested in Judaism ought to be reading them anyway.
- I’m assuming that readers have a more intellectual disposition which means more academic books than popular ones, though I give greater weight to books which are more accessible and “readable.”
- My goal in compiling this list is not for basic literacy in Torah, but for understanding the Jewish religion, particularly the manifestations of Orthodox Judaism.
- These books don’t simply represent books I like but the ones I’ve found myself citing, referencing, or recommending most often. Here I get to explain why.
- Omissions from this list are not to be considered as a value judgement on those works.
- All selections naturally reflect my personal biases, but I’m going to try to give a short explanation for each of my choices.
I’ll conclude the introduction by saying that if you only read these books to the exclusion of everything else, you will only be moderately less well-informed. Consider these books only as isolated moments on a lifelong journey of intellectual growth.
Now, let’s get to it…
I first heard the term “gadolatry” attributed to the late professor Arthur Hertzberg. A portmanteau of “gadol” and “idolatry,” the word “gadolatry” refers to a perceived phenomenon in Orthodox Judaism where select rabbinic leaders are treated with a degree of deference or reverence, bordering on worshipping the person of the rabbi himself. That Dr. Hertzberg would coin such an inflammatory term is not surprising given his personality, such that any reactions of offense or outrage are as intentional as they are predictable. However, it has been my experience that those strong passions on either side have turned the reasonable question of the role of the gadol in Judaism into the single greatest impediment to intelligent religious discourse in the Orthodox Jewish community.
While I have no expectations of resolving this divisive issue, I do hope to explicate the rationales implied when one invokes a gadol, and why others may find such an argument unconvincing.
The following essay is derived from two recent classes/podcasts Understanding the Agunah Problem and Solutions to the Agunah Problem. These classes include several of the primary sources referenced below
The protracted divorce battle between Aharon Friedman and Tamar Epstein is the most publicized case of agunah in recent memory. An aggressive campaign led by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) capitalized on Mr. Friedman’s relatively prominent status as a congressional aide for David Camp. The efforts of numerous online and personal protests eventually led to mainstream media coverage from outlets such as Fox News, The New York Times and Politico which called national attention to Mr. Friedman’s refusal to grant his wife a halakhic divorce. As with virtually all cases of agunah, the recalcitrant party is vilified with public condemnations and communal pressure to acquiesce.1 When the specific goal is obtaining the immediate divorce, it is a relatively simple matter to identify the party responsible for obstructing the process and to protest accordingly. Others, however, find fault with the halakhic system, and in a desire to change the status quo to identify other sources of blame.
In a recent Forward blog post titled “On Agunah Issue, Pressure Rabbis, Not Rep” Dvora Myers argues that the plight of agunot is not only the fault of a recalcitrant husband but of the Rabbis for creating the regulations in the first place.
However, if withholding a get constitutes abuse, if the husband is indeed brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it, then the question that should be asked: How did the gun get into his hand?
The answer is clear: It was put there by Jewish law, the rabbis who formulated it, and the rabbis who refuse to amend it.
Myers’ understanding of Jewish law is informed by Blu Greenberg’s famous dictum, “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way,” thus placing the burden of agunot squarely with the Rabbis. Ultimately Myers concludes,
If maintaining a nearly thousand-year-old ruling is more important than offering women equality within the religion, I would at least like to see one of these rabbis condemning Friedman admit as much. It would be refreshingly honest to hear one of them say something like, “When faced with the choice of preserving tradition and promoting justice and equality that would give women the freedom to divorce, we choose the former.”
Most Orthodox Jews would agree that adhering to a thousand-year-old ruling is, in fact, more important than fulfilling the prevailing ethic of the day. This is due to a fundamentally different approach to Jewish law, one which assumes that halakhah is ultimately a representation of Divine Will. In this case, it would be strict adherence to the biblical laws of divorce in Deut. 24:1-1 and the capital offense for adultery in Lev. 20:10. It is important to consider that this approach to halakhah is shared by the agunot themselves, who while having the free will to ignore Jewish law and remarry as they wish, are committed first and foremost to keeping halakhah despite the immense challenges it presents.2 Thus, when a Rabbi adheres to Jewish law, even if it is unpopular, inconvenient, or even difficult for him to do so, he is not being an obstinate misogynist, but rather fulfilling his duty as a Rabbi.
But while it is misguided to blame Rabbis for following halakhah, it is completely legitimate to hold Rabbis accountable to the very halakhah which they espouse. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Rabbinate has not always lived up to their own ideals even when the lives agunot were at stake.
In November of 2010 I began a class series titled “The Politics of Exclusion in Judaism.” The intent of this class was to explore how Judaism defined its socio-religious boundaries and how such definitions changed in response to internal and external considerations from biblical to modern times.
As such, this class incorporates halakha (Jewish Law), machshava (Jewish theology), Jewish history, psychology, and sociology. In response to demand I started recording and podcasting these classes, though only beginning to do so in January of 2011 (missing the classes on Biblical and Rabbinic examples).
For those who missed any classes or wish to review, these are the links in sequential order of the podcasts currently online. The posts themselves contain the audio recordings of the classes as well as PDF’s of the source sheets used.
On a personal note, I am grateful for the opportunity to have been able to teach such a class and I found the entire experience immensely gratifying. I hope you find these classes informative and intellectually stimulating, and I welcome all questions and feedback.
Regular readers of halakhic literature will inevitably encounter appeals to “consensus,” either of a select sample of halakhic decisiors, frequently using the Hebrew idiom “rov poskim,” or of a community’s popular perceptions. 1 The distinguishing characteristic of these appeals to consensus is that the legitimacy or rejection of an opinion is not determined by intrinsic, objective, qualifiable criteria or its merits, but by its adoption by certain people. 2 The primary premise of such arguments is that unanimity or a plurality of agreement among a given collective is halakhically binding on the Jewish population 3 and cannot be further contested or subject to review. 4
Appeals to consensus are common and relatively simply to assert, but those who rely on consensus rarely if ever acknowledge, address, or defend, the assumptions inherent with the invoking of consensus as a source – if not the determinant – of practical Jewish law. As I will demonstrate, appeals to consensus are laden with problematic logical and halakhic assumptions such that while “consensus” may constitute one factor in determining a specific psak, it is not nearly the definitive halakhic criterion its proponents would like to believe.
- While in this essay I am focusing on halakhah, similar appeals to consensus are found in discussions of Jewish thought, in particular regarding the status of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. ↩
- In Brisker terms, this would be a distinction between the “heftza” of a position’s content versus the “gavra” of those who accept it. ↩
- This is not to be confused with the use of consensus as a form of colloquial rhetorical flourish. For example, The Talmud records hundreds of claims of “kulei ‘alma,” literally meaning “the whole world” agrees to a particular position. Given the certitude that one can produce a single lone dissenter on the planet to falsify this claim, it seems reasonable to assume that Talmudic sages were conscious of their hyperbole. But even in the Talmudic vernacular, an appeal to “kulei ‘alma” was most often employed to define a point of agreement between specific parties in order to better understand the true point of halakhic contention. See B. Berachot 23a for just one example. These appeals to “the whole world” are not the basis of a halakhic argument – which must be defended on its merits – but instead are descriptive of a certain context, albeit exaggerated, with the intent of advancing a specific point in the discussion. ↩
- Alternative or contradictory opinions may be suggested, but only with the caveat they remain theoretical and are not to be implemented in practice. ↩