An Open Letter To Rabbi Herzl Hefter

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11 Responses

  1. Dan M says:

    I am a MO student at YCT who agrees with the critiques of Rabbi Hefter’s new theology. I hope no one tries to paint with a broad brush that his radical essay is the officIal doctrine for anyone but himself. Thank you Rabbi Spirn.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    As bad as OO pseudo-analysis and pseudo-halacha are, the fact that many people can fall for it, unless guided by hand through the maze of silliness to detect the basic problems, could be worse yet. What essential background information do people who pass through our schools lack?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    (corrected)
    As bad as OO pseudo-analysis and pseudo-halacha are, the fact that many people can fall for these, unless guided by hand through the maze of silliness to detect the basic problems, could be worse yet. What essential types of background information do people who pass through our schools lack?

  4. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Spirn, I appreciate that you provided an alternative to Rabbi Gordimer’s (unfounded) assertion that Rav Zadok ztl was referring to hashkafa only. Your reference to Professor Elman (as well as Prof. Avi Sagi’s book on the Open Canon) provide more than adequate proof that Rav Zadok meant halakha, primarily.

    However, you then veer off in various directions asserting things that you believe, and might generally apply, but are hardly normative, attempting to counter Rabbi Hefter (and Rav Zadok.)

    First, wrt to the Talmudic sages, I was reminded of Rabbi Meiselman’s view by your assertion of their uniqueness. This is not the venue for a full discussion of halakha ke’basrayi or yiftach be’doro ke’shmuel be’doro, which would seem to counter your assertion. Chazal provide a plethora of disparate views, some would appear support your view. But le’mayseh, as the Rav ztl demonstrated in his yartzeit shiur, shenai minai masaoret, the reason we treat the gemara as authoritative is hiskimuh bah kol Yisroel, as opposed to some qualitative distinction of chazal. (That view of the Rav happens to have strong academic/historic support.)

    Second, your view that achronim and contemporaries 1) cannot argue on rishonim in a halakhic matter and 2) cannot offer new interpretations of Talmudic text, I believe have counter-examples, particularly 2), which has many. While the Baal HaTanya, brought many proofs countering Rabbeinu Tam’s end of a day from geonim and rishonim, the Gaon’s arguments were primarily based on science, logic and his reading of the Talmudic text. In no sense did he rely on earlier sources. As an aside, a comment by R. Chaim Volozhiner interpreting a line in that sugyah, kochav echad yom, does not, as best as I know, exist previously ANYWHERE in halachik literature. Of course, I would not be foolish enough to equate any contemporary to the Gaon and R. Chaim, but it is incontrovertible, that Brisk created a NEW methodology for Talmudic study, despite Rav Chaim Brisker’s viewpoint. The intro by Rav Agus ztl to the Marcheshet, makes this point even more dramatically. And I don’t even have to quote from academic studies in these areas.

    We are mekhadaish both interpretation and halakha. I happen to be re-reading a chapter of “Divine Law in Human Hands,” on metzitzah. Let me quote the late prof. Katz: “For some people, the observable changes in halakha during the course of history will support the negation of its eternal validity. For others its adaptability to changing conditions will guarantee its continued preservation.” The work of Prof. Katz and the many who follow in his footsteps, demonstrate the validity of the latter sentence.

    As to Bible criticism, I will follow what you said as opposed to what you then did and withhold comment.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    R Spirn deserves a huge Yasher Koach for pointing out where the adherents of OO have simply gone beyond any reasonable definition of a committed MO.

  6. Rabbi Spirn says:

    Dan,
    While Rabbi Hefter might indeed speak only for himself, I am afraid that Rabbi Lopatin speaks for YCT. And he has written (morethodoxy website, July 26,2013) that Rabbi Farber’s opinions on the subject of the authorship of the Bible — which I suspect are more extreme than Rabbi Hefter’s — are “different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT,” and that while those views are “on the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject…Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We support his honesty…”

    Please. These views are far beyond the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking (as Rabbi Lopatin knows). And if someone honestly believes a different unacceptable belief, for example that all Jews or blacks are evil, would we “support their honesty” for publicly saying so?

    And just a few weeks ago, commenting on Facebook (not his own page), Rabbi Lopatin defended Rabbi Farber again, even more strongly: “We are proud of the work Rabbi Zev Farber is doing to bring many Jews closer to the Divine Torah. I am told many Orthodox Jews are downloading and printing essays from his website for their Shabbat reading. May we all grow in love of Hashem and Hashem’s Torah in our own unique ways.”

    So. We all have our “unique ways” of connecting with “Hashem’s Torah” — which was written by man.

    Dan, I don’t know you. And certainly I’m glad you agree with my critiques of Rabbi Hefter’s new theology. But you are learning in a yeshiva which officially countenances — nay, encourages — individuals coming up with their own unique opinions on everything, however foreign to Orthodoxy they may be, however they may fly in the face of thousands of years of Jewish teachings. And this is as radical a philosophy for an Orthodox rabbinical school as one can imagine. Because so many of your older peers who have been ordained by YCT publish (and publish and publish) how “as an Orthodox rabbi I believe” this, and “as an Orthodox rabbi I hold” that — while in truth, these beliefs and opinions are not Orthodox at all. This is false advertising, and it is confusing the heck out of masses of less knowledgeable Jews.

    Hatzlacha to you.

  7. Shmuel says:

    How is it possible that a leading student of Rav Lichtenstein, … how can it be that this student takes a few ambiguous and esoteric statements from a few Chassidic masters and says that “our [own] refined moral convictions and moral sensibilities may be considered a form of divine revelation”?

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these matters are coming to the fore after Rav Lichtenstein’s passing.

  8. EWZS says:

    As someone who is very sympathetic to the YCT/OO agenda of trying to reconcile liberal values and our tradition, it is painful to see how its leaders are their own worst enemies. As R. Spirin notes, the Hefter piece is shockingly weak. The corrective to deciding on the basis of pure religious inspiration is…. our capacity for reason??

    If it wasn’t already obvious why this is an obtuse defense of any religion rooted in revelation, it may be sufficient to point out that the belief in the documentary hypothesis is not based on effective use of our rational faculties. The DH does not meet basic standards required of a scientific theory, first and foremost that its claims must be falsifiable with empirical evidence. As Ben Zion Katz puts it, the DH is like “evolution without fossils.” You’d think that someone had found other documents by these authors that were woven together to form our Torah? Nope, and they say they never will since the claim is that these were oral traditions. Ok so at least you’d think that there is evidence from other cultures of composite texts that were woven together like the Torah supposedly was. As R. Spirin suggests, it seems hard to believe that people would tolerate the mushing together of their holy books, so you’d like some evidence that this has occurred somewhere. Sorry Charlie. These problems and others are admitted in internal discussions by source critics (See e.g., Ben Sommer’s recent article “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism” where he acknowledges that they have no idea how to date various texts. And see e.g., Seth Sanders’s forthcoming article “What if There Aren’t Any Empirical Models for Pentateuchal Criticism?,” where he basically acknowledges that there is no empirical basis for source criticism) but they are loath to fully admit it publicly. In particular, people like R. Farber and thetorah.com present source-criticism as settled science (certainly R. Hefter assumes this in the essay that is linked above) when it is in fact pseudoscience cynically peddled to the scientifically illiterate. And this pseudoscience’s enduring ability to hoodwink is the best evidence one can imagine for the fallibility of our capacity for reason.

    (Note that I respectfully disagree with R. Spirin’s suggestion that we should avoid reading the academic bible studies literature. I do think though that one should have a good *scientific* education, as well as Jewish education, before so doing and also perhaps a good appreciation for key lessons from the history and sociology of science, among which are that a paradigm founded in weak evidence and logic can retain significant strength for generations)

    What’s very very sad is that those who suffer the consequences of such leadership include many people who are authentically struggling with apparent contradictions between their commitment to our tradition and the strong pull of values that seem to reflect the Torah’s spirit but not received Halacha. We need rabbinic leaders who can address this challenge in a way that effectively addresses the valid concern that any break with our tradition is tantamount to throwing off the yoke of heaven.

  9. YB says:

    The answer to “eich naflo giborim” is clear. The answer is shochad. Not the $$ type but the sincere desire to be the champion of these women and seeing them as aniim that need a champion. The reality is though that a dayan is not allowed to favor the ani either. The interesting thing is that HH fails even “leshitaso” since his “birrur” misses this shochad.

  10. David Z says:

    I had the great merit of having R’ Spirn as a rebbe.. So nice to hear his words again. But… Why Canterbury Tales?? I would love to see a list of these books.

  11. Avner Zarmi says:

    Shalom Aleichem R’ Nachum!

    Thank you very much for this incisive analysis of Rabbi Hdefter’s recent and shocking decision. It is very well reasoned and very well presented, and one can only hope that it will cause Rabbi Hefter to reconsider his various positions, and return to the good.

    Your old chavrusa from Milwaukee,

    Avi Zarmi

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