One-Week Workshops
view counter
Misguided Rabbinical Priorities
Wed, 12/07/2011 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Mordechai Rackover is associate university chaplain for the Jewish community of Brown University. Twitter: @mrackover
Rabbi Mordechai Rackover is associate university chaplain for the Jewish community of Brown University. Twitter: @mrackover

Nowadays Orthodoxy is all about sex. Immodesty, promiscuity, homosexuality: the public discourse of the Orthodox Jewish world seems disproportionately to take place in the bedroom, the dressing room, and the closet.

Gender is also a related hot topic. What are women? What can and can't they do? What can they, but shouldn’t they? And what about men? Can men marry each other? Live together? Adopt children? Out of the closet? In the closet? On the bima? In the shul?

This discourse isn’t much of a conversation. Discourse comes from an Old French word and implies ‘back and forth’ – or, in the language of Talmud study with which all Orthodox rabbis are familiar, 'shakla ve-tarya,' give and take.  But the public discourse of the Orthodox has become — proudly, defiantly, and almost by definition — all give and no take: an unending series of pronouncements and responses, murmurings, blog-posts, unending comment threads and online flame-wars. These "conversations" are merely the strident repetition of entrenched positions. More and more I understand the expression, “it’s like talking to a wall.” 

While these non-conversations about sex and gender proliferate, the incidence of child rape, verbal and physical abuse of women, poverty, weakening schools and riven families, to name only a few crises, increases. Fewer children keep Shabbat and more adults work like dogs to send their children to day schools, sacrificing time they might otherwise actually spend with them.

Sex has nothing to do with most of the problems I’ve listed, and the energies that are put into hand-wringing and petition-signing over sexual ethics could be far better placed.

The case in point: recently Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who was ordained by Yeshiva University, subsequently came out as gay, and has argued that there is no contradiction between being gay and Orthodox, performed a wedding in which he sanctified the union of two men. The media reported that an Orthodox rabbi performed a gay marriage and all kinds of rabbis began talking to their favorite walls. Then a group of over one hundred rabbis got together to declare that this was not an orthodox wedding and that no such wedding was possible. Big News! The Torah and Orthodox understanding of Halakha prohibit gay marriage. Who knew?

An Orthodox rabbi myself, I happen to agree that this was not an Orthodox wedding. But I think these rabbis' response is a much bigger problem than two Orthodox gay men seeking a way to dignify their relationship through marriage.

Who do these rabbis think is listening? What compelled them to lash out? Do they anticipate an impending rash of orthodox gay marriages? Did their synagogue Executive Directors ask for guidance with all the calls to book gay weddings? Do they think that Jews to the left of Orthodoxy need to be reminded that the orthodox establishment considers them wrong?

These rabbis bang on their lecterns and chests and fight for attention to keep themselves in the center of attention: to declare that they are in charge and that they alone define Judaism. And in so doing, in drawing lines where no one is looking for them, they routinely miss the places that everyone is looking for wisdom and moral guidance in the problems they face in their actual lives.

We are bereft of relevant leadership and opinions that matter. In recent years we’ve watched as an increasing number of aspects of orthodox Jewish life have become narrower. Kashrut is beset with polarizing stringencies. Increasing swathes of public life (synagogues, buses, sidewalks, funerals) are becoming less hospitable to women. Conversion is a minefield and women remain bound in unwanted marriages by rabbis who refuse to respond.

And one hundred rabbis saw fit to speak out…on a marriage that no one that they are speaking to was likely even to have known about.

I believe Orthodoxy no longer exists as a coherent ideology. There are gangs of rabbis in different clubs. Sometimes they work together, sometimes against each other, depending on their interest of the moment. In the meantime they have so eroded their moral and legal footing that even the once faithful are falling away. So many people have gone down this path that even the fundamental practices of our faith have become twisted and unrecognizable. And here we are at another moment of niggling erosion where rabbis who could spend valuable time and energy have misplaced their power and in so doing lost a little more of what little relevance they may have left.


child abuse, gender roles, Orthodox Judaism, Sex, sex abuse

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Submitted by Mosh (not verified) on Fri, 12/09/2011 - 03:21.
you wrote "... to declare that they are in charge and that they alone define Judaism...." actually unlike the Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews these Rabbis do not express a subjective opinion but merely reiterate Halacha, the boundaries that you admit in the article define Judaism, who are you writing this article to exactly? Those who need to understand more about Judaism or trying to give tochacha to those who also will not listen?

Actually, Mosh, Orthodox rabbis are no more objective than the others; their Oral Law is a very subjective interpretation of the Torah, which provides the only objective Halakha.

The Torah itself is unequivocal concerning homosexual activity, but in today's world of 'fair handedness' and 'political correctness,' many choose to ignore the Torah and turn a blind eye towards what it really is: a phychological/biological disorder.

Of course, one can always try to treat the Torah like a Chinese menu: three from Column A and two from Column B, but hold back on the sweet and sour since it doesn't suit me.


Where is the leadership today? They all want power and think the more radical they are, the more followers they will get. They are worse than congress! Check my blog for more ideas and thoughts. Enough is Enough!

To write off this article as drivel - as another example of 'the lefties pushing sexual politics" is to miss the point being made. The writer is reflecting on our community (the modern orthodox world) and making a statement about how we are acting- as a whole.
It seems that Orthodoxy is acting like any individual-- when there are real issues and personal challenge going on, there is a tendency to lash out at things from the outside. To get annoyed with a neighbor or spouse when whats really happening is internal.. While understandable (we all know if from our own life)- we also know that our true growth and health really comes from dealing with whats going on inside. As we in 5772 look inside- we see a myriad of issues- some old and some new really shaking our binyan. The young generation increasingly leaving "the Derech", their connection to many of our core values are weakening and that is a scary problem. The understandings and integrations between Torah and modernity that worked in the latter half of the 20th century are suddenly up for question. as a new generation and post-modernity has created a new age. Just like the Zohar says- chidushim create a new firmament. And the guidance and truly exceptional chidushim of our last generation are not reaching the young people growing up with internet, delegitimization of Israel and a world that doesn't understand why one would hang on to a tradition that leaves one separate from all others. These are serious challenges as the exit doors from our yeshiva high schools show. In the young people i meet here in their gap year programs. I hope that these issues are on everyones mind in modern-Orthodox America. The Haredim have their answer- which many of our kids are choosing- to further disconnect. But that is not the legacy of all of Torah Judaism.
So- we have the impulse to shun the most superficial manifestations of these changes- that may alleviate a certain sense of "something must be done' but fails as I think R Rackover was trying to urge- it fails to renew the source. And that is where our leaders should be making headlines... in being mechadesh new ways of serving Hashem and living Torah that our young people can connect with, that gives them guidance and chizuk to get married and stay in committed relationship and much more.
As a rav with many dealings with Jews looking at Orthodoxy from the outside, and young Jews who grew up Orthodox-- I share the frustration of a "gay marriage" in Judaism, but the frustration over the reactionary-ness of our leaders and how that looks from the outside is harder to bear.
b'ezrat haShem "מאין יבוא עזרי"

As a member of the class of "once faithful, but now fallen away", this article is interesting. I am not sure I agree that the heterodox world's primary difficulty with classical orthodoxy is sexuality, but it is certainly true that sexuality presents a very real problem.

I cannot help but compare sexuality to hunger. If you believe, each has been woven so profoundly into our soul that its denial becomes an existential challenge.

But Jewish law prides itself on the structures that it gives to food. The fast on Yom Kippur is not a form of self-abasement, rather the opposite. Without meaning to sound overly Catholic, we re-assert the soul's freedom from the body by proving to ourselves that we can do without it if necessary, even at great discomfort. But if the fast lasted a week, nobody would last; we all would crack.

If you believe in Torah M'Sinai, you have no choice but to accept that Hashem does not approve of homosexuality. But the suppression by self-imposed force of a primal urge placed in your soul by Hashem inevitably leads to an explosion when the pressure to substantiate what your soul silently longs for is too great. And here I disagree with Rabbi Rackover. There is a clear link with sexual and other forms of violence. Ask honest doctors in frum communities about violence, STDs, rape, incest and they will tell you they are rife. This is no specifically Jewish secret; all religions suffer with it. Consider the Catholic church; it is not alone.

Sexuality was never historically a challenge for orthodoxy because the rest of the world also had a problem with it. Anti-homosexuality almost had a Noachide quality to it. But the non-orthodox world has changed, and now the question jars. Why can the non-orthodox world give voice to a sexually heterodox soul but the orthodox world cannot? I think it is because orthodoxy understands the centrality of denial to religious practice. Shabbat is beautiful, but involves real denial. Kashrut affirms God's plan, but can be, literally, a denial of the flesh. Taharat mishpacha elevates sex at the cost of no. There is no beauty in Jewish law without (IMHO) a countervailing denial.

And so Rabbi Rackover is right, but with one proviso. There is no single voice because there is no common acceptance of the real problem, which is this: there is a price to be paid for denying the soul the chance to substantiate what Hashem has placed in it. Perhaps that is the essential contradiction inherent in the orthodox Jewish condition. So be it. But at least be honest about the price.

The Jewish Week guidelines for acceptable comments preclude attacks on other so-called streams or denominations of Judaism (as if Judaism mirrored the Protestant world organizationally). Yet your columns feature many a never ending diatribe against traditional Judaism. I want to say more, but my comments would be precluded by your guidelines from every appearing on your website. This is "liberalism"?-

He has written many valid points. Perhaps we should worry about rising anti-Semitisn and assimialtion and intermarriage which threaten to destroy our people. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

I will let the self identified Orthodox respond to how they do or do not view this op-ed as an expression of their own perspective. I want to add a point in a different direction than the previous commentators:
In fact, for the vast majority of the Jewish people, we are living in a post-denominational and largely self authenticating Jewish world. This applies to those who see themselves as Orthodox [Today, one chooses who one's personal authority is, even if he/she happens not to be your local moreh d'atrah], as well as to the non Traditional world. The vast majority of people who attend "Orthodox" synagogues do not do so because that synagogue is affiliated with a national or international organization, any more than the majority of those who attend "Reform" and "Conservative" ones do. [The proportions do change a bit with Reconstructionist, Renewal, and independent - but that is a different discussion.] But it is true that there is, on the whole more tension on these questions within "Orthodox" than among other groups. The underlying question that those who identify as Orthodox must answer is why authenticity is so often considered synonymous with stringency. It is by no means clear that a reading of the halachic sources automatically leads to the conclusion that the one who is most stringent is more authentic or a truer interpreter of the long legitimate halachic/rabbinic tradition. If what was considered moderate Orthodoxy only a generation ago is now considered left wing, it begs the question who is challenging whom. It is certainly fair for anyone, rabbi or not, to debate what is authentic but the time may have come that none except for those duly elected by their respective denominations to make any claim to speak in the name of any of the movements/streams. In that case, it would put the debate where it should be - a discourse about ideas and not about institutions.

Beautiful piece, its been a long time since I had read such a good article. Thank you for speaking out...

To the rest of you, especially Mark, There are many LGBT jews struggling out there, Im going to emphasise on jew. WE are one big family and it is about time we start acting like one. An issue such as this one won't go away simply because you MIR boys don't want to discuss it or because you want to sweep it under the rug so that we never look at it again.

Oh too many issues in our community goes that way. what a shame, that we cannot take care of our own, protect our own. Shame on you sir.

Incredible. So happy there is a voice of reason and logic out there.
Working on a college campus you probably see the realities that most turn a blind eye too.
If we want to maintain the strength and integrity of Orthodoxy, there must be true discourse, the community leaders must respond to the needs of a modern society with introspection, understanding and patience.
Everyone is focusing on the wrong things.
Hopefully, with articles such as this, some eyes may be opened and everyone can face the issues Orthodoxy encounters in these modern times, and instead of burying the problems and putting heads in the sand, attempt to delineate a workable solution, one based on our sacred writings, but reflecting modern times and challenges.

you wrote "... to declare that they are in charge and that they alone define Judaism...." actually unlike the Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews these Rabbis do not express a subjective opinion but merely reiterate Halacha, the boundaries that you admit in the article define Judaism, who are you writing this article to exactly? Those who need to understand more about Judaism or trying to give tochacha to those who also will not listen?

Like I always say... Orthodox Rabbis need to focus less of their energy on Kiruv Richokim and more on NOT performing Richuk K'rovim!!

Well said Rabbi. Thank you for writing this!

Kol Hakavod! I think you nail so many important points right on the head. This feels so true for more than just this "...all kinds of rabbis began talking to their favorite walls." You got it, you got what's wrong. Thank you.

nice to see a 'rabbi' expressing commonly held opinions

So you are saying dont speak up if someone is using your decent name to endorse a debase product? I hardly think that's possible to do. Certainly there are issues that the Orthodox world should be taking up, many of which do not revolve around sex i.e. conversion process red-tape, promoting a "coherent-ideology", affordable day schools.

Still it's necessary to speak up in our highly charged sex-focused culture, it's our responsibility not to be idle and ignore the issues that have knocked on our doors (in the form of a "orthodox rabbi" endorsing and administering gay marriages)...we can not avoid such an assertion, such a blatant attempt at hijacking the orthodox credential. Lets not forget we are supposed to be a"'light unto the nations" which charges us to make the Torah way know to all who will listen, even if they only find themselves 'speaking to a wall'.

Ultimately, Its not Orthodoxy that spotlights sex-issues but rather the world around them that defines the topics at with every other person or group on this planet, the Orthodox rabbi's are also forced to address the issues and concerns surrounding this infamous topic, and in doing so, set clear Torah-stances regarding it.

This is another example of the JW printing pointless drivel. The writer has no real point other than to paint those who adhere to Jewish traditions in negative light. Please get a life! You speak for the kind of observant jews who have not quite found themselves in regard to our traditions and halachic community but has an opinion to spew. My hope is that you'll soon get with the program. Those of us who strive to maintain integrity to Jewish traditions as they truly are unimpressed with this kind of silliness.

Thank you, thank you for putting my thoughts and growing annoyances on this topic into words. The saddest part of this is that this unfortunate misguided arrogance will continue.

Rabbi Rackover,

I'm also an Orthodox rabbi, and have one simple question? What is the point -- how do you view it as productive, fair, and respectful -- to publish your criticisms of your colleagues in a public newspaper, read mostly by non-rabbis and the non-Orthodox?

Whom are you trying to convince and what are trying to achieve?

Rabbi Rackover, there is indeed an obsession with women and sexuality in a part of Orthodox world, but ironically it is amongst your own liberal Orthodox crowd. For example, your hypothetical questions:
"What are women? What can and can't they do? What can they, but shouldn’t they? And what about men? Can men marry each other? Live together? Adopt children? Out of the closet? In the closet? On the bima? In the shul?"
...are the types of questions which are only discussed so obsessively at JOFA and YCT. Those kinds of questions are not even on the radar at, say, the Mir Yeshiva, where they generally just study straight Torah. So I ask you, who is more obsessed with women's issues: JOFA or Agudas Yisrael? Who is more obsessed with "homosexuality in Judaism": the RCA, or Steve Greenberg himself? It was the left wing Orthodox who initiated a "statement of principles" on accommodating gays in our communities! Why, I ask you, was that one of the few issued they saw fit to speak out on? Who exactly is obsessed here?

It is only the outside world which defines Orthodoxy according to its positions on issues of sexuality, because those positions are the ones which appear the most foreign and curious to them. Within Orthodoxy we do not think much about these issues. Our stance on them is quite clear and traditional.

It is only when left wing elements within Orthodoxy push the envelope on these issues, that we traditionalists are reluctantly forced to react and clarify our stance. And these reactions get all the press, as if that's all we think about. We'd rather not think about it! We'd rather the left stop forcing the issue! But yes, of course when someone does something in your name which you feel misrepresents you, you are forced to respond and clarify. It happens to be that most such examples of un-Orthodox things done in the name of Orthodoxy these days relate to sexuality and gender. This obsession in on the part of the envelope pushers, not on those who feel forced to respond each time.

There is, however, a specific obsession with tzniut in the Haredi world which is entirely strange and unhealthy. But that's a different matter.

Really...we are obsessed. Because the term "Hot Chani" was invented by us. Or, because we are the ones trying to cover up abuse like in Lakewood. Or, we are the people who are giving a serial abuser "Talmid Chachom" another prominent job in the Jewish community.
Because we are the ones that destroy Seforim stores or lecture boys on a Shabbat Chofshei not to visit a house where the woman wears pants even though his Rebbe's wife wears a $3,000 "hooker" shetel and skin tight clothing (of course with sleeves to necessary length).
Seriously, the Rabbi is right, we have so many more important issues to deal with.
The problem is as one of my cousins in a moment of candor once said to me, "We don't really care what you're really just a Goy waiting to happen".
What you really want is a complete split with us so that you don't have to think and can move farther and farther to the right.
The Rambam championed a Shvil really need to find that path before you fall off of a cliff.