More on Partnership Minyanim

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A few thoughts in response to Prof. Chaim Saiman’s and Dr. Yoel Finkelman’s article on Partnership Minyanim in their ongoing discussion with R. Yitzchok Adlerstein (I, II, III). But first, two brief introductory comments. First, I consider all three friends, minor disagreements notwithstanding. Second, I am probably closer in hashkafah to the prior two than I am with R. Adlerstein. That is why I find their essay compelling and worthy of comment.

I. How Are We Doing?

Is the Orthodox community flourishing despite the heterodox (and atheist) challenge? I think the clear answer is that it is not, despite the frequent rhetoric to the contrary. Look at the numbers in the Pew study. Orthodoxy has remained at the same percentage of Jews for a long time, and Modern Orthodoxy seems to be shrinking. With our birthrates well over replacement, why hasn’t the Orthodox community tripled in size in the last twenty years? Additionally, we see that even among the yeshiva and day school educated, some are rejecting key elements of faith and practice, both on the left and on the right although I think it is more a problem on the left. The Open Orthodox community treat Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman as Gedolim! This is not the place for a discussion of their theologies but people familiar with them can understand why they are problematic. They are precisely the heterodox challenge we are currently facing.

II. Always Negative

Where is the positive theology? Why do we only hear “no” about women’s issues and never “here is what to do”? I find it extremely frustrating. All I add here to the authors’ point is that blame should not be placed solely on Rav Schachter’s doorsteps. The silence emanating from other quarters, including leading Modern Orthodox thinkers around the world, is deafening. Rav Schachter is not the Torah scholar closest to those raising these questions. He is the one left doing the hard work when everyone else is silent. This is an area in which we need active leadership but the thought leaders to whom Chaim, Yoel and I turn are uncharacteristically reticent.

The best description I heard for the Modern Orthodox approach to women’s issues is “muddling through” (I’m not sure who first said this). We try to balance changing reality with halakhic guidance and communal stability. Social experimentation is dangerous and always yields unexpected results. We need to proceed slowly, cautiously, building consensus and making sure not to follow avenues that prove to be either halakhically or communally unsound.

Open Orthodoxy lacks all caution. They change first and evaluate impact later. I prefer to see its root in frustration but I wonder whether there is also an element of disregard for tradition and halakhah. Either way, the attitude is profoundly irresponsible–halakhically and communally. It is nothing short of a failure of leadership and a rebellion against tradition. We are stewards of a community dating back thousands of years. We have no right to risk overturning the cart. Sometimes people complain about public policy decisions but that is what leadership is all about.

III. Feminism

Is feminism good? Does it represent positive Torah values? These questions are largely meaningless because the term Feminism is too broad. Wage equality, to take one example, is certainly a good thing. Inequal pay for equal work is simply unfair. In one sense, every Jew supports feminism. Indeed, Rav Schachter supports women’s advanced study of Talmud in many forms. But that says nothing about other, more radical feminist agendas. There is a difference between growing women’s roles in Judaism and creating exactly equal roles for men and women. Supporting the former is not the same as supporting the latter. See this recent essay about misogyny in the Talmud (link). That is not about fairness and letting our daughters utilize their full talents but about rejecting elements of Jewish tradition.

IV. Family Life

Saiman and Finkelman surprisingly state that Orthodox family life is stable. I would like to see the data underlying that claim. My impression is that divorce has risen significantly in the Orthodox community. Perhaps the Orthodox divorce rate is still well below that of secular society, bit it seems to have grown significantly. That is what I hear from the professionals, although I have no data to back up the claim.

I do not blame the (assumed) growth in divorce on women entering the workplace in large numbers (nor on the Internet). I blame it on the simple truism that Jewish communal trends follow those of the society in which the Jews reside. A growth in general divorce will inevitably lead to a growth, perhaps smaller, in Jewish divorce. The same applies to all trends. We do not, and do not want to, live totally disengaged from the broader society. Which brings us to our next point.

V. Driving Forces

The intellectual trends underlying Partnership Minyanim, and Open Orthodoxy in general, are unsurprisingly reflections of cultural trends in general society. The rise of the individual is the story of modernity but lately it has taken an extreme turn as the primary, if not sole, priority. This culture of narcissism, with all of its corresponding heightened concerns for fairness and equality above other issues, characterizes our times. It does not have to be like this forever. The pendulum of cultural trends swings back and forth. We are currently in a period of liberalism, of individual rights taking precedence over the wellbeing of family and society. The pendulum will swing back and we will see more clearly that Open Orthodoxy is just a passing fad.

We need to consider whether the arguments used to promote Open Orthodoxy will seem outdated in a decade or two. We need to be wary of making permanent religious changes based on what will eventually become clear are passing concerns.

VI. Who Decides Halakhah?

Which brings us to the real problem: halakhic process. We all recognize that halakhah is complex and has many avenues of argumentation. Who make the final calls? Note the plural–there usually is no single opinion. If you look at the Frimer paper on Women’s Prayer Groups from the 90’s (with which I take issue on many points) and their recent paper on Partnership Minyanim, you will see that they take care to utilize only halakhic decisions by recognized Poskim. This is not some sort of “Da’as Torah” attitude but the way halakhah has timelessly been decided. Why did people send halakhic questions to the Geonim, waiting months and paying money for a response? Why didn’t the Local Orthodox Rabbi just decide. Because rabbis need to know their limits and the most contentious issues must be brought to the greatest experts.

Open Orthodoxy has no poskim. They let anyone with the title rabbi, and even those without the title, make groundbreaking halakhic innovations. That is simply irresponsible and reflects a lack of seriousness toward halakhah. Speaking generally, it seems to imply that halakhah is a barrier we need to overcome, not a guide for life. As long as we can find some opening, some lenient opinion on which we can somehow rely even if only tenuously, we follow it. That is a real problem. If a posek of serious stature would support these innovations, much of the criticism would subside. There are Dati Leumi poskim–for example, R. Nachum Rabinovich, R. Aharon Lichtenstein and R. Yaakov Ariel. And there are Charedi poskim who are sensitive to Modern Orthodox concerns.

We need many things in our community. We need voices of strong resolve and we need nuance. We need apologetics (in the best sense of the term) and we need a comprehensive philosophy. We need halakhah and we need hashkafah. While they may only come piecemeal, we should strive to produce all of them because they appeal to different constituents and even different aspects of people’s personalities. I think we have now heard plenty of halakhah and strong resolve. I look forward to the creation of a vibrant literature of philosophy and apologetics, full of nuance and depth.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

7 comments

  1. “recent essay about misogyny in the Talmud” mistakenly links back to this same blog post.

  2. Fixed

  3. I can only speak for myself and the people that I know, but I think that you have some of this wrong. That being said, it is refreshing to discuss the real issues rather than the manifestations. (Your characterization of OO treating R. Greenberg and Hartman as gedolim is not accurate, neither is the characterization of the approach that Halacha is a barrier to be overcome. I understand that some of the rhetoric coming from SOME makes it seem that way.)

    I think the growing split in Modern Orthodoxy comes down to two issues. The first is that one side values facts, the other opinions. Using the current issue as an example: For one side, since the Rama and a huge majority of poskim assured women wearing tefillin, women cant wear tefillin- end of story, especially since these opinions are supported by their gedolim. The other side wants to know why it was assured. If it was assured because of a misunderstanding of facts, or the facts have changed, or the opinion was based on the predominent cultural millieu, then it needs to be reconsidered. Psak based on erroneous facts should be open for review, especially when all those who confirmed the psak in the past also were basing the psak on erroneous facts. The burden of proof is obviously on those who want to change, but change is possible and sometimes desireable, which leads to second issue.
    This is not about ‘feminism’ per se, but about not placing unneeded or extra halachic restrictions on people. (I understand that this is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, but the key is consistency). The recent edition of the Torah u’Madda journal has an article illustrating how the Halachic attitudes towards slavery has changed. Similarly,a deaf/mute is no longer classified Halachically as a cheresh due to new(last few hundred years) understanding of their condition. But as a contra-example,the poskim refuse to look at their understanding of guf naki and see if it changes the obligations of women vis a vis tefillin? There are many examples of how poskim(appropriately in my opinion) have tried to limit the Halachic disabilities on various groups, based both on re-evaluating the attitudes and scientific facts and also on Halachic ‘values'(actually better classified as amorphous mitzvot bein adam l’chavero). But there is a resistence to doing so with regard to women. That is not to say that there are not and should not be Halachic differences between the sexes. I do not think that anyone who considers themselves Orthodox is looking for full egalitarianism. I think that they are looking for women to be treated like all the other categories of those whom the Halacha treats differently. We seem to have tried hard to minimize the Halachic ‘disabilities’ places on the other categories, but changes in the stutus of women seems to evoke a reflex opposition.
    The difference between emphasizing facts and opinions manifests most publicly in women’s issues. But it affects everything. For example, those who favor facts will read Zaicher only once, knowing that the change to twice 100 years ago was made due to an error. Those who value opinions will read Zecher and Zaicher, because that is what the Mishna Brura, RMF, and RYBS among others say to do, despite all of them not having all the facts at their disposal.
    I am not taking a stand on the issues of tefillin for women or partnership minyanim. The greater issue is how Halachic questions are answered. Facts have always mattered. The factual basis for psak has always mattered. Those on the right are trying to claim that only the opinion matters, and the basis for the opinion cannot be re-examined, even if it was factually incorrect. Those of us on the left respectfully disagree and will insist that facts matter.

  4. Gil — if you will make such sweeping and extreme statements including:

    “Open Orthodoxy lacks _all_ caution. They change first and evaluate impact later.”

    “Open Orthodoxy has _no_ poskim. They let _anyone_ with the title rabbi, and even those without the title, make groundbreaking halakhic innovations.”

    [emphasis all mine], then I think you owe it to these sincere, devoted, and good people that you are bashing the respect of citing a few examples of these mistakes to which you refer.

  5. Dr Stadlan – I would submit that your distinction between the two camps is inaccurate and tendentious. I don’t see any evidence that the group who you claim are basing their views on “facts” are seeking to eliminate established leniencies based on incorrect conceptions of the underlying reality.

    Are they clamouring to be stringent on the anisakis issue, in which the only cogent lenient position that does not make assumptions that the group you describe would find unpalatable accepts that the reality described by the Shulchan Aruch is inexact? Are they seeking to revisit mamzerus questions that have been (and still are) resolved using methods entirely inconsistent with factual reality?

    Do they utilize the ‘real’ shiur kezayis le’chumra? Do their women insist on covering the whole ‘shok’ (down to the ankle) because the historical evidence indicates that this is what Chazal meant when they said ‘shok be’isha erva’? Do they refuse to use contemporary eruvin (not just in large cities), because the idea that Yerushalayim in the Mishnaic era had 600,000 residents is historically unfeasible?

    Will they not make tea in a kli shlishi on Shabbos because the idea that ‘kli shlishi eino mevashel’ has no basis in fact? Will they not utilize hetterim for ‘pikuach nefesh’ when current medical understanding indicates that there is no real mortal threat?

    Halacha is a system of law with its own methods of evaluating new realities. The idea that this should all be bulldozed in favour of ‘just the facts’ is likely to have more than a few unintended consequences.

  6. shaul shapira

    I know this is tangential, but could you explain/elaborate on how you are “probably closer in hashkafah to the prior two than …with R. Adlerstein.”?
    Thanx.

  7. J the fact that the left is more fact based is independent of whether they are consistent in that approach.
    The first thing I mentioned is that the burden of proof is on those who want change. Unexamined, the status quo is the status quo. R MM Kasher famously stated that we try not to assur things which were heretofore permitted so as not to imply that our ancestors were sinners. Similarly, we try very hard not to make mamzerim. Despite that, please see R Slifkin’s discussion specifically on the worms in tuna issue and R Alan Yuter on why he doesn’t clap on Shabbat as examples of how this approach is not simply to find kulas.

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