We Don’t Need a “New Contemporary Theology”: A Response to Rabbi Hefter

The article was so shocking. Not only shocking in terms of its content, but shocking that its author, an apparently very intelligent and educated man, could pen something so weak and could actually accept his own arguments. I had to read the article three times just to convince myself that I was not missing something, as its failure to prove its thesis on any level was astonishing.

In Why I ordained women, Rabbi Herzl Hefter argues that despite the fact that ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis contravenes tradition and has no halachic precedent (and is actually quite halachically problematic), it can and should be done, because there is a need to develop a “new contemporary theology”, by which one can determine proper halachic conduct based upon a formula of humility and spiritual intuition, which we are told is really a manifestation of divine revelation. One who is humble and who harbors a sincere religious conviction that ordaining women as rabbis is correct, can proceed to ordain women, as such a person’s humility and religious sincerity about the issue indicate that his or her position is actually a divine revelation.

That is really a mouthful. Here is what it is about:

Rabbi Hefter first presents his understanding of the purely legalistic approach to Halacha, as articulated by Rav Soloveitchik, of blessed memory – an approach that Rabbi Hefter describes as:

God is totally “Other” and His will is inscrutable, a black hole essentially; all that we can know is what God reveals to us through the Law. According to this approach, human experience and intuition are suspect and not a reliable medium for divine revelation.

Rabbi Hefter then quotes the words of Rav Soloveitchik concerning the primacy of objective halachic conduct over subjective personal experience:

The religious experience is not the primary gesture. It is only secondary. The point of departure must never be the internal subjective experience, no matter how redemptive it is, no matter how colorful it is, no matter how therapeutic it is, no matter how substantial its impact upon the total personality of man…


We can never determine what is a religious experience in contradistinction to a hedonic mundane experience. We know of many hedonic emotions which are provided with enormous power, which are hypnotic, and, at first glance, redemptive… (Noraot HaRav, R. David Schreiber, 1999, p.92)

Rabbi Hefter then moves away from the ideas of Rav Soloveitchik and toward “the need for a new contemporary theology”:

People who are yerei shamayim and seek to serve God authentically as whole individuals without compromising their healthy moral and religious convictions require a path which invests them with wholesome self-confidence and their refined sentiments with meaning.


We need a contemporary theology which expresses the authentic ethos of Jewish tradition lived fully within a context of Yirat Shamayim, Ahavat Yisrael and Kevod HaAdam.


I propose such a theology predicated upon the following two principles:

Humility: We do not have access to certainty or objective truth.

Humans are created in God’s image, which means that human consciousness is the instrument of divine revelation. Since God is revealed through human consciousness, our refined moral convictions and religious sensibilities may be considered a form of divine revelation.

Next, Rabbi Hefter musters several Kabbalistic and Chassidic sources which affirm that we are of limited understating of the Divine, yet that we can perceive God and other theological concepts from our very being.

For example:

Man visualizes in his mind all the concepts which he wishes to conceive and understand — all as they are within himself. For instance, if he wishes to envisage the essence of Will or the essence of Wisdom or of Understanding or of Knowledge or the essence of the attribute of Kindness and Mercy and the like, he visualizes them all as they are within himself. (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, Sha’ar Hayihud veHaemunah, ch. 8)


Mordekhai Yosef of Ishbitz (1801-1854) says that to assert a complete and perfect comprehension of divine revelation is idolatrous (Mei HaShiloah, Yitro). Pretensions to certainty and perfect understanding exist only for idolaters whose gods have distinct and finite dimensions. Total comprehension of the Divine, he goes on to say, leaves no room for human development and is a distortion of the revelation. This is because God and His Will are infinite and we mortals are finite with limited capacity to understand. Insisting upon perfect knowledge of God and His Will is necessarily idolatrous in that the “perfect perception”, at the end of the day, turns out to be but a projection of ourselves. We will be guilty of creating God in our own image.


In the introduction to his monumental work, the Shenei Lukhot HaBrit (Shelah), R. Isaiah Halevi Horovitz (1565-1630) writes as follows: I will now explain the principle of “From my flesh I will perceive God” (Job 19:26). This means that from the form and likeness of humans the reality of God is known and revealed.  If a person clings (davuk) to God and resembles (mitdameh) Him then the person is truly called Adam from the same root as domeh ,  meaning to resemble God. [As it states] “upon the throne the image of a person…” (see Ezekiel 1:5)…For the name Adam is equivalent in numerical value to the holy name YHVH.

These sources point to knowledge of God, and do not at all speak about halachic decision-making or observance. Yet, Rabbi Hefter incredulously expands the message into a halachic one, writing that these mystical/theological sources actually contradict other approaches to Halacha and grant license to engage in halachic innovation (!):

By employing the gematria equivalent between adam and YHVH, the Shelah has blurred the distinction between the human and the Divine and undermines the basic assumption which Rabbi Soloveitchik articulated above.


Human knowledge, experience and convictions are invested with meaning and they do become the “primary gesture” (to use the Rav’s term) precisely because of the coming together of the human and the Divine.


It follows that we humans are endowed with an intuitive religious faculty which can perceive God and his Will. The contemporary Protestant theologian, Alvin Plantinga put it this way:


[Human beings, created in the image of God], “were created both with appropriate affections and with knowledge of God and his greatness and glory.” (Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000, p. 200)


And the Ba’al Shem Tov once again:


Behold a person had five physical senses and parallel to them he has five spiritual senses. When he sanctifies and purifies his physical senses, sanctity will descend upon his spiritual senses and the spirit of prophecy will rest upon him. (Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Balak 4)

Conflating sublime spiritual experiences and prophecy with license to unilaterally introduce new halachic practices, Rabbi Hefter makes a huge leap to formulate a system for halachic innovation:

If knowledge is subjective and my personal convictions may be divine revelation, how are we to avoid falling into a totally subjective scheme in which anything goes and my personal preferences take precedence over all else, including the Halakha? Who gets to decide what is divine revelation and what is human caprice, and how? The question of authority has come back to haunt us.


Fortunately our first guiding principle of humility will extract us from this significant critique. We must be forever cognizant of our own limitations, passions and vested interests which may (and too often do) color our perceptions and sentiments. Our subjective determinations must be subject to rigorous introspective investigation. R. Mordekhai Yosef refers to this as the process of berur, clarification. (See, for example, Mei HaShiloah, Ki Tetze)


Fundamentally “clarification” is achieved by bringing the faculty of reason to bear upon the religious-intuitive faculty which we referred to earlier.

Rabbi Hefter then applies this new system to his decision to ordain women:

Ordination of women as rabbis is most certainly a departure from tradition. On what basis can this be justified?


I regard the basic sentiment of fairness and its translation into the principle of equal opportunity for all regardless of gender as fundamental. The clarification process would demand that I ask the following questions under these circumstances. Are those involved acting from a place of fear of Heaven, yirat shamayim? Will this bring people closer to the Torah? Am I alone in my subjective determination? Is this type of inclusiveness good for the Jewish People? Will it strengthen our tradition?


Based upon how I answered these questions, I did not feel free to absolve myself of the moral responsibility to act as I did.


Semikha for women is an instance of where the tradition comes into conflict with deeply held convictions. These convictions, having been tested through the mettle of “clarification”, need to be brought in dialogue with the tradition and in this case determine the normative behavior.


…By granting semikha to women, I wish to model a new contemporary theology in which our refined sentiments are redeemed and our torn souls healed.

Rabbi Hefter’s argumentation is excruciatingly difficult to navigate, as prophecy and other personal experiences of the Divine are conflated and misapplied to authorize the wholesale creation of Halacha and breach of halachic tradition. It is truly staggering.

This new approach is actually more radical than that of the Conservative movement, whose official theology recognizes only original Torah revelation, albeit in a diluted and hence alterable form.

Aside from Rabbi Hefter’s new theology being based on exceedingly shaky ground, it opens the halachic system to total overhaul and revision, if the theology is taken to its logical conclusion. And whereas Halacha is about submission to the objective divine mandate and not about what resonates with the person, Rabbi Hefter’s approach inverts it all and renders Halacha a subjective, man-made enterprise. It is a comprehensive reform of Judaism.

Rabbi Hefter has likewise previously used Chassidic sources to support shocking hypotheses, such as defending and apparently even promoting the denial of the historicity of the Torah and its communication to Moses at Sinai. Please see here for elaboration.

The leadership of Open Orthodoxy has endorsed Rabbi Hefter’s radical approach, with his article being posted on Facebook by numerous senior Open Orthodox rabbis. In fact, the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) posted the article and wrote:

Rav Herzl Hefter is thoughtful and brave and a first rate Talmid Chacham. I view this article — and even his bold act of ordaining Orthodox women rabbis — as the continuation of a process started at Sinai of understanding Torah and our relationship to revelation and Hashem’s word. This is not the end of the conversation. In fact, Rav Hefter writes this powerful piece to involve us all in this important discussion. I am so happy our students at YCT get an opportunity each year to learn from this great man.

Unfortunately, abrogation of Torah values has become more intensely embraced by the leadership of Open Orthodoxy. The rabbinate of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, along with so many other Open Orthodox rabbis, has come out swinging in favor of gay marriage (please see, e.g., here and here). And the president of YCT went much further a while back.

A woman ordained last month at Yeshivat Maharat opposes halachic marriage and has created her own versions of marital unions. In her book on the topic (p.3), she writes:

In truth this book also reflects my ambivalence about the binding nature of the tradition and the extent to which I would follow traditional norms where they conflict with other values that I hold.  Through the process of researching this project the claim of the authority that the rabbis held over me diminished somewhat.  Even though I see the need for rabbinic authority for the continuation of that system in all of its shades, becoming intimate with rabbinic opinions and adjudication about marriage throughout the ages, particularly my sense of how rabbinic authority can be used as a channel for perpetuating gender inequality, undermined my capacity to accept rabbinic authority more than it had been undermined in the past.

Please also see here.

The rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat recently posted his thoughts on religion:

Spirituality is like water and religion is like tea. Without water we simply can not live. It is the tea that adds the flavor to life. All people have their favorite tea, often inherited from their family of origin. If you like a different kind of tea, I see no reason to try and change your mind.

Open Orthodoxy has abandoned commitment to Halacha as the objective, true manifestation of the Word of God. Its theology has gone beyond that of the Conservative Movement, notwithstanding the former’s use of the “Orthodox” moniker and technical mitzvah observance.

Rabbi Hefter has presented the need for a new theology, and the Open Orthodox rabbinate has enthusiastically embraced this new theology and discarded the old one. Rabbi Hefter and his colleagues have admittedly rejected the path of Rav Soloveitchik, as they have written many times, and have embarked on a path of fluid theology. As I wrote recently, the head of the Open Orthodox rabbinical seminary has yet again praised the teachings of one of the seminary’s graduates who denies that the Torah was given at Sinai, who denies the existence of a Singular Divine Author of the Torah, who denies the existence of Abraham and Sarah, who denies the Exodus from Egypt, and who denies the historical existence of prophecy.

Believe me, I would much rather not have to write these articles. They sap my time and energy, win me no friends, and prevent me from writing about more worthy topics (such as this). However, despite it being the week before Tisha B’Av, despite these topics being hashed out so much already, and despite the fact that good will certainly does not emerge from these discussions, Judaism is a religion of truth, and it places on us a responsibility to demand that the truth of the Torah prevail and that those who counter it be responded to.

May there soon be no more need for these articles, and may we affirm the Torah’s theology of 3500 years in favor of the “new contemporary theology” that is now being offered.

About the Author
Rabbi Gordimer is a kashruth professional, Chairman of the Rabbinic Circle at Coalition for Jewish Values, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar.
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