Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Orthodoxy and the Public Square

It's back! Yes, the ambiguity over my denominational affiliation has returned with the most recent issue of Tradition (Spring 2004 -- they're catching up!).This issue begins with a symposium on "Orthodoxy and the Public Square." The questions addressed to the panel are as follows:

1. How (or does) Orthodox thought compel our participation in the public policy debates of the broader society in which we live?

2. Where in our tradition's sources do we look for "answers" to the public policy questions of the day?

3. What is the role of rabbis in this process? How do we determine what is a "halakhic issue" requiring formal pesak?

4. What are the parameters of operating in coalitions with other communities and organizations (including other Jewish denominations and non-Jewish religious groups) in the pursuit of our community's interests and values in the public policy arena?
Six scholars addressed these topics, including R. Meir Ya'akov Soloveichik (yay!!!). However, the author with whom I most agreed was R. Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, which leads me once again to think that maybe I'm not MO.

I. I can't seem to get past question #1. Should we, as an Orthodox Jewish community, be adding our voice to the public policy debates in our country? I just can't see why the answer is yes. Who really cares what we have to say? Are we going to change anyone's mind on the subject when we tell them that the Talmudic tradition values X over Y? Christians aren't going to care. Secularists aren't going to care. Non-Orthodox Jews might care a little. The only ones who are going to care are Orthodox Jews. Of course, I'm exaggerating. There will certainly be interest by a wide variety of people but it will only be intellectual curiousity. They use their own moral compasses to decide on these crucial issues and not our complex religious principles. Do you really think that Congress will be swayed by the argument that Halakhah prohibits the removal of feeding tubes from vegetative patients? There is a certain arrogance, or perhaps misplaced confidence in our communal standing in the world, in thinking that we can be an "or la-goyim" (light unto the nations) just by telling people what our tradition has to say on current political issues. If anything, we just become one of dozens of different voices on the subject; certainly not a particularly bright light.

II. This is not to say that there are not pragmatic reasons to sometimes voice opinions on subjects. We do not want to appear, and we certainly should not be, indifferent to the problems of our times. If occasionally releasing public policy statements adequately shows our concern, then that is what we should do. It is probably only, if at all, part of the solution. We also do not want the non-Orthodox movements to become the de facto spokespeople for Judaism. If we need to counter their voices, then it is appropriate to do so. And, of course, since we need to speak out on issues that concern us, we do not want to appear callous to other people's suffering (which we are not). So despite the little value our opinion has in changing public policy, sometimes it is necessary simply to show our support. I think the real solution is individual participation. When Orthodox Jews as individuals take part in the political debate, not as sole representatives of thousands of years of tradition but as concerned individuals, then we are properly showing our concern and adding to the public sphere.

III. Da'as Torah is crucial. As R. Soloveichik points out, we are frequently dealing here with over-arching halakhic values and not merely paragraphs in the Shulhan Arukh. It takes complete mastery of the halakhic and aggadic tradition to reach some of the decisions on these matters. As R. Dov Zakheim also points out, the Da'as Torah is worthless if it is not well-informed in the intricacies of the subjects. But I believe that R. Zweibel is entirely correct that gedolei Torah have to be setting these public policy directions. Which leads to the next point.

IV. There is no single Da'as Torah. If the Council of Torah Sages (whose exclusive membership has always been based largely on political concerns) votes 5-3 on position X, there is clearly little room to state flatly that "The Torah supports position X." Evidently, the Torah is ambiguous about the subject and there are different valid views. It pains me to see so many different people, all great scholars, stating without qualification what the Torah view is on a particular subject. They are almost never correct simply because they fail to say "In my opinion" or "Based on my analysis of this subject." Granted, doing this leaves room for the unlearned to feel free to disagree, and that is a serious danger in today's world of arrogant and ignorant independence. But failing to do so is also dangerous because the frequent and obvious contradictions lessen our respect for Da'as Torah. If we think "They can't both be right," we will end up lacking respect for one or both of them. And that is a serious problem in our community today.

UPDATE: Back to I, I think it's most likely that I don't know what I'm talking about in terms of who wants to know what he have to say and whether it will change their view. But it sure is nice to pontificate without having a clue.

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