A Guest Post by Rabbi Zundel Heimish
I wonder if the creator of Rationalist Judaism ever imagined that it would be such a vital forum for addressing the critical issues facing the Orthodox world. The present dialogue on the form and trajectory of Charedi Judaism – and the broad range of comments that have been put forward – are a testament to the success of this venue. Perhaps most impressive of all is the tenor of the discussion. Rabbi Slifkin has shown us all how to have discourse without disrespect, leaving polemics and acrimony by the wayside. There are some thoughts and ideas of my own that I would offer for consideration.
R. Ploni has identified the core dispute to be the question of whether the “Far Right” (FR) is or is not “seeking to leave the halachic community”. He states they are not and avers “the crux of the issue [is] they steadfastly insist on deferring to the judgments of the askanim who dominate the community and deny the need for sanction from Rishonim to make the changes they recommend”. I would suggest R. Ploni understates the issues. Let me refer to the controversy initiated by Rabbi Schmeltzerfogel over the view of Chazal, Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim that Chazal could err in scientific matters.
In his article R. Schmeltzerfogel writes:
“I know of course that plenty of Rishonim and Acharonim, and indeed Chazal themselves, stated that Chazal could err in science. But by its plain meaning, and by the simple smell test, this view has the effect today of undermining rabbinic authority, and of affirming for us that Rabbis do not always possess the knowledge that scientists do. In our specific time, given our specific challenges, this view hurts us. We thus find ourselves today in a halachic “sha’as hadchak”, an “urgent circumstance”, the sort of circumstance that justifies utilizing a dishonest stratagem to effectively drop this view from our mesorah.”
Clearly, R. Schmeltzerfogel’s goal from the start is to remove this view as it offends modern Charedi sensibilities. His suggested hashkafic maneuvering is simply a clever means to a pre-determined end. Moreover other pashkevillim coming from charedi gedolim directly affirm the premise that they seek to employ the Daas Torah process to attain congruity with contemporary Charedi mores, no matter how forced or convoluted the “stratagem” might be. Such candor in identifying how they use rabbinic authority is refreshing – but it ought not be mistaken to be an honest search for truth in Torah scholarship.
Perhaps more than the actual opinion by R. Schmeltzerfogel to delete a major view from the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim for the sake of Charedi sensitivities is the attitude that permeates his writing. Simply put, he is embarrassed by the Rishonim. Their views smell bad and offend today’s charedi who has limited scientific understanding and little knowledge of intellectual history. But might it not be more worthwhile to encourage study of the Rishonim for charedim so that the complexity of the mesorah could be appreciated and accepted rather than altering centuries of tradition?
Additional statements by R. Schmeltzerfogel vis-à-vis the Rishonim’s views on working for a living and other comments where he challenges the authenticity of their writings and practices in view of charedi sensibilities seem to be at odds with R. Ploni’s own formulation of the criteria for Agudah membership: “The Orthodox community, and the Charedim specifically, ought to welcome into its tent anyone who professes loyalty to the theology of Jewish belief endorsed by Rishonim and Achronim as historically and halachically understood, and whose conduct is governed by classical Jewish law”.
Is condemning – and even deleting – the view of the Rishonim for not conforming their theology to the contemporary zeitgeist consistent with classical Jewish law?
At the risk of over-reaching I will take this critique one step further. Conservative Judaism in this country took root as an attempt to keep Jews Jewish, believing as the movement did, that Orthodoxy was too rigid and rejecting of New World realities. A number of Conservative clergy had Orthodox smicha and some were recognized scholars. The “tshuva” written to permit driving to shul on Shabbos and similar policies were efforts to redefine halachic principles to fit the perceived needs of the people (“sha’as hadchak”?) and give sanction to extrahalachic behaviors so as to maintain a façade of religious adherence. Today it is evident to all how poorly that strategy has played out.
I don’t question the sincerity of Rabbis Wachtfogel, Shapiro, et. al. and their conviction that they are serving Hashem and Klal Yisroel. I believe R. Ploni when he says they are all well-meaning ma’aminim. However, that isn’t the dispute and focusing on personalities obfuscates the real problem.
“Hachachom einay berosho”. One who has eyes sees the chasm opening up between the FR path and that of mainstream Orthodoxy. Certainly, this critique may be wide of the mark and all that will evolve from the FR activity is some expansion of what becomes acceptable within the realm of Orthodoxy. Yet truth requires one to acknowledge that the fears R. Slifkin expresses have substance and are grounded in historical precedent. Can we agree that there are real dangers that ought to be faced as potential threats to the Klal and respected accordingly? In the opinion of many in mainstream Orthodoxy, some breaches have already come to pass: Piskei halachah on people and books have been issued without meeting the baalei din or reading the books; Tefillos such as Hanosein teshuah lemelachim have been exorcised from the siddur; The notion that working for a living is a bedi'eved; A demand that known manipulators and crooks be accepted in positions of authority by the frum world. I fear Jimmy Durante was correct when he said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
After making the case for the “big tent” approach to Orthodoxy R. Ploni in fact turned his attention to the “Far Right” and movingly admonished the group for their intemperate excesses and apparent unwillingness to draw some boundaries of their own – a curious rebuke given his reluctance to concretely define where he would place his own borders. While his reproach is welcome, I wonder why it only came in response to R. Slifkin’s essay and not at the very start of “this current firestorm” – i.e., the campaign by R. Wachtfogel and R. Shapiro. Further, putting it at the very end of his response to R. Slifkin seems to suggest that in the spirit of even-handedness R. Ploni must address both sides of the debate, almost pro-forma not to be taken too seriously. The Rav was not timid or time-sensitive in criticizing Rabbi Rackman loudly and clearly. Is that not the model for this discussion?
In reviewing the comments to both articles and the clarifications offered by both R. Ploni and R. Slifkin, I believe it’s worth asking “How far has the Far Right taken us already?” It is not only the practices they advocate that are at issue. By setting the boundary of acceptability further and further to the conservative extreme we are all pulled away from the standards of the past, both in personal practices and in our worldview. How many in the Charedi community presume the Modern Orthodox to be beneath them for their lack of black hats? Did Chasam Sofer look down upon his Western European peers with disdain because they had no yeshivishe shprach supplementing their Torah greatness? R. Ploni is eloquent in his description of Charedi Orthodoxy as combining the best of the Rishonim with modern Charedi hashkofah. Yet where is the balance point between those two sources of knowledge and what influences where the set point is established? The Far Right always exerts pressure on our thinking and behavior. Some – the Far Left – pull fiercely in the opposite direction to countervail a rightward tilt, sometimes with undesirable consequences. Unfortunately, many in the Charedi world take no notice of this drift, subtly reframing their perceptions, allowing it to erode their commitment to Chazal and Rishonim and diminishing their regard for those who choose a more traditional Torah way. I don’t live like the yid in Teaneck, Engelwood, Riverdale, etc. but I recognize there are characteristics of such a lifestyle to admire and even elevate above my own - combining Torah with derech eretz, contributing to the national economy, being self-sufficient and teaching their children to likewise be self-sufficient, following dina d'malchusa, expressing hakaras hatov to their host nation, being honest about the theological views of the Rishonim. Can the Charedim do the same, respect someone whose adherence to many aspects of tradition surpasses one’s own without denigrating their actions or motives?
I would add one final observation. There are many who dismiss the debate over the acceptance or rejection of the Far Right as “same old, same old” and see it as simply a recapitulation of familiar Jewish infighting. Maybe so; maybe not. There is a psychological phenomenon known as the Normalcy Bias. It’s the cognitive process by which we seek to diminish the prospect of danger by identifying elements of an event or trend as something we’ve seen or been through before and survived without needing to take drastic action. It’s been used to explain for example why people stay in their homes even when confronted by imminent disaster like a flood or a hurricane – or a Holocaust. “I got through something just like this before and I can do it again”. There are some challenges to the future of our continuity that may call for extraordinary responses.
(Note: The purpose of this satire is not to challenge the campaign against the deviations of the Far Left, but rather to question why there is no similar campaign against the deviations of the Far Right.)