Thursday, 25 June 2009

Defining a Halachic Issue

I just recently read Garry Rosenblatt's analysis of the tension that Rabbi Avi Weiss felt in creating the new position of Maharat, effectively a term for a woman rabbi without using the term rabbi. This review can be read at:
The sad truth is that, if Mr. Rosenblatt's analysis is correct, he misses the point and rather than showing the tension that should be experienced within a world of Orthodoxy that is confronting modernity is actually explaining why so many, in fact, are bothered by Rabbi Weiss' method of dealing with this issue.

The real question is: how is Orthodoxy suppose to respond to the challenge of modernity? The response of the extreme right wing is simply to ignore it. What they are saying is that the only source for values is the Torah, so what does it matter what another presentation of values is saying. Those who say, though, that the question is a real one are thus faced with this first issue -- why does it matter? This is exactly the point in contention.

To many, a confrontation between Halacha and modernity is ultimately personal. The person feels that there is value in Halacha and that there is also value in modernity. As such, there is a confrontation with a goal to try and satisfy both value desires. The objective is, thus, to find a way to meet the value of modenity within the halachic system -- and anyone able to find this path, this heter, is praised. The goal is the conclusion of satisfying both value desires.

This is exactly the problem. The halachic conclusion reached is thus perceived by others as simply serving the individuals wishing this answer. The conclusion is seen simply as a heter, couched in the unfortunate way that people often use this term to mean that its a way to have your cake and eat it too. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what a heter actually is and should be and, similarly, a gross misrepresentation of what the confrontation of modernityand Halacha is and should be.

The halachic system is a broad area of conflicting values that we are called upon, using certain methods of analysis and decision making, to stucture. What modenity does is present to us different ways of looking at and considering these values. Modernity should not be understood as a value system that confronts the halachic system but a presentation of ideas that uncovers new insights in the Halacha and causes us to highlight certain values that are already existent within the system. For example, when I think about the issue of women as halachic decision makers, I am drawn to the statement of the Minchat Chinuch that states that qualified women with a certain level of halachic knowledge must be considered in the evaluation of the numbers in making a decision based upon the majority. Modernity really doesn't introduce, to me, new values but causes me to be sensititve to values already existent within the Torah corpus. The result is, thus, not a confrontation between modernity and Torah but an issue within Torah with my goal to find what the Torah really wants. My goal is the emet, the truth. Modernity simply led me to highlight certain concepts within Torah and to undertake to look at Torah anew to see new structures within it -- something that has been done throughout the generations.

The goal is thus not to find a heter but to find the emet. As such, positions I may not like are not simply to be ignored because I have arguments to defend my view. I am not just looking for ways to okay what I want but to find the real Will of God, as I best understand it, which demands of me to consider that fact that, in His Revelation, God has presented conflicting values because that is the reality.

So if you want to promote women getting the title of rabbi, tell me the arguments why they should not. If your only perception of that argument is that it is an archaic result of the past that should be swept away with our new recognition from modernity of the value of women, you missed the point. If you know the real reasons and now -- through modernity highlighting Torah values that were perhaps, for various reasons, not highlighted in the past but nonetheless are still there -- wish to reconsider the whole matter in light of other Torah values that, perhaps, were not given the same consideration in the past (or did not have to be given the same consideration in the past), than that, I believe, is legitimate. But the goal is to find the emet haTorah, not the heter. And the goal is not the conclusion but the methodology. And when the goal is not exactly what you originally thought it should be -- but it changed because of reasons within Torah -- you are happy.

In the end, it would have been nice if the term Maharat was not simply a concession to concern for critique from the right wing while really wanting the title "rabbi." It would have been nice if the Torah arguments for why women should not be called "rabbi" were confronted, and giving women the title of Maharat was actually deemed to be what was really proper according to the emet haTorah. That, of course, would only happen if the goal is emet haTorah and not simply to find some way to have your cake and eat it too, have some way of still being able to call yourself Orthodox while really abiding to the value system of modernity.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem is that modernity is not a set of circumstance but a value system. In the Jewish value system there are defined differences between genders. In the modern value system those are blurred to the point of invisibility. In the Jewish value system, responsibility to an outside authority is important. In the modern value system, it's all about the individual and satisfying his/her needs.
Thus the YCT approach which sees modernity as a value system that halacha must accomodate lest we alienate people completely misunderstands the halachic process.
For example, the Maharat issue. I don't buy all the tension nonsense Rosenblatt wrote about. I am quite sure that Rav Weiss, from the moment he thought the idea up, was confident he would ultimately be able to solve the problem. Sitting back one night and saying "Nope, I can't find a way within halacha" was never an option. And with most of these decision, it all comes down to the person putting modern values first and then trying to fit the halacha into them.
But halacha isn't just a set of rules to be wrapped around the individual living a modern life. The challenge of being a Torah-observant Jew is to live a halachic life into which some modern considerations are brought to enhance halachic practice. The maharat is the opposite of this idea. She is not about enhancing halachic practice. After all, a rabbi has no special authority that raises him above other Jews or confers special privileges. Otherwise wouldn't the Vilna Gaon have written his semichah exams? But any Jew with the proper erudition can offer an opinion. So why the need for titles? Because in modern values systems the title confers authority. A woman with knowledge is nobody. A maharat is someone to listen to.

cyberdov said...

Ironheart's framing of the question is insightful, but I believe that R Weiss has grappled with these kinds of questions for his whole life in pursuit of emet. His direction on this and other issues was forged over time during that pursuit - probably in exactly the way Ironheart prefers. To assume that on this particular issue he decided to reach a particular conclusion based on placing a priority on modern values is taking a rather limited view.

cyberdov said...

Sorry, I meant to direct my comment to the original post, not Ironheart.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Unfortunately I've come to the impression that Rav Weiss comes to all his conclusions based on placing a priority on modern values.

And call me Garnel, my friends do.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Cyberdov, I appreciate your remarks. It is most difficult for any individual to say what is in the heart of another and, in this regard, it could be most presumptuous of me to project onto Rabbi Weiss that his goal was not emet haTorah but to accomodate those seeking modernity. My problem, though, is most articulated by the applause the Blu Greenberg received when she expressed her disappointment with the rejection of the title rabbi by Rabbi Weiss. Now this, one may argue, has nothing really to do with Rabbi Weiss or the inherent issue itself -- but it does inform me of the mileau and constituency that is our focus. In my opinion, if emet haTorah is our goal, our focus and the centre of appreciation must be on the methodology employed in the process of relating to conflicting values, not simply applaud the conclusion reached. It is, in fact, the struggle itself that should attract us, not the resolution.

Beit Hillel quoted Beit Shammai first. Imagine if Rabbi Weiss first explained -- and even defended -- those opinions on the matter with which he disagrees. What would have been the response of his audience? What if he would have made it clear that, as an Orthodox theologian, he must still accept more value in the various Orthodox institutions that limit women's education rather than a place that teaches women as equals but is outside the pale. On a personal note, for example, while I have a daughter with whom I learn gemara b'chavrusa -- with rishonim and achronim -- I still have tremendous respect for a powerful talmid chacham that I know that has difficulty with her studying gemara. The bottom line is that I see the whole picture. Of course, this talmid chacham while maintaining that women should not learn gemara still respects the view of my daughter and myself -- for after all, the Rav mattered it and who is he to challenge the Rav. That's the way of Torah.

Perhaps you are correct that Rabbi Weiss feels the same way. My challenge is then that he must express this to his constituency.

Rabbi Ben Hecht