Parashas Be'Shelach 5774 -- The Real Threat to Orthodoxy; Generosity of Spirit
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 8, 2014
The Real Threat to Orthodoxy
Rabbi Alan Kimche of London made an interesting observation to me this week. When eleven leading roshei yeshiva issued their psak in 1956 against participation of Orthodox rabbis in umbrella rabbinical organizations including Reform and Conservative clergy, the perceived threat was confusion between Conservative and Orthodox. Today, however, the greatest danger of confusion lies within the ranks of those who style themselves as Orthodox, between the so-called "open Orthodox" and the rest of us.
Rabbi Kimche offered as exhibit one the writings of an "Orthodox feminist" – a woman who covers her hair and who is, as far as he knows, mitzvah observant – who writes that the Torah received at Sinai suffers from an inherent bias because it was filtered through Moshe Rabbeinu's male consciousness, and that the time has now come to redress this imbalance through a feminine Torah.
As exhibit two, I would point to a recent blog post at Huffington Post by one Shmuly Yanklowitz in which he explains why he feels compelled, davka as an Orthodox rabbi (his webpage lists semichah from Rabbi Avi Weiss's Yeshivat Chovovei Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardoza), to ardently advocate for same-sex marriage. Yanklowitz's sole nod to "Jewish tradition" is that he will not officiate at such marriages.
Reading this post, I experienced a sense of déjà vu: This must have been what it was like to read the Conservative movement's "psak" in the 1950s permitting driving a car on Shabbos for synagogue attendance only (a restriction observed by no one). No doubt that document was filled with citations to core Jewish principles, such as the importance of praying in a minyan. The only problem was that no matter how many such citations were amassed, according to the principles of Shulchan Aruch the result is crystal-clear: igniting an internal combustion engine constitutes a d'oraisa transgression of lighting a fire.
Yanklowitz does not even make the effort to cite Jewish sources to argue for his position. Nor does he explicitly acknowledge the insurmountable difficulty with his position: The Torah prohibits the very relationships that he would have civil law recognize in the strongest possible language, and according to all authorities they constitute violations punishable by death of the seven mitzvos incumbent on gentiles. All he writes on this matter is, "We have no right to coercively prevent, by force of civil law, an individual from enjoying true happiness and fulfilling their life potential when it poses no harm to any other."
He effectively argues that moral judgments based on religious teachings cannot serve as the basis of civil law. Harvard Professor Lawrence Tribe made a similar argument almost four decades ago in a misbegotten effort to defend the U.S. Supreme Court's abortion jurisprudence: Since beliefs about when life begins are essentially ones of religious belief, they cannot be the basis of a statutory prohibition on abortion. That argument made little sense then and little more now, for it unfairly gives preference to the value judgments of atheists over those of religious citizens.
Nor is it true that legalization of such marriages harms no one else or has no coercive impact on them. Every time a particular relationship is granted legislative status it opens the gates for coercion against religious citizens. For instance, religious Jew and Catholics would be prevented from refusing to rent property to couples whose relationship violates their deepest religious beliefs. Their only choice will be to either remove their property from the rental market or to be prosecuted for violation of fair housing statutes.
BUT THE TECHNICAL LEGAl arguments need detain us less than the form of Yanklowitz's religious argumentation. Over and over, he refers to general Jewish principles – e.g., tzedek, rachamim, pikuach nefesh, the emphasis on family life – for support of his position. In doing so, he sounds indistinguishable from the argument I recently heard from a Reform rabbi that the Torah, as she understands it, prohibits the state of Israel from taking steps to expel illegal immigrants.
The distillation of abstract principles – e.g., tzedek, rachamimm -- removed from their halachic context and Torah sources leaves nothing but individual moral intuitions. The followers of Moses Mendelssohn claimed that they were following in the philosophic tradition of Maimonides in seeking the abstract principles of monotheism removed from halachic observance. Apparently they forgot that the same Maimonides was the author of Mishnah Torah, the classic compendium of halacha. Within a generation or two, most of his disciples had made their way to the baptismal font.
Rabbi Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, in the chapters leading up to Sha'ar Dalet, stresses that the most elevated intentions in the world cannot be allowed to supplant the primacy of the ma'aseh mitzvah. He was not addressing the nascent Reform movement, which had not yet spread to Eastern Europe. But his warning of the dangers inherent whenever we forget that the ma'aseh mitzvah, the halachic act, is fundamental, apply equally to Reform.
Reform acknowledges no such thing as halacha, a binding command. Each Jew is bound only so far as he chooses to be bound and for only so long. And Yanklowitz's blog post is rife with the same antinomian bias in favor of each Jew as the creator of his own religion. He quotes Rav Saadia Gaon for the proposition that faith and reason must be reconciled, and where the text cannot be reconciled with reason it must be reexamined. And he cites Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook as opposing compromise of one's "personal, natural, moral sensibility" in the name of "piety."
These summaries are, of course, gross distortions. He points to no examples of Rav Saadia Gaon uprooting halacha on the basis of his reason. True, Rabbi Kook did not view the fact that the Torah permits slavery as requiring a believing Jew to align with Southern slaveholder. But he never came remotely close to sanctioning what the Torah explicitly prohibits.
Yanklowitz's gleanings, however, point us to his ultimate position: Shmuly Yanklowitz's reason and "moral intuition" (his term) are the ultimate arbiter. And that heads us down the road to Reform.
Finally, Yankowitz offers his justification for bringing the Torah up-to-date (as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sarcastically described the German Reform of his time): Current American culture is no longer willing to accept Biblical definitions of marriage as the basis for civil legislation, and religious traditionalists will lose all credibility if they insist on those definitions. For starters, he ignores the fact virtually every society in human history – not just those established by Biblical believers -- has limited marriage to a man and a woman. And even today, in the overwhelming majority of states, including hyper-liberal California, in which the matter has been put to a vote, as opposed to being decided by judicial fiat, voters have rejected non-traditional definitions of marriage.
But most importantly he is wrong about what causes religious leaders to lose all credibility, as the rapid decline of the heterodox movements demonstrates. Religious leaders lose credibility when they become nothing more than weathervanes, holding their fingers in the air to determine which way the zeitgeist is blowing. At that point they have ceased to be leaders or bearers of a moral message at all.
As Yanklowitz himself writes, "The essence of religious conviction is that we must do what is right, not what is popular."
Precisely. And when forced to choose between Hashem's determination of what is right and Shmuly Yanklowitz's, I choose the former.
Generosity of Spirit
A number of readers took issues with the citation of Yosef HaTzaddik in the eulogy of Nelson Mandela by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, and by extension of me for quoting the eulogy.
Those readers are right that Mandela was not a saint in either his personal or public life. As he said of himself upon leaving office in 1999, "I want to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed but nevertheless sometimes fails to live up to expectations."
But South African Jewry had good reason to be grateful to him for the course he took after emerging from 27 years of imprisonment, most of it in horrid conditions, for his opposition to an unjust regime. Just compare what happened in neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the fall the minority white government. Mandela set the foundation for a post-apartheid South Africa in which Jews can continue to live and prosper and practice their religion openly.
Representing a Jewish community that is .14% of the total South African population, Rabbi Goldstein wisely focused on Mandela's magnanimity. And in doing so, he pointed out that the paradigm of such generosity to those who have inflicted harm on one is to be found in the Hebrew Bible in the person of Yosef HaTzaddik. Yosef is the model of the character being praised.
Millions around the world listened to the Chief Rabbi's address, including thousands of Jews. I find it hard to believe that a single Jewish listener's estimate of Yosef was lessened one iota. But I can well imagine that there were Jewish listeners whose pride in being Jewish and curiosity about our Torah was stirred by the choice of Yosef as the exemplar of generosity of spirit. If Rabbi Goldstein succeeded in piquing the interest of even a single Jewish heart that too should be accounted as harbotzas Torah.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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