Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Denigrating those with whom one disagrees

The current flap about Rabbi Hershel Schachter's choice of words in his discussion of women rabbis is utterly silly, and I won't address it. I disagree with some of R' Schachter's substantive arguments (though not others), but Rabbi Reuven Spolter is on the mark in his letter to the editor of the Jewish Week.

I would like to pick up on R' Spolter's closing, though:

If Modern Orthodoxy can only promote its ideology by denigrating those with whom it disagrees, then it becomes easy to understand why people choose not to be Modern Orthodox.

Unfortunately, this cuts both ways. To find denigration of ideological opponents, you need look no farther than Rabbi Schachter's very same essay:

We read in the papers that a certain "Orthodox rabbi" has stated publicly that "the stupidest thing about Orthodoxy is that they don't approve of women rabbis."

I don't know whether this is R' Schachter's phrasing or that of his editor. But note that the rabbi he takes issue with (apparently Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles) is not mentioned by name, and that his very credentials as an Orthodox rabbi are called into question by the use of scare quotes. Is this how a serious scholar relates to his adversaries? (I know this isn't a scholarly paper, but still!)

The Orthodox community - modern or otherwise - time and again is quick to exclude from legitimate discourse those who cross certain unstated lines, who dare to defend positions outside the consensus.

Murmurs arise suggesting that they are "not serious" or even "not really Orthodox" - despite the fact that the disputes generally deal with halachic methodology, not principles of faith. Certainly, none of them question the fundamentals of Torah mi-Sinai, as do the non-Orthodox movements.

Their arguments, when discussed, are often brought without citation or attribution, only to dismiss them, often derisively and without serious argument. Their books are covertly excised from beit midrash shelves, and mention of them is met with sarcasm or laughter.

Among those who have been subject to this treatment in recent years, to a greater or lesser extent: R' Eliezer Berkovits zt'l, R' Yitzhak Abadi, R' Emanuel Rackman, Rabbi Yitz and Mrs. Blu Greenberg.

Some examples (do I really have to prove this claim?):

Rabbi Mayer Twersky, in a heavily-footnoted essay, quotes and derisively dismisses Blu Greenberg without any attribution:

Recent feminist pronouncements vividly demonstrate the inherent dangers and ultimate direction of the movement. For example, some feminists have adopted the slogan, "Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way." Students of halachah immediately recognize the patent falsehood of this claim; students of history easily discern a classical manifestation of reformist ideology and tactics.

He does the same for R' Rackman:

Undoubtedly there is a halachic imperative which great rabbis have implemented throughout the generations that all legitimate halachic measures be adopted and resources marshaled to rescue agunot by securing a get. Nevertheless, the establishment of an unqualified beit-din (as recently announced) to annul marriages can only yield catastrophic consequences.

A chareidi website, Dei'ah veDibur, contains an "in-depth feature" excoriating the new phenomenon of sifrei Torah and other sacred texts produced by silk screening on parchment. The technique, which is highly controversial, is endorsed and encouraged by R' Abadi, formerly the posek of Lakewood Yeshiva, who defends it halachically on his website.

But the critical article, though quoting the website extensively, nowhere mentions R' Abadi by name. R' Ben Tzion Wosner of Monsey is quoted, though, describing R' Abadi as "a certain rav who is known as a lightheaded person who breaches fences and who in the past has already breached several fundamental fences and explicit halochos and traditions of our ancestors and rabbonim concerning the sanctity of the Jewish home."

All of these figures have taken and defended controversial positions on major topics. R' Berkovits proposed solutions to the agunah crisis in the '60s, and wrote in defense of halachic flexibility in Not in Heaven and Women in Time and Torah. R' Abadi argues, inter alia, that most commercial hechsherim are unnecessary and most urban eruvim are invalid. R' Rackman implements his controversial agunah solutions via his own beit din. R' Greenberg cooperates openly on Jewish education with non-Orthodox organizations. Blu Greenberg's Orthodox feminism crosses many traditional limits.

Whether I as an individual or we as the Orthodox community ultimately accept or reject each of these various arguments and innovations, I have no doubt that we are enriched as a community by the intellectual courage of the individuals behind them. They must be engaged intellectually, not shunned or derided.

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