Thursday, 27 August 2015

Commenting on "Response to Dean David Berger on Open Orthodoxy"

Recently, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz wrote a response, in the Jewish Link of New Jersey, entitled Response to Dean David Berger on Open Orthodoxy, to Rabbi Dr. David Berger's article, also in an earlier edition of the Jewish Link of New Jersey, entitled The Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: A Response to Rabbis Avi Weiss and Asher Lopatin. The subject really is the nature and definition of heresy within Orthodoxy and, in many ways, this is a most serious issue which we are now facing. The essentially question is: What is Orthodoxy? -- and it extends even beyond the parameters of this specific issue. It is in regard to this specific issue, however, particularly in regard to Rabbi Katz's response, that I would like to comment.  (For the purposes of the further discussion of this specific issue, though, one should perhaps also look at Rabbi Asher Lopatin's Morethodoxy article, Revelation and the Education of Modern Orthodox Rabbis.)

The issue to Rabbi Katz would seem to be the nature of what he defines as Modern Orthodox psak. His argument is that Rabbi Berger's view "displays a simplistic understanding of the philosophy of Modern Orthodox halacha. It also, at its core, reflects a minimalist understanding of the Modern Orthodox enterprise." While it is difficult to hear Rabbi Berger's thought processes described in such terms, the question still is not really the nature of psak itself but the extent one's deviation from another's perception of psak is to be accepted as still within the pale of Orthodoxy. The scholars of Conservative Judaism in its early years believed that they were applying what they believed was the correct process of psak. The argument of Orthodoxy was not simply that it disagreed. Disagreements regarding the process of psak actually abound within Orthodoxy. The argument of Orthodoxy was that this methodology of psak was beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. 

Similarly, it is not enough for Rabbi Katz to maintain that he has a thoughtful approach to psak. It also serves no purpose for him to attack Rabbi Berger's methodology. It makes no difference whether Rabbi Berger's process is the most sophisticated Modern Orthodox approach to psak or not. No one is challenging that Rabbi Berger's system is within the pale of Orthodoxy. Rabbi Katz disagrees with Rabbi Berger's method but he never declares it not to be Orthodox. The actual question is whether Open Orthodoxy's system is within the pale. 

In a certain way, Rabbi Katz's presentation may actually further the arguments against this. He is clearly stating that he is in disagreement with Rabbi Berger's methodology of psak with the implication that Rabbi Berger would also disagree with his system. That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem - disagreements can exist within Orthodoxy. Disagreement, though, does open the possibility for a determination that a position may be beyond the pale. Rabbi Katz does not address this. He does not present an argument that even if Rabbi Berger disagrees with the YCT position, Rabbi Berger should still recognize it as within the pale. If anything, Rabbi Katz's presentation would, in fact, seem to work otherwise. Rabbi Katz's strong critique of Rabbi Berger would actually seem to even imply a denominational divide. What Rabbi Katz needed to do was to show that even though Rabbi Berger may disagree with YCT's views, there are still reasons to accept these views as within the pale. What he does, though, is show how these views are actually so foreign from those of Rabbi Berger. Could this not be the basis of a definition of a new denomination?

On a technical note, I should also state that I specifically had difficulties with Rabbi Katz's reference to the Binyan Tzion and the Chazon Ish. Those two scholars were not dealing with the issue of heresy per se but rather the culpability and effect connected to heresy. Their issue was how we are to relate to those with heretical views, not the very definition of heresy itself. Does this recognition imply that there are, as such, no disagreements regarding issues connected to heresy? The Slifkin Affair obviously indicated to us that there are. The point is, though, that the Binyan Tzion and the Chazon Ish are not indications that the nature of heresy within Orthodoxy can change over time. Their arguments concern how our approach to those who accept heretical views can change over time. Such arguments, though, would still not extend to accepting one with heretical views in a position of rav. I found it problematic in that I felt that Rabbi Katz was somewhat misleading in this regard.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Bottom line, my point is that Rabbi Katz, in so strongly drawing a line between himself and Rabbi Berger, may actually be furthering the argument that Open Orthodoxy is a new domination within Judaism.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

micha berger said...

First, I don't see any connection between what R' Katz responded to and what R/Dr Berger wrote. Most tellingly, R/Dr Berger appeals to the norms of what is called "Orthodox Judaism", and never mentions or discusses halakhah. So deducing things about his approach to pesaq and making a negative assessment of it is entirely off.

Second, R' Katz's thesis is an approach to pesaq that is indeed problematic. Pesaq is not static, but it does have momentum. (In fact, at least two momenta: the textual and the mimetic.) R' Herschel Schachter's primary thesis is that innovations like ordaning women or Partnership Minyanim ignore that momentum. Although in his lexicon, it's called "mesorah".

R' Ysoscher's appeal to change doesn't toch the entire issue in question -- appropriate vs inappropriate change, and instead attacks a strawman. (R/Dr Berger isn't the Chasam Sofer, crying "chadash assur min haTorah".)

Third, R' Ysoscher writes, "His Modern Orthodoxy is a compilation of two disparate value systems which operate side by side. For him, the Modern Orthodox ethos is primarily Orthodox with a mere nod to modernity, its core, though, is exclusively Orthodox." As though being "primarily O with a mere nod to modernity" is a bad thing. Quite the reverse -- more participation of the modern in one's ethos system is the very issue he needs to marshal defenses for.

R' Katz calls for a synthesis "The Modern Orthodox Jew’s Orthodoxy would consequently look different than the Orthodoxy of the non-Modern Orthodox observer" -- an adulterated Orthodoxy.

The position he derides as "simplistic" and "two disparate value systems" actually reflects the Rav's dialectical approach to life and is indeed far more nuanced than the general trend to tie everything up in a neat bow of synthesis. To assume Judaism gives us easily understood answers rather than a framework for asking better questions.

The Rav wanted YU to be a dialectic, a yeshiva that was in the mold of Volozhin and a college that was a full liberal arts college. Not a synthesis, a "Catholic College" as he put it. A synthesis means compromising both the yeshiva and the college. A dialectic means students turning to their rabbeim to learn how to navigate challenges typical to life after college.

(In fact, one of own problems with the Rav's hashkafah is that it is TOO nuanced. Great for an academic, but I don't think you can build a community on dialectic. You are too likely to end up with intelligentsia who pay lip service to dialectic and a cultural norm that is more about compromise.)

Last, not so much about this particular contratempts, more about R/Dr David Berger's campaigns in general. I noticed he has so far been active in three battles, all of which I believe fit in a single war. (I have not had a chance to check this theory with him.)

1- Most famously, his battle against L messianism and the "scandal of O indifference" to a major breach in classical understandings of the 12th of the 13 iqarim (as per Ani Maamin or Yigdal; I don't think we "canonized" the Rambam's original).

2- Similarly, he had a long exchange when R/Dr Marc Shapiro's book came out against assuming the 13 iqarim are indeed canon at all.

3- Now he attacks OO, but not over issues of feminist innovations or lauding "gay pride" or the like -- but again specifically on the topic of heresy. When you have a student who publishes heresy, how do you call him a talmid chakham who shouldn't be summarily dismissed? How do you say merely "we disagree"? It is more of "the scandal of [Open] Orthodox indifference" to the iqarei emunah. To the idea that we are indeed Orthodox, not Orthoprax.

micha berger said...

Oh, and your technical note may be very on point...

Open Orthodoxy as a means of welcoming people into the O tent is a great idea. But when you shift from welcoming people to welcoming ideas...

The fact that R' Ysoscher Katz blurs the difference between how halakhah treats heresy and how it classifies the heretic (really: the person who rebels to the point of embracing heresy) is symptomatic.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

First of all, I should mention that I appreciate R. Micha Berger's comments. There is much to say in regard to R. Katz's article.

Further to this discussion, one may want to look at R. Neal Turk's article "Modern Orthodox Halacha?", also in the Jewish Link of New Jersey at

Rabbi Ben Hecht

ysoscher said...

I cannot lay claim to objectivity if the latter should signify the absence of axiological premises and a completely detached attitude. The halakhic inquiry, like any other cognitive theoretical performance, does not start out from the point of absolute zero as to sentimental attitudes and value judgments. There always exists in the mind of the researcher an ethico-axiological background against which the contours of the subject matter in question stand out more clearly. In all fields of human endeavor there is always an intuitive approach which determines the course and method of the analysis. ... From the outset I was prejudiced in favor of the project ...

(Rav Soloveitchik in Community, Covenant and Commitment, p. 24)