Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Haredi Construction of Rabbinic Authority: A Case Study

When reader Baruch Pelta was at Touro College South, he wrote a paper that I think will be of interest to other participants in this forum. It concerns a chapter in American Jewish history which illustrates the development of Daas Torah and charedi revisionism.

Here is my own summary/ take: The RCA (an organization for Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbis) was part of the Synagogue Council of America (SCA), which was multi-denominational. This was a question that should presumably be answered by poskim who were (a) relevant to the question and (b) possessed experience in communal policy issues. A group of eleven roshei yeshiva, who for the most part did not fulfill either criteria, issued a ban on participation in the SCA. Rav Eliezer Silver and Rav Yosef Soloveitchik - the only members (or former members) of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah who were really qualified to weigh in on this - opposed the ban. But their opposition has been exorcised from the charedi version of events. Jonathan Rosenblum's recent hagiography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer quotes him as saying "Does anyone have the right to refuse to accept a psak din in which all the gedolei Torah in the world concurred?"

You can download the full paper at this link. Baruch Pelta is looking to do writing/ editing jobs; he can be contacted at


  1. FWIW, the Lubavitcher REbbe also opposed the ban.
    On the other hand, R. Moshe Feinstein, who certainly fulfilled the criteria to answer the question, was in favor of the ban.

  2. 1. Isn't A) effectively saying that this was none of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's, for example, business?

    2. How is B) a determinant unless we are only concerned about the efficacy of such involvement rather than if such involvement is permitted?

  3. The issue of being a member of the SCA is really part of the older machlokes of kehillos nifrados and Austritt. Chassam Sofer, RSR Hirsch were extremely against any cooperation with other streams. R E Hildsheimer had a similar view, but was less extreme about it, and he never stopped any of his students from accepting a position as Rabbi of a Gemeinde community.
    Years later, R YY Weinberg wrote that it is hard to decide bet the two positions bec is so fraught with politics.
    It should be noted that R Chaim Brisker was not a proponent of Austritt, and was questioned why Gemeind Rabbi Horowitz from Frankfurt was not invited to Kattowitz to the founding meetings of the Aguda. He was told that if R Horowitz would be invited, then R S Bruer would take issue and leave, and the whole Aguda would never happen. Ultimately, a compromise was made. It was known as the Hungarian compromise. Gemeind rabbis could have benefit from the Aguda, but cannot participate in decision making.
    It does seem that R Yosher Baer was following in the position of his grandfather.

  4. Isn't A) effectively saying that this was none of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's, for example, business?

    Apparently that was the opinion of Rav Eliezer Silver. Aren't you effectively saying that he was wrong?

  5. The question of RMF's attitude toward non-Orthodox movements is the subject of several studies and papers, and his responsa are filled with his positions on such issues (giyur, mechitza, employment at a non-O synagogue, etc.). And he was asked tehse questions from all over the US. I've got no issue if someone wants to think he was wrong, but to say that he was not "relevant to the question" is just silly.
    Hee's my retrospective on RMF on the occasion of his 25th yahrzeit:

  6. From Baruch Pelta’s blog, , it’s evident that Baruch is an affirmed atheist who, moreover, attempts to convince others to share his beliefs. If so, why would you recommend him as a writer/editor? I’m sure you wouldn't recommend a missionary for such a position.

  7. I didn't make any recommendations. I'm not sure what it means to be hired as a writer, but I don't see how a person's theological views are particularly relevant to being an editor. But, it's probably good that you alerted people to this, so that there are no unpleasant surprises.

  8. R. Elli, good point. I have amended the post accordingly.

  9. So as we sit here in 2012, were those in favor of the ban proven right or proven wrong?

  10. The way Rabbi Soloveitchik was denigrated....reminds me of Big Brother in 1984, how they would revise all of history. Scary.

  11. @RNS: In the context of the other comments, I read DF's comment as referring to the 56 year old ban on joining the SCA or more generally on Orthodox rabbis joining boards of rabbis or other communal organizations with their Conservative and Reform counterparts. (nothing to so with chazal and science.)

    I think it's an interesting question to ask today given more than half a century of hindsight: Were the "Gedolim" correct in their fundamentalist position, or was the RCA/MO approach that more meritorious?

    I don't know that you want to make this the forum for that question, but in the context of this particular post, it doesn't seem to be off topic.

  12. Avi said,"From Baruch Pelta’s blog, , it’s evident that Baruch is an affirmed atheist who, moreover, attempts to convince others to share his beliefs. If so, why would you recommend him as a writer/editor?"

    Just as we should prefer giving tzedakah and parnassah to Jews over non-Jews, shouldn't that be extended to preferring giving tzedakah/parnassah to believing Jews over non-believers?
    So a person's theological views are relevant when considering whether to employ his services or not.

  13. Hi Avi Katz, as personally knowing Baruch, he wrote this paper while in Touro South. When he was frummer than his current "status." Agut Moed.

  14. Who was right? I'd suggest it is very much a queestion of what you view(ed) as the vision for American Orthodoxy.
    Joel Rich

  15. "Aren't you effectively saying that he was wrong?"

    Yes, I have no reservations disagreeing, but more significantly R. Moshe zt'l did.

  16. Hello everybody.

    RE R' Elli Fischer:
    Actually, the Rebbe supported the ban. Every source I recall seeing indicates the rebbe favoring the ban, particularly after Rabbi David Hollander asked for his support. (Incidentally, at one point Rabbi Hollander refers to the Rebbe as his "anchor," and there's a youtube video or two of Rabbi Hollander talking with the Rebbe.). I include some of the rebbe's words supporting the ban in the paper. If you have a citation for him changing his mind, I'd be interested.

    RE R' Elli Fischer and Yirmiahu:
    I see Rabbi Slifkin has retracted the phrasing that Reb Moshe was not "relevant to the question." My paper does not discuss Reb Moshe's opinions' pertinence to any halakhic questions involved in Synagogue Council of America participation. The ban was made in order to pressure the Halakha Commission, and I do discuss that as part of the question explored by my paper: How the Rav and his organizations were delegitimized by the gedolim and then the Jewish Observer.

    RE Avi Katz:
    You are correct that I am no longer frum, and I did write about my views two years ago. But I'm not trying to evangelize anybody these days. I'm just looking for a parnassah.

    --Baruch Pelta

  17. Just checked the list of officers of the New York Board of Rabbis. Two of the 13 are Orthodox. Not among them is the current President who has semicha from YU but currently serves an egalitarian congregation.

  18. The question here is that who or what grants the power to anyone to issue a ban.

  19. R. Aharon Lichtenstein in his recent book (by R. Sabato) mentions that at the discussion of the Moetzes about the SCA, R. Reuvein Grozovsky asked "since none of our musmachim will ever have to deal with the SCA, why don't we ask RYBS whose musmachim are the only ones who will have the question?"

  20. Can someone explain to me what would be the purpose of Orthodox rabbis participating in such an organization? I passed a 'synagogue' on Shabbos and the parking lot was full, people were talking on their phones, the Succah had a plastic cover permanently placed under the scach. I asked a guy with a pony tail and a black girl under his arm what kind of place is this? 'Conservative', he said, 'but we are the good guys'. Sic!

    Oh, and there was a big sign outside about a lecture by the rabbi on... You guessed it! Tzaar baalei chaim!

    Pls put this thing together for me.

  21. First, back when he was Baruch he was frum.
    Secondly, the underlying problem is bigger than a simple revisionism of history.
    Here's what happened: rabbonim who had no connection to the people involved were asked a question by people who had no connection to the people involved. Then they paskened and were shocked when their answer wasn't listened to.
    A shailoh traditionally is asked by person A to posek B about his situation. He asks and gets an answer. In this case, person C asked posek B about what person A was doing and posek B issued marching orders to person A who never asked the shailoh in the first place!
    It is this usurping of automony that should be the most concerning development here.

  22. Carol: The purpose was to present a united front to the non-Jewish world. The issues deat with were kllapei hutz. Your observations are irrelevant.

    Lawrence Kaplan

  23. Even assuming this was an issue of formal psak like a chicken pupik: Reb Moshe Feinstein was a poseik, making the comment that he wasn't really qualified nonsense.

    Reb Yaakov Kaminetzky had been a Rov, a poseik.

    By 1955, almost all if not all of the 11 obviously possessed (b), and half were (a), that I know, and I don't know that much about the others.

    Now we must admit that this was not a standard issue of psak. As a defining feature of political rabbinic life, the issue was extremely relevant to the Roshei Yeshiva, who were the trainers of the new generation of congregational rabbis. That you Rabbi Slifkin, and Mr Pelta, don't spell this out, is telling.

    DF asks the central question. And it defines the debate and the history of the proclamation. The 11 Roshei Yeshiva wanted to define the Orthodox rabbinate with this paper. And they did. What the Orthodox community would be like without it is impossible to say. Theories can go both ways: We would have been worse off, or we would have been better off.

  24. 2)
    The opposition by these two has not been exorcised at all. Everyone knows that RYBS didn't sign. If people don't speak of R Silver's absence, it's only because his influence is minimal. Not because of the evil Chareidi Ministry of Truth that everyone loves to speak of, but because he didn't really have a generation that he influenced outside of Cincinnati.

  25. RE Yehupitz:

    Actually, I did note that these rabbis were considered sages and were sending an internal message to constituents. But that's tertiary. The question was answered in a fundamentally political context, and in a fundamentally political manner (i.e. inviting 2 YU Roshei Yeshiva to the meeting to cosign). By "political," I mean the decision was meant to pressure somebody outside the community -- Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik -- and was used to delegitimize him.

    The Jewish Observer (the "Ministry of Truth" you're referring to) didn't just not mention certain rabbis. First, in the 2nd issue of the magazine, it told readers that individual gedolim couldn't make a decision for their constituencies; instead only the collective majority of gedolim counted. But later, and this narrative dominated for 30 years, the magazine had an imaginary narrative that every gadol agreed with it, including not just Silver, but also the Rav. And to this day, this narrative is perpetuated (see the Rosenblum reference in my paper). That's what I thought was interesting.

  26. I once heard R. Walter Wurtzburger z"l talk about the issue. From whatI recall he said that the rav insisted that each denomination have veto power over any statement or action of the SCA so as to insure that nothing was done that was not acceptable tothe Orthodox. the result of this arrangment was that the SCA was was paralyzed and accomplished little. this was the reason for its demise.

    I how ever object to criticisms of those who opposed the SCA, including many REITS rashei yeshiva who had as much a right to an opinion as RYBS.

  27. yehupitz, I'm not sure that your historical "proof" is anything of the sort. The fact is that the p'sak was ignored by the only people it was aimed at, and the world didn't come to an end; indeed, Orthodoxy got stronger. Eventually, the SCA ended. I was present at the infamous incident at the OU convention when this was announced.

    By the way, R' Rakeffet's chapter on this in his biography of R' Silver (who, yehupitz, was head of the Agudat Harabbanim) is pretty comprehensive, including discussing the wider context of roshei yeshiva vs. rabbanim.


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