There are two versions of Orthodox Judaism: the religion of the Orthodox book, i.e., the sacred library Tradition, and the religion of the Orthodox street, or folk and folkway religion, whose “Tradition” is not the way Israel ought to be based on the canonical Orthodox book, but it is rather the way the Orthodox street decides to run its affairs based upon its actual ideology, real-life agenda, and social habits, which emerges as a real, albeit alternative, Orthodox Judaism.
The case of conversion, the way one enters the Jewish polity, exemplifies the raw theological/political divide regarding the essence and ideals of that polity. By contrasting the operational rules of these two Orthodoxies regarding conversion or entrance into the polity called “Israel,” the very essence of these two contending and irreconcilable Orthodoxies are manifest.
I. The Canonical Record
Book religion Orthodoxy’s views, encoded in legal norms, regarding conversion are recorded at bYevamot 47a-b:
- A candidate for conversion is first asked why s/he wishes to become Jewish, and then is reminded that Israel [the polity] is a persecuted people. If the candidate is nevertheless firm in desiring to become Jewish, the candidate is accepted immediately [i.e. without delay]. After being accepted, the candidate is taught some–and not all–of the Halakhah’s minor and major precepts.
- The candidate is then made aware that acts do have consequences, that as a Jew, bound by the Torah law, she or he is obliged to obey the Torah’s legal norms, in Hebrew mitsvot, commandments, and will be subject to penalties if the commandments are not observed.
- The candidate is then informed of the dire consequences of violating the ritual laws.
- And as a gesture of encouragement, the candidate for conversion is informed of the reward for observing the commandments, of being sanctified. i.e., becoming a holy person, and inheriting/possessing the world/eternity to come.
- Then because good times would weaken religious commitment, the candidate is neither to be pressured to accept or to reject Judaism.
- If the candidate agrees to become Jewish, the candidate is then accepted immediately.
- After accepting Judaism as a system, the candidate (if male) must first be completely circumcised and then immersed in the ritualarium. [reenacting the conversion procedure first enacted at Mt. Sinai when Israel first accepted the Torah]
- He or she [i.e., the candidate] is then informed regarding some–but again not all–of the commandments and upon rising from the ritualarium, the person is at that moment officially and by Torah law forever and irrevocably Jewish.
- In the situation of a female candidate, adjustments are made for the delicacies of propriety. She is, however, like the male candidate, informed of some, but not all, of the minor and major commandments.
- Because Rabbi Helbo made the descriptive observation, “converts are hard for the Israelite polity to suffer as a sore,” we, i.e., the beit din, or court of three, are supposed to inquire as to the motives of the perspective candidate. Now, R. Helbo’s statement could mean that converts are better Jews than those born into the polity, or alternatively he might be concerned that the convert’s commitments would be insufficient. His intent is on the surface both unclear and not formulated as a prescriptive legal norm.
- The convert is then informed about Shabbat, some agricultural charity laws, that there are a total Torah of 613 commandments, the prohibition regarding idol worship, and the capital punishments of the court. These rules are presented in order to discourage unserious candidates.
- If the candidate indeed accepts these conditions, which means accepting Orthodox Judaism as a coherent theological and legal system, the candidate is at that moment accepted at once, as it is forbidden to delay the sanctifying observance of the commandments.
- The male candidate must be completely circumcised, and upon his recovery is immersed in the ritualarium. We require a period of time for recovery because the incision may possibly become infected and the Torah is a Torah of life.
Following R. Yohanan, we require three [adult religious males], i.e., a rabbinical court, to induct the candidate into the Jewish polity.
- Upon rising out of the ritualarium, the convert is without qualification a Jew; if the individual then renounces her or his Jewish identity, the renunciation is invalid and if he, a male convert, marries a Jewish woman, the marriage is valid because the conversion is by statute irrevocable. Isaac Schmelkes’, Beit Yitshaq 2:100, idiosyncratic claim that the conversion can be reversed not withstanding, because Schmelkes’ apparently views conversions with such disdain that he himself disdains the unequivocal Oral Torah rule.
- At bYevamot 24b, it is ruled that if a man is attending to, i.e., having an affair with either an Israelite female slave or a non-Israelite, and the slave is manumitted and the gentile woman is converted, they ought not to be allowed to marry but if they do marry, they are not to be separated and their marriage is legally valid. Since intermarriage is so threatening and unthinkable a social/theological scenario, Maimonides, Peer ha-Dor 132, allows the conversion and subsequent marriage of a Jew to a weak convert as preferable to the illicit affair. Note well that Maimonides’ view is part of the historical legal record but is no longer discussed or referenced in rabbinic conversation because some rabbinic voices have decided that the Maimonidean view is longer part of “Tradition,” while Schmelkes’ suggestion is taken to be quasi normative by some within Orthodoxy.
- However, no such leniency is applied if the man’s affair was with a legally married Jewish woman, for if the paramours do marry, the marriage is legally valid as a get/divorce is required for the improper marriage’s dissolution, and not socially or halakhically to be tolerated.
- While it is true that R. Nehemia did not accept converts for ulterior motives, like marriage, a close read of the Talmud indicates that the normative law does not follow his view and as long as the minimum legal conditions required of converts are met, the conversion is valid. While subsequent rabbinical courts may impose, as circumstances and conditions require, more rigorous standards, those courts who follow the letter of Oral Torah law are within their rights to do so, their converts are by Jewish law validly Jewish, and failure to accept such converts, who are validly and irrevocably Jewish violates the Torah law regarding “loving the convert” [Deut. 10:19] and “placing a stumbling block before the blind” [Leviticus 19:14].
While contemporary Orthodox policy is, for reasons to be suggested below, more exclusive and excluding, the medieval legal rationalist and compendium writer, Maimonides, seemed to advocate the actual recorded Oral Torah norms rather faithfully based upon his lucid compendium at Issurei Bi’ah 13:
- Conversion requires circumcision [for men alone], immersion in a ritualarium, and the Temple is standing, a sacrifice. Note well that with the absence of a Temple, and the obligatory sacrifice being waived because circumstances have rendered the sacrifice untenable, the candidate is accepted without the requisite sacrifice. From the above, we learn that Torah does not always require complete compliance for valid legal acts to occur.
- Acceptance of the “yoke of the commandments” by the candidate is required. The idiom’s meaning is critical. “Commandments” is a plural noun, while “yoke” is singular. The idiom cannot mean that the candidate is required an education so extensive so as to earn the equivalent of a Yeshiva high school diploma, an M.A. in Oral Torah from Bar Ilan University, or a Rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University; the “yoke” in the singular seems to mean that one accepts Judaism as a system and agrees to be bound by and held accountable to its discipline. The principles of doctrine and some of the Laws are enumerated, but no more. Recall that Maimonides is usually very concerned regarding matters of theology, but less so here. However, since Judaism is a “system,” i.e., a “package deal,” the whole system of Biblical and Rabbinic law must be accepted as in principle binding. Since the Torah in its entirety is not to be taught to the candidate, the convert accepts Judaism as a system and not every detail of every law according to every opinion.
- Immersion and circumcision are both necessary for the conversion to take effect, and the acts must take place before three, i.e., a bet din, the Talmud’s conclusion.
- Since a bet din is required and bet din does not have sessions on the Sabbath or Festivals or at night, we neither immerse converts on the Sabbath and Festivals nor do we allow nocturnal immersions. However, if the immersion does take place on the Sabbath, a Festival, or at night, the immersion and conversion are both valid, and although in error, the bet din remains a valid court in spite of its deficiency.
- We convert minors with the approval of the court/bet din, and a conversion that is private or before two, [the rejected view recorded in but rejected by the Talmud], the conversion is invalid.
- A convert whose behavior is Orthodox i.e., observes family purity, is presumptively Jewish, even without written documentation.
- Rabbis have a right, on policy grounds, not to accept conversion candidates. Even though official courts during the Davidic and Solomonic monarchies did not accept converts for concerns regarding ulterior motives, lay courts accepted converts and these candidates were neither rejected nor accepted, but judged by their practice.
- A convert who observed the formalities of circumcision and immersion, supervised by three Orthodox but unlettered lay people, who did not inquire as to the candidate’s reasons for conversion and who were not informed regarding the commandments and the punishments for commandment non-performance, the candidate remains a Jew even if she or he returns to his or her former ways.
II. The Contemporary Challenge to the Covenantal Canon
‘On questions that deal with the future of the entire Jewish people, the great halachic sages of the generation must be consulted,’ Rabbi Avraham Sherman said. ‘I call on religious Zionist rabbis to meet with the great rabbis of our day to reach an agreement on the issue of conversions.’
Sherman said the major Torah sages of this generation were Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem and Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Vosner of Bnei Brak, and that religious Zionist rabbis were obliged to abide by their opinions. Sherman said that even highly respected Sephardi rabbis such as former chief rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Mordechai Eliahu should defer to Elyashiv’s halachic decisions regarding conversions.”
“Judge urges haredi conversion primacy” by Matthew Wagner, Jerusalem Post, 2008 August 6.
By nullifying Rabbi Drukman’s conversions, and by issuing this statement, Avraham Sherman espouses a Judaism rather distinct from Oral Torah Orthodoxy outlined above, the Judaism of the Written and Oral Torah. And like Isaac Schmelkes, also referenced above, Sherman affirms that:
- Conversions may be nullified by rabbinic decree [i.e., his own].
- Jewish law is determined by the rabbinic charismatic authority of Sherman’s Haredi Rabbinic elite, i.e., Judaism’s authentic gatekeepers, and not on the basis of proofs grounded on erudition or reason.
- In order to maintain the unity of the Jewish people, Sherman proclaims that all Orthodox Jews must accept and defer to the apodictic rulings of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis, as these rabbis are singularly qualified to determine and to divine the mysterious will of God. Ironically, those who know Rabbis Yosef and Eliyahu [who ordained me] are at a loss to see why sages as great as these are constrained to defer to others whose greatness is charismatic and social but are taken by their followers to carry greater gravitas.
If Sherman were arguing a case for internal Haredi policy, i.e., the practiced discipline of Haredi religion and society, his view would indeed be legitimate. But by demanding that all Israel accept his own Haredi leaders as their leaders, i.e., as all Israel’s religious leaders, without accountability, question or review, and to nullify conversions that the Oral Torah accepts as proper, the Oral Law is thereby reconstructed from law to parochialism, from principle to policy, and from covenant to convention. In other words, it is ironically become unorthodox.
There are converts who were observant Orthodox Jews who were rejected by the Israeli rabbinate; Sherman affirms Schmelkes’ reform but at the same time rejects the Maimonidean precedent because for them, the Torah of Israel resides in the leaders of the extremists and not in the sacred books acknowledged by and given to all Israel as its normative canon.
Consider the following cases:
The Israeli Rabbinate stopped accepting conversions of the Rabbinical Council of America. In response, the Rabbinical Council hardens its standards for perspective candidates in order to win Haredi acceptance–at the expense of the Halakhic autonomy of its own rabbis. Underlying this policy is the unstated but implied doctrine that real Orthodoxy is not what the sacred books prescribe but what the most parochial of Orthodoxy in practice proclaim. Ironically, the Rabbinical Council of America seems to regard just about any and every great Haredi opinion as inherently legitimate, and will justify casuistry to avoid [a] a rift within Orthodoxy and [b] its own delegitimazation on the part of Orthodoxy’s Right.
In “Is Smoking Prohibited by Jewish Law?,” the Israeli Conservative Movement offers an erudite but incomplete responsum, written in part to criticize Rabbi Moses Feinstein’s liberal rulings regarding cigarette smoking. See Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, Part 2, no. 49 (from 1964);Yoreh Deah, Part 3, no. 35 (1973); Hoshen Mishpat, Part 2, no. 76 (1981); Noam 24 (1982), pp. 302-308; and Pe’er Tahat Efer, Jerusalem, 1988, p. 19. Noted but not analyzed is Yedi’ot Aharonot, May 27, 1997, p. 8, where it is reported that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef reversed himself and as of 1997, disallowed smoking. This putatively “scientific” Conservative responsum merely portrays R. Feinstein as “wrong” for permitting smoking on exegetical grounds, naively ignoring R. Feinstein’s actual words, [which by ideological commitment Conservative Jewish scholars are supposed to look at the data encoded in the words], his working hermeneutic, and his real, actual religion. The two flaws of this Conservative responsum are [a] that it positions itself on the strict and therefore “legitimate” side of the issue, a gratuitous political rather than purely academic critique, and more critically, the responsum ignores the social science perspective revealed by R. Feinstein’s actual words. I would expect more from halakhic and social historians trained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in the method and mind of Prof. Salo Baron, the great Jewish social historian, to be more forthcoming in the unpackaging of ideas from words. By permitting smoking because great rabbis of generations passed and of our own generation did and do smoke, R. Feinstein proclaims baldly and boldly that authentic Torah normativity resides not only in the canonical texts philologically parsed, but in the intuition of the divinely inspired great sage, who, being without peer, is to be regarded to be beyond review, evaluation, or account. See Igrot Moshe Orah Hayyim, (Brooklyn: Moriah, 1959), 1:39, pp. 95-100.
Citing I Chronicles 28:19 and bSukkah 51b, R. Feinstein also argues that men and women were segregated in the Temple for levity/qallut rosh and since the divinely ordained, prophetically ordered Temple architecture was altered, a Biblical norm, requiring gender segregation at this time, “must” have been the issue. According to Rabbinic hermeneutics, the idiom “tiqqun gadol/great innovation” –the ground for the change–semantically refers to a human, rabbinic enactment and not to an unrecorded Biblical law. Furthermore, Biblical Law may not be derived from non-Torah books [bHagiga 10b], and not one pre-1800 rabbi, in or out of the Talmud, has suggested that the Torah itself mandates gender segregation in the synagogue. It is possible that the needs of the hour required R. Feinstein to act boldly and to engage in holy hyperbole, [ See Maimonides, Mamrim 2:4] but at this time I do not have sufficient evidence to advance this admitted conjecture. In light of R. Feinstein’s criterion for normative, Jewish correctness, i.e., what great rabbis say and do regarding cigarette smoking, his claim that the synagogue mechitsa is a Torah obligation, based upon a Midrash Halakhah/reading the mind of God, of his own creation, becomes clear. The great rabbi is the Torah incarnate whose passionately sincere religious intuition is divinely inspired.
Rabbi Herschel Schachter, in “The P’sak Process” tape, argues that the great rabbi rules from the “gut” and intuition while lesser lights may not issue an opinion, or issue rulings at all. The “yoreh yoreh” ordination formula, both historically and semantically granting the authority to render a legal opinion, no longer carries that traditional valence. For R. Schachter, just as a driver’s license does not mean that its possessor is in fact able to drive, the yoreh yoreh ordination does not mean that its possessor is in possession of the requisite skills and orientation to issue rulings. Unaddressed by R. Schachter is how rabbis as great as he would knowingly cause confusion by allowing those, who for him are rabbinic unworthies, to possess the yoreh yoreh ordination. Like Rabbis Smelkes, Sherman and Feinstein, it is for this Judaism the rabbinic office and person but not the religious reason or explicitly recorded Torah principle that is for them Jewishly normative.
At www.aishdas.org/rygb/eilu.htm, Rabbi Yosef Bechofer argues that “Once upon a time Shevet Yissachar (who were ‘yod’ei bina l’ittim’ (Divrei Hayamim 1:12), i.e., they understood what Halachic behavior was suitable for each generation) and Shevet Levi decided what Halachic approach was suitable for whom and when (Yuma 26a). Rabbi Yochanan in Chagiga 15b identified their qualification. He explains the pasuk in Malachi: ‘For the lips of a Kohen guard wisdom and they will seek Torah from his mouth, because he is a malach of Hashem Tzevakos.’ Said Rabbi Yochanan: ‘Only if a Rov is like a malach of Hashem Tzevakos may one seek Torah from his mouth. A malach is an agent (a shaliach) of Hashem. An individual who views himself only as an agent of Hashem and focuses on the fulfillment of that agency, is qualified to generate divrei Elokim chayim.”
To Bechofer’s view, a legal ruling is not only based upon reason but on the charisma, office, and intuition of the sacred person.” Unpackaged, Bechofer’s words insinuate that in order to be a decisor, one must be a saint as well as erudite, and being saintly is determined by the erudite, saintly rabbis who by dint of their devotion, are gifted by God to read God’s mind. Other views are not welcome because they are not guided by the Holy Spirit.
Alternatively, Maimonides, Introduction to Eight Chapters, the very same sage who at Peer ha-Dor 132 allowed as an emergency a very quick conversion, says that we “hear the truth from the one who says it,” and the local rabbi ought not defer blindly to person or office, [Introduction to the Yad] in contrast to Sherman’s view cited above. In contemporary times, the Maimonidean view is today here echoed by the rogue Rabbi David Bar Hayyim, who in “Halakha: Truth or Convention?“, at the web site http://machonshilo.org makes the audacious, and to our view correct, claim that…
“Some people practice a certain humra even though they admit that it is unnecessary, i.e. that the Halakha is not so. Regarding such cases I would ask: why? If it is clear that the accepted position is mistaken, it should not be dignified with the term ‘Halakha’, and in such a case the ‘humra’ may well be the correct position. If the humra is adopted simply because it is the most stringent opinion rather than because it seems to be the most correct, again: why? Some would answer that it is proper to act in accordance with all opinions. The facts are, however, that Hazal did not function in this manner, nor did the Rishonim, as any serious student of Tora Sheba’al Pe knows. [...] They claim that an opinion can be relied upon merely because it exists. Such a position divorces the Tora from truth and renders Halakha a societal convention. This is postmodernism at its worst.”
The implications of Rabbi Bar Hayyim’s words are clear, radical, subversive, and as stated above, correct.
For Maimonides, Torah truth resides in the best read of the sacred word; for Rabbis Sherman, Feinstein, Schachter, and Bechofer, God’s mind is directly read only by the mind of the sacred person whose word carries canonical valence, whose opinion is God’s will revealed, and whose rulings are so revered that they supersede God’s earlier revelations.
- At bSota 44b, the Oral Torah requires that in a defensive war in the land of Israel, both men and women are to be conscripted. Yet Rabbi Abraham Karelitz, a.k.a. the Hazon Ish, disagreed with the canonical Oral Torah ruling. Hazon Ish, [Iggarot I:111, pp. 122-123; "Voluntary National Service for Girls: Compromise of a Nation's Purity," Jewish Observer 4 (1971), p. 21; and Alfred Cohen, "Drafting Women for the Army," Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 16 (Fall 1988):26-43], who believes that great rabbis are indeed endowed with the power to suspend a literal reading of the official Oral Torah law, what would for Maimonides is the most reasoned reading, if the application violates the living culture code which is reified into the word of God by the sages who possess the power to read the mind of God. But since R. Karelitz is a sacred sage, whose intuition is inspired by God, his rulings regarding Israeli military conscription are taken to be Torah, “the word of the Lord” [Isaiah 2:3], he is de facto authorized to contradict what Orthodox Jews believe is Oral Torah, i.e., the norms recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. Recall R. Bar Hayyim’s claim that a “claim that an opinion can be relied upon merely because it exists” is fraud because “such a position divorces the Torah from truth and renders Halakhah a societal convention.” In other words, theological Jewish Orthodoxy is manifest both as an Oral Torah stream based on a truthful reading of God’s public words and as an alternative “Reconstructionist” Orthodox stream that reifies convention into covenant, policy into piety, and the word of the latter day saintly rabbi into the unchanging word of the Lord. For this Judaism, the covenant is defined by communal convention and rabbinic consensus; no one else has a right to an opinion.
- bKetubbot 110a rules that those who live and are able to live in the Land of Israel may not leave Israel for other than emergency circumstances. As is well known, the Agudist Great Rabbis Malkiel Kotler of Lakewood and Ahron Feldman of Ner Israel left the land of Israel to become heads of their respective great yeshivot. This deflection from canonical legal precedent demonstrates that while Orthodoxy’s official religion enshrines the words of the canon as the normative word of God, this religion’s real religion maintains that:
- God’s will is revealed in the intuition of great rabbis and not the plain sense of God’s Torah’s revealed, public words.
- Criticism of the great rabbi is by definition dissent and disrespect with both cast as heresy. Heresy is the designation assigned to all dissent; heresy and not error is for this Orthodoxy the default derisive dismissal designation because the assault is upon the oracular sacred person and not the indeterminate sacred book. See however Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 25, which assumes that good faith error is the default designation for Halakhic deflection.
- Bechofer, supra. astutely concedes the real similarity between the Haredi and Conservative approaches, that Torah law evolves through oracular proclamation and not by public, reviewable reasoned persuasion. The Conservatives do not generally accept either the divine source of the binding force of the legal system encoded in the canonical trove at all, but support their partisan agenda with selective citations from the canon; alternatively, Haredi Judaism as it is manifest on the Orthodox street is the de facto will of great rabbis and only de jure is the sacred canon practically binding. For Haredi religion, the will of its rabbis is the Torah system.
- Because Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as meticulous in observance and as learned as he was, also refused to defer blindly to the charismatic Orthodox Haredi elite’s discipline, he was crudely damned with ever so faint praise by N. Wolpin in Jewish Observer, May 1993, p. 43. As the house organ of Agudah, we assume that Wolpin was not speaking for himself alone. And given the very tepid modern Orthodox response to Wolpin’s caustic sarcasm regarding Wolpin’s violating the respect due a great sage, [bSanhedrin 99b], it seems that the real god that many modern Orthodoxy’s folk religion worship is the ethos of the Haredi social ethic, program, and given Sherman’s words, a total surrender to its rabbinate. Whatever Haredi religion does, irrespective of the Oral Torah mandate, is by definition a legitimate opinion. Alternatively, according to the Judaism of the Oral Torah, any ruling is valid if it violates no legal norm in the canon [bat mitsva] and no ruling is valid if it violates a law in the canon [outlawing the drafting women and Yeshiva men] into the Israeli army]. By denying Modern Orthodoxy its great sage by denigrating R. Soloveithik, both Wolpin and his cohorts used religion as a political instrument in order to deny the religious legitimacy of a great sage without identifying acts or ideas that he did or said that were religiously wrong. Wolpin would not dream of submitting his faith heroes to halakhic review, as is being done in this essay; his own Orthodoxy’s Torah is not grounded in the plain sense of the canon but it is grounded in the partisan policies of its rabbinic leadership. In the Judaism of the Oral Torah, the judges are themselves given to judgment. Ruth Rabba to Ruth 1:1.
- bKetubbot 110a appears to forbid a Jew’s leaving the land of Israel, i.e., the Holy Land, unless one is unable to earn a living in the Holy Land. Yet Rabbis Malkiel Kotler and Ahron Feldman ignored this Oral Torah mandate when they left the land of Israel, where they were earning a living teaching Torah. Since serving as a Rosh Yeshiva, at Lakewood and at Ner Israel respectively, carries more status gravitas and social prestige than being a “mere” teacher in the land [not Heaven forfend, the political state] of Israel, and since Torah law for this culture is what the great rabbi does [like smoking] and not what the sacred canon commands, only a non-Haredi would muster the audacity call attention to this inconvenient contradiction between an explicit Torah mandate and the non-conforming great rabbis’ personal choice.
- At Maimonides, Ishut, 15:8, Maimonides requires a man to divorce his wife if he is potent and if she does not conceive. After all, it is a religious rule from the Torah [Genesis 1:23] that we procreate. Marriage was instituted to sacralize the procreative act. And Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who frowned on birth control, whose Hassidim are known for their large families, and whose mission was the doing of mitsvot, died childless, ignoring the divine mandate and the Maimonidean ruling. In the Orthodox Judaism of the sacred sage and Orthodox street, exposing the dissonance between deed and doctrine is forbidden; according to the Orthodoxy of God’s Oral and Written Torah, silence in the face of error on the part of the sage who knows that there is error is himself in error. [bHorayyot 2b]
III. The Union for Traditional Judaism’s conversions and the Reconstruction of Orthodoxy
For approximately fifteen years after leaving the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I was approached by a leading Rabbinical Council of America dayyan regarding the bona fides of specific Conservative rabbis in order to determine if they halakhically observant Jews. [After fifteen years, I was no longer familiar with younger individual Conservative rabbis.] bNiddah 33b and bBerachot 47b speak of Kuti haver, a good Jew despite a faulty affiliation. Furthermore, faulty affiliation, qesher resha’im, reflects rejected view of Resh Laqish. Rightly reading the Oral Torah as a Jewish Constitution ultimately Authored by God, the Oral Torah Orthodox Jew looks to the reasonable read of the canon and not the conditioned sense of ideological disdain for deeds and doctrine to be ultimately normative. On one hand, Conservative Judaism’s leadership has often and indeed usually acts in a way that elicits disdain on the part of Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Moses Feinstein’s intuition, at Igrot Moshe Orah Hayyim, 1:50, pp. 237-238, is that one ought not to respond “amen” to a non-Orthodox rabbi’s blessing as they are presumably unbelievers. Yet Rabbi Feinstein is prepared accept a Conservative writ of divorce at supra., Even ha-Ezer, 3:23, p. 445. As in the case of the Oral Torah observant Samaritans [kuti haver], R. Feinstein implicitly here concedes that there are or at least were when he was writing were some Orthodox Jews stuck in the Conservative Movement; on the other hand, he denies, possibly as policy, the bona fides seemingly of all Conservative rabbis.
On one hand, it is slanderous to paint all Conservative rabbis as non-believers if [a] one does not believe this to be the case as evidenced by R. Feinstein’s accepting a Conservative writ of divorce and [b] if “Conservative Judaism” is not religiously recognized, then the idiom carries zero religious valence and the rabbinic individual should be evaluated on the basis of his particular beliefs and practices and not by their affiliation. By assigning a demonic disdain to everything that Conservative Judaism maintains, Street Cultures Orthodoxy not only recognizes Conservative Judaism as a Halakhic, albeit negative [gufo shel issur] force, it invests Conservative Judaism a cosmic and demonic power it really does not have. And by projecting a negative cosmic power upon Conservative Judaism, Orthodoxy actually defines the Movement as Orthodoxy’s demonic double. Recall that in Mark’s Gospel the demons recognized Jesus but the followers did not.
However, since eidei mesira karetei, the witnesses to the divorce writ delivery, are required for such writs to be legally effective, and since there could not at the time of R. Feinstein’s writing have been more than 15% of the Rabbinical Assembly who were halakhically [as opposed to culturally] observant to my count, Rabbi Feinstein’s willingness to accept a Conservatve divorce writ must not and dare not be taken as a license to accept all Conservtive divorce writs.
Early in my Orthodox Rabbinate, I was confronted by a convert who was converted by three Traditional rabbis, i.e., men who were personally observant while serving in mixed seating synagogues, two of whom were JTS ordained and the third rabbi was Orthodox ordained. Since the lady was converted by three personally observant Jews, and since the lady was tovelet le-niddatah, i.e., she was observing the family purity laws, I saw no grounds to reject her. I consulted with two Orthodox dayyanim, both of whom confirmed my intuition at the time.
Given the facts that Yeshiva University as well as other Yeshivot have given heterim, i.e., dispensations, for its rabbinic alumnae to assume mixed seating synagogues in the past, most notably and ,most recently Beth HaMedrosh Hagodol-Beth Joseph of Denver, Colorado, and given R. Feinstein’s grudging approval of a Conservative divorce writ, cited above, the mixed-seating Traditional rabbi would minimally, from an Orthodox rabbinical perspective, not lose their bona fides as observant laypeople, i.e., hedyotot, and the conversions of these personally Orthodox men must be recognized because they meet the requisite threshold of acceptability demanded by Jewish law. Failure to accept a kosher conversion. i.e., where the candidate accepted Torah a binding Constitutional system in the presence of three observant Jewish men, causes the Jewish convert to disobey the Jewish Constitution.
Recently, three objections to conversions conducted by Union for Traditional Judaism rabbis have come to my attention:
1. One objection was that the UTJ rabbis are not Orthodox because they serve in mixed seating synagogues. There are several problems with this position:
- Yeshiva University and, before Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik became its head, Hebrew Theological College, tolerated mixed seating rabbinic placement. I have not seen it reported in the Chicago Jewish Sentinel, the urban and urbane New York Jewish Week, the sickly Baltmore Jewish Times, the London Jewish Chronicle, the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, and to distinguish between the sacred and profane, the Brooklyn Jewish Press, that God had in the intervening years changed the Torah and such placement, previously permitted, is magically and mysteriously now outlawed.
- Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 34 requires that one must be in violation of a Torah law the punishment for which is lashes to be considered to be wicked.
- If people do not happen to believe, rightly or wrongly, that segregated seating for sacred situations is required–there being no mention of such a requirement in the Bible, Talmuds, Maimonides, Tur, Bet Yosef, Maran, or Rem”a–and since bSotah 41a reports that the King reads the Torah at Haqhel in the presence of men, women, and children, then these rabbis would perhaps be guilty of error [like the nocturnal immersion of a convert] and not of maintaining a theologically disqualifying unbelief. In my view, the mechitsa–the gender partition, is obligatory not by Oral Torah rule but rather because the partition became a universally accepted custom and is on those grounds as binding as any rabbinic–not Biblical–law.
- Some regard street culture Orthodoxy, also known as mimetic culture Orthodoxy, as Torah and as Tradition/Masorah. For these thinkers, the Torah is a mere convention and not a constitution. My read of Hebrew Scripture and the Oral Torah [a] impresses me that the Torah is, at least according to its Author, a constitution indeed, [b] God seems to be disinterested in a covenant of conventions, [c] the notion that Torah is convention and not covenant fails to take individual rights and God, the imperial Author of those rights, seriously, and [d] the law as convention model may easily evolve into a world of non-believing elites manipulate the blind masses into mindless obedience. [Maimonides, Avoda Zara 1:1-2]
- Some argue that the acceptance of the commandments on the part of conversion candidates in the strict sense is not in the canonical Oral Torah literature. The lenient ruling of Rabbi Uzziel, grounded in Maimonides, supra., the fact that the candidate is informed of some but not all of the commandments, and the rule regarding a rabbinical court consisting of hedyotot, non-learned lay people, to be valid, would indicate that our rendering that “commandment acceptance” really means “accepting Torah as a wholistic religious system.” This inductive definition cannot be dismissed as beyond Halakhic legitimacy.
- It is wrong, and to my mind bordering on if not reaching the threshold of heresy, to make the claim made by non-constitutional legal systems that there are binding, God endorsed but nevertheless unstated laws in the Torah system, like Mechitsa in synagogue. Deut. 4: 2 forbids adding to or subtracting from the Torah, Deut. 30:12 denies that there are secret or oracular laws, and Lev. 4:13 teaches that mimetic usage, or convention, is not really the word of God because “everyone is doing it” is not a Biblically excusable excuse. My Biblical hyper-literalism is seconded by mHorayyot 1 and Maimonides, Hilkhot Shegagot.
- According Maran Karo [Bet Yosef YD 1:1] women may perform ritual slaughter because the canon allows it and because the Oral Law at mEduyyot 2:2 disallows the claim as an illegitimate the notion that an act unseen is an act that may not to be done. [lo ra’inu eino re’aya] Maran accepted the Torah as a constitution. Alternatively, R. Shabbesai Cohen, argues that an act unseen is an act by custom is forbidden. To this view, Jewish law is not seen as constitutional. We have two contending and irreconcilable versions of Orthodox Judaism in conflict.
- Note well that for Street Culture Orthodoxy, the law resides in the person of the sacred sage and not in the word recorded on the sacred page.
2. A second objection to accepting UTJ conversions is that UTJ rabbis are not Orthodox but are really remain “Conservative.” Those who made this claim did not explain how this determination was made. A conventional approach to the Law’s empire will dismiss dissent and competition as folk religion heresy, while a constitutional approach to God’s unreconstructed word would require the ascertaining of facts, the identification of the relevant and requisite norms, and then reaching a ruling based on these honest-to-God criteria. There are several problems with this view, that UTJ rabbis really remain Conservative, as well:
The UTJ principles are consistent with the modern Orthodoxy of the Wissenshaft Orthodoxy that now obtains at Bar Ilan University in Israel. Its Resh Metivta, Prof. David Weiss Halivni, is on the graduate Talmud faculty of Bar Ilan and, based on several converstions with the rabbi, is personally center/right to right within the Modern Orthodox orbit. That institution regarded Prof. Halivni, and for that matter, his mentor, Prof. Saul Lieberman, as Orthodox.
The UTJ made a a very public point of rending any and all ties with Conservative Judaism.
- If Yeshiva University and Hebrew Theological College rabbinic alumnae were placed in mixed seating synagogues, without at that time losing their bona fides, then the UTJ should be viewed no differently and this placement cannot be used to selectively and subjectively be used to deny some one’s bona fides.
3. Third, it is argued that UTJ rabbis are not theologically Othodox. What the boundaries of Orthodoxy are and how the UTJ violates those boundaries is not clearly defined. Recall however Bechofer’s claim that the rabbi has to be a holy man. Holy men are to conventional religion not made of ordinary stuff and who are not reviewable by the Law because, to hear them, they are the law. UTJ rabbis are not holy men because Bechofer’s rabbis said so. Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner have shown that theology and ideology are not statutory Law. Rabbi Joseph Albo’s three dogmas, that God is real, God commands, and that God holds humankind accountable regarding the performance of those commands, is the minimal consensus benchmark that is not contested. As noted above, it is unorthodox in the extreme to call all Conservative rabbis atheists without checking if indeed and in deed they are [I believe that many are and I remain certain that at least a few of them are not], smoking does not become permiitted because some sinning Orthodox rabbis cannot control their nicotine cravings, draft dodging on the part of male and female Orthodox Jews in Israel does not become normative law because someone taken or mistaken to be a great rabbi said so, the rule requiring ten year barren marriages to end does not get suspended because the reason the man became the Rebbe is because the man married the previous rebbe’s daughter, and winning the job of Agudist Rosh Yeshiva in Exile does not provide warrant for choosing to live in exile for greater office, honor, and lucre. When the rabbinic “gentleman” who rejected the UTJ bona fides is prepared, with the same ideological purity, vigor and courage, to condemn the claim that smoking “must” be allowed because great rabbis smoke and when he dares to denounce Rabbis Malkiel Kotler and Ahron Feldman for choosing the Rosh Yeshiva office in exile over the sanctity of sacred place, which violate explicit norms in the Torah legal order, then he will have standing to defame others who are not violating explicit norms in the Torah legal order. A rabbi who looks the other way when great rabbis ignore explicit laws yet condemns others who do not share his partisan and political faith franchise for not observing his conventional Judaismis unwritten laws–which in constitutional, covenental Judaism are not laws at all, is neither a rabbi, a man, nor a mentch. In the Judaism of Dual Torah, there is but one law for everyone. [Ex.12:49, Lev. 7:7, Num. 5:16 and 28]
This final objection to accepting UTJ rabbis’ conversions as valid is that like their former Conservative compatriots, the ideology and theology or doctrine/doxa/teaching of these rabbis is faulty. These UTJ “rabbis,” as observant of Jewish law and as sincere as they on the surface may seem to be, do not really believe in “revelation” as do the rabbis with black hats, beards, and who wear the rabbinic frocks called kapote’s. The great rabbis of Orthodoxy, like the “righteous oraculator/teacher or moreh tsedeq of Qumran and the teacher/oracle who is called the “διδάσκαλος” in Christian Scripture, are infused with daas Torah and the holy spirit, like Rabbi Eliezer and the Ochnai oven. [bBaba Mezia 59a] To question them or their authority is to their view to question God. Rabbi Eliezer was so great that he was called “Rabbi Eliezer the Great.” And God confirmed Rabbi Eliezer’s view with an oracle. Since R. Eliezer was banned for appealing to God’s extra-canonical intrusion, it would seem that for the Judaism of the Oral Torah, appeals to charisma, oracles, and undocumented norms are not recognizes as rules that oblige the Jewish people either constitutionally or covenentally.
By ordaining a woman, in violation of what is taken to be Masorah, what for Maimonides [and me] ended with the Talmud of Rabina and Rav Ashi [supra., 86a], Rabbi Avi Weiss also violated Street Culture Orthodoxy’s reconstructed sense of Masorah, over which only great rabbis vetted by great rabbis have a right to an opinion that may deemed to be legitinate. Since UTJ, YCT, and those YU rabbis who happen to be strict constructionists who permit the canoncally permitted [any act not explicitly forbidden by the letter of Torah law] and who forbid only the forbidden, who love God and Torah but fear no evil and no man [Deut. 1:17 and Maimonides, San., 22:1], are guilty of sin by seeing God’s word in God’s word alone, and are not bound by the revelatory intuitions–like R. Eliezer the Great–of rabbis who wear kapotes, a choreographed claim that they endorse a charismatic/conventional rather than strictly legal/constitutional approach to Torah’s revelation. By daring to issue rulings inconsistent with popular opinion but consistent with the letter of Jewish law, these modern Orthodox types, in all their styles and varities, challenge the authority of Orthodoxy’s oracular charismatic rabbis. It has been argued that the UTJ, like YCT and some YU rabbis, is not “really” Orthodox; Agudath Yisrael has said the same regarding Rabbi Avi Weiss and women rabbis:
“These developments (the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz) represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
Bechofer believes that the rabbi must be saintly, deferring uncritically to the masters of Masorah and its mystery. The unwritten Tradition and the unwritten law [shades of Sophocles’ Antigone] are also the intuited will of God. The beard, black hat, and kapote are thus not mere statements of fashion; they are social and theological statements that one wears on one’s person that an individual buys in to a particular world view that views itself as beyond review. Thus, the surrender to the semiotics of iconic religious valence is seen as the confession of Orthodox Jewish faith. For Book Culture Orthodoxy’s attitude regarding the manipulative role of non-halakhic semiotics, see Numbers 15:39.
This popular religion Orthodoxy sees Torah law as convention but not as constitution. The textual Torah trove is, explicitly for Rabbis Bechofer and Schachter, and implicitly for others, semantically indeterminate. Practical canonicity does reside in the sacred word of the sacred sage, whose inspired intuition is guided by God. Failure to act as the sacred sage commands and to believe as the sacred sage commends are failures worthy of theological condemnation.
Since Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik [as noted by Wolpin, supra.] to a lesser extent, and Halivni, to a greater extent, read the canonical trove with their own skills and wisdom, and arrogated to themselves the right [a] to read the canon, [b] to think about the canon, and [c] most audaciously to on their own think about the canon, they are both dismissed by extremists as being religiously deficient. The former does endorse Masorah street culture, so Wolpin and the great sages who paid Woplin’s paycheck regard R. Soloveitchik as a decent fellow with some flaws. As a redaction critic who examines “Sources” and “Traditions,” R. Halivni has devoted his life to raising a school of scholars who decode claims of Tradition for what they really are.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s conceptual/analytic method describes and invents definitions and is “creative.” Alternatively, R. Halivni conceptualizes only after his textual moorings are firmly established. By generating autonomous readings of Torah Tradition, academic Talmudists challenge the revelatory power of great rabbis. Rabbis Halivni and Soloveitchik are both dangerous to charismatic Street Culture Orthodoxy because they are for this Orthodoxy too learned to be dismissed and too convincing to be to be heard.
For this Orthodoxy, de facto Orthodoxy is found on the Street and de jure Orthodoxy is found in the canon. Since only saintly rabbis are allowed to have a legitimate opinion, [a] other opinions, regardless of their erudition or consistency, are illegitimate, and [b] those who express independence and do not submit to the authority of great rabbis, as required by Avraham Sherman, reject revelation as the doctrine has been reconstructed and are therefore either deficient [R. Soloveitchik] or lacking [R. Halivni] in their Orthodoxy.
This reconstructed Orthodoxy is really rather creative:
- By viewing the synagogue gender partition as a Biblical law, R. Feinstein restores Midrash Halakhah in our time, without the control of a vetting Supreme Court. This policy is consistent with Rabbis Bechofer’s and Schachter’s theory that the great rabbi can read between the lines of Torah in order to read the mind of God.
- By claiming that smoking is allowed because great rabbis smoke, the acts of the great rabbis are themselves canonical and infallible , in spite of Deuteronomy 4:2, which to my tin ear still seems to say that the Torah suffers neither additions nor corrections.
- By leaving the Holy Land for the greener pastures–and salaries–of America the land of the fee, Rabbis M. Kotler and A.Feldman have demonstrated in act the absolute canonicity of R. Feinstein’s rule; it is the act of the great sage and not the Pharisaic traditions of the elders that Mark their own apocalyptic piety.
- Since Isaac Schmelkes’ reform, that we nullify a conversion if the convert is not conforming to community standards, is accepted without question, it seems that the sacred textual canon, as in Reconstructionist Judaism, has a voice but no veto. These rabbis are always right because they, by dint of their self definition, have no right to ever be wrong.
- Rabbi Karelitz’s overruling bSota 44b and forbidding the conscription of the faithful finds that the intuition of the sage supersedes the words of the sacred canon. If disruptive of Orthodox culture, Oral Law Torah may indeed be changed, for R. Feinstein by exegesis and for Rabbi Karelitz by declaration. Their opinions are legitimate because they said so; as such they are not subject to review on the part of those who, also by definition and great sage decree, have no right to have an opinion.
- Furthermore, the fact that the late learned Lubavitcher Rabbi Schneerson died childless and did not divorce his wife, as required by Traditional Jewish law follows and confirms our thesis; that the intuition of the sage is law and on the Orthodox street no one will question the rabbi who forbids the questions of others so that the implicit claims of infallibility and power not be explained, examined, or exposed.
The non-Orthodoxy of the UTJ and other non-Haredi rabbis is clear. No really “frum” rabbi will exhibit the audacity, temerity, and gall to question the acts of the great rabbis against the benchmarks of the canon, which we call Tradition I, because Street Culture Orthodoxy, which we call Tradition II, has superseded it. Judging the UTJ by the benchmark of the canon denies the canonicity of Tradition I’s sacred superseders. By competing with Tradition II Judaism by addressing the sacred canon directly, i.e., by allowing what is not forbidden just because the act is not forbidden is a frontal and diabolical assault upon those who see themselves as the salvation, way and life of Judaism. After all, God so loved the Jewish people that God sent his only saintly rabbis to tell them what to do. R. Sherman is correct; modern Orthodoxy may earn a measure of legitimacy by conceding Street Orthodoxy’s superiority.
In Tradition I, the sacred canon is the equalizing sacred command. Supercessionist theology is unworthy of the Jew who believes in God, loves and does not fear the Torah and, carrying the image of God, has respect for oneself.
Last 10 posts by Rabbi Alan Yuter
- May Women Run for Public Office? - May 19th, 2013
- Sucking the Life out of God’s Law: A response to a blog post, “Metzitzah and the Halachic Process” - May 12th, 2013
- The Political Modesty of Rabbi Eliezer Melammed - May 5th, 2013
- The Israeli Draft of Women: What is Orthodox Judaism Anyway? - April 29th, 2013
- The Law of Preserving Life according to the Two Forms of Orthodox Judaism - April 21st, 2013
- The Narrative of Abraham and Efron: A Clash of Two Cultures - April 14th, 2013
- Rambam and Drafting Yeshiva Students - April 8th, 2013
- How not to Observe Sukkot - March 31st, 2013
- On Truth in Packaging - March 24th, 2013
- Ko’ah de-Heteira ‘Adif – Orthodox rabbis ought to be strict about being lenient - March 17th, 2013