Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fisking the "O" Word, (by which Rabbi Safran meant Orthodoxy, not Orgasms)

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The following article appeared in Ami Magazine, and on Cross Currents. It was written by R. Avi Shafran, and was called the The 'O' word".

My comments are in red


The recent suggestion by the rabbi of a West Coast Orthodox congregation that one of the birchos hashachar (morning blessings) recited each day by Torah-observant Jews be eliminated—he sees it as insufficiently enlightened—is a reminder of an unpleasant but pressing task facing the Jewish community: To define the word “Orthodox.”

Really? I thought it was a reminder of how many within Orthodoxy still cheerfully denigrate women. As remarked many times, in many venues, Orthodox Judaism still has a Mad Men view of women: They're not quite equal, and l';chatchila belong at home with the pots and the kids. I thought Rabbi Kanefsky's article afforded us a perfect opportunity to discuss and raise awareness of that unfortunate communal shortcoming.

Words are mangled with disturbing regularity in the Jewish world.

That's true. My favorite example is how "modern" is used as a slur. There are loads of others. I mention two later below.

Jewish “observance,” once a clear and descriptive term, has become relegated to relativity. After all, isn’t a Jew who faithfully follows his clergyman’s prescription of social activism as the essential Jewish mandate… observant? He or she would certainly say so.

And he'd be right. He's "observing" the dozens of mitzvot that relate to caring for our fellow men, and "observing" the call of the prophets to put those mitzvot ahead of things like prayer, fasting and sacrifice. 

Adding the word “Torah” before “observance” doesn’t help much either. A Reform leader, after all, once famously proclaimed his movement’s wholehearted embrace of “Torah, Torah, Torah!”—undermining in six syllables more than 3000 years of a word’s synonymity with the very concept of revealed law that Reform theology unabashedly renounces.

“Mitzvah” has been turned on its head too. The Hebrew word for “commandment” has degenerated in many circles to mean “good deed” or even “what any particular person happens to think is a good deed.”

Is this a "degeneration" or is it the sort of ordinary semantic shift that occurs whenever thoughtful people use words?

The same aforementioned Reform rabbi once advised that every Jew “must examine each mitzvah [in the Torah] and ask the question: 'do I feel commanded in this instance…?’” Now, feeling commanded and being commanded may not be mutually exclusive, but they are hardly one and the same.

Rounding out the abuse of words are chimeras like Conservative “halacha” and a Reform “Kollel.”

You don't own the words, my friend. And its perfectly common for words to take on different meanings in different contexts. This is neither abuse, nor a deception. Things just change.

The word “Orthodox” has always been a lexical haven for Jews who affirm the divine origin of Torah and are committed to the entirety of our mesorah—traditional Jewish religious beliefs and practices—and the integrity of the halachic process as it has existed for millennia.

If by "always" you mean "for the last 150 years or so". By the way, "mesorah" is another word with a meaning that often gets mangled. So is "traditional." You're using both words here to suggest that all Jews always thought and acted the same way. this is false, and your inability to recognize this historical truth is what leads the rest of your column astray.

Although the “O-Word” was originally imposed on believing Jews by others, we have worn the label proudly;

Not so. You may have forgotten the effort a few years ago to replace "Orthodox" with "Torah True" but I haven't.

it implies faithfulness to the past and willingness to stand against the winds of societal change.

You make that sound like a good thing. It isn't, and once upon a time, our leaders knew it. For a long time we were lucky enough to have Rabbis who were brave enough to jettison the parts of the past that had lost their power and effectiveness, even when it meant being carried by the winds of societal change. This is why we no longer practice bigamy, and why our industry isn't retarded by out-of-date restrictions on loaning at interest. Its also why we no longer sacrifice animals, or center our worship around a tripartite long temple in Jerusalem.  Its why we say Kabbalas Shabos.

And it has allowed us to set ourselves apart from all the contemporary parallels to the Second Temple period’s Sadducean movement—to borrow a comparison from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l.

I really hope RYDS zt'l wasn't the sort of person who ahistorically tarred contemporary opponents with the name of some ancient enemy. And if he was, it still doesn't excuse the tactic. A Sadducee and a left-leaning Orthodox Rabbi are about as different in practice and belief as a Pharisee and a right wing Orthodox Rabbi. Consider that carefully. 

In recent years, though, even “Orthodox” has been subjected to the Silly Putty treatment.

I'm going to file away that phrase. The "silly putty treatment" is a great way to refer to the RW's ever-changing use of words like mesorah.

People with ordinations from Orthodox institutions have invoked the imagined power of their pieces of paper to render “kosher” whatever the Zeitgeist or their own overly open minds have inspired them to embrace.

No. They've made arguments, based on logic. You're free to accept or ignore those arguments, just as I've chosen to ignore arguments made by other reformers. I don't accept any of the Ari's innovations for instance. Aside: What makes the Ari's changes kosher? Answer: They've won the hearts, but more importantly the minds of many Jews. He didn't win because of his authority. He won because of the power of his arguments. If Rabbi Kanefsky wins - or loses - it will be on the same terms. 

Thus we have an “Orthodox rabbi” who prides himself on exemplifying what the Torah forbids as toeiva (“repugnant”);

Do you mean the Rabbis in Brooklyn who go to jail for dishonest business practices?  That's a toeiva, as per Deuteronomy 25:15-17. Or do you mean the Hasidic Rabbis who tell the future, pose as wizards, and exemplify the toeiva described in Deuteronomy 18:11-13? Please be clearer.

another who deigns to “ordain” women;

Ordination, as you know, has no meaning and no power today. In fact you suggested as much above ("imagined power of their pieces of paper") so how exactly does giving "imaginary" power to a woman hurt you? If you don't think her arguments and teachings are valid, you can ignore her, just as I ignore  arguments and teachings delivered by anyone in tights and a shtriemal. The Jewish world is a big place. You can avoid the people you think have nothing to say. Stay away from their shuls. Don't buy their books. Let time and good faith discussion sort out the winners and losers. That's how a religion develops in good health. Running some kind of OCD tzitzis check and banishing everyone you consider impure from the confines of the camp is not a sign of strength or confidence.

now one who self-righteously declares that he can no longer “take G-d’s name in the context” of one of the birchos hashachar, and who “suspect[s], at this point in history, that it constitutes a Desecration of the Name.”

Ok. I don't happen to agree with this Rabbi, because I think most people have accepted the famous, (apologetic) interpretation of the blessing. Most people think the blessing is merely an acknowledgment of gender differences, with nothing implied about our relative value. I doubt the authors of the blessing saw it that way, but then again, I doubt the authors of Psalm 29 were speaking about the God of Israel. Now we read the Psalm differently, and we read the blessing differently, and our intent when saying the words is what matters, not the intent of the person who wrote them. Rabbi Kanefsky apparently disagrees, and that's fine. We can talk about it, and he can skip the blessing if I can't convince him he's wrong. Judaism will go on. Its survival doesn't depend on whether or not we say a nine word blessing, and I can prove it: 500 years ago Italian Jewish women said  "she lo asani ish". For some reason or another that blessing fell out of style. Its no longer said, but Judaism survives. 

There is desecration here, yes, but not where the rabbi sees it.

Many Orthodox Jews, understandably, are reluctant to focus on attention-seeking rabbis seeking to boldly go, so to speak, where no Orthodox rabbi has gone before. But we ignore such things at our peril. Or, better, at the peril of forfeiting the last adjective signifying commitment to the Jewish mesorah.

If you haven't realized it yet, I think this is all fear mongering nonsense. If you want to talk about Rabbis who put us all in peril, lets discuss the Jerusalem Rabbis who organize attacks on policemen and women. Or let's discuss our bigots, gay baiters, schemers and swindlers. Plenty of them have pieces of paper, and imaginary powers, yet you, Rabbi Shafran, also grant them immunity from criticism. I don't understand the double standard. 

Laying precise boundaries between unorthodox and unOrthodox is not simple.

That's true. For example, we have hasidic groups who ignore the halachicly mandated rules about when  tefilot should be said, and they are called Orthodox. We have Rabbis who ignore the Rishonim on all matters of theology, parshanut, and hashkafa and they are also called Orthodox. Very puzzling, and Not Simple. Yet, here you are attempting to simplify things by going after the outlyer who happens to offend you, while the others are ignored. 

There have been Jewish innovations that were endorsed, in fact impelled, by Gedolei Yisrael—the Bais Yaakov movement perhaps the most striking one.

And others, like upshurin and Hasidut that they fought with all their might, until they gave up and allowed themselves to be swept up by the winds of societal change. 

But when a contemporary rabbi, particularly one who has not yet garnered the wisdom that comes with many years of living and learning,

I really despise ad hom attacks. If you don't like his arguments, fine. Tell us why.  Make one of your own. But don't take the easy way out and dismiss his arguments on the basis of his age. That's lame.

 proposes to reject an element—any element—of the Jewish mandate, there can be no question about his having relinquished the right to call himself Orthodox.

I note that by "any element" you really mean "particular elements that you wish to maintain for some reason or another." After all, I don't see you condemning the Israeli rabbis who changed Nacheim, nor do I see you attacking Haredi Rabbis who keep jettisoning the leniancies our forefathers knew, and their Rabbis endorsed -- some of which were not even considered leniencies! So it's absolutely false that you're against rejecting "any element"; otherwise you'd have mentioned some of the other offenders in this piece, instead of focusing on your pet peeve alone. 

And no question, either, that any Orthodox rabbinic group to which he may belong, and any Orthodox congregational body with which his synagogue is affiliated, has an obligation to defend the word Orthodox, and to summon the courage to do what it has to do.

Yes, it takes courage to facilitate conversation, and to allow the winning arguments to carry the day. That's what Orthodox congregational bodies and Orthodox Rabbinic groups should do, instead of thoughtlessly honoring and un reflectively supporting everything they've happened to inherit. 

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