Am I Undermining Orthodox Judaism?

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The last thing that I want to do is provide anyone with a reason to be less religiously observant. No matter where a person resides on the spectrum of belief and practice, I truly desire that their belief and practices are strengthened, not weakened.

You can imagine how upset it makes me when I hear that there are people who directly attribute their waning belief and observance to me. I admit that it hurts me personally. It also hurts when it’s reported to me that rabbis I respect or even know in real life, recommend that people not read the things that I write. It stings and it’s the worst part about doing what I do.

There are literally thousands of people who read words I have written. Whether it’s on social media sites, my personal site, articles and posts I have written for other sites, or private correspondence, I have communicated with a lot of people. I recognize that it’s inevitable that some people will get the wrong idea about what I am trying to say and when that happens I understand that it could harm the reader’s observance. I also recognize that some people will correctly understand what I am saying in a particular instance and this correct understanding will still somehow undermine their version of Orthodox Judaism and cause them to be more lax in their observance.

The first group cannot be helped. I can’t make people better readers. I can’t force people to understand what I meant to say in the way I meant to say it. Anyone’s words can be misunderstood and used in the opposite way those words were intended. It’s happened to me in real life and it happens on the Internet too. I don’t feel so terrible about that.Strength_0

But the people who understand what I am saying the way I intended it and still find my intended meaning to be harmful to their observance require a response. I know that a few such people exist. I don’t think they are as vast in number as some of my critics contend, and if forced to make the choice, I truly believe, based on what I know first hand, that what I do on a broader scale likely outweighs the unfortunate negative consequences that I am addressing here.

My goals and agenda are not really a secret. I have written about the purpose of this blog in the past. See: What is the Point of This Blog? I’ve also written about my personal vision of Orthodox Judaism. See: Judaism of the Future and What is Rationalist Judaism? among many others. My professional goal is to provide as many positive Jewish experiences to the maximum number of people possible. Creating a space for that to take place is important to me. But I still feel that it’s worthwhile for me to respond to some of the thoughtful criticism I have received in the last few months.

Some people think I should just say “it’s not me, it’s you” to these people.  That’s not my way. I know I can’t please everyone, but I still think that it’s important to clarify one’s position.

I’ll begin with a metaphor that might help clarify things. The experience of reading a Facebook status or a Tweet or even a full blog post or sometimes even an essay on the Internet, is more like eavesdropping on an ongoing conversation than tuning into a press conference. One who attends a press conference can expect that the entire matter will be covered in the conference and all necessary context will be provided so that there are no misunderstandings or mistakes. But if one is listening in on a conversatation that has been going for months, or years, or longer, the snippets that may seem to be complete thoughts are really pieces to a much larger puzzle. Those snippets lack context and can easily be manipulated in ways that contradict the speaker’s intent.

While it’s not a perfect metaphor, it illuminates something that could be very helpful here. If you read something that I’ve written that you feel is wrong or harmful, it would be best to contact me. Ask me for the press conference version. Because all you’ve seen was a snippet that could be misinterpreted. More importantly, if it seems I’ve undermined something, ask me how I reconcile that with my beliefs and practices. I am an Orthodox Jew. I do believe in God. I do keep Torah and Mitzvos. If something I’ve said sounds like it contradicts all that, I probably have a response to your question. Ask me. Please.

Often, people will hear I have said or done something that is objectively wrong or Kefira. I do err, just like anyone else makes mistakes. But I always ask for examples so that I can address the issues. Rarely, are examples provided. This makes it harder for me respond and even harder for me to reflect and adjust if necessary.

Fortunately, one substantive general problem has been presented to me on several occasions and being aware of the issue gives me the opportunity to respond. The claim is that sometimes I slaughter (or think I slaughter) some of the “sacred cows” of Orthodox Judaism. Generally, I do this as a way of preserving, or reincarnating some aspects of Orthodox Judaism that have been neglected or ignored. I think a broader approach to Orthodox Judaism is becoming increasingly necessary. If the artificial guardians that make our culture so unnecessarily narrow can be slain, I think that they should be slain. This does not mean that one who loves the things about the narrow culture must cease to exist in his paradigm of Orthodox Judaism. But it does mean that the door must be open to the way others practice.

Every Orthodox Jew realizes that there are many ways to serve God within the confines of halacha. But some people are more myopic about their versions. They think that theirs is the only path. This is a toxic idea. It’s something that we should all seek to destroy. I try to limit my harshest criticism for those who fall into this category.

I’ve also been accused of being very careful not to say anything overtly offensive, yet some readers can detect a tone of negativity or criticism. It’s true that I am very careful not to talk my way into the Kefira Korner™. It’s also true that there might be some hostility in my tone. But that hostility is not toward God or Torah or even Orthodox Judaism. It’s always directed at particular people or ideas that warrant a harsh tone. But because so much is left unsaid, readers may have the right to assume that my tone is indicative of an overall indifference or callousness towards frumkeit. This is regrettable. Luckily, it’s inaccurate.

Finally we get to one specific issue. That is the fallibility of Chazal and the rest of our rabbinic figures. For some people this is a very touchy issue. Often, these people know in the back of their minds that Chazal made mistakes about things but would prefer not to see these errors because they undermine their Emunas Chachamim. Similarly, they will say that exposing human error undermines the halachic process.

Because this issue has been raised in such a specific manner, I can address it head on. Our Divine Torah requires interpretation. All interpretation is human. All of it. If it was Divine, it would be Torah. If it would be Torah, there would be no dispute. However, our schools and yeshivos often teach that Torah is Divine and all the words of Chazal and all subsequent rabbis is Divine as well. It could be that they were Divinely inspired or a more halachic view that whichever streams of halacha that have endured are results of hashgacha and thus have the Divine Seal of Approval. That is the more mainstream view.

There are two valid approaches here. The flaw with the second approach is that there are too many problems with assuming that rabbis never made mistakes. The holes are easy to poke. But the question is why is it worthwhile to poke those holes? Fine. The rabbis made mistakes, but what social or religious value can there be in calling attention to these mistakes?

I believe that there is a grave danger in perpetuating this myth. Firstly, because it is easily disproved, it creates an unsustainable Emunas Chachamim. The entire premise of this part of this essay is based on the assumption that even when a myth is a myth, pointing out that it’s a myth creates a problem. Well, if we would just stop teaching the myth, problem solved! But more substantively, the danger I see in perpetuating this myth is found in the ever expanding doctrine of Daas Torah. Those two words meant something entirely different a few decades ago. But rabbinic infallibility has taken on epic meaning in our times. For many, it has come to represent the very ideas that prevent our most pressing issues from being addressed. It stops all conversation. It turns our observance into Gadolatry instead of service of God. We can do better. Knowing that a rabbi can err is actually the best way to ensure that mistakes do not get integrated into Orthodox Judaism. That is how science works. If we are able to question, challenge, even criticize, then we have a chance at arriving at something akin to truth. But relying on one or even a few unassailable people for everything is a terrible way to seek truth.

Orthodox Judaism is not about following the words of infallible humans. It’s about using the wisdom of fallible humans to serve God. The reason our way of practicing Orthodox Judaism today carries any cachet is because almost every idea has been scrutinized and discussed before it was adopted as normative practice. It’s obvious to anyone who reads halachic literature that this was the way things were always done. We can’t stop now. It clear to me that this is the way to strengthen the chain of our tradition. By critically approaching our Judaism, we add vibrancy to Torah and fortify our Judaism.

So when I tweak the Daas Torahniks or demonstrate that our Gedolim actually believed themselves to be fallible, I am in effect advocating for a more vibrant, nuanced version of Orthodox Judaism. I am not advocating for abandonment of Torah and Mitzvos. There is a system I believe in strongly. Not every critique will include my vision for an alternative. But know that it’s there. Know that I have either already written about it or will someday in the future. If you want an article sooner, just ask. I frequently find inspiration to write on topics that are suggested to me.

Most of all, join the discussion. Don’t simply eavesdrop. Be part of the conversation. Ask me for the context or the background. I prefer being challenged by good questions to being ignored. Let’s continue talking to each other and not about each other. Let’s create a place for sophisticated discussion about our Judaism that will take us into the future.

  • DF

    I don’t see how anyone can get the impression that you’re undermining orthodox Judaism. And – understatement – no one man is big enough to undermine orthodox religion. And you are not the only blog people read. So, if I were you, I’d brush aside such criticism without a second thought.

  • MarkSoFla

    I suspect that most of the people that reduce their observance* are only using what they read as an excuse for that reduction of observance. It’s simple human nature; When you do something that deep down you believe to be wrong, you look for external things that can “excuse” you from having done it. “Not my fault” syndrome.

    * I am NOT including people that read things and lose their entire belief in anything supernatural. That’s an entirely different case.

  • Questioner

    Can you please clarify your position when you think a Gadol made a mistake and not toy our sensibilities or logic do you submit to it and think I don’t understand it but the Gadol obviously has a good reason and I’ll think it through.. Or do you automatically brush it aside and say oh that Gadol is not infallible and I’ll dismiss it and the Rabbi is not as smart as me. It makes a big difference in your perspective. Can you please clarify?

    • Not sure what you’re asking. Can you give me an example?

  • YS

    Very well put.
    On a personal level and to preserve your sanity, I would add that it’s quite possible that for every person you’re supposedly turning away, you’re being mekarev two people who are strengthened by seeing how an observant person can remain both observant and rational.

  • Cheston

    Rabbi, there is nothing I find particularly objectionable about what you wrote but there is an issue that I think needs to be addressed. While Chazal were by no means divine or perfect, Orthodox Judaism generally accepts that they had a certain jurisprudential authority that allowed them to make Gazerot that are still in effect today. This issue seems particularly vexing for those challenged in their faith. For example, I was trying to explain to a friend why a Jew must introduce the microbial rennet into hard cheeses even if you know 100% that the ingredients are kosher. The fact that Chalzal made a gezera was not particularly compelling. I have had the same difficulty explaining why wine vinegar needs to be kosher. At the end of the day we need to simultaneously deal with fallibility and authority. I find it a difficult conversation to have with people who have their doubts about Halacha in General and Kashrut restrictions in particular.

    • I agree that it’s a matter of authority.

    • TS

      I always thought of American law as a decent metaphor for explaining to outsiders. When someone is appointed as a judge and makes a judgement, that law stays on the books– even if you personally don’t like the judge, even if the law was passed a hundred years ago and you think it doesn’t adequately address the needs of today, whatever other excuses you might apply. unless a judge with equal or greater authority overturns the law or finds a different way of applying it, you have to follow it. If you are not a judge you can’t change the law of the land even if you are a citizen, even a well-educated one. American laws don’t have an expiration date on them.
      Not a perfect metaphor but addresses the question of why we still follow older laws.

  • Billy

    Just to clarify, when you write that the words of chazal are not divine, does that imply that if we disagree with a halachic ruling of tanaaim or amoraim, or if we deem their opinion unfair, immoral, or unjust, that we may disregard their ruling and follow our own opinion?