When should rabbinic leaders make statements about religious practices?

I have to admit it. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what all the commotion was about. Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll wrote a blog in the Times of Israel entitled,“Who needs rabbinic leadership? A call for Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see.” In this article, she expressed her frustration that the Orthodox leadership had not taken a stand against the damaging practice of disappearing images of modest Jewish women from Orthodox publications. I think she wanted a clear statement from these organizations that it is completely acceptable from an Orthodox Jewish perspective to have pictures of modest Jewish women in publications. And in fact, the next day, the RCA posted a letter clearly stating that “it has never been the policy of the Rabbinical Council of America or its members to exclude images of women from its publications. In fact, we have never hesitated to have photographs of women and, more importantly, their contributions celebrated in our publications and websites.”

Was this statement necessary? Did anyone ever doubt that this was the policy of the Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership? After all, just read OU publications! Just look on the OU website! Pictures of women are clearly displayed in both. What greater statement is there about the OU’s view on pictures of women in publications than pictures of women in their very own publications? It is true, as Ms. Keats Jaskoll remarked, that there was an article in the Jewish Action, an OU publication, highlighting Haredi publications without mentioning that they are censoring women’s pictures. But what Ms. Keats Jaskoll failed to mention is that in this same edition of the Jewish Action, women’s pictures were included. Is it then not clear where the Modern Orthodox leadership stands? Does it not go without saying that our leaders in the Modern Orthodox world disagree with the Haredi approach?

At the same time, another article was recently written by Ari Shane Weitz, which criticized statements that were made in public about the practice of wishing a “mazal tov” on the engagement of a same-sex couple. Mr. Weitz asserted that these public statements were harmful and offensive. In the first case, an argument was made in favor of public statements about religious issues and in the second case, an argument was made against public statements about religious issues. What should our policy be? When should rabbinic leadership make statements about religious practices?

What is the advantage of making statements? When it comes to the mitzvah of tochacha, of offering rebuke, there are seemingly conflicting Gemarot. The Gemara in Arachin 16b asserts that one must continue to rebuke until the listener is about to hit him or curse him, but the Gemara in Yevamot 65b states that just like it’s a mitzvah to say something that will be accepted, there is a mitzvah not to say something that won’t be accepted. Addressing this seeming contradiction, the Ritva explains that when rebuking an individual, one must continue to do so until the individual hits or curses him, but when addressing a group, one should protest once and then he should not rebuke again if it will not be accepted.

The rationale of the Ritva is very relevant to our question here. There are at least two goals that we must bear in mind when we consider whether or not we should rebuke others: (1) to try to change someone’s behavior and (2) to clarify our view as to what is and what isn’t appropriate behavior. If you know that people won’t accept your rebuke, don’t keep on admonishing them because that only breeds hatred and enmity. However, it is still important to clarify your position once so that there will be no ambiguity as to what you believe are Torah true values.

Providing clarity, then, should be the key factor in determining when rabbinic leadership should make statements. The Open Orthodox camp has a certain religious worldview, the OU/RCA Centrist Orthodox camp has a certain religious worldview, and the Agudah camp has a certain religious worldview. And we disagree, and we do so passionately on many different issues. If our primary goal is to change one another, and we spend all of our time highlighting those disagreements passionately in a public way, it will undoubtedly have the effect of creating greater hatred and divisiveness between the different groups. This would be a misuse of tochacha. As such, and in keeping with the interpretation of the Ritva, I believe that we need to limit our public statements to issues that absolutely require clarity.

Public statements have been made in the past about what the Orthodox approach to homosexuality should be. It’s a very complex and delicate subject and any statement that restricts or limits the full participation of an LGBTQ individual within every aspect of the Orthodox Jewish community can be offensive and harmful. At the same time, there needs to be clarity on many of these sensitive issues. Our rabbinic leadership should provide guidance as to what is acceptable, what is not acceptable and what can be determined by the local community. Of course, we should do so as sensitively as possible, and we should do it once, not again and again which will simply breed unnecessary hatred and division. Because when there is no need for clarification, when there is no ambiguity, there should not be additional rebuke.

And that’s why I didn’t understand all of the commotion regarding the disappearing images of women in Haredi publications. Because I didn’t think any clarity was needed. After all, I don’t think we can point to any evidence that the OU or the RCA has ever changed its position in this regard or that women’s pictures have been deleted in any Modern Orthodox publications. To me, the Modern Orthodox perspective was obvious and the recent actions of Haredi publications did not necessitate Modern Orthodox leaders repeating what I already knew.

But then some of my congregants told me that to them, this issue was not so clear. When they saw the disappearance of women’s images from publications like Mishpacha Magazine, they assumed that this represented the Modern Orthodox leadership, as well. Whereas I knew that these publications do not represent OU or the RCA, my congregants were unaware. I knew that all the examples of how the Orthodox world was changing in this regard are limited to the Haredi world and not the Modern Orthodox world. However, since many in our community purchase Haredi publications that used to be more mainstream, they assumed that the mainstream Modern Orthodox viewpoint has changed as well, whereas in reality it most certainly has not.

So now I get it. This episode has taught me that perhaps I need to be more in touch with my community as to what does and what does not require clarification, because certain things that may be obvious to me are not obvious to all. We all come from different places and different experiences, and through dialogue with one another we can all become more in tune with one another’s perspectives. This sharing of assumptions and information can inform our communal discourse in powerful ways. And for that, I am thankful.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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