Authority or Anarchy?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Three stories about public halakhic policy from the past few days

Should Orthodox rabbis have authority over each other?  This issue has come to the fore in three episodes over the past few days.  In the brief essay below I try to explain how each episode helps illuminate the issue and to argue that we have been avoiding hard choices that we really have to make.

1) The RCA passed a resolution mandating that its members use a halakhic agunah-prevention prenup when officiating at weddings.

Modern Orthodox discussions on social media have generally cheered this.

SBM alum Yeshayahu Ginsburg deserves great credit for pointing out an underlying process issue – should rabbinic organizations or institutions be able to impose their will on rabbis with whom they have substantive halakhic, hashkafic, or sociological disagreements?

The RCA also recently passed a resolution forbidding its members from hiring women as clergy.

Modern Orthodox discussions on social media have generally booed this.

Bluntly – if you support prenuptial agreements and women as clergy, is it possible or legitimate to expect the RCA to effectively enforce the first while asking RCA members to ignore the latter?

2) The Chief Rabbinate failed to automatically approve conversions certified by two of the RCA’s formal Halakhic authorities, Rabbi Gedaliah Dov Schwartz and my teacher Rabbi Mordechai Willig.

The Chief Rabbinate’s decisions reveal yet again the hollowness of its supposed deal with the RCA on conversions.  As I have written many times before, its procedures in this regard violate the numerous Torah prohibitions against oppressing converts, Jews, and human beings.  Its blatant disregard for American Orthodoxy damages respect for Torah and halakhah.  We need to come up with and fight for immediate plausible alternatives to a rabbinic bureaucracy that seems incompetent at its best and often much, much worse.

It is fair to argue that with Israel out of the picture, the entire RCA drive to centralize US conversions via the GPS system becomes an obvious mistake, and should be dismantled.  The argument is that the GPS system’s standards are so restrictive that many Orthodox rabbis end up taking converts elsewhere, and so it leads to a proliferation of Orthodox converts who are not recognized universally in Orthodoxy.  Moreover, the system has applied its standards retroactively, so that many past Orthodox converts (and Orthodox children of Orthodox converts!) are being forced to reconvert.  As with the Chief Rabbinate’s policy, this means that every legitimate convert must live in constant fear for their own Jewish status, and for that of their descendants ad biat goel.  This violates all the same Torah prohibitions mentioned above.

I think this argument is substantively correct.  Except – it assumes that the alternative is a better world in which almost all Orthodox converts are generally recognized by almost everyone in Orthodoxy.  We have to consider the possibility that the alternative is one in which, let’s say, 49% of RCA members adopt the policy of the Chief Rabbinate and view every past and present conversion as presumptively invalid.

In other words: given that we can’t actually impose authority, reach genuine consensus, or achieve universal mutual recognition, would complete anarchy be better or worse than what happens now?

3) Yeshivat Chovevei Torah released a responsum by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz permitting women to lead selichot services (or, more technically, permitting groups coming together for selichot to designate themselves as ensembles of individuals rather than as congregations).

The responsum was released at a time that gave halakhic authorities no opportunity to consider its arguments, let alone a chance for public consideration of its merits, and yet seemed intended to generate immediate practice.  Rabbi Katz and YCT acknowledged that YCT Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer had previously issued a responsum with a different practical conclusion.

When creative arguments are proposed for new practices that are clearly both halakhically and sociologically controversial, halakhically serious leaders and congregations should engage in serious deliberation before acting.    I hope that this has now been the case regarding women leading selichot in all congregations and communities that aspire to halakhic seriousness, including partnership minyanim.

Let’s suppose that the overwhelming majority of RCA members conclude that Rabbi Katz’s responsum is totally wrong.  Would it be legitimate for them to pass an enforceable resolution declaring that rabbis must not permit women to lead selichot?  What can an Orthodox halakhist, or an Orthodox organization, legitimately say about a halakhic decision made by an acknowledged colleague that does not leave their lay audience saying “these and those are the words of the living G-d”, and we can act as we please?  (If the answer is nothing, the only recourse left is delegitimating the author of the decision, i.e. denying collegiality.)  Under what circumstances should individual halakhists be bound by majority decisions, especially majorities of lesser scholars?  Is there a difference between majorities and overwhelming majorities?

Bottom line: We need a much deeper and more sophisticated conversation about rabbinic and halakhic authority.  We need to recognize that granting authority always involves agreeing to follow rulings we disagree with, and that denying authority always involves letting people do things we disagree with.  We need to develop ways of denying the l’maaseh legitimacy of a psak without denying the Orthodoxy or learning of the posek.  We need to acknowledge that halakhah legitimately has its own politics, and that if we persist in shallow or scorched-earth tactics, Orthodox society will soon resemble the US Congress or worse.

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