Friday, November 27th, 2020

Change and Unity: Navigating the Tension by Gidon Rothstein

June 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Halakha, New Posts

It should be unarguable that as times change, our expression of the eternal principles of halachah changes as well.  When cars, computers, and other technological wonders came along, rabbis and poskim had to figure out how those appliances fit within the world of halachah.

In those cases, the process was perhaps eased by the items in question never having existed before.  What happens when something that has always existed—such as money lending or wine, to take earlier examples that no longer have the emotional charge more contemporary ones might—takes on a new meaning or social role?  How might that affect its halachic status?

Those two examples have been much studied, but the simple answer is that different things happen in different communities, with different rabbis reacting different ways.  When communities were largely isolated, it was more possible for that process to proceed, with each community treading its own path.  It was only hindsight that let us see where and how those processes occurred. 

In our time, with our greater awareness of what everyone else in the Jewish world is doing, the topic of change has become hugely difficult.  A friend recently told me of George Carlin’s line about his frustrations in driving, both with the maniacs who go faster than him and the idiots who go slower than him. In Orthodoxy today, we are often similarly aware of, and affected by, the narrow closed-mindedness of those to the “right” of us (wherever we are—there are always those more to the “right”) or the negligently excessive open-mindedness of those to the “left” (again, wherever we are).

My question here is whether we can define parameters that help us respect others who handle change differently, and yet still feel that we are part of a joint endeavor we call Orthodoxy.  My goal is not to define the exact limits of that term—although I have offered some thoughts about its minimal definition in my Mission of Orthodoxy project, at—but to suggest ways in which we could maintain our respect for each other and proceed towards proper and appropriate change in ways that take account of the concerns of as many Jews as possible.

I advocate this as a way to minimize divisiveness.  While I, too, would like to follow my personal inclinations about right and wrong, membership in a community obligates sensitivity to others, including those with whom we strongly disagree. Whether I am more to the right or left, what I should want—what I think we all should want—is to find a balance between following my personal sense of right and always yielding to what the broader community wants.  By better categorizing the kinds of change that come our way, I hope to contribute to creating that sense of balance between the different pulls involved in being members of a community.

Slam-Dunk Change of Practice, Or What Should Be

A first important step, I believe, is to recognize that change, at least of halachic practice, actually comes in three different packages, with differing levels of tension.  There are some changes of practice that, once suggested, are so obviously a return to what the Torah always wanted that there should be little or no objection.  That sentence may sound hopelessly naïve– Jews can argue about anything– but allow me to offer a few examples:

In the communities in which I grew up, ordinary Jews did not really study Torah (in some communities, this is still true, but to our more obvious chagrin).  When various circumstances made it clear that more Jews, at all strata of Jewish society, should be studying Torah, that change of practice, with the lifestyle adjustments it necessitates, should have been (and should be) unarguable.  Similarly, the past fifty years have seen a renewed awareness of many clear halachot, such as around Shabbat observance and kashrut.  Some mistake this for a search for stringencies, and perhaps there are occasions where it is, but there are many cases where it is more a question of renewed awareness of indubitable halachic facts.

There can also be slam-dunk changes of practice le-kula, to the lenient side, recognizing that we have allowed ourselves to forget the permissibility of certain acts, although achieving universality can be much more complicated.  Perhaps one example, always recognized in theory but which has become much more common in the past fifty years, is the ability to dispense with one day of Yom Tov once a person moves back to Israel.  (There are increasing leniencies about how to define residence in Israel as well, but those are not clear and unequivocal).  Another might be women having a zimmun of their own, at least when three women eat alone, but I have been told that R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, held this way even when they ate in the presence of one or two men.

More examples will not make the point stronger, but it bears repeating one more time: some changes are simply changes of practice, not of halachah; they are החזרת עטרה ליושנה, returning the crown to its old place, rediscovering what should have always been true within the Torah world, and are clearly true once rediscovered.

Innovation Backed by Authority

Other times, changes of practice are less clearly the proper application of halachah to new circumstances.  In such cases, the debate can divide those who see these practices obviously appropriate and others equally certain that they are an unwarranted alteration of the timeless Torah.  So too, some admittedly new changes might yet seem, at least to some, to be the best strategy to face certain circumstances.  When R. Yisrael Salanter promoted the study of Mussar, many contemporaries thought such focus on character development, to the detriment of ordinary Torah study, a waste of time.  As R. Soloveitchik zt”l memorably recalled in Halachic Man, R. Chaim Volozhin assumed some Jews might need the Mussar curriculum, but not the students in his yeshiva, immersed as they were in Torah.

R. Yisrael Salanter’s example is useful, because it points up one way such change can progress with minimum tension.  R. Salanter was, after all, a recognized first-rank Torah scholar, and if he promoted an idea, agree or disagree, it was an idea that was within the purview of Torah.  That is not to say that everyone simply accepted it; wrong ideas are a problem no matter how great the ones who promote them, and many felt that his shift of emphasis and curriculum was decidedly wrong.  But his backing of the idea inoculated it against the claim that it was not a valid option within the world of Torah.  Similar attitudes, I believe, prevailed when R. Samson Raphael Hirsch advocated for Torah Im Derech Eretz, and other such examples.

Those interested in halachic change, then, would do well to find a universally accepted first-rate Torah scholar to back them, since that always changes the tone and tenor of the conversation.  R. Soloveitchik zt”l instituted many innovations objected to by other segments of the Torah world, and yet his stature and proven greatness in Torah meant the argument revolved around right or wrong, not in or out.  I recognize that the definition of “first-rate Torah scholar” can itself become a matter of contention, but here, too, there are people who clearly deserve that status, people who clearly do not, and people who fall arguably in between (I leave it to you to supply names for each category).

Change Unbacked by a Gadol

Without the backing of any such gadol, any Torah giant, the issue becomes more complicated.  While some would say that the lack of such support should immediately and automatically knock it off the table, many reject such a constricted view of the world of Torah. Learned people, after all, can have creative, interesting, innovative, and valid ideas even if they make no claim to be gedolim, and even if they cannot find a gadol who sees the truth they discovered. Can we ever take advantage of those thoughts, until a gadol is ready to sign on?

One part of the challenge in trying to answer yes to that question is that when an idea comes from a non- gadol, I think we can be less automatically certain of its plausibility within the Torah world.  Key to our ability to see ourselves as a joint community is our recognition of lines none of us can cross.  To choose a simple example, any idea based on denying the Giving of the Torah at Sinai would seem to me to be clearly and immediately non-Orthodox.  Controversial ideas rarely are so clearly outside of Orthodoxy, but the line between wrong and non-Orthodox is an important one, and a possibility that is relevant any time an idea lacks a gadol-imprimatur.

 I know from experience that the whole question of testing ideas for whether they fit Orthodox parameters rubs some people intensely the wrong way, and yet I cannot think of a way around it. To take an extreme example: If a non-Jew were to decide she had studied enough Torah to make creative contributions to the world of halachah, would we simply accept her claims as plausible options or would we look at them critically, aware that she does not necessarily come from a place of understanding of our deepest commitments?  Our challenge is to move from that extreme to a broad-minded yet feasible definition of how to place that line.

Defining Orthodoxy—The Personal Element

Some today assume that self-definition is the only line—when a self-identified Orthodox Jew produces an article or a responsum citing traditional sources, that becomes a valid halachic option.  Further thought, though, suggests limits to that perspective.  First, although perhaps rarely, the self-definition might be contradicted by the person’s actions. 

I do not want to descend into “tsitsis-checking.” But if a person claimed to be Orthodox, wished to advance an idea for how the Orthodox world should change its halachic practice, and yet publicly violated Shabbat and other clear commandments, how would we respond?  We would likely still welcome this person into our shuls and communities, embrace him or her and hope for improvement. At the same time, I strongly suspect and certainly hope that we would treat the ideas this person advanced more cautiously than those of a scholar whose conduct was more clearly Orthodox. 

The same has always been true for those who publicly affiliate outside of Orthodoxy, regardless of their personal level of practice or observance. Certainly the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the early and mid-twentieth century included teachers whose halachic practice was indistinguishable from Orthodoxy, yet, with the possible exception of R. Shaul Lieberman, none of them were considered welcome participants in discussions of Orthodox halachah.

A first step in evaluating proposed changes to halachic practice– when those changes are neither blindingly obvious nor championed by a recognized Torah giant– is checking the identity of the person promoting the change.  This is not a step to be taken lightly, and we should err on the side of inclusiveness, but if the person promoting change has given clear reasons to doubt their claim of Orthodoxy, such as by their personal practices and/or public affiliations, we already have one yardstick by which to doubt the change proposed.

Definition of Orthodoxy—Mode of Argumentation

A second area where change often founders is in its being insufficiently supported by the sources of tradition.  Orthodoxy, as I understand it, assumes that we approach new issues on the basis of old ones.  Occasionally, we run across a problem so new that there do not seem to be sources to help analyze it from a traditional perspective.  Even there, I quickly note, further research often turns up an unnoticed source of productive guidance. 

How to apply those sources can easily become contentious, and here, too, we would want to remember אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים, that as long as they are appropriately arrived at, we cannot always tell the right opinion from the wrong one, and that they are therefore both treated as the words of the Living God.  That inclusiveness, too, has limits; the form of halachic argumentation does not always qualify as valid halachah.

In this regard, I think it interesting that Prof. Avinoam Rosenak of Hebrew University recently noted a growing difficulty in distinguishing between Conservative and Modern Orthodox treatments of certain halachic topics.[i]  In the examples he cites, the problem seems to me to often be a loss of awareness of the workings of proper halachic argumentation. This is not the place to elaborate on that—although I have offered some thoughts in my Mission of Orthodoxy project,, posts 19-21—but it is important to remember that there are arguable halachic points, and then there are points that do not rise to the level of proper halachic argumentation.

This tactic, too, can be abused, and should be handled with care, but it is a point to keep in mind.  If, for example, the Talmud makes a clear statement about how to act in a certain situation, and the major decisors that follow have all accepted that statement as continuingly valid, arguing against continuing to accept that ruling would bear a much larger burden of proof than other halachic claims.

The Orthodoxy of an Idea

A final piece of the puzzle I think worth noting—final in the sense of the last I will note here, not in the sense of having exhausted the possibilities—is the cultural roots of an idea.  While Western society produces many useful insights worth our while to adopt, not all such thoughts fit traditional sources.  In Western culture today, for easy examples, the view of sexuality and the sanctity of human life are regularly at odds with the way the Torah views those issues.

In whatever venues that is true, ideas about halachic change should undergo one more step of vetting, to assure all members of the community that the change being advocated really fits within the system’s own perspective. That is, we must question whether the motives underlying the desired change originate in Torah-worthy ideals or betray outside influence, perhaps unwitting, misleading us as to what we should want.

To take an example that seems simple to me, but may be arguable: the desire for fame and public recognition (for men and women) so prevalent in Western society contradicts Torah values of modesty and humility.  There are reasons to take public positions from a Torah perspective—such as the many times that the lack of an official position prevents a person from achieving all the good they might—but an interest in recognition and fame for its own sake is clearly a non-Torah approach to the world. 

Were there to be a call for halachic change rooted in such a view, it would seem to me that we would be obligated to question the Orthodoxy of the idea, regardless of the Orthodoxy of its proponents or of whatever argumentation those proponents offered for it, simply because it came from a motivation that is not welcome within our world.

I do not mean this set of ideas as a barrier against change—on the contrary, it is my interest in never missing an opportunity to apply a new lens where appropriate that makes an acute awareness of the boundaries so necessary.  As a colleague recently noted in a different context, it is being on the left wing of Orthodoxy that makes me most aware of the need for boundaries, of the need to not mistakenly step over certain red lines.

For those who recognize the error in trying to always do it as we always did it, particularly as society changes ever more rapidly, knowing how and when to accept such change, or at least not completely repudiate it, is vital. Such awareness has the added advantage of allowing us to maintain communal unity, by only promoting those changes that remain clearly Orthodox, whether or not they might seem wrong to others.  And the first step in that is developing the confidence that an idea is within the range of Orthodoxy before moving forward with it.

[i] A. Rosenak, “Borderlines and Deviance in Orthodoxy: Conservative Halakhic Adjudication and Post-Modern Orthodoxy,” (Hebrew) in Y. Salmon, A. Ravitzky, and A. Ferziger, eds., Orthodox Judaism: New Perspectives (Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 2006).

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