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Formulating Responses in an Egalitarian Age: An Overview

This year's Orthodox Forum, convened under the rubric, "Formulating Responses in an Egalitarian Age," stands in marked contrast to its recent predecessors.  They generally dealt with phenomena whose value and whose place in the world of tradition is clearly acknowledged, but whose specific Jewish character as well as their relation to other elements, required analysis and definition. No one questions the importance of spirituality as a universal category or its concomitant position within yahadut.  Similarly, we all recognize the immanent character of toleration and its limits as an issue to be confronted and explored.  Discussion of the conceptual approach to Jewish learning, more of an "insider topic," focused upon an area which is not only relevant to Jewish life but stands at its epicenter.  Elucidation of the perception and parameters of authority is endemic to our understanding of any religious community.  In all of these instances, we found ourselves coping with spiritual and intellectual problems whose resolution, inherently and a priori, would be part of any agenda to formulate a serious and comprehensive hashkafah.


If my antennae not deceive me, I sense that this is not quite our situation this year. Both the heading proper and some of the accompanying material convey the impression that we are confronted by a phenomenon, ideology and movement both, which somehow casts a pall over our world and its values; which is inimical to the traditional order and constitutes a potential threat to its stability and viability; which has a subversive and corrosive impact upon the ideational content and the institutional fabric of Orthodox Jewish life.


Conjoined to the first, one notes a second difference.  Forum discussion has, generally, been just that – the exchange of knowledge and ideas related to selected major themes, governed and coordinated in accordance with a freely chosen agenda.  "Response" takes some of the edge off the internal dynamic and largely presupposes a stance vis-a-vis some external stimulus.  That stance may of course be positive or negative, affirmative appreciation or heated rejoinder; but it is, in either case, somewhat imposed.  And what is most to our purpose, it may be manifested in two distinct areas:  discourse and action.  At the theoretical plane, we shall forge an ideological response by engaging in familiar intellectual dialogue.  In addition, however, we shall evidently strive to suggest and develop a pragmatic and possibly programmatic response, as we assess the present impact of egalitarianism upon Jewish life and seek to influence their prospective interaction.  Response at that plane may of course vary markedly, and may include condescendingly benign stonewalling, vehemently combative opposition, or empathetic openness on the road to reorientation and reappraisal.  Whatever one's position, however, whether adamant rejection or progressive adaptation, we shall find ourselves entering the lists more than is our wont.  The "free play of the mind," so admired by Arnold, will, in all likelihood, be conjoined to the formulation of policy as well as the mapping of strategy.


Personally, together with Professor Stone, I have been charged with focusing upon two questions.  The first reads: "How do we distinguish between ordinary halakhic processes responding to new stimuli; and calls for direct revision of a divinely inspired, permanently fixed, Torah?"  This question can conceivably be understood in two distinct senses.  We may distinguish between two entities, creatively, by establishing difference and relating variously to them, whether through the innovation of whole categories or through the introduction of nuanced criteria which transmute superficial similarity into a distinction with a difference.  Where others see no reason for differentiation, even when they note disparate characteristics, a fertile mind will seize upon previously unappreciated dissimilarity as a basis for apprehending contrast and for acting on that apprehension.


Alternatively, we may distinguish, passively, when categories and parameters are already well-defined but we must yet address ourselves to the task of recognizing under which rubric to classify a given entity – and this, not by drawing the conceptual lines of the class but, rather, by examining the content and contours of the unit.  Here, we engage primarily in observation and perception, as we strive to discern the character of a phenomenon and to fasten upon its definitive qualities.


Distinguishing, in both senses is, of course, standard intellectual fare, the bread-and-butter of denizens of the beit hamidrash – and not only of the Brisker strain.  They are, however, clearly different, and I should presumably clarify which is the mandate which has been thrust upon me – or, whether, perhaps, both are included.  I do not pretend to plumb the depths of authorial intent, but I hazard the assumption that the question posed relates to distinguishing in the latter sense.  Presumably, a committed Jew understands how to relate differentially, in attitude and in practice, to initiatives which seek to implement Torah, on the one hand, or to eviscerate it, on the other.  He may not be familiar with the wording of the ninth of the Rambam's thirteen ikkarim


ויסוד התשיעי הבטול, והוא שזו תורת משה לא תבטל ולא תבוא תורה מאת ה' זולתה ולא יתוסף בה ולא יגרע ממנה לא בכתוב ולא בפירוש אמר לא תוסף עליו ולא תגרע ממנו[1] -


or its equivalent in Mishneh Torah;[2] and he may not have a catechetical mindset altogether.  But, his ignorance of theology notwithstanding, he knows in his guts what has been the backbone of Jewish faith.


            That faith in the abiding character of Torah as binding is the core of emunah, simple or sophisticated.  There is, of course, discussion in Hazal as to whether any element of Torah can be preempted, whether יש כח ביד חכמים לעקור דבר מן התורה.  This should mislead no one, however.  At no point does the gemara, Bavli or Yerushalmi,[3] entertain the possibility that whole sections of the Torah can be nullified – in order to relieve societal needs, to conform to the Zeitgeist, or even to stimulate religious experience.  Such a contention does not even qualify, Halakhically, as error, worthy of requiring an expiatory sacrifice:


אין בית דין חייבין עד שיורו בדבר שאין הצדוקין מודין בו אבל בדבר שהצדוקין מודין בו פטורין מאי טעמא ז"ל קרי בי רב הוא.[4]


The discussion rather centers upon the limited authority to prescribe regulations with respect to detail which, in certain circumstances, will lead to practical conclusions different from those mandated by primal Torah regulations.  At a theoretical plane, the situation is different with respect to interpretations of Hazal and, a fortiori, of later links in the mesorah.  The Rambam held that, in this area, direct revision by properly constituted authority was indeed a legitimate and viable possibility:


בית דין גדול שדרשו באחת מן המדות כפי מה שנראה בעיניהם שהדין כך ודנו דין ועמד אחריהם בית דין אחר ונראה לו טעם אחר לסתור אותו הרי זה מותר ודן כפי מה שנראה בעיניו שנאמר אל השופט אשר יהיה בימים ההם אינך חייב ללכת אלא אחר בית דין שבדורך.[5]


But the committed Jew, instinctively and intuitively, knows how steadfast has been the historical fealty of knesset Israel to Hazal; and, if he knows of this pesak of the Rambam at all, rightly senses that, inasmuch as the right to revise is restricted to a later sanhedrin, its exercise is of millennial moment, of no immediate practical application.


Distinction in the first sense, seems, therefore, fairly clear.  Questions will obviously arise with respect to detail, but the broad outlines should be almost self-evident; and I doubt that it is to this task that we have assembled to address ourselves.  Perceiving difference is, however, a subtler and trickier undertaking.  While grosser contrasts pose no challenge, nicer nuances very often do.  I know of no litmus test, simple or comprehensive, which could invariably give us satisfactory guidance, nor can I conceive of one.  Primary general directions can, however, be pointed; and this, by analogy to a similar dilemma.


With respect to problematic prophecy, the Torah itself hypothesizes a quandary:


וכי תאמר בלבבך איכה נדע את הדבר אשר לא דברו ה'?


And it goes on to posit a definitive criterion:


אשר ידבר הנביא בשם ה' ולא יהיה הדבר ולא יבא הוא הדבר אשר לא דברו ה' בזדון דברו הנביא לא תגור ממנו.[6]


This test relates to the substance of the prophecy.  That being the case, however, it only covers a limited class of situations.  As Rashi noted:


ואם תאמר זו במתנבא על העתידות הרי שבא ואמר עשו כך וכך ומפי הקדוש ברוך הוא אני אומר כבר נצטוו שאם בא להדיחך מאחת מכל המצות לא תשמע לו אלא אם כן מומחה הוא לך שהוא צדיק גמור כגון אליהו בהר הכרמל שהקריב בבמה בשעת איסור הבמות כדי לגדור את ישראל הכל לפי צורך שעה וסייג הפרצה לכך נאמר אליו תשמעון.[7]


The solution which Rashi offers, focused upon the personality of the prophet, is grounded upon the conclusion of a brief discussion in the gemara:


היכא דמוחזק שאני דאי לא תימא הכי אברהם בהר המוריה היהי שמע ליה יצחק אליהו בהר הכרמל היכי סמכי עליה ועבדי שחוטי חוץ אלא היכא דמוחזק שאני.[8]


The gemara does not specify with regard to which qualities one is to be validated as muhzak. As we saw, Rashi's comment on the pasuk singles out piety – שהוא צדיק גמור.  The Ramban is critical of this emphasis.


וזה איננו נכון בעיני שאין ההמחאה שהוא צדיק גמור אלא שהוא נביא אמת מוחזק לכל במה שהקדים לאמר עתידות יבאו והוא האות שלו כמו שהזכיר בפרשה הזו או המופת שעשה לפנינו וזאת חזקת הנביאים.[9]


On his view, it is the veracity of past prophecy which is crucial.  And indeed, in his perush on the gemara, Rashi cites two areas: שהוא צדיק ונביא אמת[10].  The individual upon whom one relies to the point of accepting his authoritative decision to deviate temporarily from a Halakhic norm must both be marked, generally, by saintly religious character and, specifically, have a track record as a prophet.


            This dual focus is distinctively relevant for the Rambam.  Given his view that a prophet cannot merely be a vehicle for conveying messages, and his insistence upon the highest standards of moral rectitude, intellectual excellence, and religious intensity and depth as preconditions for prophecy, there is great coincidence between the personal and the functional aspects of the muhzak.  Signs and wonders are not a sufficient condition to establish one's status as a prophet or to require others to heed his message:


ולא כל העושה אות ומופת מאמינים לו שהוא נביא אלא אדם שהיינו יודעים בו מתחלתו שהוא ראוי לנבואה בחכמתו ובמעשיו שנתעלה בהן על כל בני גילו והיה מהלך בדרכי הנבואה בקדושתה ובפרישותה ואחר כך בא ועשה אות ומופת ואמר שהא-ל שלחו מצוה לשמוע ממנו שנאמר אליו תשמעון ואפשר שיעשה אות ומופת ואינו נביא וזה האות יש לו דברים בגו ואף על פי כן מצוה לשמוע לו הואיל ואדם גדול וחכם וראוי לנבואה הוא מעמידים אותו על חזקתו ובדברים האלו וכיוצא בהן נאמר הנסתרות לה' א-להינו והנגלות לנו ולבנינו ונאמר כי האדם יראה לעינים וה' יראה ללבב.[11]


The acceptance of nevu'ah is grounded upon recognition of the navi.


            For the Rambam, this is true of response to all claims to prophecy; but it is doubly crucial when, as in the instances cited in the gemara in Sanhedrin, one is confronted by prophecy which is innovative and, in a sense, even deviationist.  The same may be posited with regard to our question.  "How do we distinguish between ordinary Halakhic processes responding to new stimuli, and calls for direct revision of a divinely inspired, permanently fixed Torah?"  In two ways.  At one plane, we test the substance of suggested innovations.  The Halakhic universe was not created yesterday.  It has a long history, in the course of which methodology was refined, canons of interpretation established, modes of evidence limned, a corpus of relevant sources and their hierarchy defined.  Some of these were set down formally, as, for instance the thirteen middot of the Torat Kohanim or the thirty-two of Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Yossi Hagelili.  Other elements, more fluid in nature, evolved more flexibly; but these, too, within certain parameters.  Knowledge of where the frontiers lie and sensitivity to their violation is, partly, acquired through theoretical formulation and analysis.  Primarily, however, it is imbibed through reverential immersion in the tradition, whether through existential relation to its texts or, better still, through immediate exposure to its current masters.  The aphorism, גדולה שימושה יותר מלימודה[12], is not confined to pesak.  It is, however, surely crucial with respect to that sensitive area – as regards the examination of pesakim no less than their formulation.


            The second test concerns the posek – and this, with reference to both his learning and his spiritual persona.  Unquestionably, some pesakim of Rav Mosheh Feinstein or Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z.t.l. (not all of which found their way into print), had they come from Rabbi X or Y, would have raised eyebrows and possibly incited protest.  Is this discriminatory?  Superficially, yes; in a deeper sense, categorically not.  With regard to such giants, one knows that a decision issues out of a mastery of the Halakhic corpus, imbedded in their bones no less than in their heads; that is anchored in a nuanced intuition of the Halakhic process and of how it balances normative mandates with human needs.  Primarily, one knows that it issues from a person of profound faith and abiding belief in the absolute truth of Torah; one of overriding responsibility to the Halakhic tradition and its texts; one in whom the interpretation of Halakhah and its implementation unfolds within a context of pure submissive קבלת עול מלכות שמים and קבלת עול מצוות.  One can securely respond affirmatively, אליו תשמעון, when one is fully confident of both the modality and the motivation of any innovative initiative.


            Without casting any personal aspersions, this dual test is not met by promulgators of clarion calls for "direct revision" of basic Halakhic norms.  Substantively, these often do not spring out of the tradition and its processes but contravene them – at times, in the name of progressive revelation, explicitly pressing for a drastic restructuring of the whole Halakhic order, and not just for rescinding particular directives.  Moreover, their impact is not cushioned by assuaging reassurance about the motivation.  The calls, while at times issuing from persons fundamentally committed to the truth of Torah, and whose sincerity I have no desire to challenge, are nevertheless often fuelled by extraneous concerns and the felt need – admittedly, perhaps moral and religious, no less than societal – to conform to current philosophic vogue.  At the very least, one is left with unease about the ideological and axiological basis of the balance between the permanent and the contemporary.  Indeed, מוחזק שאני - שהוא צדיק ונביא אמת.


            At this juncture, the reader may very well ask: All well and good, but what has this to do with egalitarianism?  The modality of evaluation is presumably relevant to any problematic phenomenon.  Indeed, I confess I am slightly perplexed myself.  Could not the litmus tests suggested for distinguishing between varied responses in an egalitarian age be equally applicable to responses formulated in an agnostic or hedonistic age?  Perhaps, I answer, what is anticipated is not a set of guidelines for distinguishing between others' responses, but, rather, a response of my own to egalitarianism which should, in some way, allow for adopting some of its contentions, through the modus operandi of ordinary Halakhic processes, while yet steering clear of heresy.  And yet, the question persists.  Could not the same criteria, to be presumably postulated on this score – consistency with acknowledged methodology, consonance with the authoritative corpus, concern for values as well as norms – likewise direct any traditional response to hedonism?


            They certainly could.  If, nonetheless, our assignment confronts us as it does, I suspect it is because we are, collectively, attracted, philosophically and pragmatically, by egalitarianism while sybaritic libertinism leaves us cold.  We leave carpe diem to the Latins, but in the Declaration of Human Rights we find universal moral import.  Hence, in this area, the critical task of winnowing the chaff from the wheat, when we consider that here may be wheat worthy of menahot, assumes significant dimensions.  We are therefore called upon to define, however briefly, our relation to contemporary egalitarianism, at the level of cardinal tenets and basic hashkafah.


                As I perceive it, egalitarian thought is characterized by three major themes, although these need not appear in conjunction.  The first, and most fundamental, is the metaphysical uniformity of man.  For secularists, this conception is virtually axiomatic, deriving from the nature of their total world-view.  Secularism is a levelling force.  Metaphysically, it regards, and must regard, all places, all times, all objects, and all persons as inherently of a piece, as there is no basis and no source for radical differentiation.  Disparity can only be functional and artificial, of a purely secondary order.  For the religious egalitarian, uniformity is not a priori necessary, but he assumes its existence nonetheless as an article of faith, faith in the catholic brotherhood of man under the impartial fatherhood of God.


            A second, less pervasive, theme, familiar from other contexts as well, is that of moral relativism.  Radically expressed, this would entail the rejection of any ethical absolute whatsoever.  In a more moderate vein, it would deny the concept of natural law, reduce mores to social convention, and leave, at most, a few overarching virtues such as love or justice, as ultimate values.  Closely related, third, is the assertion of personal autonomy, with the individual firmly ensconced as the primary, if not the sole, arbiter of right and wrong.


            These basic philosophic premises militate, at the social and political plane, against preferential status for any person or priority for any ethos.  They are the linchpins of an ideology which translates, in practice, into movement toward their implementation through pressure for social and political changes.  Some of these changes are separable as independent initiatives, each with its local impetus.  They are much reinforced, however, by a comprehensive systematic conceptual framework, whose adherents – over and above their concern with the pragmatic ramifications of perceived inequality and their quest for universal entitlement – regard the bare fact of discrimination, regardless of its utilitarian consequences, as an outrageous spiritual abomination.


            While egalitarianism is not exclusively, reciprocally, and inextricably bound to these premises – one could certainly conceive of an absolute, divinely revealed system which should be egalitarian in character and content – the presently prevalent strain is, I believe, very much grounded in them.  If we ask ourselves where does yahadut stand with regard to them, the answer is self-evident.  Recognition of the uniqueness of man is central to our religious humanism; but so is the sense of metaphysical distinction.  It inheres in the concept of kedushah – of place, time, object, and, above all, of knesset Israel.  That kedushat Israel is grounded in chosenness, the fusion of privilege and responsibility which underlies Jewish distinctiveness; and, it is, from our perspective, decidedly metaphysical.  Even if one should side with those who contend, in the face of assorted midrashim that behirat Israel was not, ab initio, part of a providential scenario but, rather, the fruit of historical development, we nevertheless acknowledge that the choice, having been determined, broke fresh ground and created a distinctive level of intrinsic metaphysical status.  Moreover, there are additional levels of kedushah within knesset Israel proper, particular chosenness having been accorded shevet Levi and kohanim; and while merit can, for certain purposes, supersede them, ממזר תלמיד חכם קודם לכהן גדול עם הארץ[13], the categories are very much part of the Halakhic order.


            Premises concerning ethical and religious relativism or ultimate personal autonomy are, if anything, even less palatable.  Normative absolutes are the essence of Torah and our status as commanded spiritual beings the bedrock of our relation to the Ribbono Shel Olam.


            Consequently, in relating to egalitarian ideology, there is no alternative to clearly recognizing and candidly asserting that, as a system, it is, for us, wholly untenable.  However, we may view certain specific initiatives, we cannot countenance the philosophic framework.  In practice, where Halakhically feasible and axiologically desirable, nuanced revisions, in the direction of either stringency or latitude, may lie in store.  The frontiers of what, in this area, the Torah world regards, attitudinally and pragmatically, as acceptable or even preferable, may be tested anew, as the substantive significance of modes of conduct and our collective relation to them is altered contextually.  Ideologically, however, we cannot encounter egalitarianism on its turf but, regardless of what is currently politically correct, must rather confront it with our own truth.  Where it exists, we may note and even stress our own affinity with certain universal elements and egalitarian values; and we should explain the nature of behirat Israel and its demands.  But we have neither the right nor the desire – nor, for that matter, the ability – to sweep cardinal tenets under the rug.  Halakhah does not regard every inequality as an inequity.[14]


            I believe that this account of our stance and mindset is reasonably accurate.  I would, concurrently, submit, however, that it is possibly too one-sided.  Unquestionably, total egalitarianism – radical and comprehensive, ideology as well as lifestyle – constitute a philosophy and an ethic we categorically abjure.  It strikes at the heart of cardinal tenets regarding the given reality and the ideal desideratum of personal Torah life and of communal Jewish polity.  However, as a component of our spiritual universe, the motif of אני בריה וחברי בריה , "I am a creature and my fellow is a creature," strikes a responsive chord; and this, not only because we are humanly sensitive to דמעת עשקים ואין להם מנחם, "the tears of the oppressed, lacking all comforter" – the outcry of the disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and discriminated against – but because, at some plane, the prospect of the brotherhood of man under the fatherland of God resonates, beyond our ethical consciousness, in our religious sensibility.  Hence, rather than dismiss the egalitarian impulse cavalierly, we need – striking a balance between the universal and the particularistic, between hierarchy and levelling – to assess its place within our overall hashkafah.


Still, our fundamental stance should be clear, to ourselves and to our audience.  In discussions of the issue, one occasionally catches traces of an attitude which accepts egalitarianism as an ultimate desideratum and, then, confronted with its apparent inconsonance and inconsistency with Halakhic data, strives to find modes of innovation or improvisation which might enable its implementation within the constraints of Torah.  There may, indeed, be areas of Halakhah – the tragedy-ridden reality of mamzerut is a prime instance – which, in practice, poskim seek to circumscribe and even circumvent.  Egalitarianism, as a whole, is not, however, among them; and our relation to its cardinal issues ought not be tainted by apologetics.


In one area, the principled hashkafic rejection of egalitarian ideology admittedly leaves us open, morally and politically, to the charge of egocentric inconsistency.  Since the Emancipation, Western Jews have traditionally pressed for full civil and political rights.  That pressure has, in large measure, been fuelled by egalitarian impulses and theory; and, to some, it seems palpably unfair that Jews should not seek to enlarge the bounds of others' equality.  The argument is not without appeal, but it is fundamentally specious.  Despite the often aggressive claims of its proponents, equality need be neither total nor comprehensive.  The rejection of one criterion does not militate for the abandonment of all.  The extent to which moral standards ought to be translated into legal sanctions has of course been widely debated.  In dealing with it, however, we can hardly resolve the issue by equating the right to vote or to attend a university with the right to terminate incipient fetal life.  Similarly, within the Jewish community, affinity with the civil-rights movement does not entail the social acceptance of the rupture of Jewish identity often attendant upon intermarriage.


            The issue is exacerbated by a comparison of the respective American and Israeli scenes.  How would we relate, we might be asked, to a local equivalent of hok hashevut, which would admit Christians indiscriminately but impose barriers before Jews, Moslems, or atheists?  As the answer is self-evident, we stand exposed to the sarcasm of Macaulay's lampooning representation of a particularist's assertion that others are duty-bound to tolerate him as he is right and they are wrong, while the reverse does not obtain.  Some might suggest that the gap in consistency could be reduced if Diaspora Jews would forgo some of their entitlement; but as this is a most unlikely prospect, we must look to more salient considerations.  Probably the most relevant is the conventional argument that weight needs to be assigned to self-definition.  The United States is, socially, a predominantly Christian country but is not formally so, while Israel was conceived and founded as a Jewish state.  Hence, as applied to hok hashevut, for instance, every prospective Jewish oleh, while not yet a citizen of medinat Israel, is already a member of knesset Israel; and, thus, is admitted to the national home of the Jewish polity, as a returning American expatriate need not apply for a "green card."  On this reading, we presumably would not cavil at an Indonesian immigration law which would be tilted in favor of Moslems.  The contention is valid, and it obviates many specific objections.  I doubt, however, that it answers all; and I think we should recognize that it is entirely conceivable that the conjunction of the pursuit of certain interests in the Diaspora with adherence to the principle of chosenness and to ethnic identity in Israel may indeed issue in a measure of disparity to which we need to be sensitive.


If we noted a mix of the theoretical and the pragmatic in dealing with our first question, it is even more marked as we relate to the second:  "How should we respond to changes in society which are motivated by a combination of both positive factors of equal respect for all persons as a manifestation of zelem E-lohim and negative factors (tolerance of sexual practices beyond Halakhic norms)?"  Any serious answer must take into consideration two kinds of factors.  There are, first, issues of principle.  To what extent are we obligated or permitted, Halakhically and morally, to stake out a position, ranging from revulsion to support, with respect to such changes?  Second, there are matters of interests – not, I trust, material and personal, but spiritual and communal.  What impact will a given stance, or its absence, have upon the moral climate of our environment – upon our institutions, upon our youth, upon ourselves?  And of course we need to wrestle with these concerns with an eye to a more general dilemma, regarding the balance of principle and interests.  To what extent do we have the right or the duty to sharpen or modify what might have been our optimal response in light of possible fallout?  I am not so naive as to reject this factor entirely, but determination of how much weight should be assigned to it requires careful deliberation.


            In part, these issues would obviously confront us even if we were dealing with change impelled by purely negative or wholly positive factors.  With respect to them, too, we would have to weigh, apart from the content of response, whether to respond at all – and if so, in which vein.  We can distinguish between at least three strains of response.  There is, first, attitude and sensibility.  Even when we in no way enter the lists for or against a given phenomenon, we may still, personally and intimately, react to it, with recoil or enthusiasm.  Secondly, we may engage it, verbally and forensically, with individual or collective expressions of encouragement or opposition.  Finally, we may encounter it actively by seeking to direct the course of events, as regards both society and state, whether through initiatives in the private sector or by promoting governmental involvement to advance or inhibit a particular change.  And all of this, again, with respect to monochromatic change.  Unquestionably, however, the situation is more complex when we confront a mixed impulse, and, in answering the question posed to me, I shall try to bear this factor in mind.


            Whether, confronted, by an egalitarianism twinned to a non-judgmental moral stance, we shall respond at all, will surely depend on how much we care, and on how we prioritize our energies and resources.  That we ought to care can, I hope, be taken for granted – at the very least, at the level of personal reaction; and this, not only because our own community may become infected, but out of concern for the possible contamination of the broader society per se.  The insularity of much of the Torah world in this respect is an educational disaster.  Abortion on demand is a moral abomination, whoever the fetus may be.  We have much to learn from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who took up the cudgels for a modicum of prayer in the public schools.  Unquestionably, we shall be far more concerned if and when our own are involved – caring about Israel more than elsewhere, and about Diaspora Jewish communities more than about their ambience.  We are not so universalistic as to disregard national ties; and modern history has amply demonstrated that felt ethnicism generates more concern than abstract pronouncements about global fraternity.  Insouciance is, however, out of the question.


            To care, morally, is, in all likelihood, to judge.  I am not at all certain that those who advocate a non-judgmental stance practice what they preach.  They tend to be quite intolerant of intolerance – i.e. of the violation of what they regard as a value; and if they are indeed non-judgmental about homosexuality or abortion, it is because they regard these as morally neutral.  Yahadut, however, does not preach ethical distance at all.  As a system, grounded in Halakhah and general morality, it rejects, as previously noted, the relativism upon which much of the abdication of judgment rests; and, hence, it clearly encourages the individual Jew or Jewess to adopt a position vis-a-vis developments in the world around them.


            An attitudinal response is, then, certainly in order.  One might of course question whether this should translate into personal judgment, with respect to an individual or a group.  On the one hand, the pasuk enjoins, בצדק תשפט עמיתך[15].  The Torat Kohanim, cited by Rashi, offers two explanations of this charge, addressed to authorized judges or to the ordinary person, respectively:


שלא יהיה אחד מדבר כל צורכו ואחד אתה אומר לו קצר בדבריך שלא יהיה אחד עומד ואחד יושבדבר אחד בצדק תשפט עמיתך הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות.[16]


The latter charge, considerably amplified in a sugya in Shabbat and Aboth d'Rabbi Nathan, and emphasized by the Sh'iltot,[17] need not relate to anything expressed to one's fellow; it may simply include private evaluation.  It does, however, make allowance for judgment, even if it mandates its quality and perspective.  On the other hand, Hillel's equally familiar dictum, ואל תדין את חבירך עד שתגיע למקומו[18], appears to discourage judgment altogether.  However, it should be obvious that this counsel, too, does not advocate the acceptance of alternative mores.  It rather urges empathy and humility in perceiving and interpreting how and why deviation from normative conduct has occurred.  We are all familiar with the exchange between Rabbi Meir and Beruryah:


הנהו בריוני דהוו בשיבבותיה דרבי מאיר והוו קא מצערו ליה טובא הוה קא בעי רבי מאיר רחמי עלויהו כי היכי דלימותו אמרה ליה ברוריא דביתהו מאי דעתך משום דכתיב יתמו חטאים מי כתיב חוטאים חטאים כתיב.[19]


And I assume most would today be inclined to adopt her softer position, sparing personal criticism even with respect to changes we might find objectionable.  That, too, however, is a far cry from what the movers of such changes seek.


            As to the substance of response, we need to pay particular attention to the mixed roots of the changes under consideration.  In this respect, we are confronted by a quality endemic to much of modern culture.  It has often been remarked that while, in medieval and Renaissance literature, one could tell the saints from the sinners without a scorecard, the modern scene is far murkier.  Shakespeare has been highly praised for the creative diversity which could humanize an Iago as well as a Desdemona, but even in his plays we are hard put to find a whisky priest or a Raskolnikov.  This spiritual chiaroscuro confronts us with a challenge.  The Hazon Ish is reputed to have asked, how could one expect meaningful dialogue between the secular and the religious communities when the same act is valued by the former as an expression of love and classified by the latter under hayvei keritut.


            Nevertheless, at the conceptual plane, the challenge ought not be insuperable.  Avoiding the genetic fallacy, we may, in the spirit of the fabled angelic missive of the Kuzari, appreciate motives while decrying results:  כונתך רצויה בעיני הא-לוה אבל מעשך אינו רצוי[20].  Moreover, we may distinguish between various strains of the motivation proper.  By way of precedent, in this respect, one might cite a remarkable gemara.  Addressing himself to the narrative regarding the daughters of Lot, who had intoxicated their father and then had sexual relations with him, Rabbi Hiyyah bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korhah derives a striking moral:


לעולם יקדים אדם לדבר מצוה שבשביל לילה אחת שקדמתה בכירה לצעירה קדמתה ארבעה דורות לישראל עובד ישי דוד ושלמה ואילו צעירה עד רחבעם דכתיב ושם אמו נעמה העמונית.[21]


Whether, from a technical standpoint, this sexual liaison was, to a non-Jew, Halakhically proscribed as incest, was debated in another gemara,[22] and the Rambam and the Meiri differed as to the pesak.[23]  But that the entire scenario of duped sexuality was reprehensible seems reasonably clear.  Several lines earlier, the selfsame Rabbi Hiyyah bar Abba contrasts the relative modesty of the younger daughter who, unlike her elder sister, in naming her child, concealed Lot's paternity; and Rashi, analogously, castigates the latter for having initiated the zenut.[24]  And yet, on the assumption that the motivation was, at least in part – there was an altruistic aspect of rehabilitating a scorched world, but, surely, a selfish moment as well – admirable, Hazal could appreciate the positive component, and speak of a devar mizvah in this context, to boot.


            Even at the attitudinal plane, however, such a discriminating approach should no doubt be implemented with selective care – depending, in large measure, on the weight of the positive and negative elements, respectively.  I have little difficulty in applying it to the Hazon Ish's case of a wedded couple which does not observe taharat hamishpahah.   I am not only unwilling but unable, however, to react similarly to romantic love which issues in intermarriage.  The magnitude of the transgression, as both a violation of a basic Halakhic norm and as a general apostasy, בה' בגדו כי בנים זרים ילדו, is such that it effectively overshadows everything else.  Yet, the basic principle of axiological discrimination should be borne in mind.


            This last distinction is of relevance to the specific question confronting me.  The term "changes in society" has two distinct, albeit linked, referents – one, sociological, the other, ideological; and they differ in motivation no less than in content.  In practice, abortion may be impelled by convenience or distress.  The theoretical claim to a right to abort, in contrast, is probably fuelled by philosophic assumptions regarding personal autonomy.  The homosexual is driven by a psycho-physiological urge, his advocates by a sociocultural manifesto.  And, of course, the specific gravity of the sociological trends themselves varies widely.  We can hardly regard intermarriage and gay unions equally.  In ferreting wheat from chaff, we need to observe which is the grain at hand, and steer our course accordingly.


            These considerations relate to response as attitude.  To them, in dealing with verbal and with active response, must obviously be added pragmatic factors.  These focus upon results – the fallout of acquiescence, of affirmation, of antagonism, or any blend of the three.  Clearly, decisions regarding such responses will entail a plethora of specific judgments, but the overall thrust of planning response should, almost a priori, be manifest.  We are guided by two primary concerns: a) commitment to the cause of avodat hashem and its advance; b) sensitivity to human personality and its welfare.  The need to assess how best to promote each of these, separately and jointly, and what kind of balance to strike when they are in apparent conflict, is the alpha and omega of any meaningful and effective spiritual strategy – whether in private counseling, in educational endeavor, in institutional initiative, or in communal enterprise.


            These twin concerns are distinct, and yet, reciprocally intertwined; and this, in several senses.  First, sensitivity to those whom we challenge enhances the prospect that they will heed our message.  When Hazal counseled,


לעולם תהא שמאל דוחה וימין מקרבת לא כאלישע שדחפו לגחזי בשתי ידיו ולא כיהושע בן פרחיה שדחפו לאחד מתלמידיו בשתי ידיו,[25]


they were not only concerned with the value of respecting an interlocutor's dignity, but with the prospect of enhancing his sanctity.  Secondly and conversely, appreciation of zelem E-lohim – or, at another plane, of personal kedushat Israel – is itself part of the world of avodat Hashem we are striving to enhance.


            And yet, divergence and even conflict there will probably be, and we need, thirdly, to give thought to optimal balance.  I do not think, for a moment, that a single answer is in order.  We may lean towards one orientation or another, but the exigencies of a given historical reality must always be considered.  Whichever concern is in relative neglect requires special counterbalancing sustenance.  This formula almost assures a kind of perennial unpopularity, but it is what spiritual responsibility demands.


            How such an approach will reflect itself in a response to the current trends of egalitarianism should probably be better determined by those much closer than myself to the vortex of this ideology and its manifestations.  My own assessment is that within the hard core of the Torah world, the human aspect requires greater emphasis than it is currently receiving, while the reverse is true of the broader Jewish community.  But I may be wrong.  With respect to both venues, however, we should be careful to embrace both values, even as the educational and tactical nuances shift; and we should not compromise authenticity in the quest for acceptability.  The maintenance of standards should take precedence over the enhancement of rating.


            In determining policy in this area, axiological considerations should certainly be primary.  Nevertheless, they do not stand alone.  Some place in the planning of response, with an eye to particular present historical circumstances – what F.H. Bradley called, "my station and its duties" – will obviously be accorded purely tactical factors.  Of these, several familiar elements may be singled out for special mention.  The first – most directly related to the mizvah of reproachful tokhahah, but pregnant with far broader ramifications – concerns likely reaction to a prospective initiative.  We recall Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon's directive,


כשם שמצוה על אדם לומר דבר הנשמע כך מצוה על אדם שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע רבי אבא אומר חובה שנאמר אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם יאהבך.[26]


But we also recall the qualification of many rishonim who asserted that, at the public plane, this counsel could not always be heeded, as it had to be balanced by the need to stake out Torah positions and sustain principles.


            In a related vein, we will obviously need to evaluate how a given course, heeded or not, will inhibit problematic "egalitarian" trends – and at what cost.  Consider the worst: intermarriage.  Unquestionably, as the non-Orthodox community realized belatedly, this plague needs to be confronted, first and foremost, educationally; and this, not only by an ethnocentric appeal for Jewish continuity but by inculcating a positive sense of the meaning of chosenness and the uniqueness of kedushat Israel.  Concurrently, however, some will advocate severe social sanctions in the hope that prospective ostracism will serve as an effective deterrent.  I take no issue with this, on principle.  An individual who has crossed the line should not be surprised to find himself beyond the pale; and, as I have indicated, I do not view this as an issue with regard to which respect for the underlying involvement of zelem E-lohim should counterbalance the gravity of the deviation.  Several years ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis floated a suggestion that, given the scope of the phenomenon, the view of those who "marry out" as pariahs should be ameliorated, so that they could continue to feel and function as members of the Jewish community, with all that this could imply for their own and their children's future.  In short order, the suggestion evoked vehement protests – in part, on the grounds that its proponents were too soft on the phenomenon, and, in part, out of concern that a more understanding attitude would dilute the deterrent effect of the traditionally tougher stance.  The first contention certainly deserves to be weighed on its merits; but, as to the second, both the current force of deterrence and the cost, human as well as Jewish, at which it is attained, requires assessment.


            In considering the last point, a partial analogy might be helpful.  Rabbenu Gershom was asked whether a kohen who, had converted to Christianity and then repented, should be stripped of his prerogatives.  The discussion in his teshuvah revolves, in part, around the formal Halakhic questions – much debated by earlier geonim and subsequent rishonim, on the basis of a sugya in Menahot[27] – as to whether a person who had worshipped avodah zarah, perhaps even under duress,[28] could perform avodah for the Ribbono Shel Olam, and as to whether the sanctity of kehunah is vitiated by apostasy.[29]  Rabbenu Gershom argues for leniency with regard to these issues; but then adds further elements to his decision:


הילכך אין לנו ראיה לא מן המקרא ולא מן המשנה לפוסלו אלא שיש לנו סיוע מן המקרא וממשנה שלא לפוסלו דכתיב ולא תונו איש את עמיתו בהונאת דברים הכתוב מדבר כיצד אם היה בעל תשובה לא יאמר לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים ואם תאמר לא יעלה לדוכן ולא יקרא בתורה תחילה אין לך אונאה גדולה מזו ועוד נמצאת אתה מרפה ידיהם של בעלי תשובה ולא נכון לעשות כן דאמר ר' יוחנן כל האומר מנשה חטא אין לו חלק לעולם הבא לפי שמרפה ידיהם של בעלי תשובה.[30]


This concern, lest the kohen be affronted, on the one hand, and with possibly discouraging recantation, on the other, introduces a new dimension to the discussion; and it is one which may have wider application.  We should of course note that the kohen in question may have converted in a climate of intimidation, if not of outright duress, in the first place; and, most critically, that he has repented.  These elements are generally absent in the contemporary case of intermarriage.  Nevertheless, at least as a basis of comparison with respect to the weight assigned to deterrence, the analogy may be instructive.


            Thirdly, at a totally different level, we need to consider what has popularly become known as "the slippery slope" – the concern that acceptance of certain innovations, even if they are Halakhically tenable, may invite pressures for further progressive change, resulting, incrementally, in the erosion of traditional sensibility or even outright Halakhic violation.  This issue has been raised most vigorously with respect to various initiatives concerning the role of women.  Within the Torah world and the rabbinic establishment, response to these has been widely divergent.  Some have contended that whatever the Shulhan Arukh does not proscribe could be regarded with favor.  Others have rejected this premise as a general approach; and they have further resisted any innovation, particularly if fuelled by feminist ideology, on the grounds that it might lead to further demands or trigger a domino effect.  And, there are, of course, a spectrum of intermediate responses.


            Here again, we need to maintain a dual watch.  The concern about the slippery slope is, in principle, both legitimate and genuine.  It is firmly rooted in Hazal, who anchored many gezerot upon it, as graphically illustrated in the Rambam's explanation as to the basis of the prohibition against fowl cooked with milk:


אבל אם אמר בשר העוף מותר מן התורה ואנו נאסור אותו ונודיע לעם שהיא גזרה שלא יבא מן הדבר חובה ויאמרו העוף מותר מפני שלא נתפרש כך החיה מותרת שהרי לא נתפרשה ויבא אחר לומר אף בשר בהמה מותרת חוץ מן העז ויבא אחר לומר אף בשר העז מותר בחלב פרה או הכבשה שלא נאמר אלא אמו שהיא מינו ויבא אחר לומר אף בחלב העז שאינה אמו מותר שלא נאמר אלא אמו לפיכך נאסור כל בשר בחלב אפילו בשר עוף אין זה מוסיף אלא עושה סייג לתורה וכן כל כיוצא בזה.[31]


In this case, one encounters outright d'oraitha violation early in the chain.  The principle is in force, however, even when that is not the case.


            Yet, in applying the principle, two factors need to be weighed.  We shall have to evaluate, first, the likely course of events.  How truly slippery is the slope?  What innovation is likely, and how likely, to generate which kind of pressures?  Second, we shall need to examine at what cost - whether in the form of possible alienation of certain constituencies or in the impairment or dilution of the quality of spiritual life - the presumed security of an ultra-conservative stance is being attained.  This last factor will itself require dual consideration, as we strive both to perceive the prospects of various alternative scenarios on the ground and to determine how much weight to assign this particular concern.


            As for myself, I presume that, with respect to both the women's issues, specifically, and the fear of the slippery slope, generally, I find myself somewhere in the middle – enthusiastically supportive of some changes, resistant to others, and ambivalent about many; but I take it that this is not the venue for dealing with the details of various agendas.  I feel strongly, however, in conclusion, that none of us can be content with a middling position with regard to a corollary issue.  If we cannot countenance egalitarianism as a total ideology, and we cannot rally behind its comprehensive platform, we need to labor to assure that its positive component, respect for zelem E-lohim, be properly internalized and inculcated.  The formulation of my question notwithstanding, that concept does not mandate, for us, "equal respect for all persons."  It demands that all, equally, be regarded with respect, but its quality may differ.  We subscribe to both parts of Rabbi Akiva's familiar formulation.  At one plane, חביב אדם שנברא בצלם; additionally, however, חביבין ישראל שנקראו בנים למקום[32].  And what is true of affection, translates into esteem.  While a balance between the ethnic and the universal is variously struck in some oa our most fundamental and familiar sources – in pesukei d'zimrah, for instance, in one sense, and, most notably, in the opening of shema, in another – that balance is often insufficiently appreciated and inculcated within our Torah community.  Its neglect is, however, spiritually unconscionable and pragmatically foolhardy.  We need to ascertain that, as we insist that the universal element not effectively neutralize the particularistic, we be equally insistent that the reverse not occur.  If our response to the egalitarian manifesto is resistant, we are charged with the moral, religious, and educational responsibility to find compensatory means to assure that Ben Azzai's overarching principle,

זה ספר תולדות אדם, זה כלל גדול מזה,[33]


attain – in our homes, in our schools, in our hearts – the position it deserves.  That we owe not just to the other – in Milton's phrase, "the human face divine."  That we owe to the Ribbono Shel Olam, and to ourselves.           



[1] Perush Hamishnayot, preface to ch. 10 of Sanhedrin, tr. Rav Y.D. Kapah (Jerusalem, 1965), p. 144.  In his notes, Rav Kapah addresses a parallel text from Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 11:6, which due to censorship, has been omitted from most of the printed editions.

[2] See Teshuvah 3:8.

[3] See Yebamot 89b-90b, and Gittin 4:2, respectively.

[4] Horayot 4a; cf. Sanhedrin 33b.

[5] Mamrim 2:1.  Inasmuch as the Rambam does not qualify, as he does in the next halakhah, that only a greater beit din is authorized to reverse its predecessor's decision, it seems clear that even a lesser one is entitled to do so.

[6] Dev. 18:21-22.

[7] Ad locum, 18:22.

[8] Sanhedrin 89b.

[9] Dev. 18:21.

[10] Sanhedrin 89b, s.v. heikha.

[11] Yesodei Hatorah, 7:7; and cf. ch. 8, passim, and 10:1-3.

[12] Berakhot 7b; and cf. Tosafot, Ketubot 17a, s.v. mevatlin.

[13] Horayot 13a.

[14] To the trio of themes previously cited might be added: the quest for parity within relationships.  This has particularly come to the fore in the context of feminism, with respect to marriage.  The issue is important, but here I have largely skirted it; inasmuch as I believe that feminism is qualitatively different from other manifestations of egalitarianism cited.  Conceptually, its claims are less radical and more limited in scope.  Practically, despite some confrontations with the prevailing social order, generally, and the world of Halakhah, specifically, its challenge to tradition is hardly of a piece with intermarriage or abortion, and should be dealt with independently.  Neither the challenge nor the response to it revolves around levels of kedushah or personal autonomy, although, admittedly, some conceptual links and certain operational alliances do exist.  I am inclined to think that the linkage is greater within the broader sociological context than within our specific Jewish community.  I grant, however, that this assessment – with respect to the American scene, largely the perception of an outsider – is open to challenge.  In any event, the fuller treatment the issue deserves lies beyond my present scope.

[15] Vay. 19:15.

[16] Kedoshim, 4:3.

[17] Shabbat 127a-b, A.d.R.N., 8:7-8, and Sh'iltot d'Rabbi Ahai Gaon, Sh'ilta 40, respectively.

[18] Abot, 2:4.

[19] Berakhot 10a.  Of course, at the level of pure peshat, the word חטאים, with the dagesh in the tet, is the nomen agentis for sinners.  The derash relates to the use of this unusual form which resembles the plural of sins.

[20] "Introduction;" in Yehudah Even Shmuel's translation.  Of course, as reflected in the concluding coda, part of the thrust of the work is the undermining of this thesis, by way of stressing the need for conjoined action and intention.

[21] Baba Kama 38b, Nazir 23b, Horayot 10b.

[22] See Sanhedrin 58b.

[23] Issurei Bi'ah 14:10 and Bet Habehirah, Sanhedrin 58b, respectively.

[24] See the gemarot previously cited and Rashi, Ber. 19:33, respectively.  The Ramban, however, focusing upon their longing for progeny – and, probably, upon midrashic statement שהיו סבורות שנתכלה העולם כדור המבול (ב"ר נא:י) – takes a much more positive view of their motivation, and even of the initiative proper:

באולי כי אמרו נעשה אנחנו המעשה הראוי לנו כי ירחם הא-להים ונוליד זכר ונקבה ויתקיים העולם מהם כי עולם חסד יבנה ולא לחנם הצילנו ה' והנה היו צנועות ולא רצו לאמר לאביהם שישא אותן כי בן נח מותר בבתו או שהיה הדבר מכוער מאד בעיני הדורות ההם ולא נעשה כן מעולם (בראשית יט:לג).

[25] Sotah 47a.

[26] Yebamot 65b.

[27] See Menahot 109a, and Tosafot, s.v. lo; Tosafot, Sotah 39a, s.v. vekhi; Shibbolei Haleket, sec. 33; Rambam, Nessiat Kapayim, 15:3.

[28] Bet Yosef, Orah Haym, 128, assumed that the controversy was confined to a kohen who had converted willingly, but that if the conversion was coerced, all would agree that his status as a kohen remained intact; and, in Shulhan Arukh, O.H., 128:37, he decided accordingly:  ואם נאנס לדברי הכל נושא כפיו.  However, as noted in Bedek Habayit's comment on the Bet Yosef, the Rambam clearly appears to have disqualified even in the case of duress.

[29] These are two separate factors.  The first would only disqualify the kohen from nessiat kapayim, the second from priority in keriat hatorah, as well.

[30] Cited in Mahzor Vitry, sec. 125.

[31] Mamrim 2:9.

[32] Abot 3:14.

[33] Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim 7:4:12.

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