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Toward A Gentler Orthodoxy

Godly people strive to understand each other; good people can differ out of pure motives.

Tue, 03/18/2014 - 20:00
The recent decision by a school to allow girls to wear teffillin has created controversy, sometimes mean-spirited. Fotolia
The recent decision by a school to allow girls to wear teffillin has created controversy, sometimes mean-spirited. Fotolia

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews and Christians were consumed by hateful polemics about each other. They fought theological duels that sometimes led to deadly Christian violence against our ancestors. Christians no longer pose any existential threat to Jews, yet the penchant for hateful language has continued, particularly in my Orthodox community. Much of this venom is directed against ourselves in fraternal battles that are turning as lethal as the medieval Jewish-Christian warfare. Today the traditional fear and vilification of gentiles has been transferred to other Orthodox Jews with whom we disagree.

When we step back from the fray, are we not horrified to realize that many of us see Jews holding different Torah views the same way we saw our gentile enemies of the past? Can’t we see that this vicious strife is eroding our souls and corroding our communal bonds?

The recent decision by the principal of the Orthodox SAR high school to allow girls to wear tefillin became a tripwire for nasty talk under the guise of Torah and halacha. To be sure this decision permitted a change in traditional Jewish practice, which is a serious matter for halachic Jews. Much hangs on getting this question right. It needs to be analyzed with utmost integrity, so we can arrive at a conclusion consistent with the cannons of halachic procedure and practice.

Yet there has been little calm and deliberate discourse in the blogs, “shiurim” and lectures on the controversy. Instead, we were inundated — from both sides — with mean-spirited rhetoric, false accusations, demonization, impugning the motives of good people and besmirching their reputations through guilt by association. Some who supported the decision portrayed opposing rabbis as power-hungry authoritarians or narrow-minded haredim, while some rejecting the decision painted the supporting rabbis as halachic ignoramuses and weak-willed traitors to the “mesorah” (tradition). Oblivious to the facts, one rabbi could only understand the permissive decision as motivated by unclean mercenary motives, while another proclaimed that the controversy raised issues of shmad (apostasy) and Torah violations for which a Jew must die rather than commit. And on the lips of many was eviction from house of Orthodoxy. This is not the talk of true Torah scholars who strive to understand and analyze; it is willful distortion and irresponsible exaggeration.

There are good reasons why our Talmudic sages caution Torah scholars “to be careful with their words.” They understood that stridency, denunciations and hysteria demonstrate weakness and the lack of serious conviction. Only people without good reasons or logical arguments resort to ad hominem attacks, name-calling and misuse of facts. Hostile rhetoric hurts many and it convinces no one. On the contrary, it alienates good souls. As happened to the Talmudic scholar Resh Lekish, verbal violence causes people to give up on the bet midrash. Intelligent listeners see the irrationality immediately, while morally sensitive listeners chafe at its overwhelming meanness. And those outside the Orthodox community witnessing the rhetorical wars conclude “a pox on both their houses.” Why should anyone want to be a part of this coarse Torah life?

We need to believe strongly in our halachic positions, yet resist hostility and vitriol. This is what the great masters of our halachic tradition, the Talmudic sages, did. They strove to understand those who differed. They argued logically, presented the reasons for their decisions and tried to demonstrate patiently and cogently why their own rulings should carry the day. This was how the Talmudic sage, Hillel, conducted his halachic disagreements with Shammai. As the Mishnah teaches, Hillel’s positions proved determinative precisely because he presented Shammai’s rulings carefully, honestly and respectfully before arguing his own positions. He did not appeal to unthinking obedience or accuse Shammai of ignorance or heresy. His language reflected intellectual honesty and his behavior accorded Shammai honor. So his rulings merited becoming the Torah of Israel.

Are not all Jews responsible for and accountable to each other? Would it not be more effective, a greater kavod to the Torah— indeed more religious — if Orthodox rabbis aired their disagreements in the presence of each other, showing respect for their colleagues? Godly people strive to understand their counterparts, being ever cognizant that their opponents are also created in the Image of God and that good people can differ out of pure motive.

Should we not love each other without making that love conditional on seeing the Torah our way? This was the way of Hillel and traditional Torah scholars, and also of Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center. With scholarship, love, fairness and respect, Rabbi Rosenblatt recently explained his objections girls to wearing tefillin——and did so in the presence of the principal of SAR. His presentation was honest, cogent and compelling. And the caring and respect he demonstrated for those he differed with should standards for halachic discourse. Yet his tone is the exception that stands in bold relief to the other public rabbinic responses to the controversy. 

Whether women may wear tefillin is no small matter for halachic Jews, yet I suspect that it will not determine the survival of Torah life. But whether we choose to demonize, mischaracterize and deny room for those who disagree with us may well spell the difference between Orthodox survival and our demise.

It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right, that you have a magical eye that sees the truth, and that there is one and only one correct answer to questions of theology and practice. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva’s students thought this way, and their disrespect brought a plague upon Israel that killed thousands of Torah scholars. When our rabbis brook no honest dissent, when they are self-righteous and intolerant, they threaten the future of our people.

The great rabbinic leader R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) also understood this fact of life. He taught that our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were righteous people (“yesharim”) who got along even with their pagan neighbors. By contrast, the “righteous” tzadikim of the Second Temple were consumed by intolerance, believing that anyone who disagreed with them was a heretic to be excommunicated. The result was the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of our people.

“The Holy One,” insisted Netziv, “does not tolerate ‘tzadikim’ like these.”

The Talmud records the caring manner of Hillel to teach us a critical religious lesson. As in Hillel’s time, Jews today will flock to Torah life when they hear tones of patience and reason, of honesty and love emanating from Torah scholars. Torah becomes compelling when rabbis demonstrate the strength of their convictions yet find a way to disagree civilly, and when Jews pay heed to the Torah imperative to uphold the honor of others.

All of us need to do a better job imitating the God of Israel, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who creates each person different from his neighbor and Whose seal is Truth. And as the Divine showed the priestly Aaron, He tolerates His children when they err honestly. The God of Israel built the world with chesed and He longs for all His children to do so also.

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Efrat. His recent books include “Jewish Theology and World Religions” and “Covenant and Hope.”

christians, Orthodox Jews, SAR

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Go out and enjoy your selves,forget all that b.s.!

This is a beautifully powerful and heartfelt piece. Thank you for caring enough to take the time to write this.

Rabbi Korn picks the sayings that he likes and declares that's how Judaism always was. Not true. Sharp, vitriolic rhetoric was always a characteristic of rabbinic disputation. Getting rabbis to speak politely is not the objective, though it would be nice. Dwelling on the rhetoric distracts from the main points of substance. In this case the problem is pernicious discrimination by Orthodox rabbis against Jewish women. Women must be afforded complete equal rights in synagogue practice and in all legal matters. Speaking nicely about it is optional.

There is no "pernicious discrimination by Orthodox rabbis against Jewish women" as you suggest.
The Torah has given the requirements for the sexes, why are you making out you are "holier than the Torah"? You are not.

I would be more inclined to be 'educated' by 'human angels' like Anonymous, above, if he had the courage of his convictions to post under his own name. More than one opinion reflects the words of our living God. Offer your version gently and with logic and you will be listened to for the content rather than the emotion you project.

Dear Mr David Schwartz,
The whole point is that while the dissenting opinion is included in the Holy Torah, the final ruling is clearly AGAINST IT TO THIS DAY.

The opinion from the Torah that is followed by Jewish people is the one that is accepted by the leaders of the generation using Halachic precepts, showing clearly that there is a consensus as to the correct derech that is to be followed. There are leaders of the generation who have the knowledge to guide us and they do so, but "impudence" has raised its ugly head to mislead Jewish people. Shame.

You do not need to know my name.

Mr. Korn, in his article about differences between various Orthodox groups diminishes his argument which seems to be advocating a fruit salad version of Orthodoxy when he writes "Christians no longer pose any existential threat to Jews," I would urge Mr. Korn to pick up his head out of the sand, or leave the love-in he has joined and read "The Destruction of the European Jews" by Raul Hilberg. Outside of the large urban centers of the United State ALL JEWS are still viewed as having horns, poisoning the host or using blood for matzot.
If you want to advocate "V'ahavta l'rayacha kamocah" then feel free to do so, but do not be naive about almost two millennium of Christian hatred of the Jews.

Your post does not take into consideration the main point of the article: that individual Orthodox rabbis, as did Hillel and Shammai, may disagree on what constitutes halachic practice. In which case the opposing views should be considered and evaluated with the respect due those who are offering them.

What a strange article.

The premise is that people sould be more tolerant of each other's views. Which sounds lovely, and then the whole article is about asking everyone one to accept the views of a group of radical innovators who part from normative halacha without suggesting that those same radicals offer the same basic respect to Jews who remain traditional in their approach.

The radicals anti traditionalists remain unapologetic for involving the NYT, which has been cited many times by CAMERA for its ANTI Israel biases, into internal Israeli matters. And the vitriol spewed by those anti traditionalists, including writers in this very paper, is of the most hateful variety.

You want to address the issue, address it to all, do not preach to those that you view as the other side, when they unaccepting of your poorly supported ahalchich innovations, while remaining unapologetic for your vitriolic , hateful spewing.

I think my original description of "strange" is not really accurate, hypocritical drivel+- is truly a better description. And not surprising that it is in the Jewish weak.

To some people, having a Halachic Orthodox practice presented as the correct way to proceed, is repulsive. If someone expresses that a Halachic Orthodox tradition prevail, that alone is considered provocation!

Why don't all the doubters acknowledge that not everyone can be a leader of the generation. Let those who are doubting teachers show some humility, and resist the fervent cries from the less than educated mobs. Popularity gained by abandoning Torah guidelines is not favored in Heaven.

Educating fellow Jews our brothers and sisters, our own flesh and blood truly should not be labeled as "hate" for on the contrary those who teach true Halachic Orthodoxy are more than doctors saving lives, they are human "angels" Why would someone persist, in the face of humiliating rejection, to teach the correct path, if not for love of G-D and of fellow Jews? Love is the only reason, not hate.