Postmodernism in masorti education

ByHANAN A. ALEXANDER
December 21, 2011 22:56

Traditionalists say proponents of homosexual ordination have not made their case based on a rigorous examination of legal precedent.

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Rabbi Prof. Hanan Alexander 311 . (photo credit:(Photo courtesy of Schechter Institute of Jewish S)

The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, which prepares Masorti-Conservative rabbis in Israel, sits at the intersection of at least four overlapping tensions, between disparate roles of higher Jewish education, rival notions of religious pluralism, competing understandings of human sexuality and different approaches to textual reasoning. The departure of three senior administrators from the school in as many years, reported by The Jerusalem Post on Friday, December 9, is partly related to these tensions.

To address them, the Board of Trustees has appointed a committee to review and make recommendations concerning a number of policies and practices, including those relating to structure, admissions, education, religious standards and relations to its various constituencies. It is the sense of the board that the committee should also address how the question of admitting and ordaining homosexuals should be discussed in the future, in order to chart a way forward for a more productive dialogue on this issue.



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As a condition of its accreditation, The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies was asked to become a non-denominational graduate school, without affiliation to Masorti-Conservative Judaism. Schechter’s other three divisions, originally part of one institution, were also divided into independent NGOs. The Tali Education Fund emerged as a freestanding network of pluralistic Jewish education programs within Israel’s nonreligious state school system. Midreshet Yerushalim was transformed into an independent institution of continuing education and outreach. Only the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary remains formally tied to Masorti-Conservative Judaism, although the other three organizations continue to promote a pluralistic approach to Jewish learning.

This division has enabled the Schechter Institute to attract hundreds of religious and secular students to its highly regarded MA programs and the Tali Education Fund to reach tens of thousands of youngsters in Israeli public schools. But it has also left some issues that need to be addressed among between the four Schechter NGO’s and the Masorti-Conservative movement, both in Israel and abroad. One important task of the board committee will be to facilitate a discussion of these issues.


Another tension stems from the fact that Masorti-Conservative Judaism has typically followed a view of pluralism which holds that religious texts have several legitimate interpretations. Communities, institutions and individuals may choose between equally valid readings of these texts, which can lead to conflicts. In 2006, Masorti-Conservative authorities approved two opposing positions concerning the ordination of homosexuals, for example.

The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem and the Seminario Rabbinico Latinamericano in Buenos Aires both followed the more traditional ruling which rejects such a move, in contrast to its more liberal sister institutions in the US which have embraced it.

Traditionalists hold that proponents of homosexual ordination have not made their case based on a rigorous examination of legal precedent. Liberals, on the other hand, read rabbinic sources as maintaining that the pursuit of a sexual orientation is a human right, provided that it meets other standards of Jewish sexual ethics. This follows an alternative approach to pluralism which holds that individuals have the right to choose their own life paths. Denying this right is seen by advocates of this approach as morally odious since it undermines personal autonomy.

This conflict is exacerbated by a third tension between modern and postmodern accounts of human sexuality. Traditionalists ground their position in modern sensibilities such as scientific historical scholarship, whereas some more progressive liberals appear to believe that contemporary attitudes about human sexuality have been irrevocably altered by the so-called “postmodern condition.”

POSTMODERNISM IS concerned to expose the ways that people exert power over one another. The traditional preference for heterosexual over homosexual relations, for example, has enabled those who favor the former to dominate people who are inclined toward the latter. But our attitudes toward these preferences are socially constructed, according to postmodern theory, even though the preferences themselves may be influenced by a variety of biological factors.

Following this analysis, we should permit several sexual orientations provided they are grounded in love, commitment, mutuality and respect. Postmodernists view this as a revolution in human sentiment no less momentous than the discovery of romantic love or the rise of feminism, to which Jewish law needs to adapt. Yet one might ask whether Jewish tradition should resist or embrace such postmodern insights.

Finally, traditionalists often ground their arguments in legal positivism, which holds that legal decisions should be based on the critical reading of texts alone, independent of moral judgments not found in the law itself. Without rejecting critical exegesis, which seeks to discover the intended meaning of a text in its original context, both moderate and progressive liberals appear to place equal weight on midrashic eisegesis, which looks for innovative readings of a text apart from original intent that are in tune with current moral sensitivities.

The blurring of accepted dichotomies, such as exegesis (reading out) and eisegesis (reading in), is also characteristic of postmodern criticism. This process, which some postmodernists call “deconstruction,” is the subject of considerable controversy among intellectuals. One paradox of this approach, for example, is that the concern for overcoming dominant discourses by means of new interpretations can also become a means of domination.

The willingness of the Board of Trustees to facilitate a serious examination of these perplexing dilemmas presents an extraordinary educational opportunity for the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary to demonstrate the value of dialogue on matters of principle in an atmosphere of mutual respect that engages Jewish sources in a careful and critical manner. This is the hallmark of Masorti-Conservative Judaism. As a leading institution of rabbinic education in Israel,we have a sacred obligation to do no less.

The writer is Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Haifa, and Sr. Research Fellow of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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