In his recent article, “Response to Dean David Berger on Open Orthodoxy” (August 20, 2015), Rabbi Ysoscher Katz explains in clear terms how those in the Open Orthodox camp view the process of psak—deciding matters of Jewish law. Although it is difficult to see the relationship between Rabbi Berger’s article and the critique of Rabbi Katz, the latter’s article is useful in gaining an understanding of Open Orthodoxy and its instructors.
First of all, he informs us that there is something called “Modern Orthodox halacha.” This halacha should not be viewed as “exclusively Orthodox” or even “primarily Orthodox.” Rather, halachic decision making must take into consideration a “robust encounter with modernity” where “the books are only the raw materials.” He claims that “once the posek has identified the relevant sources, they have to be made compatible with many of the external variables…” His job is “about making the eternal contemporary.”
When reading Rabbi Katz’s description of psak, one must ask: What is Modern Orthodox halacha? He insists that it is different from “charedi psak,” because of this robust encounter with modernity. In other words, the Modern Orthodox posek has some other value system that must be taken into consideration when rendering a judgment. This value system is modernity and its truths also have some claim upon the considerations of the posek. His decision must somehow find a way to make the sources fit “in order to make the ruling relevant.” It stands to reason, as Rabbi Katz points out, that this “will take time to produce.” After all, deciding halacha that must be true to competing systems of thought and values will not always be easy or quick. When you have to figure out what to do with “those halachot that on the surface challenge our modern sensibilities,” you need “an inordinate amount of time.” Since, for Rabbi Katz, rejection of modern sensibilities is out of the question, you just have to figure out how to fit that square peg into a round hole.
Before getting to the Modern Orthodox, it must be said that one wonders how much “charedi psak” Rabbi Katz has studied. When learning the Minchat Shlomo, does he get the impression that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was unaware of modern problems and dilemmas? Was Rav Auerbach not approached by Jews across the spectrum of Orthodoxy in Israel to render decisions? Does Rabbi Katz think that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l erred in considering Rav Shlomo Zalman the supreme posek in Israel because he was charedi?
Is Rabbi Katz aware of the fact that one can find piskei halacha in seforim of charedi poskim dealing with issues in modern hospitals, and even the Israeli army? Rav Elyashiv was asked to answer the following, apparently not theoretical question: An Israeli pilot was about to mistakenly bomb an Israeli encampment; is it permissible to shoot him down to save the lives of the soldiers he was about to kill? Does Rabbi Katz think there are distinct charedi and Modern Orthodox sources to answer such questions?
To say the least, Rabbi Katz’s approach to halacha will sound foreign to those who are students of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l. The Rav taught that halacha must be seen as a self-contained system of truth, God’s truth, and that we had to learn it with honesty and with integrity. To delve into a question in halacha with some conclusion that must be reached is a vulgar use of halacha for one’s own purposes. To suggest that there is something called Modern Orthodox halacha, to be distinguished from other views of halacha, is preposterous. Rabbi Soloveitchik had disdain for the term Modern Orthodox, but there is no doubt that he is associated with it. To be connected to this view of halachic decision making would make him turn in his grave.
Rabbi Soloveitchik taught:
“Halachic man implements the Torah without any compromises or concessions, for precisely such implementation, such actualization is his ultimate desire, his fondest dream. When a person actualizes the ideal halacha in the very midst of the real world, he approaches the level of the godly man, the prophet—the creator of worlds.”
While it is obviously true that a posek must take the contemporary reality into consideration when delivering psak, he is not, in Orthodox Judaism, beginning with two truths which must somehow be reconciled. When a posek investigates halacha in order to render an appropriate decision, he delves deeply and honestly so that there will be no manipulation of the sources to fit a preconceived outcome. In Rabbi Katz’s view of psak there are two truths; the books, as he calls them, and his modern sensibilities.
Rabbi Katz uses Open Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy interchangeably in his article. It is probably best to keep these phrases separate. Those who have considered themselves a part of Modern Orthodoxy for a long time, with its embracing of Zionism and higher secular education, do not have Rabbi Katz’s view of how halacha functions. Torah study and halachic decision making do not diverge from any other Orthodox perspective. That’s exactly what all Orthodox Jews have in common.
We, as students of Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Lichtenstein, embrace all that is good and valuable in the general culture. We incorporate these things into our studies and into our lives. But Torah is supreme and if there is conflict we will reject what stands outside of it, and we will measure our modern sensibilities by the standards God has provided.
Rabbi Neal Turk and his wife are residents of Teaneck. Rabbi Turk served as rabbi for many years in Miami, FL.
By Rabbi Neal Turk