Thursday, January 28, 2010

Post-Orthodox Responsa?

I've been going through the collected responsa of Conservative Rabbi Wayne Allen, the inappropriately named Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues. The book is a collection of halakhic essays from the past 20 years on a wide variety of topics, all ending with a practical conclusion.

Like any such collection, the essays vary in length, depth and approach. However, I generally found them to be excellent. I always consider a good sign of intellectual honesty when you cannot generally predict what conclusion a writer will have to a halakhic question. To my surprise, the author is very unpredictable. In particular, he is sometimes stricter than I would be! That is not what I expected from a Conservative rabbi.

Click here to read moreHere are some examples:

  • Can a Non-Jew serve in a synagogue choir? Discouraged
  • Can cantors repeat words and phrases in the liturgy? Yes as long as it doesn't distort the meaning
  • Can you add the names of the Matriarchs into the Amidah? No
  • Can women lead Pesukei De-Zimra? No
  • Should mourners leave the synagogue for Yizkor during the first year? No
  • Can you convert a lesbian to Judaism? No
  • Can a Non-Jew serve as a pallbearer? Yes
  • Can a pregnant woman go to a cemetery? Yes unless parents object
  • Can a mourner lead prayers on Shabbos and Yom Tov? Yes
  • Does a married woman need to cover her hair? No
  • Can an active homosexual be ordained as a rabbi? No
  • Can the kesubah of a non-virgin say besulta (virgin)? As long as she was never married before
  • Can you give an employee a negative evaluation? Yes
  • Is there a concept of clergy confidentiality in Judaism? No
Is this a Post-Orthodox approach to halakhah? In some ways, yes. The author feels free to use any relevant source. He quotes from academics, Reform scholars, Modern Orthodox journals, Charedi responsa and everything in between. His breadth is quite impressive. He also utilizes a good deal of secular sources to establish the reality. He treats all sources equally, regardless of the stature of the author. Sometimes this leads to results that I think are somewhat humorous, such as carefully analyzing and inferring from the words of R. Hayyim Halevy Donin and R. Maurice Lamm as if they were the Shakh and the Taz.

I find this objectionable. In general, I believe that you have to take into account the stature of a work's author. I also believe that halakhic responsa operate within a closed system. Articles can quote anyone and offer a wide variety of views. Responsa, however, have a time-honored style and tradition. There is no room in responsa for non-traditional scholars. R. Amram Gaon writes in a responsum (link) that scholars who do not act appropriately should not be mentioned in the beis midrash. I think that this also applies to being mentioned in responsa. They have no place in the give-and-take of halakhah.

The author also rejects mystical and non-rational practices regardless of how common and well-established they are. He is also quick to reject and dismiss customs that he considers mistaken.

On the other hand, there are reasons why this collection of responsa is not Post-Orthodox. The author does not take advantage of historical methodologies. He does recognize historical progression of views -- who said what and when -- but he does not conduct any sociological or historical-critical analyses. He also does not utilize Talmudic criticism.

Further, he is coming from the wrong direction to be Post-Orthodox. He is not someone who is experimentally deviating from Orthodoxy based on his personal religious agenda. Rather, he is coming from the Conservative side, deviating towards Orthodoxy. Will the two paths meet or have they already crossed and traveled past each other?

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