Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Choice through knowledge

[UPDATE: Some people were confused about this, so I should clarify that "really" in this post is used in the sense of "actually", not in the sense of "very".]

Mazal tov to Yeshivat Hadar on getting their year-round full-time program up and running! This article in the New York Jewish Week is chock full of things to comment on, but I'll leave the full-scale fisking to someone else. Rather than discuss the inaccuracies in the article ("the entire Hadar movement", "l'shma") or the dreadful framing (do the men wear pants too? it doesn't say), I'm going to focus narrowly on one point, and in the process piss off just about everyone.

Look at this paragraph:

Making decisions about practices that are in accordance with normative Jewish law and with contemporary egalitarianism is “not as simple as opening a Shulchan Oruch,” the Code of Jewish Law that serves as a basic reference for many observant Jews, Rabbi Kaunfer says. The yeshiva’s students, he says, are encouraged to seek their own answers, in consultation with their teachers at the yeshiva, not to simply ask a rabbinic authority to make rulings for them. “Our gedolim [recognized authorities] are the rabbis of the Talmud and the Mishna.”

We'll ignore the "observant Jews" framing, which I'll assume isn't a direct quote from Kaunfer, and the juxtaposition of the reporter's transcription of "Shulchan Oruch" with "not the Ashkenazi pronunciation heard in most Orthodox yeshivot", and focus on the substance.

I've spent much of the last few years fending off the allegation that Kehilat Hadar is "really Conservative" (see, e.g., here and here and here and in the comments here and here and here), so now I'm going to do something truly irresponsible and suggest that, based on this paragraph, one could argue that Yeshivat Hadar is "really Reform". After all, this paragraph provides a succinct formulation of the Reform doctrine of informed autonomy. And even if that bears little similarity to what goes on in Reform communities, a central piece of the "Kehilat Hadar is really Conservative" argument is "They're practicing true Conservative Judaism even if most Conservative congregations and their members aren't", so this is no different, mutatis mutandis.

Ok, I don't entirely believe that myself (not least because I don't think it's useful or meaningful to say that someone or something is "really X" when they don't identify themselves as such, but not only for that reason), and was just throwing it out there to play devil's advocate. But even if it's not true, I think it's still a valuable intellectual exercise to have to argue why it's not true. (And when you're done, I leave it as an exercise to figure out why I don't think it's true, which may not be the same reasons as yours. E.g., it certainly isn't because they daven in Hebrew. See this post for some hints.)

But there's another reason I'm introducing this meme (albeit immediately retracting it). The "Kehilat Hadar is really Conservative" meme, though problematic, is useful for one purpose: it gets Conservative communities to look in the mirror and say "There's no reason we couldn't try that here." Likewise, I hope a "Yeshivat Hadar is really Reform" meme might prompt some Reform communities to do the same. Serious text study to enable laypeople to make informed decisions about their individual practice should be the bread and butter of the Reform movement. It should be an embarrassment to the Reform movement, with all its buildings, staff, money, and longevity, that it's being beaten at what should be its own game by a 3-year-old startup organization operating in rented space. So perhaps Yeshivat Hadar's proof of concept will inspire others to think bigger.


  1. Thanks as always for your relentless attention to detail and thoughtful analysis.

    I will weigh in on one point here, which I think is important with respect to "decision making", without presuming to speak for Reform Judaism or any other body or individual.

    Many people, when they speak about decision making, are focused on a sovereign self that is ultimately completely within its rights to decide whatever is best for him or her. This radical autonomy and the individualism that goes along with it envisions a person who, like a diner at a restaurant, surveys a set of choices and then picks the entree that seems like it will be most fulfilling. This is the mode of decision making we all agree drives leisure activities and other pursuits that a larger collective and historical narrative can make no claim on. For some, that sort of menu approach is also appropriate for Judaism in the modern world.

    With full awareness that the above is, for many, a straw man and one far end of a possible spectrum, I will nonetheless use it as a springboard to push off of to explain what *we* mean by decision making at Yeshivat Hadar. For us, the Jewish past and the discourse of Jewish values enshrined in normative sources (both halakhic and aggadic) make a claim on Jews and the concept of mitzvah is central to how we think about Torah. When we speak about "decision making" at Yeshivat Hadar, we are not talking about a sovereign self that decides based on what is a good personal fit. Rather, we are responding to two major forces, one internal and one external, that demand granting the individual responsibility for making normative decisions in his/her life.

    1) The inherent richness of the tradition. There is almost no topic of any degree of complexity that does not feature deep debate within the tradition such that even the most deferential, authority-inclined person will have to confront whether to follow the Rambam or the Tosafot, R. Ovadiah Yosef or R. Moshe Feinstein. And even if that student chooses to farm that decision out to a teacher, the choice of teacher itself is a kind of decision for which the student bears ultimate responsibility. This dilemma and dynamic has always been present for as long as there has been halakhic discourse.

    2) The deep complexity of Jewish community today--caused by the breakdown of local community, various forms of instability caused by social mobility, technological development and other factors--often makes it almost impossible, in our assessment, it is very difficult for authority figures to weigh in on many difficult topics on behalf of someone else. Often the individual seeking guidance is more in tune with the specific, idiosyncratic details of his/her situation and life than a teacher or guide could ever be. This much more contemporary concern produces an environment in which it is often most advisable--if you really care about getting to the "right answer" in a particular situation as opposed to just achieving conformity through authority--to teach people principles and values as opposed to presuming that you can most effectively weigh and apply those values to their lives.

    As such, "decision making" at Yeshivat Hadar still emerges despite our comfort with (and endorsement of) various heternomous claims that we feel devolve on Jews from God, our history and our wise ancestors who grappled with many concerns similar to ours in other times and places. If I were myself being playful, I could say that Yeshivat Hadar is "really Orthodox", since we are doing nothing more than desperately trying to apply God's word to our present situation by revering God's Torah and its diachronic human application to our maximum ability.

    But then again, you and I probably both agree that such labeling would be silly and distract us from the real substance of the conversation.

  2. I posted this to the Shefa list:

    "Yeshivat Hadar is similar in focus to such Israeli institutions as the Hartman Institute or the Pardes Institute, which are open to men and women, without a denominational identification or political orientation."

    No mention of the Conservative Yeshiva? sheesh. I mean, sure it's 'denominational' but Pardes and Hartman are, in part, Orthodox institutions, so why not include or at least reference the Conservative Yeshiva?

    The fact is, that though committed Hadar-Jews are out of step with most Conservative Synagogue-affiliated Jews, they are much closer to what Conservative Judaism was supposed to be, inasmuch as they are committed to a vibrant positive-historical halakha, with the hiddush that davening should be excellent and meaningful. (Plus, none of the baggage of the movement).

  3. BTW, Ethan, great job on the egal teshuvah. I was happy to see R' Wald mentioned. Interestingly, a recent teshuvah also discussed R' Halivni's discarded responsum, http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/teshuvot/docs/19912000/oh_55_1_2002.pdf that is also an interesting argument that

    The only difference, then, is
    that Rabbi Halivni held that women had to take upon themselves the obligation for certain mitzvot for
    a generation in order for their obligation to “hold” and be equal to that of a man’s and only then could
    women perform agency for men. Rabbi Halivni was bothered by the statement of Rabbi Hanina, the
    prospect that even a vow can be annulled, and the fact that he only expected but a few women to
    comply, then, with this voluntary acceptance of mitzvot. Until such observance becomes an established
    minhag, he held, women cannot perform agency and the Seminary should not ordain women.44

    which the teshuva points out has no come to pass.

    Similarly, R' Ginzberg wrote:

    The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg
    p. 88: No. 8 An Interview Regarding Mixed Pews-1926
    ed. R' David Golinkin

    "And you say, therefore," the Professor was asked, "that
    this problem has become in some measure a question of propriety, of

  4. BF writes:
    The fact is, that though committed Hadar-Jews are out of step with most Conservative Synagogue-affiliated Jews, they are much closer to what Conservative Judaism was supposed to be, inasmuch as they are committed to a vibrant positive-historical halakha

    Who's "they"? That's one of the big problems with the "Kehilat Hadar is Conservative" argument -- it often involves faulty generalizations about the people who go to Hadar, who in fact have a wide range of approaches to halakha.

    BTW, Ethan, great job on the egal teshuvah.

    What's the teshuvah?

  5. committed hadar jew ~= ideal Conservative Jew

    to the extent that the label 'Conservative' was supposed to denote something specific, I think Hadar reflects those values, thus the generalization about 'committed Hadar-Jews'.

    Obviously Hadar is not Conservative because it is not a member of the USCJ.

    Hadar is also not 'Conservative' because it shares little in common with synagogues that are members of the USCJ.

    Hadar is also not 'Conservative because its members, at least as of 2003 when I was there, are also more involved in taking Judaism seriously.

    A Program for American Judaism
    by Rabbi Robert Gordis, 1941

    Frankel was a first-rate creative scholar in the field of Jewish law and history. He was fully aware that Judaism has never been static, but has evolved continuously throughout its history. he felt that its survival in modern times demands the acceptance of the principle of historical development. Hence change is inevitable, but it will be gradual, and not extreme, and will flow from an inner necessity, rather than from the pressure of the environment to conform. p.234-237 [Solomon Schechter picked up on this and molded modern Conservative Judaism as the President of JTS from 1902-1915. Principles of the positive-historical study of Judaism, a devotion to Zionism were made the norm.] Dr. Louis Ginzberg, Professor of Talmud at the Seminary, and perhaps the greatest living Jewish scholar in the world, developed critical methods in the study of Rabbinic literature and law with incomparable brilliance and erudition. He focused upon the social, economic and political foundations of that great spiritual edifice called the Talmud, and showed how Judaism has remained alive by reinterpreting its ideas and practices throughout its history, never losing touch with changing conditions. p. 240. [Then Professor Mordechai M. Kaplan came and elaborated a method of re-interpretation of Jewish tradition and emphasized the civilization and peoplehood of Judaism.]

    These men... were far from being in agreement among themselves, but for their students and disciples, and for American Jewry as a whole, they served to create the program of Conservative Judaism. p. 242


  6. BF-
    I don't think you're addressing my specific objection. The fact that Hadar's organized programming can be seen as reflecting (or at least compatible with) a certain set of values does not mean that the individual participants (not "members", as you know) live by those values in their lives outside Hadar. I know that I don't, and I was an active participant in Hadar for 6 years, and never had to hide who I was.

  7. Point taken. I admit that I'm generalizing. Perhaps I can say that the Hadar community, rather than individuals, is more 'Conservative' in how it functions publicly, but I am tired of the point since we both don't particularly care for labels.

    Right now, the Conservative brand is as Elie Kaunfer wrote:

    Labels are useful only to the extent they describe something specific. For decades, “Conservative Judaism” has not been a useful label. Observe Shabbat until noon on Saturday? A Conservative Jew. Walk three miles to synagogue? A Conservative Jew. Think God wrote the Torah? A Conservative Jew. Don’t believe in God? Also, a Conservative Jew.

    Bemoaning the decline of Conservative Judaism misses the point. This decline is a problem for the survival of Conservative institutions that are supported primarily by brand loyalty. But if the true mission of Conservative Judaism is to foster an engaged and empowered Jewish community with a commitment to Torah and mitzvot, declining affiliation may actually be positive. It signals an age in which Jews care enough about their expression of Judaism to resist an ill-defined label.

  8. Oh, I forgot my favorite point. Everyone is really a Reconstructionist: "The past has a vote but not a veto". Some just give the past different voting power. :)

    Though, my next favorite point: but that doesn't mean they'd fit in in the Reconstructionist movement.

  9. "Only the presence of women, who learn and teach and daven as equals with men, marks Yeshivat Hadar as different from a traditional, Orthodox yeshiva, Rabbi Kaunfer says."
    Wow. If this is true, I want my donation back.

  10. BZ writes: "Shulchan Oruch" with "not the Ashkenazi pronunciation heard in most Orthodox yeshivot"
    It might just be a case of differing transliteration schemes. The Hebrew (and latin, and German and Italian et. c.) [A] sound could just as well be transcribed as an English (short) [O] sound.

  11. Then why not "Shulchon Oruch"?

  12. I also don't know how they figure that ashkenazi pronunciation is used in "most" orthodox yeshivot. May be true in America, but once you factor in the many many non-haredi yesivot in Israel, this just isnt true.

    also- to nitpick- the pronunciation at yeshivat Hadar is not sephardi. it is an americanized israeli accent. (israeli accents are not the same as sephardi accents).

  13. i don't know if other "other people" mentioned the "really" thing, but for the record, i understood it as "actually" from this post. i was confused by the way you vocalized it.

  14. Although I have never participated in a Hadar program at the yeshiva I have listened to countless shiurim on their website and they are definitely not Reform , in that halakaha and the traditional sources are seen as authoritative sources for living a full Jewish life, not simply as good sources or ethical sources but as authoritative in some way that require grappling with them in the traditional manner of study, which is as of my understanding not the Reform movement's position this is coming from someone (me) with an aunt who is a Reform rabbi.

    I think this is what Rabbi Kaunfer means when he says they are no different from an orthodox yeshiva the methods of study used are no different, even if the personal lives of the students are different from the traditional student at an orthodox yeshivah. Since they see those modes of studying and those texts as having some force on how they are to live their lives.