On this page, we present essays profound or timely culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.
For further information regarding Sh'ma today, click here.
(from Shma 13/257, September 16, 1983)
Who Are Todays Modern Orthodox?
By David Singer
Poor Blu Greenberg, has she let herself in for it. In seeking to effect a synthesis between Orthodoxy and feminism in On Women and Judaism, she has managed to anger partisans on both sides of the issue. As the fabrente (fanatic) feminists see it, Greenberg is a willful apologist for a woman-hating religion. The Orthodox apparatchiks (partisans), on the other hand, are outraged by her call for a significant upgrading in the status of women in Judaism. On one point, they agree: Greenberg cannot have it both ways; she will have to choose between feminism and Orthodoxy.
Because of the fireworks which have surrounded the debate over the feminism-Orthodoxy issue, one vitally significant aspect of On Women and Judaism has been passed over in silence. I refer to Greenbergs frank articulation of a truly modern Orthodox understanding of the nature and development of the halachah. There are, no doubt, large numbers of university trained Orthodox intellectuals who share Greenbergs position, at least in its broad outlines. The key point, however, is that they do so on the sly in private. Greenberg is one of the few Orthodox thinkers who have had the guts to go public about the matter, particularly as it relates to questions of practical psak (legal rulings) on the current scene. (The yarmulke-wearing professors who belong, say, to the Association for Jewish Studies have it a lot easier. Their Wissenschaft analyses of the halachah appear in little-read academic journals. Moreover, they deal with the dead past.) What a delicious irony in the context to the debate over Greenbergs book: The modern Orthodox philosopher of halachah turns out to be a woman!
Rabbinic Will, Halachic Way
While many in the Orthodox community would question the orthodoxy of Greenbergs perspective on the halachah, none would gainsay its obvious modernity. Modern has three significances here. In the first place, Greenberg understands that the halachah has a history, that it has developed over time in response to changing conditions. Secondly, she takes it for granted that the posek (legal decisor) is not a computer, but a flesh and blood human being who brings his own values to bear in rendering halachic decisions. Finally, Greenberg, building upon the first two points, makes no bones about the fact that she wants to see significant halachic changes introduced in a number of areas (particularly, of course, where women are concerned). All of this is neatly summarized by her as follows:
Radical For Todays Orthodoxy
who operate outside the framework of Orthodoxy, Greenbergs ideas, no doubt, will
seem very much like old hat. In the context
of contemporary Orthodox life, however, they are nothing less than wildly radical. This point can easily be established by comparing
Greenbergs halachic outlook with that of
J. David Bleich, the extraordinarily learned rosh
yeshivah (professor of Talmud) at New Yorks Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary,
who is well on his way to becoming one of the outstanding gedolim (talmudic sages) of our time. Bleich is an American Ph.D. and not an East
European patriarch. Still, his conception of
how the halachic process works is utterly
As for the idea that the halachah develops historically, Bleich flatly asserts: Jewish law does not change (emphasis in original). This, then, is what Greenberg has to contend with.
Additional insight into Greenbergs halachic position may be had by taking note of an important symposium on Jewish Law that appeared in the Winter 1980 issue of Judaism. The symposium consists of seventeen responses by a diverse group of rabbis and Jewish scholars to Robert Gordis essay, A Dynamic Halachah: Principles and Procedures of Jewish Law. (The essay itself ran in Judaism, Summer 1979.) Gordis, who is a leading theologian of Conservative Judaism, marshals a broad array of evidence in support of the thesis that there [are] two factors making for growth in the halachah .The first [is] the necessity to respond to new external conditions social, economic, political, or cultural that pose a challenge to accepted religious and ethical values. The second [is] the need to give recognition to new ethical insights and attitudes even if there [is] no change in objective conditions. To a reader of On Women and Judaism, this argument will be immediately recognizable, since it essentially reproduces Greenbergs own thesis. Indeed, the only difference between Greenberg and Gordis in this area is that she, the Orthodox thinker, states the case more emphatically than does he, the Conservative spokesman!
Is Change A Value In Halachah?
Since Greenbergs halachic outlook is virtually identical to Gordis, one can draw upon the actual responses to his article as a way of gauging probable reactions to her book. It is certainly significant in this context that at least two of the Orthodox symposiasts, Emanuel Rackman and Marvin Fox, explicitly endorse Gordis historical and value-oriented approach to the halachah. Two caveats, however, must be entered here. On the one hand, it should not be assumed that Rackman and Fox are in any way representative of mainstream Orthodoxy today. Rackman has long been the leading rabbinic maverick in the Orthodox community, while Fox is a philosophy professor who has spent the whole of his adult life in the modern intellectual environment of the university. On the other hand, it is necessary to point out that both Rackman and Fox regard Gordis discussion, even within its own frame of reference, as excessively one-sided. As Rackman puts it:
Fox makes much the same point as follows:
enough, Rackmans and Foxs argument is endorsed by a leading Conservative
symposiast, David Novak: One cannot dispute [Gordis] factual observation that
the halachah has changed. However, one can certainly dispute the assertion
that change is, therefore, a halachic value. Quite the contrary, one can cite numerous examples
in the classical rabbinic sources to show that the Rabbis regarded change as a necessary,
lamentable evil rather than an exemplary good.
It is left to Louis Jacobs, a symposiast who is non-fundamentalist yet totally committed to the halachic way, to make the most telling point against the Gordis-Greenberg halachic position. As a religious modernist, Jacobs takes it for granted that the halachah has undergone significant changes over time. However, he is also keenly aware that the halachic sources on which the historical approach is based never acknowledge these changes. Indeed, the sources deny the very possibility of change. (This, of course, is the basis for J. David Bleichs position.) Jacobs states:
Jacobs, then, is led to wonder how a historically informed perspective on the halachah can claim to be continuous with the past and, indeed, how it can function in relationship to the past. He notes ruefully: Fifteen hundred years of halachic activity cannot readily be swept aside in an approach which purports to follow the normative processes of traditional Judaism .
Questions That Remain
Where does all of this lead? It leads me, for one, to pose a series of questions that beg for clarification beg because it is the very future of the halachah that is at stake.
1. Can there be a dialogue about the nature of the halachah between Blu Greenberg, the Orthodox modernist, and J. David Bleich, the Orthodox traditionalist? Does the basis exist for a possible modus vivendi between them? How would Greenberg, given the silence of the sources about the matter, go about the task of convincing Bleich that the halachah has indeed evolved (i.e., changed) over time? How would Bleich, with his computer model of the posek, account for the less than random distribution of halachic opinions (e.g., consistent patterns of strictness and leniency as between various poskim, various periods, and various cultural milieus)?
2. How, exactly, would a historical and value-oriented approach to the halachah, such as Greenbergs, function in practice? What weight would it give to halachic precedents arising out of a past in which change was either blissfully ignored or flatly denied? Does Greenbergs statement, [W]here there was a rabbinic will, there was a halachic way, imply that anything and everything can be validated within Orthodoxy? Are there objective criteria that are to be used in rendering psak, or does it ultimately boil down to a subjective debate over values? And, then again, whose values? Derived from what source?
3. What is the significance of the fact that Greenbergs approach to the halachah, developed within a modern Orthodox framework, differs in no way from that of Robert Gordis, who is a centrist in the Conservative movement? Or, to cite another example, that the halachic rulings of David Novak, who is affiliated with Conservative Judaism, appear to be far to the right of those of Emanuel Rackman, the leading advocate of modern Orthodoxy? Is it the case that denominational labels lose their significance once a historical and value-oriented halachic methodology is brought into play? Or, on the other hand, is there a distinctive modern Orthodox way of employing such a methodology?
4. Why is it that the modern Orthodox intellectuals who share, at least in general terms, Greenbergs position on the halachah fail to speak out about the matter? Do they consider themselves to be closet apikorsim (heretics)? Are they afraid of the vigilantes in the Orthodox community? Do they maintain a la Maimonides and the Kabbalists that advanced ideas are not to be shared with the masses? What is the price of their silence in terms of the future of Orthodoxy?
I eagerly no, urgently await some answers to these questions. In the meantime, I am deeply grateful to Blu Greenberg for prompting at least one Orthodox modernist to think through his views about the halachah.
To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.
To access CLAL Encore Archive, click here.
To receive the CLAL Encore column by email on a regular basis, complete the box below:
Copyright c. 2001, CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.