A Response to Rabbi Klapper on Gedolim

A response by Rabbi David Fried to Rabbi Klapper’s recent article in Lehrhaus. Rabbi Fried (SBM 2010) teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, CT, and is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Lehrhaus is edited inter alia by Rabbi Elli Fischer (SBM 1997) and Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier (SBM 2012).

I want to start out by thanking Rabbi Klapper for his thoughtful response to Prof. Chaim Saiman’s article in Lehrhaus, “The Market for Gedolim.”  I agree in large measure with his critique of the initial article and with the recommendations he puts forth for both the right and the left.  However, there are several points he makes I believe it is important to respond to.

In discussing Prof. Saiman’s description of the less centralized nature of halachic authority on the left, Rabbi Klapper writes,

I contend, however, that this description matches only Liberal Orthodoxy’s self-perception, not its reality. For example, the IRF speaks of rabbinic autonomy, and to some extent was founded to oppose the RCA’s centralization of conversion via the GPS system. But it rapidly set up its own conversion system asserting its own halakhic standards, with YCT Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer at the head of its halakhah committee. Rabbi Avi Weiss used similar rhetoric when beginning YCT, but in fact Chovevei musmakhim send their serious she’eilot back to their yeshiva teachers, as those teachers regularly assure me. When Liberal Orthodox powerhouse (and RIETS musmakh) Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Maharat Ruth Balinsky wanted to allow female converts to immerse without a beit din present, they sent the she’eilah to Yeshivat Maharat Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Jeffrey Fox.

Rabbi Klapper cites two examples to demonstrate that authority on the left is actually more centralized than its own self-perception.  However, in each of these examples, I believe he is setting up a false dichotomy between total centralization and total lack of standards.  Yes, the IRF set up conversion standards under Rabbi Linzer’s guidance, but there is still a major difference between that system and GPS.  There is no IRF Beit Din, or network of approved batei din, that must approve each individual convert.  There are standards and then each individual rabbi is trusted to say that he has followed those standards.  If anything, it is similar to the RCA’s system pre-GPS.  I am not taking a stance here on which system is better.  I can see advantages and disadvantages to both, but they clearly are not the same system.

Similarly, training rabbis who are empowered to think for themselves, assume responsibility, and act on their own, does not preclude consulting with the Rosh Yeshiva on a difficult Shayla.  Of course YCT rabbis consult with Rabbi Linzer and Rabbi Love.  We are new rabbis and know when a Shayla exceeds our expertise.  The key point again, though, is that the yeshiva trusts us to know when we are competent to pasken the Shayla on our own and when we need to consult with someone more knowledgeable.  This is different from what I have heard that at least some teachers at RIETS tell new musmakhim that they need to consult someone on any Shayla they receive that they have not learned explicitly.

Both of these speak very clearly to the nature of halachic authority on the left.  It begins with a set of standards based on our shared knowledge of Shulchan Aruch and poskim that we learned in yeshiva.  It then trusts individual community rabbis to appropriately apply those standards to their community, consulting with greater scholars at their own discretion.

Rabbi Klapper gives three prescriptions for how the right and left should proceed to avoid schism.

Rather, I suggest that unity requires each side to feel at least somewhat accountable to the other (recognizing that the degree of accountability will vary inversely with relative sociological power). This means inter alia that

  1. each side makes halakhic arguments in a manner that is generally recognizable to the other, while eschewing arguments that the other sees as out of bounds. 
  2. each side respects and takes into account the other’s objective evaluations of its arguments. 
  3. each side restrains itself from acting on conclusions that the other sees as inconceivable.

In short, each side seeks to avoid “making the Torah into two Torahs.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the first two.  However, I would like to propose an alternative to the third.  Rather than trying to declare each other’s conclusions inconceivable, each side should work on expanding its vision of what is conceivable.  What is sacred is the devar hashem itself, the Torah shebichtav and Torah sheb’al peh that God gave to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai and in Arvot Moav.  Surely, the word of God is far deeper and far broader than to be totally encompassed by the interpretations of any single ideology.  This doesn’t mean we can’t think each other’s interpretations are wrong.  What it means is that we should argue with each other non-polemically and with the trust that we are all basically involved in the same process of trying to understand the devar hashem and apply it to our lives.  (I say this with the full awareness that the left needs as much work on this front as the right does.)  The Beit Yosef thought Kaparot were darkei emori, and yet he was able to recognize that those who disagreed with him and practiced differently had not fundamentally rejected halachic authority.  This should be our model.

I would like to add a word on partnership minyanim as well.  I have said previously and I will say again that I do not find the halachic arguments for partnership minyanim convincing.  I do not and would not attend one myself.  However, they are certainly at least plausible enough for a limud zechut.  On this, Rabbi Klapper writes,

Part of the mythos of American Orthodoxy is that the aspirationally halakhic elements of the Conservative rabbinate erred fatally by issuing new permissions to a community that did not feel itself bound to obey the old prohibitions.  The jury is certainly out as to whether Rabbi Katz’s teshuvah endorsing partnership minyanim repeats this error.

I have heard this critique before, and I think there is no comparison between mid-20th century Conservative Judaism and Partnership minyanim.  The Conservative movement, save for its clergy, never really had a halachically-committed community to speak of.  When they permitted driving to shul, it failed (in addition to being totally implausible on technical grounds) because there was no one who saw themselves as bound to hilchot Shabbat in the first place.  Not so partnership minyanim.  This is a community of people who clearly see themselves bound to halacha.   To be sure, the community is shomer Shabbat and Kashrut.  However, more relevant is that they are even committed to halachot of gender segregation, though they may not like them.  There is no shortage of Conservative shuls they could join if they are looking for a fully egalitarian service, and there is the Hadar community they could have opted to align with instead of they wanted a halachic fully-egalitarian community.  They chose to identify with partnership minyanim instead precisely because they feel bound to an Orthodox command-structure and its separation of ritual roles for men and women.  As such, they are entitled to every limud zechut we can give them, even if they believe, contrary to most in the Orthodox community, that kriyat hatorah is a role open to women.  To be sure, this does not apply to everyone who attends partnership minyanim, but every community, right, left, or center, has people who are there for social reasons that don’t really buy into the theology.

I would like to end on a personal note.  This entire conversation is painful to me.  It starts from the premise that liberal Orthodoxy is something new, that the centrists are the clear heirs to the legacy of the Rav and of Rav Lichtenstein, and they are the arbiters of whether liberal Orthodoxy can be included, with some thinking yes and some thinking no.  This is not at all how I (nor, I think, anyone on the left, but they can speak for themselves) see myself.  I do not need gedolim separately from the Rav and Rav Lichtenstein, because they are my gedolim.  They are the ones whose writings and teachings inspired me.  My decision to do semikha at YCT was not a rejection of what I learned at Gush, but the continuation of it.  To be sure, some will disagree with my interpretations, but we are two students in the same room arguing about the interpretation of what our common teacher said.  My sense is that neither the Rav nor Rav Lichtenstein wanted the kind of gadolatry that some in the center now ascribe to them, and Rabbi Klapper says as much as well.  They did not want students who thought their word was the word of God.  Only the word of God is the word of God.  As Prof. Saiman writes,

One of the most sublime experiences known to those who frequent the beit midrash is how direct encounter with the texts and ideas of the Talmudic corpus creates a compelling mixture of submission to the authority of halakha which emerges from intellectual exploration and significant autonomy.

This is the experience I try to give over to my students on a daily basis.  I am blessed to work together with teachers from backgrounds across the Orthodox spectrum.  We each have slightly different styles, but this is basically the experience we are all trying to give over.  I pray that I succeed.  I pray that we all succeed.


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