Denominationalism is okay, suppressing it is not

There are certain practices in the haredi world that I do not consider halachic. In a recent column Rabbi Shmuel Goldin responds to an article in which I list some (both pieces were in The Jerusalem Post). As I said at the time, “Despite my disagreement, I respect the fact that others are as intent on following what they believe to be God’s law as I am on following what I believe it to be. We have arrived at some machlokot leshem shamayim (arguments for the sake of Heaven) about what God requires of us that are fundamental enough to necessitate a realignment of our identities.”


I advocate for practices that in some ways admittedly and intentionally depart from convention in order to be both halachic and modern (the acceptance of rabbot is only one such area).    


I loud the commendable initiatives Goldin lists that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and others continue to take to modernize. These steps are themselves testament to several things: First, there are very real problems that do sometimes exist within Orthodoxy, as every community, every Jewish denomination, and every time and place has problems of its own. Second, problems are being addressed, and I honor Goldin among the heroes who have contributed to addressing them. Problems are solved by confronting rather than ignoring them. Third, the ongoing initiatives are testament to the fact that there is still work to be done.


The existence of theological disagreements is not one of the problems. Pluralism is a good thing. My Jewish belief and practice can be different from yours, and we can still be friends, so long as we are not attempting to suppress one another or seeking privileged status for ourselves.


In Israel, recent developments at the Kotel aside, the government continues on the whole to itself ensure the privileged status of haredim, and suppresses the rights of even Orthodox rabbis who practice in ways that do not conform with them. It is the willingness of many halachic but non-haredi Jews, especially among Likud and Bayit Yehudi voters, to continue to shrug-off significant haredi abuses and tolerate the non-haredi politicians who become their sponsors that allows the situation to continue. More halachic but non-haredi Jews must mobilize and confront the problem. Doing so requires a realignment of our identities away from the conceptualization of Modern Orthodoxy as “theologically haredi but just not that religious.”


Good haredim exist in abundance. I recognize their right to practice as they wish within ethical bounds. I am still not one of them, and I have legitimate disagreements with them. Goldin, “bemoan[s] the looming split… in the Modern Orthodox world.” I consider it natural.


Bad haredim also exist. All communities include individuals who make mistakes, but in certain communities ethical violations are ingrained. My objective is not to attack or to broadly portray all haredi individuals in a negative light personally. My objective is to positively encourage more individuals to identify in ways that are clearly distinct from the haredi community in order to provide a more diverse religious spectrum and support a greater division between religion and government in Israel.


Goldin, in apparent opposition to rabbot, quotes a letter from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to the RCA saying, “We do not wish our women [graduates] to use the title of Rabbi or Rabbah, especially because the Synagogue is largely devoted to Communal Prayer and Communal Torah Reading, two areas in which women may not serve in the capacity of ba’alot tefillah [leaders of the prayer service] and ba’alot keriyah [Torah readers]; neither may they be Assistant or Associate Rabbis, who may be called upon as the sole religious leader in the absence of the official Synagogue Rabbi.”


I have not seen the letter, but I will take Goldin’s word for it. Respectfully, I disagree.


The women who use the title “rabbah” do not attempt to function as synagogue rabbis. They, like many of their male counterparts, are mainly educators and consultants on Jewish practice. Gender divisions in Orthodox practice are upheld by virtue of who these women are and which synagogues they attend. It is by virtue of their Orthodoxy that they maintain their exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot and refrain from doing things like leading shacharit. Furthermore, the things Riskin cites do not require rabbis anyway.


Riskin, who certifies female halachic authority using different terminology, appears (as presented by Goldin) to be concerned with semantics. I recognize the need for semantic distinction. “Rabbah” is distinct from “rabbi.” But semantics are not the fundamental issue in the broader discussion about female halachic authority.


Theory aside, on a tangible level the RCA is acting to block the acceptance of rabbot and suppress religious pluralism within its ranks, in defense of which Goldin says that, “…change can be prodded, but it must eventually occur through evolution and consensus.”


Steps more aggressive than those of the RCA are called for, but in so far as patient prodding might be okay in America, it is an epic and ongoing disaster in Israel. Regardless, the RCA is taking steps in the wrong direction. When they act in extra-halachic ways I cannot accept them as authoritative. But I’m not attacking you, Rabbi Goldin. I’m being different from you. I recognize your place in the Jewish spectrum. Do you recognize mine?