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Monday, January 26, 2009

Does Modern Orthodoxy Have Any Legitimacy?

For some time, I've been troubled by something within Modern Orthodoxy:

A trend within Modern Orthodoxy, especially the more left one goes, is trying to reconcile certain modern streams of thought and ideology with Orthodoxy. For example, a mighty attempt has been waged, and is still being waged, to equalize the position of women in Judaism.

But this begs a certain question: why?

This question will sound banal to most, but reconsider this; truly ask yourself, "WHY do we want a more equal position of women in Judaism?" If one truly considers this question, he will realize something:

One's desire in this regard has NOTHING to do with what the classical texts say. If one espouses a desire to live classical traditional Judaism by the book, then equalizing womens' position will have no role to play. If one reads the Talmud, Rambam, Shulhan Aruch, etc., he will see nothing about increasing womens' role in shul and public life, granting them greater opportunities in Talmud Torah, etc. If one wants to live Judaism "by the book", the most logical thing is to do just that, as it was done in the Middle Ages and even earlier. If this is our desire, then the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox) have it right, and Modern Orthodoxy ought to pack up shop and admit itself to be an utter sham and failure.

So there seems to be some disingenuous. We search mightily for halachic ways to permit women these things, but it seems that the spirit of Judaism protests! Surely, we can of course find loopholes to permit anything; for example, one can ask a yeshiva student to buy a book for him at the Jewish bookstore, and thereby save money. Now, technically, it is indeed permissible, but it is not ethical, as Professor Marc B. Shapiro points out at It is always possible to find loopholes in the law, but Judaism's spirit continues to protest notwithstanding this legal ingenuity (and disingenuousness). If so, then perhaps all the leniencies we find for increasing the position of women, likewise are disingenuous legal loopholes to which the authentic spirit of Judaism most stridently protests! Again, then if our desire is to live Judaism by the sources, then the Haredim are right and Modern Orthodoxy is wrong, clear and simple.

How then, shall we justify our efforts without hypocrisy and contradiction? It seems to me that once the issue is clearly understood for what it is, and all obfuscations are removed, we are left with one choice: either accept the Haredi position, or accept the position of Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits.

Those familiar with Rabbi Berkovits, and not partial to his controversial opinion, will be flabbergasted, and even bristle indignantly, at such an extraordinary suggestion. Rabbi Berkovits is considered to be on the far left of Modern Orthodoxy, and his halachic philosophy was considered to be on the fringes. But the challenge I have posed is formidable, and I have seen no one else offer a superior solution. But let us review Rabbi Berkovits's pertinent position.

In Crisis and Faith, Rabbi Berkovits has a chapter on women in Torah in the modern era. (He also has a book titled Women in Time and Torah, but unfortunately, I have as yet been unable to procure this book. So the one chapter in Crisis and Faith will have to suffice.) He first surveys the vast number of Talmud aphorisms favorable to women, such as that they are kindhearted and compassionate, wise and discerning, that a man is nothing without a wife, that a man should trust all his wife's advice, etc. He then surveys the equally vast number of Talmudic aphorisms that are quite to the contrary: that women are vain and gluttonous and prone to evil gossip and witchcraft, etc. Rabbi Berkovits asks how we are to account for this. The simple answer is, he says, is to say that it is a dispute; different authorities said different things. But as simple as this answer is, it is wrong.

There is a principle that certain Torah laws were given merely as concessions to man's primitive nature. After all, "the Torah was given in the language of men" (Talmud) and "prophecy is given in accordance with its recipient's understanding" (Rav Kook following Rambam). Therefore, the entire institution of sacrifice is a concession according to Rambam. Likewise, according to Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto), cited by Nehama Leibowitz, the right of the familial blood-avenger to slaughter the innocent accidental manslaughter until the latter reaches the city of refuge, is of course a concession to Arab-style blood revenge. Hazal already declared in the Talmud that the Jewish soldier's right to take a woman captive is a concession. In all these examples, the Torah knew that were it to categorically forbid (sacrifices, blood revenge, taking women captive), we'd be overwhelmed and simply ignore the prohibition. Better then to permit, but with important limitations. Thus, we may sacrifice - but only at the Temple. We may kill the innocent manslaughter - until he reaches the city of refuge. We may take a woman captive - if we make her a lawfully-wedded-wife. We may quibble on individual laws, whether any given one is truly a concession, but the overall principle is clear.

Therefore, says Rabbi Berkovits, the comprehensive and G-d-given moral ethos of the Torah was battling with the primitive nature and culture of man. Lofty moral and ethical values, given by G-d and His Torah, had to combat primitive opinions and urges of man. We can see this in the Torah's battle against idolatry: even though the Torah repeats the prohibition against idolatry countless times, the Tanach (Bible) shows that more often than not, we succumbed nevertheless to the temptations of heathenism. It is naive to suspect that the Torah suddenly won us over.

Thus, the Talmud's laws of women are in fact quite advanced for the time. Rabbi Berkovits notes that Rambam commands a woman to wash her husband's face, but NOT her in-laws' faces. Why? Because, as Rambam puts it, she is not a servant. In the Middle Ages, this was in fact a step forward for women. When we review the Talmudic laws of women, they are actually quite revolutionary and progressive. But all the same, G-d could not command what He truly desired, because the time was not yet ripe, and the generations were not yet ready. Had G-d commanded, hypothetically, for us to treat women completely equally, we'd take G-d for a crackpot.

Rabbi Berkovits notes that in his childhood, in early 20th century Romania, his family had a domestic servant. However, his father, who learned little besides Talmud and Shulhan Aruch, forbade them to personally request anything at all of her; she had her set duties, and that was all she did. If so, asks Rabbi Berkovits, could his father ever ask his wife to wash his face for him??!! Could any man today ask his wife to wash his face, and be anything besides humiliated??!! If this is how we treat our servants, all the more we treat our wives!

Therefore, we must strive to expand the position of women in Torah in our own day. But in an impassioned outburst, Rabbi Berkovits exclaims that this is NOT because we are modern, NOT because we are modern Jews, NOT because of the Enlightenment or liberty or equality, but because we are JEWS. This, he says, is what Judaism has made us. Pure, simple, original Talmudic Judaism has made us what we are. If we desire greater equality for women, he says, it is because of Judaism - pure, original Judaism.

And of course, it must all be done through the means of halachah. Obviously, the primary reason is that halachah is, after all, G-d's chosen tool. If He commanded it, we cannot ignore it. Nevertheless, Rabbi Berkovits, in his "Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha", and again in his "Crisis and Faith" and his "Towards Historic Judaism", shows some glimpse of how halakha used to be more flexible than it is today. The Oral Law was originally oral precisely in order to grant it greater flexibility. It was to be "Torat Hayim", "The Torah of life", ever unfolding in new ways according to new developments in the passage of time. Torah would never be outdated, for it would organically and inconspicuously unfold and advance with the conditions of life. However, when, due to the threatening vagaries of history, the Oral Law was almost forgotten, we had no choice but to write the Oral Law down. This came at the cost, however, of destroying some of its vital flexible nature - now, all halakhic decisions would have to be scrutinized in light of what would be set in stone. (For a similar analysis, see Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein's Foreword to the Soncino Midrash Rabbah. More relevantly, see Rabbi Berkovits's own teacher's father's writings: Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (the father of Rabbi Berkovits's teacher, Rabbi Avraham Glasner)'s Hakdamah (introduction) to his (viz. R' Moshe Shmuel's) Dor Revi'i, available in abridged translation at (HTML) and (PDF).)

Nevertheless, it is our responsibility, as Rabbi Berkovits notes with most optimism and trembling. It is a daunting task, but our task all the same. We must uphold authentic Torah ("Orthodox") Judaism, while finding the abilities to unfold it organically according to its own spirit and ethos. But how do we determine what is truly the Torah's desire? Sometimes the Torah contradicts the zeitgeist because the two are truly in conflict, and the Torah must of course prevail; but sometimes the Torah's laws are actually behind its own values, and we must indeed unfold and update the Torah. Honesty, learning, and fear of G-d, I suspect. ואין לנו על מי להשען אלא על אבינו שבשמיים We have no one upon whom to rely save our Father in Heaven. We must act as best we know how, with honesty, integrity, and above all fear of G-d, and hope that He will have mercy when we err.

I think the most remarkable thing about Rabbi Berkovits was that he had the courage to say all this. In an era where Orthodox Judaism is on the defensive if not the retreat, Rabbi Berkovits had the vision to suggest Judaism is its own dignified and authentic civilization, with its own culture and its own legitimate claim to a true organic material life. More, as his son, Rabbi Dov Berkovits puts it, "I think it safe to say that Eliezer Berkovits used the well-worn phrase “halachic Judaism” in two revolutionary ways. First, though springing from the fundamental commitments of Orthodoxy, halachic Judaism according to Berkovits refers to a non-denominational, or better, a post-denominational, Judaism whose ultimate concern is not with ideology, or even theology, but with the living demands of the dynamic condition of the Jewish people. Second, though deeply rooted in the wisdom of the Tora, the central aim of halachic Judaism is not to formulate a defensive, traditionalist posture for the protection of Tora from life, but rather to be a formative tool for the creative fashioning of human realities."

Postscript: I have dealt with this same issue elsewhere, in the comments to


R' Ken Chanoch Bloom commented:

Either you've set up a straw man against modern orthodoxy, or you've mistitled your post.

I say this because there is a very large gap between the views of Rabbi Berkovitz and the Haredim. That gap covers most of the territory which asks "how can we create a sustainable prosperous Jewish community and still live an authentic Torah lifestyle?" A torah only worldview without room for vocational training (and advanced secular knowledge in sciences, medicine, law, etc...) will not be sustainable and propserous. So most of modern orthodoxy (TIDE, TuM, Rav Kook) comes to answer that question or can at least be construed that way if you squint enough. While issues like womens' equality can't really be construed that way, some remaining women's issues (particularly gittin) deal with difficulties in enforcing beit din decisions in today's world.

What's left, the area that you're addressing, seems to be a very small fringe of modern orthodoxy.

There is also some basis for small variations in halacha based on real changes in the societal behavior of women. If you look at Aruch Ha'shulhan 303:22 (I'm quoting by way of, in talmudic times women were generally much more confined to their homes then they were in the time of the Aruch Ha'shulhan. Thus, he permitted women to wear certain jewelry in a reshut harabim that the gemara prohibits. His reasoning is that since women are more mobile now than then, there's no concern that they'll take off that jewelry in a reshut harabim to show other women since they see other women more often, in places outside reshut harabim.


I replied,

R' Ken,

You're probably correct that I overstated my case. If one wants only to "create a sustainable prosperous Jewish community and still live an authentic Torah lifestyle", then Rav Hirsch's TIDE will work quite well, nay stupendously and beautifully. In fact, Rav Hirsch's approach is still leagues beyond where most of Orthodoxy is, and truth be told, I agree with the vast majority of what Rav Hirsch says on any given issue.

However, Modern Orthodoxy, or at least some variants of it, do indeed strive to adapt Orthodoxy to modern values in whatever way is considered halachically feasible. I cannot think of any examples at the moment, but if someone else could please complete my argument for me...

The two do not of course contradict. Utilizing Rav Hirsch to justify secular learning and practical material tikkun olam and good relations with gentiles in no way impinges on using others to increase womens' roles. The second requires the first, but not vice versa.

It is with the second aspect, however, that I am dealing. My issue is, if, for example, Rabbis Yehuda Herzl Henkin and Daniel Sperber grapple with "partnership minyans", what right do they have? Whether their final verdict is to permit or forbid, something is amiss. If our goal was to follow what the Torah ostensibly desires, then we ought to do what it seems to most obviously say: no. We have to bend and twist to find ways to permit, and the most logical thing to conclude is that if we must so bend and twist, then even if we find a way to be lenient, our attempt is faulty and false and disingenuous.

If anyone wishes to expand Modern Orthodoxy in such ways, he'll have to grapple with the issue I have raised. He can either adopt the first aspect of Modern Orthodoxy and reject the second, or he can follow Rabbi Berkovits; there is no middle ground so far as I can see.

But you are correct that I overstated my case; you are correct that the first aspect of Modern Orthodoxy is completely self-sufficient and independent of the second aspect. The second aspect, however, requires the first as a prerequisite.

Based again on Rabbi Henkin: Rabbi Henkin has a famous shita that we can permit Modern Orthodox coed social relationships, by reasoning that greater contact inures one to the sexual nature of that contact. Only in Talmudic times, when there were no such coed socials, would any and all such contact be intrinsically sexual.

However reasonable this is, however, if we truly wanted to do what the Torah ostensibly says, wouldn't just do as the Haredim do, and forbid? One could VERY easily make a case that the Torah intrinsically frowns upon such coed relationships; even if such contact does inure, it is irrelevant. The fact that the Talmud assumes a lack of coed activity makes it very reasonable that such activity is intrinsically against the Torah's own ethos.

We mustn't deceive ourselves. For all the clever formula we conceive of, we must realize that actually, the simplest and most straightforward method, the most true to the sources, would be to be like the Haredim. Creativity and innovation demand courage, and courage demands the belief that what one is doing is proper. The Haredim, according to the internal logic of their own premises, assume that the most Torah-true way is to do EXACTLY what the classic sources say.

Of course, this is again assuming the second aspect of Modern Orthodoxy, and I am indebted to you for pointing out the need for clarification in this matter.


R' Ken replied,

Thanks to your response I can understand now that it would make sense to define modern orthodoxy as a different derech than TIDE or TuM. If you have only two choices between modern orthodoxy and yeshivish orthodoxy (and pragmatically if you look at dating websites like Frumster and SawYouAtSinai, those are your only two choices), then in practice people tend to construe modern orthodoxy narrowly to not include TIDE and TuM and Religious Zionism (when not combined with this modernization of halacha), and they tend to construe yeshivish orthodoxy broadly to include any level of orthodoxy that wishes to avoid radically reinterpreting or overruling the Shulchan Aruch.

So if you explain modern orthodoxy narrowly, then perhaps your title was entirely appropriate.

I guess the thing to be aware of then is that "haredi" and "yeshivish" mean very different things, because haredi refers to a Torah only viewpoint found mainly in Israel, and is rarely construed broadly.


I replied,

R' Ken,

Well, Frumster and SawYouAtSinai, etc., tend to sometimes differentiate between "MO Machmir/Right-wing" and "MO Lenient/Kula/Left". The question is, exactly what does this mean?

Philosophically, for example, I'm quite left-wing, as my repeated citations of Rabbi Berkovits would indicate. Also, for example, I love to say "The gedolim all posken Meiri as halacha l'maaseh" - pray tell, which gedolim, however, is the million dollar question.

On the other hand, if the two types of MO are regarding how concerned one is with halacha in general, such as whether you'll shrug and say "Ehh, close enough" when a halachic situation comes up, then I'd like to hope that I'm not MO lax at all! Truth be told, I do have a difficulty with heteronomous commands, and to be honest, I'll often read a certain halacha and bristle at it. For example, the idea that a blech nowadays must involve a sheet of metal and not merely covering the knobs, bothers me. But when push comes to shove, I'll usually suck up my ego and desires for autonomy and do what the rabbi or halacha says. For example, I personally feel that covering the knobs ought to be sufficient, but if my rabbi tells me to cover up the burners too, I probably will.

So if MO lax means you're wishy-washy about keeping halacha, I hope I'm not lax! I'm left-wing, but for me, that means my principles are different, not that I have no principles! If I, for example, hold that covering the knobs is sufficient, then even thoug I won't have a sheet-metal blech, I'll still cover the knobs as conscientiously as any yeshivish or MO-machmir person, and if I forget to cover the knobs, I'll observe the strictures of shehiya and hazara.

Now, your differentiation between yeshivish and Haredi is a valuable one. I remember someone blasting Haredim on Avodah, and someone else was indignant, declaring himself to be Haredi. The first replied, "The Haredim I mean don't even use the internet!" (For those who don't know, Avodah is an internet-based Orthodox chat.)

I'll often blast Haredim with my chavruta, and my chavruta will defend them. But often, his defense involves American or British Haredim, and invariably I'll respond, "I mean Israeli Haredim! The American ones are reasonable and sane, and more like American MO than like Israeli Haredim!"

Now, of course, there are differences. TIDE and TuM-ists, for example, have an agenda to pursue limudei hol, whereas American Haredim do so bedieved. As Rn' Toby Katz says in the name of her father, American Haredim in practice follow TIDE (end quote), but this is not the same as doing so as a deliberate shita.

So basically, Israeli Haredim and MO lax in terms of being apathetic are both beyond the pale. We're left with:

1) American Haredi = Yeshivish = right-wing TIDE
2) Mainstream American MO = centrist TIDE/TuM
3) Left-wing American MO = TIDe/TuM but with a left-wing bias on certain issues

All three are going to follow TIDE or TuM to one degree or another. But Yeshivish individuals will be less makpid on such of the particularly striking aspects (for example, they won't write essays like Rav Hirsch did, gloriously extolling the beauty and wonder of how Yavan will enlighten mankind - tov, they'll go to college and get a secular occupation and be reasonably cultured and learned people, but they won't make a shita out of it).

Left-wing MO can certainly follow Hirschian-ism or TuMism (as I do, I hope), but beyond this, they'll have certain shitot on various issues. Someone was discussing Rav Eliezer Berkovits's position on mysticism and spirituality, and was criticizing how Rabbi Berkovits emphasized the ethical to the exclusion of the spiritual. I replied with a ma'amar of Dr. Nachum Klaftner:
"The impact on the world around us by mitzvos according is profound according to the rationalists, but not via magical mechanisms. Rather via influence on other people (teaching Torah, giving tzedaka, serving as a role model, creating and supporting institutions and schools, etc.), or directly in the physical world (ve-asisa me'akeh le-gagecha, etc.). The influence of the mitzvos on others, according to rationalists, takes place in the social and interpersonal realm, not in a magical realm. The interpersonal and social realm for a rationalist like Hirsch IS SPIRITUAL, and the language of kabbala is a metaphor for it. There is not a "mystical world" separate from the social sphere. It is a subset of the social sphere. For a mystic it is a superficial representation of a deeper and independent spiritual world and reality."

Notice how Notice how I've explained a shita of Rabbi Berkovits's, by using Rav Hirsch! In fact, I do not believe this is surprising; Rabbi Berkovits learned under Rabbi Weinberg, after all!

I've also noted how half of Rabbi Berkovits's G-d Man and History, is VERY similar in content to half of Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler's The Biblical View of Man. Half of each book deals with different themes, but the haves that deal with the same themes, each has the same to say! One could almost copy and paste one into the other, and no one would notice the difference! As the appendix to the Urim edition of Rabbi Adler shows, Rabbi Adler grew up in very Hirschian early 20th century Germany, and much of his book's content is based on Rav Hirsch's concept that Judaism is an anthropology.

My point is that my being a left-wing Berkovits-ian does not preclude my also being a Hirschian.


R' Jonathan Baker replied,

Haredi, to my mind, more or less equates to "guys who wear a religious uniform". Yeshivish plus chasidim. In other words, mostly, Agudist. It's the counterpart to Modern/DL. I'm not quite sure where RZ fits into this - is it old Mizrachi, hence more or less yeshivish, or does the Haredi viewpoint necessarily include a neutral-to-negative view of Zionism?

I replied,

RZ has different factions. For example, Rabbi Sherlow, the rosh yeshiva of Petah Tikva, is a member of Tzohar, which might perhaps be the Israeli equivalent of Edah. Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, former rosh yeshiva of Jews' College (making him British MO), is involved in Yeshivat Maale Adumim.

On the other hand, the rest of RZ is known for downplaying if not denigrating Rav Hirsch (they tend to view him as a local shul rabbi of no enduring significance), and some prominent RZ rabbis have even advocated limiting limudei hol as a shita. Some even go so far as to have RZ high schools without any limudei hol whatsoever!

Put simply, I fear highly for the future of Orthodoxy in Israel.


R' Ken replied,

There's a lot to read and digest here, but one thing that jumps out at me: You should be aware that Rav Hirsch's position on Eretz Israel (evident in the 19 letters) is at odds with Religious Zionist though. He felt that there was no future significance for the land, and that it was only significant as an incubator for the later Jewish mission of being an Or L'goyim. I haven't spent enough time with Hirsh to see how that relates to the rest of TIDE which he espoused, but it could be problematic for the shita as a whole. If participating in a goyish derech-eretz is something essentially Jewish, then this cannot be done in Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish nation. Thus a religious zionist would be forced to either reject or reformulate the TIDE package.

(Disclaimer -- I haven't read enough Hirsch to know whether what I'm saying is totally right or not.)


I replied,

R' Ken,

You're interpreting Rav Hirsch as Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook does, and personally, with all due respect, I think Rav Tzvi Yehuda misinterpreted Rav Hirsch.

Rav Hirsch, in 19 Letters, says that Eretz Yisrael is a means and not an end. Rav Kook, on the other hand, in the very first paragraph of Orot, says that Eretz Yisrael is davka an end, a most critical part of Judaism. It is easy to see why Rav Tzvi Yehuda interpreted Rav Kook as polemicizing against Rav Hirsch - the language is perfectly fittingly contrary!

However, reading Rav Hirsch in context shows that what Rav Hirsch means by Eretz Yisrael being an end, is its being an idolatrous nationalistic entity existing for itself, for its own self-glorification, trumping all other moral values and laws. In other words, "My country is always right". In fact, Rav Hirsch is speaking of a state that operates like Nimrod's Tower of Bavel; surely Rav Kook would agree with Rav Hirsch that such nationalism is nigh idolatrous!

But instead, says Rav Hirsch, Eretz Yisrael is to be a means, meaning, as he explains in his essay "Av I", that EY is to be the place and means for the practical manifestation of all aspects of life under the aegis of Torah. For Rav Hirsch, the Torah is supreme, and EY is the indispensable means for its fulfillment. Would Rav Kook really disagree?

So what did Rav Kook mean? It seems Rav Kook is perhaps speaking against Cultural Zionism, in which EY was a rallying point for the nation living permanently in the golah. We'd have a Hebrew University we could all look towards, and we'd all stay in galut. Indeed, Rav Kook speaks of the false "means" view of EY being that it is a place for the *physical* gathering and strengthening of the nation. Surely Rav Hirsch agrees that this is a false view! In fact, Rav Hirsch notes scores of times in his Humash that unlike other nations, our nation was formed without land or soil, and our nation does not depend on soil for its existence.

So even though Rav Hirsch advocates EY as "means" not "end", and Rav Kook exactly the opposite, they are using the same words in totally other ways. Rav Hirsch is criticizing idolatrous nationalism as "end" and advocating a Torah-center as "means", while Rav Kook is criticizing primitive materialistic nationalism as a "means" and advocating a Torah-center as an "end".

In fact, if you read Rav Hirsch's references to EY in his Humash and "Av I", it sounds VERY much like Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits's philosophy (see Hazony, "Eliezer Berkovits: Theologian of Zionism" in Azure magazine, which in turn reads very much like Rav Kook (despite Hazony's unsuccessful claim to the contrary - see Letter to the Editor in the following issue).

Now, there ARE two major differences between Ravs Hirsch and Kook on EY...:
- Rav Hirsch paskened the Three Oaths as halachah. He explicitly says that our life in galut is bedieved, and that l'hatchila, Torah will be lived in EY. But we are forbidden to make aliyah, and until then, we must do our mission bedieved as an Ohr laGoyim physically amongst the gentiles. But contrary to the claims of many, Rav Hirsch explicitly notes that this is NOT ideal, and that even he sees galut as a punishment negating the l'hatchila fulfillment of the Torah. You can't exactly ignore explicit Gemaras!

- Rav Kook believed EY has intrinsic metaphysical significance. But Rav Hirsch, in keeping with his overall philosophy on Kabbalah, would stridently disagree, as he blasts all theosophy and theurgy.


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