A Schism Removing it from Orthodoxy

An analysis of the state Orthodoxy in our world today has been attempted by Yair Ettinger. In his lengthy Ha’aretz article he questions whether there is a revolution that is causing a schism – a split in the Orthodox world. He is talking about the innovations by the left of which Open Orthodoxy here in the United States is the prime example.

Ettinger cites some of the current trends that indicate that that may actually be the case.  Chief among them is the increased number of women who have been ordained as rabbis – both in Israel and the United States. It can’t be denied that there has been such an increase. The question is whether that increased number means a new segment within Orthodoxy, or a segment outside of it. The question remains unsettled in this article. But it is a phenomenon that can nonetheless not be ignored.

I have argued that the phenomenon pushing the envelope of Orthodoxy to the furthest extremes of the left has zero chance of ever becoming mainstream. I still believe that despite the expanding numbers.

But what about those numbers? If that many Jews are pushing or joining this leftward move to the outer edges of Orthodoxy and beyond, doesn’t that give it momentum and doesn’t that mean that Orthodoxy will indeed have a new movement? Do numbers matter?

Numbers do matter. The question is whether numbers can make assertions about their identity when they are not accepted by mainstream members of that group or their leadership.  That is the crux of the issue. I do not believe a movement can define itself as members of a movement when its leadership rejects them.  In the case of Orthodoxy, the rabbinic leadership of both the right wing and Centrists have rejected them.

Why that is the case has been discussed here before. I am not going to re-hash it. I would just point out that the ‘slippery slope’ argument has been put forth by one of their own leading lights. Rabbi Daniel Sperber is quoted in the Ha’aretz article:

“Slowly but surely, it turns out that the entire status of women in Judaism is changing. Within this process there are several things that seem drastic, quasi-Conservative or neo-Reform. You have to remember: Sometimes it’s enough that the questions arise, and we also have to be aware of the dangers. I spoke in the United States a few weeks ago, and there I said that we’ve reached a point where the boundaries are expanding, and the more you advance the wider the horizons. Until now everything we’ve done was within legitimate halakhic parameters. We have to be careful not to cross the boundary, and the boundary is vague.”

Obviously I am in profound disagreement with his innovations. But even he realizes that a slippery slope exists.

Suffice it to say that there is a schism, but it is a schism that is taking large numbers of seriously observant Jews out of Orthodoxy, despite their protestations to the contrary.  And protest they do. They insist on calling themselves Orthodox despite being rejected by virtually all the rabbinic leadership to their right. The question is why? Why insist that you are Orthodox if you are clearly so rejected by the peers to your right?

The answer in my view is obvious. They want to be accepted as an Orthodox – since they claim to be following Halacha in all of their innovations. Some of their brighter and more scholarly rabbis have written Teshuvos – responsa for these innovations. The most controversial of which was written by Rabbi Herzl Hefter justifying the ordination of women. The problem is it is that his Halachic justification is weak and written by a comparative lightweight whose opinions are motivated more by ideas that are foreign to Judaism than they are by strict interpretation of Halacha – sincere though he may be.  A rabbi with the heft of Rav Soloveitchik is needed for that kind of change. And Rav Soloveitchik would never have agreed with these innovations or his reasoning for them.

Rabbi Hefter’s ideas and those of his fellow travelers will find a more welcome home in Conservative Judaism. It is there where ideas like his are already being honored. Lest he say that the Conservative Movement is not Halachic, I would argue that they consider themselves no less Halachic than Orthodoxy. They have their rabbis and Teshuvos too. Although there has been some dissent about that in recent years among the Conservative rabbinate, they still maintain aHalacha committee and consider themselves to be Halachic.

What then is the difference between them? Every innovation the Conservative movement had  – certainly in their early days – had Halachic reasoning and responsa behind it. Let them join the Conservative Movement which is way ahead of them on the scale of the feminist revolution. They may have a difference of opinion about what is an isn’t Halachic. But they certainly fit into their paradigm more than Orthodoxy’s paradigm. Besides they are bending over backwards to be inclusive. What better way to be inclusive than to join them? Perhaps they will have even more influence on them that way.  They can be the right wing of Conservative Judaism.

Their answer to that is probably the same as the right wing and Centrists would give. They do not accept their responsa as valid. They not consider the Conservative movement to be Halachic despite their written responsa justifying themselves. Well, in my view, it is just a matter of degree.

But what about all the increasing numbers of sincere observant Jews that truly believe in these new innovations? Most are people that believe in Orthodoxy; were raised in Orthodoxy; and want to remain in Orthodoxy – albeit serving God in their own unique way. Here is the way Rabba Rachel Berkowitz expresses this idea:

“Real rabbis are crying.” “I feel a tremendous privilege, which I probably don’t deserve, of being part of a significant moment in the history of the Jewish people, and I hope that this will influence this ongoing revolutionary process. I am grateful to God for enabling me to reach this moment.” In tears, Berkowitz then recited the Shehecheyanu, a Jewish blessing recited on special occasions: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

I am absolutely convinced that Rabba Berkowitz believes that she is among the most sincere Jews in Judaism. And her tears of joy were real. She truly believes that she can serve Judaism best in her capacity as a rabbi.

Nevertheless, I consider her to be a victim. She is a victim of the times  seeing egalitarianism as the justification to change the traditional role of women in Judaism. She has taken a legitimate goal outside of Judaism and applied it to Judaism. And she has the blessing of her rabbinc mentors to do just that.

As I have said countess times. Judaism is not a egalitarian religion. It is a religion about serving God in ways He has mandated for us. Which in many cases require different roles for men and women. The goal of every Jew is to fulfill God’s mandate in the best way he or she can. It is not the goal of Judaism to serve God the way we feel like serving Him. It is the goal of Judaism to serve God the way He wants us to. Which is defined in the Torah as interpreted by the sages.

It may be permissible and even laudable for women to do things mandated only for men. But tradition has set parameters for that. Generations of non mandated but permitted practices by women have been in many cases codified into law. But in no case was a practice traditionally not accepted changed for reasons that were not existential.

A true egalitarian cannot countenance roles. A true egalitarian wants to eliminate roles. They see the sexes as completely equal in every respect. And if your religion denies that – it is deemed wrong and to be discarded.

Traditional Jewish roles should certainly not be undermined by movements that do not respect it.

But Rabba Berkowitz and other sincere women like her have been convinced by their leaders that they can pursue egalitarian goals despite all of that. They have been given assurances that their desire to serve God in the way they chose is perfectly fine.

That said, there has been a tolerance of some of these innovations by the right – even where there was disagreement with them. Things like Women’s Teffilah Groups though frowned upon did not de-legitimize them from Orthodoxy. But they have long since moved way beyond that with things like ordaining women.  And this does not even touch the highly problematic tolerance of Apikursus within their midst. (Which was the deal breaker for me.)

So even while this movement seems to be expanding, It is not expanding as a part of Orthodoxy. Without the imprimatur of a Rav Soloveitchik, a Rav Lichtenstein or a Rav Hershel Shachter, they are on their own.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.