The following is a letter I recently sent to Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen:
Cf. Israeli College Takes Back Presidency From Prof Who Once Taught At Israel's Version Of JTS. The case there is regarding an Orthodox professor who taught at the Conservative Schecter Institute.
Dear Rabbi Kelemen,
Hello. I am writing regarding your article "Trace the Tree of Life", regarding the lack of historical authenticity for Reform and Conservative. http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/reformconservativeorthodox/
Now, I largely enjoyed this article of yours, and as far as I can tell, it is largely correct. (Besides for my unbounded love for the Turkish/Balkan tradition of Rabbis Benzion Uziel and Hayim David Halevi and Marc Angel, I predominately and mostly follow the German and British Neo-Orthodox authorities, such as Rabbi Hirsch, Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz, Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, etc. Speaking of which, I recently read Rabbi Hertz's lauded "The New Paths"; see Dayan Grunfeld's footnote in the Introduction to Horeb, referring to Rabbi Hertz's essays.)
But you say one thing that is surely inaccurate, and which I wish to call your attention to. You say, "According to Weiss Halivni, the Torah represents only a sixth-century B.C.E. manmade guess as to the original material’s form and content. According to both groups [viz. Mordechai Kaplan and Halivni], we do not possess a G-d given Torah, let alone a Divine oral tradition explaining the Pentateuch."
But according to Halivni himself, we lost the Sinaitic Torah in the Babylonian Exile, but we never lost the Oral Law. So according to him, your kal vahomer is incorrect; you cannot say "...let alone a Divine oral tradition explaining the Pentateuch." For according to Halivni, the truth and accuracy of the Oral Law is precisely why the drashot of the Talmud often appear to contradict the Torah's peshat; according to Halivni, the Sinaitic drashot contradict the peshat of the corrupted Torah because the Oral Law/Talmud's drashot are reliable and correct!
So first, your assertion is simply false, from an objective standpoint. But moreover, the general tenor of your words suggests Halivni ought to be classed as heterodox or heretical. But I see no basis for this. First, we see that Halivni accepts the same Oral Law as all Orthodox Jews do. Second, he does hold that the Torah was received at Sinai, only that we lost it in the exile. Now, I truly and sincerely hope that Halivni is incorrect in this belief, but I cannot prove him wrong, for theoretically, I see no historical reason why we couldn't have lost the Torah. There is nothing in the dogmas of Judaism that holds it is impossible to lose the Torah. We can hope that Hashem's hashgaha would prevent this, but we have no guarantee from Him, only hope and faith. In any case, then, while Halivni is - please G-d - incorrect, he is not a heretic, not by a long shot.
I was therefore extremely gratified when one of my rabbis - in a Haredi-Leumi yeshiva, in fact - said of Halivni approvingly, "They don't make rabbis like him anymore." Similarly, another of my rabbis, in the same Hardal yeshiva, was extremely adamant that Rabbi Saul Lieberman was Orthodox; he was adamant that despite having taught in JTS, that he was still Orthodox nevertheless. I was recently in America for Pesah, and one of the people I ate with, in the Orthodox community in Kemp Mill, MD, this fellow said that he learned under Rabbi Halivni in Columbia, and he said that it was like learning in yeshiva. Rabbi Halivni would say, "Your homework is to learn the daf and all the rishonim thereon," and that after class, they'd have a ma'ariv minyan in the classroom.
Another point we might quibble on: we must distinguish between different eras of Conservative. Notwithstanding Rabbi Hirsch's and Rabbi Hildesheimer's adamant denunciation of Frankel as a heretic, Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg nevertheless held him to be a rabbi in good standing. (I am indebted to Professor Marc Shapiro, today's foremost expert on German Neo-Orthodoxy ever since the loss of Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Breuer, for this information.) Similarly, Rabbi Kook would refer to Solomon Schechter as "Rabbi", and JTS was actually formed largely thanks to Congregation Shearith Israel, which played no small role in forming the OU as well. (And I would consider myself a student of Rabbi Marc Angel, and I am rather close spiritually to YCT and R' Avi Weiss.) Most of JTS's Talmud staff were Orthodox, and it was only in the 1940s, when the CJLS separated from JTS and the CLS, that Conservative Judaism split fully from Orthodoxy. But I am not so concerned with the vagaries of Conservative's history. Conservative's history is certainly murky, and it is difficult to sort matters out. Rabbi Alan Yuter has told me that he holds Rabbi Hirsch in low regard due to his denunciation for Frankel (I tried to argue against Rabbi Yuter and defend Rabbi Hirsch in this regard, and I later saw that Professor Shapiro gives the exact same defence as I did), and indeed, Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg held Frankel to be a rabbi in good standing. I could discuss this at greater length, regarding the sociology of pesak halakhah towards a polemic tendency (following Professors Shapiro, Menachem Friedman, and Haym Soloveitchik), but I'll try to avoid being detained by this tangent. Suffice it to say that if YU considered joining with JTS, and that if Rabbis Sabato Morais and Henry Pereira Mendes of Shearith Israel could help form both the OU and JTS, and if Rabbi J. H. Hertz could be JTS's first graduate, then we should realize that things are rather complex and controversial.
I am more concerned, however, with Rabbi Halivni. I am rather discomited by the suggestion that he was anything less than an Orthodox rabbi in good standing.
Thank you, and kol tuv,
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