A Yeshiva is Not an Individual
Rabbi David Fried has taken me to task for allegedly asserting that “despite his personal belief in a traditional understanding of revelation, Rabbi [Asher] Lopatin’s refusal to view contrary beliefs as inherently heretical places him, and the institution he heads, outside of Orthodoxy as well.”
Rabbi Fried’s presentation of my view is based on the following two sentences in my article, the first of which he quotes in full: “I emphatically do not question the Orthodoxy of Rabbi Lopatin’s own beliefs. Nonetheless, his statements severely compromise the status of the institution that he heads.” How this passage can lead to the assertion that I have placed Rabbi Lopatin himself outside Orthodoxy is bewildering. In a reply to Rabbi Ysoscher Katz that appeared a week before Rabbi Fried’s letter, I paraphrased the argument of my article as follows: “The article did assert that despite the personal Orthodoxy of Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who is the president of YCT, and most of its students, graduates and faculty, Rabbi Lopatin has called the Orthodox standing of the Yeshiva into question by asserting that Rabbi Zev Farber’s views about the authorship of the Torah are within the bounds of Orthodoxy…”
I recognize Rabbi Lopatin’s Orthodoxy precisely because I agree with the central argument of Rabbi Fried’s letter, to wit, that a person who holds Orthodox views but places heretical views within Orthodoxy does not lose his personal status as an Orthodox Jew. Thus, the letter is simply misdirected.
I do, however, need to address the challenge that Rabbi Fried would clearly have posed had he understood my position as he should have. “Rabbi Lopatin has affirmed that denying the historicity of the revelation at Sinai does not breach the boundaries of Orthodoxy. How can one maintain that this affirmation leaves his own Orthodox status intact but calls into question the Orthodox standing of the yeshiva that he heads?” The answer is that a yeshiva is not an individual. The raison d’etre of a yeshiva is to transmit the teachings and doctrines of historic Judaism, including the required parameters of those doctrines. When the president of a yeshiva affirms that an unequivocal denial of Torah mi-Sinai is acceptable within the framework of Orthodoxy, the commitment of that yeshiva to the core mission of an Orthodox educational institution is indeed called into question.
Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean
Bernard Revel Graduate School
Classic ‘Straw Man’ Attack on Rav Willig
I am writing to object, on both Jewish and journalistic grounds, to the Jewish Link’s publication of Shira Hecht and Aaron Koller’s essay, “New Circumstances Demand New Halachic Views: A Response to Rabbi Mordechai Willig” (Aug. 20, 2015). A Jewish family newspaper is not a presidential primary, wherein one candidate gets to describe, and thereby define, another’s position in order to criticize it. Jewish ethics, and even journalistic ethics, call for a higher standard.
To begin with, the authors ought to provide some quotes from the very essay (Rav Willig’s “Trampled Laws”) they are supposedly responding to. They do not. Instead they seem to have combed through Rav Willig’s record to select only those pieces that conform to the picture they wish to paint.
The authors launch a classic “straw man” attack on Rav Willig. They declare Rav Willig a “reactionary” and then proceed to condemn him for that stance. Two pieces of evidence back their claim: One, Rav Willig’s utilization of a particular text for a kesubah, and, two, Rav Willig’s shul’s omission of the Tefillah l’Shalom haMedinah (an issue surely cherry-picked for this paper’s audience). I am not privy to every psak Rav Willig has issued, nor have I analyzed his pesakim to form an opinion about his decision-making process, but one would need to look at hundreds of psakim and writings in order to begin to formulate an understanding of his, or anyone’s, methodology. To try and convince the public of a pattern in Rav Willig’s decisions through two examples is ludicrous.
Next, the authors belittle Rav Willig’s psak to reject the day school application of a child of homosexual parents. They appear to have read his mind when they write, “The immediate impetus of his position is clearly the reification of the 1950s stereotypical American family, in which the father worked at a profession and the mother raised the kids.” “Clearly”? I don’t see it that way. Perhaps my lenses are foggy, but what I see is a decision reached based on weighing several divergent Torah values. Nothing to do with the 1950s, nothing to do with stereotyping.
Then the authors insist that Rav Willig’s re-evaluation of “the inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools” is “based on a particular sociological claim: women’s Talmud study led to an erosion of gender hierarchies and to the erosion of norms regarding women’s social and religious roles and homosexuality.” This thinking, the authors assure us, is “somewhat shallow,” and perhaps “misguided.” Let’s leave aside for a moment the insult to the Rosh Yeshiva’s intelligence, and simply analyze their argument.
The “particular sociological claim” they refer to is a quote Rav Willig brought from a “pioneer of the religious feminist wave,” who stated, “What is happening today is a direct continuation of the beginning of Talmud studies for religious women in the 1980s.” Do the authors truly believe that this one statement is the entire basis for Rav Willig’s opinion on the matter? If so, I would argue that their thinking is shallow and misguided.
Finally, the authors employ good-for-the-goose-is-good-for-the-gander logic when they state that “Rabbi Willig’s willingness to re-evaluate a position he once held is to be applauded,” followed immediately with the statement, “It should be equally applauded when other halachic poskim change their views or diverge from the community’s earlier-held views, in other directions.” The operative term here is “halachic poskim.” Poskim do, and always have, changed their minds. But not everyone who offers guidance in matters of Jewish law can be considered a legitimate posek. This is not the place to debate “Who is a Posek?” but suffice it to say, Rav Willig’s candid reassessment of a prior position is not grounds for renovating the halachic process and tossing out the Mesorah in favor of “other directions.”
But all this is beside the point. Rav Willig does not need our defense or our endorsement. Jewishly speaking, the authors are not “barei plugta” with the Rosh Yeshiva. They are out of place criticizing a gadol baTorah in private, let alone in public. Unfortunately, many in the Modern Orthodox community, in response to the deification of gedolim by other segments of Orthodoxy, have raced to the opposite extreme and ignore their responsibilities toward kavod HaTorah.
We need not believe that gedolei Torah are infallible in order to understand that we are not permitted to rebuke them publicly. Modern Orthodoxy cannot be taken seriously as a Torah-based lifestyle if we (to borrow from Rav Willig’s essay) trample on basic, fundamental Torah values—honor toward Talmidei Chachamim and respect for their leadership.
This disrespect emanates from the very egalitarianism that certain segments of Orthodoxy have embraced. It works not only laterally, across genders, but also, apparently, vertically, in that anyone with an opinion and a laptop is qualified to challenge a world-renowned Torah scholar. The authors are oblivious to this distinction when they celebrate that both their words and those of Rav Willig “were written by faculty members at the same institution” (Yeshiva University). Sorry, kids. Yours is not an example of “Eilu ve’eilu.”
Rav Willig closed his essay by writing, “We must obey all of Hashem’s laws, especially those that others trample upon. We must do so with joy and humility, especially when others demean and oppose us.” Rav Willig will surely remain silent to his critics’ disparagement. I cannot.
Modern Orthodoxy Threatened by Different Ideological Paths
Thank you for publishing the thoughtful essay, “Re-Evaluating Talmud Torah for Women” by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder (August 27, 2015), which he describes as being written about Rav Willig’s d’var Torah originally published by TorahWeb.org.
While I have not communicated with Rav Willig about this essay, I would venture to say that there is little written in it with which Rav Willig would disagree. However, I would like to focus on one point that Rav Wieder makes obliquely without any elaboration and, in fact, I have not seen addressed in other analyses of Rav Willig’s d’var Torah. Rav Wieder writes, “It may be that there are some (men as well as women) who study Torah who use their knowledge in problematic ways.” I would suggest that this concern should be broadened to include a concern about the environment within which Torah is taught (to some men as well as women). What are the premises and suppositions that underlie this new enterprise of teaching Torah to women at the highest levels?
A partial answer to the above question can be gleaned from comments made by two different groups of women who have completed Torah learning at the highest levels. When listening to Maharats (women ordained by YCT) speak at their graduations, one hears about their overcoming the historic suppression of women in general and the inherent discrimination of women in Halacha. In sharp contrast, when this very newspaper recently interviewed Shoshana Samuels, the Yoetzet Halacha at Rinat Yisrael, one heard about working closely with the poskim, halachic decisors, for their guidance and psakim, demonstrating their fealty to the Mesorah. In other words, the first group sees themselves as “Rosa Parks,” fighting discrimination and injustice, while the second group works as part of the Torah community, sensitive to the Mesorah and rabbinic authority as did Sarah Schenirer.
(While I am aware that Rav Willig and other poskim are uncomfortable with Yoatzot Halacha, it is for ancillary reasons that are not fundamental to the enterprise.)
I would suggest that a further exploration of these differences in approach to Torah learning will show what is at the root of the ideology that threatens to split the Modern Orthodox community.
Rabbi Tuly Polak
From Montreal to Highgate Terrace
I want to thank you for your very helpful suggestions for our Montreal trip (“Vacationing in Montreal,” by Nina Glick, July 2, 2015). We had a wonderful time! We visited Mont Tremblant first, where my daughters and I went zip lining, something I could never have pictured myself doing. From here we headed to Old Montreal, where we spent Shabbat and had a fun time visiting some highlights. Our favorite restaurant turned out to be Exceptions II, where we had the best onion soup ever! We did try poutine, which was interesting. I carried your article with me and referred to your suggestions. So thank you again.
I also want to thank you for the article you wrote about Highgate Terrace (“Highgate Terrace: The Shame of Bergenfield,” by Nina and Rabbi Mordechai Glick, August 20, 2015), by far the worst street to drive or walk on in the entire area. When my daughter had a procedure done on her foot and needed a boot and a wheelchair over Shavuot, her friends pushed the wheelchair as she “walked” down the street because there was just no other way to maneuver down this horrific street. A number of years ago when the first part of this two-block street was paved from Newbridge to Westminster Gate, I was thrilled, thinking that the entire street would be taken care of. Unfortunately, only a portion of the street was deemed in need of resurfacing. This made no sense and still is puzzling, since the portion of the road from Churchill to Westminster Gate is by far the most traveled portion. If there is anything that I can do to help in encouraging the town to address this indisputable problem, please let me know.
Thank you again,
Betrayed by the ‘Loony Left’
In the past few weeks I have been getting all those calls from the Jewish “leadership” to call on members of Congress to vote against the Iran deal. There are several problems with those calls; the most important problem in my mind is that those calls come from a failing leadership. Many of these people had enthusiastically supported the Democratic party and even Obama (don’t ever forget Rothman!) despite troubling signs that this party is falling into the hands of the loony left and the certainty that it would betray us as soon as possible. Well, the Democratic party, under the guide of the loony left has just betrayed us and we find ourselves in a failing rear guard battle.
I, for one, refuse to do the bidding of our failing leadership and waste any more time and effort on this losing battle!
Instead, I would call for a new direction. Firstly, and with a lot of wishful thinking, I would like that those of the failing leaders who mislead us to continue to support Obama and his cohorts be recognized for their failure and go away (thankfully, the Democratic party got rid of Rothman and saved us the need to do it ourselves). But, I fully recognize that those “leaders” are not willing to go away and we must live with them despite their failures, unless we get into internal wasteful struggle.
We should regroup and think our way going forward. Maybe, being in the pocket of the Democratic party is not such a great idea anymore. Maybe we should be more judicial and leave such unconditional support to the J-Street dudes and their evil friends from the BDS movement. Instead we should focus on people who are actually willing to support us. And, no, Hillary Clinton is definitely NOT one of those, neither is Biden nor Sanders!
In the Democratic party, the more conservative, and inherently our friends, lost in the last few election cycles and were defeated by the loony left which now controls the majority of that party’s seats in both chambers. We need to do our best to restore the conservative Democrats into power.
Outside of the Democratic party, by and large GOP members of Congress were much more friendly to us, so maybe it is time to return favor, both in votes and financing, and both in the federal and in the state level. Remember, the Arab/Muslim community is growing both in numbers and wealth, so the earlier and more forceful we move, the better.
Which leads me to one more important point. The West is now the target to what should be described only as invasion of hostile people (hostile to the West and its values). The loony left that is controlling the media insists on naming that invasion with the word “immigration,” but every reasonable person should easily recognize that word as no more than a euphemism.
Countries like Sweden are basically gone or are on the verge of extinction with the active support of their own leaders. Make no mistake: recognize that the USA is already targeted as well, and that the political elite in this country will have no problem following in the footsteps of the Swedish “leadership” if we do not work to avert this process.