Societal values and their impact on Orthodoxy

Unbelievable. Yitzchak Francus’s opinion piece is breathtaking in its naiveté. So much so that I am shocked that a respected Jewish newspaper like the Forward even published it. Not that the Forward is pro or even anti Orthodox. But because the premise of his article is so absurd. The premise being that Orthodoxy will eventually come to see societal morality as their own.

Along these lines there has been a lot of discussion generated by Bruce be coming Caitlyn. For those who have not been paying attention, 70s Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner has changed his sexual identity – although he has not actually undergone sex reassignment surgery. Nevertheless he is now Caitlyn Jenner and considers himself a woman.

(I am not going to get into a Halachic discussion about the permissibly of this or whether a someone born male can indeed become female (or vice versa). Suffice it to say that mutilation of the body in this way is not permissible. But once done, there is actually one respected Posek (R’ Eliezer Waldenberg better known as the Tzitz Eliezer)  that says that such surgery actually does change one’s sex, and therefore one’s obligations as a Jew. And although they must surely suffer great psychological anguish – I do not wish to discuss the understanding and sympathy one should have for individuals who are transgender.)

My observation of the public reaction to Ms. Jenner’s change in gender is that there is near universal approval of what she did. The liberal mindset clearly endorses the proposition that one should be allowed to live the way they choose and that going to any length in doing so is just fine. As long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. The religious mind on the other hand finds that changing one’s sex surgically is biblically forbidden. Even wearing the clothing of the opposite sex is biblically forbidden.

Although not addressing transgender-ism directly, Mr. Francus’s contribution to all this is that Orthodoxy will come around. What he means is that increasingly accepting societal attitudes will eventually force the Orthodox rabbinate to create new law to accommodate the new morality. Not that they will do this on their own. But that they will react to an overwhelming societal consensus about what is moral – and what is immoral.

If for example society overwhelmingly considers opposition to gay marriage to be immoral – the Orthodox rabbinate will be forced to see it the same way. And therefore change Halacha to allow it. Mr. Francus contends that Orthodoxy will eventually treat egalitarianism, gay marriage, and attitudes about transgenderism the same as does the rest of society, lest it be perceived as immoral.

As precedent he points to various Halachic rulings of the past – showing how rabbinic authority adjusted to the morality of the times. For example the ban on polygamy among Ashkeanzi Jews of Europe.  Once the rest of the world banned it, the rabbis felt it should be banned too so as not to make Judaism look immoral (among other reasons). That Sephardim did not ban it is because their societies did not consider it immoral.

What Mr. Francus fails to understand is that banning actions that are permissible is not the same thing as permitting things which are not. To say that the Orthodox rabbinate will ‘see the light’ and permit gay marriage because of societal pressure derived of a new morality is laughable! The Orthodox rabbinate will never give its blessing to a marriage between same sex couples. No more that they would say that one may work on Shabbos if the entire world thought that it would be immoral to take that day off.

Francus also points to JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance that pushes a feminist agenda. But even JOFA realizes that clear Halacha cannot be violated even in the cause of egalitarianism. They have for example never asked for a Mechitza to be removed so that they can sit together with men in a synagogue during services.

What Francus might be basing his contention on is the way that some rabbis in Open Orthodoxy (OO) have dealt with homosexuality. There have been attempts to explain  away the Torah’s clear prohibition against male to male anal sex by saying that since the sex drive is so strong and that same sex attraction is either inborn or at the very least impossible to change – that the Torah would not consider it sinful in those cases.

The Halachic device that some OO rabbis want to utilize here is Oness Rachmana Patrei. This is the classic concept that a Jew is not responsible for an action he cannot control. And since gay men have no control over who they are sexually attracted to, and because the sex drive is so strong, they are forgiven such activity. So while they haven’t exactly contradicted the clear prohibition of male to male anal sex, they have effectively circumvented it. Thus treating gay male to male anal sex the same as heterosexual sex albeit for different reasons.

There is no legitimate Posek in the world that accepts that argument. Nor will they ever accept it. But this is the kind of thing that Mr. Francus looks at as proof that the Orthodox rabbinate will come around. He asks that those who believe that gay marriage is the moral high ground should not waste their time trying to convince their Orthodox brethren to change their attitudes. He understands that we have a Mesorah and we follow it.

What he instead suggests is that those who promote gay marriage and the like as the moral high ground to work hard to assure that the entire civilized world considers it so. And then he says the Orthodox rabbinate will have no choice but to figure out a way to consider it the moral high ground too, just as they did with banning polygamy.

Doesn’t he realize that the Torah dictates an absolute morality that does not respond to the relative morality of the times? Even in his ignorance about the Halachic process he should at least understand the lessons of history. The Jewish people have resisted all attempts to change it. That is why we are still around.  We have maintained our identity by sticking to our principles. Principles based on the Torah.

Had we succumbed to the whims of the times – the Jewish people would have become indistinguishable from their host cultures. That we banned certain practices in keeping with the morality of the culture in which we found ourselves throughout history is a good thing. We should never do even things which are technically permissible if they are seen as immoral by society at large. But at the same time, we cannot permit the impermissible no matter what society says about it.

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.
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