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Black-hat evolution

Agreeing that Orthodoxy has remained exactly the same for generations. Except for all the changes

I know that you may have heard, dear readers, that the “mar” in the current Jewish month, Marḥeshvan, means “bitter,” but it’s actually just the full name, from the Akkadian waraḫsamnu, literally “eighth month.” Nevertheless, some have taken this folk etymology literally, particularly one of the freshest bloggers at Times of Israel, Rabbi Avi Shafran.

For picture of actual giraffes, see Varda Epstein's post.
Careful, R. Shafran. Evolution can give you a sore neck.

He may be new to this venue, but the longtime Agudath Israel of America spokesman has not dismounted from his heresy hobby horse. On the day after Rav Ovadya Yosef’s passing, he was back to hammering YCT with “True and tragic colors: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is simply not what it claims.” Of course, you can also read it on his home website, Cross-Currents, but you can’t comment there.

R. Shafran began by lambasting Rabbi Ben Elton’s piece on the Grossgemeinde controversy. Let it never be said that any Orthodox rabbi co-operated with Reform rabbis in 19th-century Germany: no, there was some sort of Hyde Amendment to make sure that frum money was not used to fund heterodox activities.

He returned to many of his favorite YCT quotes, which he may or may not carry around in his wallet in laminated form. They prove that the yeshiva and its affiliates are nothing but a font of heresy, according to R. Shafran. Sympathy with gays, engaging with biblical criticism, reassessing the centrality of dogma in Judaism–truly, these are “tragic colors” to show. Personally, I avoid the tragic color section at Home Depot, but what do I know? I do know that R. Shafran and Agudah condemned every innovation introduced by Rabbi Avi Weiss, long before any of these opinions were voiced. Many of those innovations have become normative in modern Orthodoxy.

But back to the heresy:

Such positions espoused by YCT leaders (and those are but a few of many such examples) are run-of-the-mill notions in the non-Orthodox rabbinic world. They wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in non-Orthodox circles. But how do they comport with “car[ing] very much about Torah and mesorah”? There can be only one answer: they don’t.

See, folks, it’s that easy. Your care setting must be set to “Torah and mesorah.” There’s no way to allow any other sort of considerations. That might cause your true, tragic colors to run, and it would be the saddest laundry day ever.

However, Ben Elton responded to Avi Shafran’s points, leading to a counter-response on TOI asking the question: “Open ‘Orthodoxy’?” Now, it seems, he’s arrived at a decision, this time at Haaretz.com, no less: “Be honest: Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodoxy.” I particularly enjoyed this paragraph:

But all those parts, for all their differences in orientation and practice, are unified by a belief system that embraces the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (based on the broader three of Rav Yosef Albo, derived from the Talmud and other links in the chain of the Oral Tradition – our mesorah). An adherent of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, a Satmar hasid, a “Litvish” yeshiva graduate and a student of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary are all are unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations. But “Open Orthodoxy,” despite its name, has adulterated that essence, and sought to change both Jewish belief and Jewish praxis (as in ordaining women or suggesting that problematic Jewish marriages can simply be retroactively annulled). 

See what you’ve done, YCT? You’ve made R. Shafran legitimize RIETS! But it’s certainly a relief to know that Maimonides and Albo were really saying the same thing, which is just a distillation of “the Talmud and other links in the chain,” and Lubavitch, Satmar, Yeshivish and Yeshiva Universityish “are all are [sic] unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations.” Thank you so much, The World, for telling us what Orthodoxy is. Otherwise we might have to study this stuff, but R. Shafran assures me that it’s all boilerplate. Just read Ani Maamin, it’ll suffice.

So, to get this straight, Maimonides’ (died 1204) 13 Principles were just an elucidation of R. Joseph Albo’s (born 1380) 3 Principles. Also, the latter’s vigorous denunciation of the former was an expression of their fundamental, super-temporal meeting of the minds. That checks out.

What this does answer for us is whether R. Shafran believes in evolution. Just over the course of October, he’s evolved from challenger to defamer to excommunicator. That may be Lamarckian, but it’s still evolution. I can’t wait for November’s series of screeds, which I’m guessing will be on the NYT op-ed page. Anyone know how to get past the paywall?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.