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Response to Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Editor’s Note: Dean David Berger is responding to this article.

I am at a loss to respond to Rabbi Katz’s critique because it addresses an article I did not write. Nonetheless, I will do my best.

Not one word of Rabbi Katz’s opening paragraph, which purports to summarize my argument, reports a single affirmation that I actually made. My article did not use the language or concept of halacha or their equivalent. It did not criticize YCT, let alone Open Orthodoxy, for not adhering to halacha’s dictates on how to deal with someone who espouses heretical ideas. It did not speak of bringing to bear the full weight of established halacha on theologically deviant graduates. (The original article may be accessed here: http://tinyurl.com/ojczv63.)

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 and that Rabbi Farber is “a big enough talmid chacham [rabbinic scholar] to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics.” I summarized Rabbi Farber’s position—I think fairly—as the belief that although the Torah is divinely inspired, “it contains numerous genuine contradictions, anachronisms and other errors resulting from the fallibility of [its] human authors” and that “God did not reveal to Moses anything that even comes close to the Torah text that we possess.” I added that a slightly later article by Rabbi Lopatin asserting that “no one has the authority or the religious standing to write someone out of Orthodoxy” further underscores the erosion of boundaries that concerns me.

I prefer to use the language of emunah or hashkafa rather than halacha in discussing the acceptable parameters of Jewish faith. As to R. Yaakov Ettlinger and the Chazon Ish, they introduced important leniencies regarding the treatment or halachic status of Sabbath desecrators or espousers of heresy, but they did not rethink the acceptability within Orthodoxy (or whatever equivalent term they would have used) of Sabbath desecration or beliefs that tradition has identified as heresy. And the leniencies that they introduced did not, of course, extend to recognizing the individuals in question as Orthodox rabbis. Exclusion from the Orthodox rabbinate can hardly be described as bringing to bear the full weight of established halacha on theological deviants.

With regard to Rabbi Katz’s caricature of my understanding of the process of psak and its interaction with ideology, I have two reactions. First, there is nothing in my article that comes close to justifying that caricature. Second, I have addressed the matter in various scholarly contexts, but there is one article that I devoted in its entirety to my perspective on this complex and challenging issue. Entitled “Texts, Values, and Historical Change: Reflections on the Dynamics of Jewish Law,” it was published in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and in Jews and the Law, the proceedings of a conference sponsored by the Cardozo School of Law. I also call attention to an article in which I struggled with the interaction between halachic texts and ethical instincts with regard to a central issue in which the sensibilities of Modern Orthodox Jews are particularly engaged (“Jews, Gentiles, and the Modern Egalitarian Ethos: Some Tentative Thoughts,” in the Orthodox Forum volume Formulating Responses in an Egalitarian Age). I do not believe that these articles are available online, but I will gladly send them as attachments to anyone who requests them via email, at [email protected].

By David Berger

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