Response to Dr. Marc Shapiro: Good Shot, but Wrong Target
It was a great polemical piece – but it sorely missed the point.
Dr. Marc Shapiro’s new article, Open Orthodoxy and Its Main Critic, part 1, goes to town elaborating on my allegedly unfair and unbalanced criticism of Open Orthodoxy, taking my essays to task for disrespect, for lack of appreciation of the good elements of Open Orthodoxy, for focus on Open Orthodoxy to the exclusion of other ills in various streams of Orthodoxy that merit criticism, and for rejecting the idea that Modern Orthodox p’sak is or should be inherently different than “haredi” p’sak. (Please see this important article by Rabbi Neal Turk on the subject.)
While I intend to briefly address Dr. Shapiro’s criticisms, it must be noted that Dr. Shapiro is an adjunct faculty member at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), bringing into question the objectivity of his arguments. So too does the fact that Dr. Shapiro has dedicated much of his career to debunking traditional approaches to Orthodox conduct and textual fidelity, including his works that suggest a non-binding status of the Rambam’s Thirteen Ikkarei Ha-Emunah (Principles of Faith). Whereas my essays about Open Orthodoxy and its innovations are a side component of my life, occupying at most a few moments of my time (as opposed to “many hundreds of hours of reading”, as Dr. Shapiro asserts – my five-minute daily glance at social media feed, along with the receipt of articles from friends, is the extent of my effort), Dr. Shapiro has devoted a major portion of his professional career to questioning the accepted doctrines and approaches of traditional Orthodoxy.
Before getting into the meat of the issue, Dr. Shapiro contends that:
He (A. Gordimer) not only attacks the Open Orthodox rabbis but also shows his contempt for them by generally refusing to even mention their names. Instead, he refers to an unnamed Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva or rabbi and you don’t know who he is speaking about until you click on the link. I realize he doesn’t respect these figures, but to even deny them the simple courtesy of mentioning their names, as if to do so is muktzeh mehamat mius, is in my opinion simply disgraceful (albeit a common writing style in the haredi world).
With all due respect, Dr. Shapiro has it completely wrong. My essays are about ideas, not people, and I thus attempt to leave out names to the greatest extent possible. Omission of names is not a form of contempt; on the contrary, it is a way to show that the discussion is about ideology and not personalities. In fact, when Cross-Currents was threatened by Open Orthodox leaders with a lawsuit for allegedly defaming certain Open Orthodox authorities, we explained that sticking to the issues and not focusing on names and people is our mandate.
Dr. Shapiro then challenges:
We are never told about any of the good things he sees in the writers he so often attacks, and how 99% of what he reads in their writings is not objectionable. I also find it most curious (but not unexpected) that it is only the left who are subjected to this type of detailed examination, all in order to find material with which to attack them. What about people on the right who also say objectionable things? Why are they not subjected to the same criticisms?
… I have no difficulty if someone wants to criticize, even sharply, Open Orthodox writers, as long as there are no personal attacks. In fact, if the criticisms of Rabbi Gordimer and others were offered on a basis of friendship and common purpose, I can tell you without hesitation that the Open Orthodox writers would be grateful for the criticism and dialogue, as they want nothing more than to engage with all segments of the Jewish world, including the more right wing elements.
As mentioned above, I find it most objectionable that all of Rabbi Gordimer’s (and others’) criticism is of the left, never the right. I have made this point in a number of lectures. Occasionally, individuals have replied to me that it is unfair to compare Open Orthodox ideas with actions of people identified with the haredi world, as these actions are simply the result of people making mistakes and say nothing about haredi Judaism itself. Thus, they claim, if a criminal is haredi, this has nothing to do with the ideals or teachings of haredi society.
While there is some truth to this argument, it is not entirely true. For example, the widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse in haredi society, and the reluctance to go to the authorities, are directly related to haredi ideology. Yet Rabbi Gordimer has never commented on this. I also have no doubt that some financial crimes in the haredi world, including by institutions such as yeshivot, are often related to both the structure of haredi society, which leads many into poverty, and also haredi teachings that may downplay or even deny the halakhic prohibition of certain white collar criminal activity. And you don’t need me to say this. Haredim say the same thing all the time. I mention this only to stress that just as I would be the first to say that there is plenty to criticize in Open Orthodox thought, there is also plenty to criticize in haredi thought (and also in Centrist thought). In fact, as we shall soon see, one can find things written by those on the right that I think many readers, including haredim, would find even more objectionable than what Rabbi Gordimer has written about.
…yet he is not able to come up with anything positive that they say or do. This shows me that he is not being fair, as I can give a long list of great things that Open Orthodox rabbis have done across the country, things that even the most right wing would applaud. I can do the same with haredi rabbis and I guarantee you that Open Orthodox rabbis would applaud. Contrary to the mean caricatures one finds online, the Open Orthodox are some of the most genuine and giving people I have ever met, and I say this as one who has never been an adherent of Open Orthodoxy. The Open Orthodox leadership and its rabbis show respect not only for those on their left (which leads Rabbi Gordimer and others to criticize them) but also for those on their right, as I can attest from many years of personal interaction.
This is where Dr. Shapiro truly misunderstands my writings and those of others who have raised serious concerns about the Open Orthodox movement, and he hence fires at a target that is not there, failing to notice the real point of action. My writings are not intended to judge Open Orthodoxy, to weigh its merits against its negatives, to present its good and its bad, or to portray the full complement of its offerings and issues. In short, I do not stand in the position of appraiser of Open Orthodoxy or reviewer of its playbill.
Rather, as a Jew who is concerned and at times alarmed by emerging challenges to the integrity and stability of Torah practice and ideology, I feel a sincere obligation to speak out as necessary, in order to alert others as to what is transpiring and what it may portend. Open Orthodoxy has unfortunately embarked on a trajectory to place tradition in a state of jeopardy, with its ordination of female clergy, its crossing of established boundaries regarding Christian theology and intermarriage, its tolerance of heretical leanings, its enthusiasm for gay marriage, its quest to modify conversion standards, its embrace of liturgical reform, the identification by some of its leaders and constituency with the Palestinian cause, and so forth. These are real live threats to the integrity of normative Orthodoxy (and the State of Israel), and just as Open Orthodox leadership has every right to publicly post in favor of these sweeping changes, causes and reforms, so too do I and others have every right to speak out about these issues. The doctrine of Free Speech applies both ways.
Thus, my essays do not focus on issues such as secular education/parnassa in the Chareidi world, the long-standing phenomenon of “MO Lite” (i.e those in Modern Orthodoxy who take a cavalier and remiss attitude toward mitzvah observance), Chabad “Meshichism”, or scandals across the Orthodox spectrum. The concerns relating to these topics are well-known, and they do not represent movements that threaten to introduce religious deviation into new spheres. Otherwise honest, intelligent, Torah-observant Jews do not need to be alerted to these issues in order to be advised to proceed with caution and not be negatively influenced. The concerns are clear and known, and these are not movements which stand to redefine the Orthodoxy or practices of those on the outside. These problems are important indeed, but they are wholly unrelated to the issues and objectives under discussion.
In stark contrast, Open Orthodoxy is expanding and presenting itself to new communities, as it continues to introduce reforms and approaches that threaten the integrity and practices of normative Orthodoxy. As such, Open Orthodoxy poses a challenge to people who are largely unaware of what is at hand, and speaking up is therefore quite meaningful and potentially pivotal. Again, just as Open Orthodox leadership has the right to publicly disseminate information about its beliefs, ideology and innovations, so do I and others have the same freedom of expression to air our serious concerns. We will not heed attempts to silence dissent and to stifle the discourse.
Dr. Shapiro then turns his attention to the concept of Modern Orthodox p’sak:
Let me now turn to the reason I have been discussing Rabbi Gordimer in the first place, and that is his attack on R. Ysoscher Katz found here. Rabbi Gordimer claims that there is no such thing as Modern Orthodox pesak, and that decisions by Modern Orthodox poskim “should look no different than if [they] were adjudicated by a chareidi posek; process (research) and product (conclusion) should be indistinguishable.” This is simply false, as anyone who knows the writings of Modern Orthodox poskim can attest. A posek is not a computer. All sorts of meta-halakhic considerations go into his rulings and this explains why a Modern Orthodox posek will come to different conclusions than haredi poskim on many issues. I am not referring to whether a tea bag can be used on Shabbat, as in this sort of case there shouldn’t be any differences between haredi and Modern Orthodox poskim, but in matters concerning which the two camps differ (e.g., the role of women) there will obviously be differences among the poskim.
For Rabbi Gordimer, all poskim share the same “process”. Not only is this historically incorrect, it isn’t even “doctrine”. Does he really think that there are any haredim who believe that Modern Orthodox poskim operate the same way as haredi poskim? Of course they don’t, which is precisely the reason why they reject Modern Orthodox halakhists, because they know that their meta-halakhic values influence their halakhic decisions. The haredim don’t oppose meta-halakhic values per se. Meta-halakhah has a very prominent place in haredi halakhah. It is the particular Modern Orthodox meta-halakhic values that they see as problematic.
I again urge readers to consult my article referenced immediately above by Dr. Shapiro, as well as the earlier-cited article by Rabbi Turk on the same exact subject, for it will immediately become crystal clear that Dr. Shapiro’s critique is about something totally different than the topic which Rabbi Turk and I were addressing. In other words, Dr. Shapiro aimed with a robust ordnance yet misfired.
Rabbi Turk and I addressed the notion explicated by senior Open Orthodox leadership that p’sak should reflect a blending of Torah sources with contemporary values. This is is not an acceptable approach to halachic adjudication, and it certainly does not represent Modern Orthodox (or any type of Orthodox) methodology toward p’sak.
In stark contrast, Dr. Shapiro addresses the subject of meta-halachic principles impacting p’sak – which is a wholly different concept. For here we speak not of external, secular or worldly considerations being blended with Torah sources, but we instead speak of halachic adjudication that flows from a specific Torah orientation. In other words, we have before us the case of p’sak that is bound by internal Torah attitudinal principles and axioms that may represent the hashkafic alignment of the posek.
Taken at face value, this approach seems to render Halacha permeable and quite pliable, stripping it of full legal structure; such an understanding of Halacha been professed by some academics, who do not accept a holistic and objective halachic system. This approach is also common to the non-Orthodox movements and has served as the basis for their rejection of Halacha and their claimed authority to reform and modify it, as they assert that Halacha is subjective and reflects malleable personal, societal and political perspectives and agendas.
It is for these reasons that we must instead present this “meta-halachic approach” in a tighter and conceptualized framework, as it is nuanced and merits a more refined understanding.
When a posek states that he can intuit a p’sak and that he needs to nonetheless consult the sources for verification or support, or when a p’sak seems to flow from the posek’s worldview, or when a p’sak is formulated as bound by ethical considerations, we have a case of internal Torah axioms and/or values that drive the emanation of p’sak. Stated otherwise, a posek’s hashkafic perspective can impose legitimate parameters for p’sak, for the p’sak must represent the truth of Torah in its entirety, including the Torah’s values and undercurrents that often can only be discerned by the most outstanding of Torah scholars. This is vastly different than allowing for external considerations to play a role in halachic adjudication, for in the meta-halachic case, the considerations are internal to Torah discourse, and they can inform the posek and help define the contours for a proper ruling.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l objected to the opinion that one should ideally consume within one single gulp each of the kezayis amounts of the foods which are required to be eaten at the Pesach Seder, for consumption in such a manner is not Derech Eretz. The Torah/Chazal would never expect one to perform mitzvos in such a manner, contended R. Moshe. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l explained to his talmidim at RIETS that certain practices may not be performed, as they are silly (“stupid” is the word that one person present then related to me, if I recall correctly), and “the Torah does not permit one to do that which is silly (or stupid)”. In both cases – and one can find countless more which illustrate the point of “meta-halachic” factors in p’sak – classical factors such as Derech Eretz, Yashrus, “Ein ruach Chachamim nochah heimenu“, communal responsibility, and the importance of Eretz Yisroel and the like are legitimate factors that create parameters for a ruling. Even “political” attitudes, such as one’s stance on Zionism, can inform the process, as for a posek, these matters are not politics but are Torah values.
In such cases, meta-halachic factors can set the boundaries for p’sak, so long as the p’sak is within the accepted halachic corpus and complies with the strict legalities. Otherwise stated, hashkafa and Torah orientation do not themselves create final Halacha, but they can define its contours and direction, as they indeed have halachic character. That is the key point.
While I do not mind Dr. Shapiro’s critiques, and I am used to much worse from others, I do not understand his agenda, for even were he to demonstrate that I am a biased, hate-filled scoundrel, he fails to address the real issues at hand. Open Orthodoxy has introduced controversial reforms to tradition in a wide array of areas; in my mind, focus on the legitimacy of these reforms and on the significance on the Open Orthodox movement would be of more interest and import to a Judaic Studies professor, rather than focus on a lone (or a few) troublemakers. But I nonetheless welcome the challenges – bring ’em on.
And I look forward to Open Orthodoxy and Its Main Critic, Part 2.