Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Adoption of Heterodox Practices III


Despite this long list of precedents, there have been many cases in history in which the prohibition against imitating sectarians was not invoked despite its seeming appropriateness. For example, the Reform movement championed the synagogue sermon in the vernacular, rather than Yiddish, and the style of rabbinic speaking that has been termed the “edifying sermon.” While many rabbis of that time denounced these innovations, other traditional rabbis not only voiced no opposition to these practices but even adopted them.[33] Why were they not concerned with the issue of strengthening the heterodox?

Similarly, in the early twentieth century, the Young Israel movement intentionally adopted certain otherwise permissible heterodox practices in an attempt to make the Orthodox synagogue more attractive to young American Jews.[34] Did all this imply a different reading of the sources that denies a prohibition against imitating sectarians?

One could suggest that there is, in fact, no actual ban on imitating sectarians. Rather than being a rabbinic prohibition in itself, it is the reason that the Sages had in instituting other, specific prohibitions. Thus, the Sages prohibited slaughtering into a ditch that leads to a pit because doing so would strengthen the position of sectarians and that, the Sages felt, was a sufficiently negative consequence to warrant a specific prohibition. However, not everything that may strengthen the position of sectarians is automatically prohibited. While an action that will encourage the heterodox must be looked at disfavorably, there is no prohibition that will render it impermissible and, therefore, the posek has more leeway in deciding whether or not this action should be allowed.

An alternate and far more convincing suggestion is that the prohibition is not against imitating sectarians but against encouraging them. Adoption of a heterodox practice that will confirm them in their ways is prohibited. However, if the adoption of said practice will actually weaken the heterodox position then it is permitted. Anything that will strengthen the sectarian position, whether it is imitation, words of encouragement or implicit legitimation, is prohibited. But if the very same actions will weaken the stature of sectarianism then they are permissible if not praiseworthy.[35]

This analysis, however, generates an extremely subjective prohibition. Yet, such is sometimes the way of Torah. It is the role of the posek to carefully weigh the possible outcomes and decide whether an action will encourage the heterodox, and is therefore prohibited, or will weaken their standing, and is therefore permitted. This is no small feat. It is almost a certainty that posekim will disagree about the ultimate outcome generated by various practices and, therefore, their permissibility. Yet, such is also the way of Torah.

However, the reader is cautioned that because the definition of which heterodox practices are prohibited is ambiguous, or perhaps subjective, only a sensitive and experienced posek can make a definitive ruling on the subject. This ambiguity is not license for the inexperienced to choose the most comfortable option but is, rather, the exact opposite; precisely because of this lack of clear definitions only great and experienced scholars have the prerequisite ability to rule on such matters. That sociology plays a role in the final determination of the halakhah does not mean that anyone with a modicum of sociological insight may issue an halakhic ruling. It is, at its core, an issue that requires a keen sensitivity to halakhic values and priorities, an appreciation whose fullest embodiment is only found in the greatest of scholars. The determination of whether a practice is a subtle legitimation of sectarians, one that is sufficiently strong to be prohibited, can only be left to those few who are qualified.

This is not a situation in which an authority offers an opinion which the layperson may accept or reject. Rather, it is similar to a woman’s cloth stained with an ambiguous color. If a rabbi decides after careful consideration that the stain is red, he is not recommending that based on his judgment the woman should, if she chooses to, consider herself a nidah. He is ruling that she is a nidah with all the implications, including the punishment of karet, that it entails.

Contemporary Applications

What we can conclude from the above survey is that normative halakhah prohibits the adoption of distinctively heterodox practices that might give the impression of a step towards accepting sectarian ideology. However, practices that are significantly different, such as an educational Bat Mitzvah outside of the synagogue, are permitted. This consideration is certainly relevant today. One would be hard pressed to differentiate between the status of Orthodoxy in America today and its position in pre-war Germany, at least in a way that is sufficiently significant to change the application of this halakhah. Furthermore, the Conservative movement has unquestionably moved well beyond any acceptable ideological or practical border so that it, too, is certainly classified as sectarian along with Reform. This essay should not be mistaken with a call to revive inter-denominational bickering. Rather, it is a call to consider the strengthened position Orthodoxy has gained and to responsibly respond to it.

It is to those who are our closest that we must be most sensitive of subtly legitimating and, thereby, further closing their doors to Orthodoxy. This author can attest from personal and second-hand involvement in the Conservative movement, and the written record certainly provides much testimony as well, that there are many who will grasp at any hints, even those based on gross misinterpretations and far-fetched comparisons, that "the Pharisaic sages have permitted the matter" and that the Orthodox are on their way to acknowledging what the heterodox have long accepted. Furthermore, there are many who defy denominational labels and wait for hints of Orthodox direction to determine their own place; if the Orthodox appear to be moving towards accepting it, whatever the relevant “it” may be, then these fence straddlers feel justified in utilizing the Conservative sponsored facilities for “it”. With the shift towards the left in the Conservative movement, this “Conservadox” group of issue-watchers has grown significantly. The need to avoid legitimating Conservative practices is a concern not only for the future of our Conservative brethren who desire legitimation but also of those on the fringes who carefully watch the winds of change.

(to be continued be"H)

[33]In nineteenth century Germany, recognizing the timing is key to understanding a shift in attitude. An earlier authority, from before Reform had defined itself and its practices, had to contend primarily with the prohibition against imitating Gentile practice. Later German, and Hungarians in general, were facing Reform (or Neolog) more than Christianity and were limited by the prohibition against imitating sectarians. Thus, the wearing of canonicals or usage of a choir in Germany were initially issues of adopting Gentile rather than Reform practices. (I am indebted to R. Seth Mandel for sharing with me this insight.)
[34] R. A. Leib Schneinabaum, The World That Was: America 1900-1945, p. 19 ff.
[35] A relatively recent example of this attitude is R’ Ahron Soloveichik’s approach to women reciting kaddish in the synagogue. Since, he claimed, allowing women to do so would weaken the heterodox we must permit it. See R’ Ahron Soloveichik, Od Yisrael Yosef B'ni Hai, p. 100. Other posekim, however, disagreed with this evaluation of the impact on society.

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