Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wanted: A Modern Orthodox Talmud

[Post I'm contemplating: Why does mussar have such bad street cred? at Modern Uberdox]

Many of my friends take umbrage when “Modern Orthodoxy” is challenged by those who consider themselves more traditional. They argue that our claim to Torah-loyalty is made no less serious and no less legitimate by our kippot srugot, embrace of the State of Israel and universalist tendencies.

Fair enough. But, at the same time, I think that our claim to Torah-loyalty is less clear, so long as we don’t state what, exactly, we mean by Torah.

Open up your gemara to Berachos 6a, and read about trapping sheidim in a lead pipe. Then read the Modern Orthodox Jew say that he prefers the alternative view of Rav Hai Gaon and others, that sheidim may not be real.

Turn to Yevamos 118b and learn the suggestion that a woman will be satisfied with any marriage, even a quarrelsome one, because she is better off married than alone. Then read the Modern Orthodox Jew say that he wishes to extend Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling from Igrot Moshe Even haEzer 1:180 to permit re-marriage without a get where the husband exhibits certain flaws.

There are many other passages of gemara we could cite –
Declarations regarding physical reality that are very difficult to support in light of our observations of physical reality;
Assertions of biological differences between Jews and non-Jews;
Lessons predicated on readings of pesukim which vary from our own editions;
and so on.

Many of these passages are challenged by many Jews today, people who identify themselves with YU or YCT or Rabbi Riskin or Gush Etzion. Granted that they accept the vast, vast majority of gemara, but there are quite a few passages of concern.

This post is not designed to weigh in on whether a Jew should trust certain challenging passages, or what mechanisms should be employed to determine that trust. That is an important issue, but it’s not the point of this post.

The point of this post is: One of the reasons why many traditional groups challenge the legitimacy of Modern Orthodoxy is that it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, Modern Orthodoxy accepts and rejects.

This is relevant regarding Talmud as well as midrash, and it’s relevant regarding the centuries of commentary and responsa that build on both.
It’s relevant when the Rashba rejects observed reality that contradicts the gemara.
It’s relevant when the Tashbetz supports the idea of learning in kollel.
It’s relevant when Rav Yosef Karo describes personal conversations with angels.
It’s relevant when Rashi, building on midrash, reads apparently-strained hints into the text of the Torah.
And so on.

Several years ago, I did research on the Conservative position on homosexuality in Judaism, and found that some Conservative rabbis believe that the pasuk in Vayyikra condemning homosexuality was Moshe’s own thought, based on his environment, and not from Gd. Aside from the interesting questions this generated in my mind (such as why would Gd select a herald who would get a law so wrong, with such great repercussions for so many) it also forced me to ask what other biblical passages those Conservative writers might similarly downgrade.

The same question, though, may fairly be asked of the Jew who self-identifies as Modern Orthodox.

Remember the old line, "Orthodox is crazy, Reform is lazy, Conservative is hazy?"

While it’s legitimate to say that these are gray areas, and that the vast, vast majority of passages are accepted by all, the bottom line is that until this question is answered clearly – until one knows what “Modern Orthodoxy” believes, until there is a “Modern Orthodox”-approved version of Talmud and masorah - I believe it’s legitimate for those outside of our camp to feel that we are hazy, too.


  1. You conclude: While it’s legitimate to say that these are gray areas, and that the vast, vast majority of passages are accepted by all, the bottom line is that until this question is answered clearly – until one knows what “Modern Orthodoxy” believes, until there is a “Modern Orthodox”-approved version of Talmud and masorah - I believe it’s legitimate for those outside of our camp to feel that we are hazy, too.

    I think this is a good thing. A defining feature of Mod-O is a lack of Moetzes, of "the gedolim hold", of belief in uniformity of opinion and attitude.

    It's sad that the typical Mod-O Jew may be hazy on these subjects. However, it's laudable (within Mod-O's own belief system) that as a community, they are a cloud of dots that reside at wider variety of places in "thought space".


  2. Just asking:
    Do you think that anyone alive today believes in trapping sheidim in a lead pipe? There has to be some recognition of cultural and social change since the times of the Gemara. So we will always be left with some grey areas. It's our job to work it out so that we can live in the modern world. We, or at least the best of 'our' Torah leaders, have to address these incongruities and take a stand. In order to say פוק חזי you have to have someone to look towards.

  3. Side-note... It looks to me like the gemara is speaking of storing the elixir for being able to see sheidim in a lead tube. It would seem sheidim really don't want to be seen, and will steal it.


  4. If one can challenge the Modern Orthodox with the Tahsbetz'z support for kollel (although that isn't precisely what he said ) should one challenge Chareidi communities with the passages in the Rambam opposing kollel? And if one wants to cite the Rashba's rejection of reality that contradicts the Gemara, one must cite the opinion of the Gaonim that rejects the cures cited in the Talmud because they have observed them to be ineffective. The fact is the history of Torah is replete with machloket among the authorities of each age--in some cases one opinion has won out and in others the matter remains in dispute. This is true in halacha, how much more so about aggadic passages where we are often unsure which are meant to be taken literally and which are not, or what the lessons we are to learn from them are. If we interpret Talmudic aggadot about demons nonliterally will will have support among the greatest of the Rishonim; likewise, if we take the passages at face value.

    The Rambam in his introduction to Cheilek talks of three groups among those who interpret aggadita. The first he calls fools who take fantastic aggadot literally and "they honor and exalt the Chachamim --as they understand it--but they really demean them to the ends of foolishness without understanding. ... And they place the Torah in the opposite way to what God intended ... 'And they will say only a wise and understanding nation...' But when this group repeats aggadot literally they cause people to say "only a foolish and base nation...'" Why anyone today, when we know even more about the natural world than the Rambam did would want to consider this group more loyal to the Torah than the thos who look for the lesson encoded in the aggadita rather than take them literally (his 3rd group) is beyond me.

  5. R' Micha-
    Agreed, internally. But as you note, that logic doesn't make this any easier for others to digest.
    And agreed that this is a possible read of the passage, although it doesn't change some of the other challenging aspects of the passage, like the feet of the sheidim.

    Yes, some do, I think.

    Mike S-
    I don't the issue is right/wrong, or even legitimacy of a point of view. I think the issue is in defining what one believes. The non-MO state which side they take on these issues with great clarity; MO does not do the same.

  6. How does a movement that is so heterogeneous, innovative, and often anti-authoritarian develop a common approach to halacha or interpretation? The moment some set of principles is labeled MO, someone within MO will dispute it in whole or in part or even as a concept.

  7. As a formerly yeshivish guy, please let me assure you that in the so-called more traditional wings there's a lot in the Gemara that also is not accepted as normative (or normal), even if they don't think of their approach to tuning that stuff out in terms of "grappling" with the disconnect.

  8. For whatever reason, HKB"H decided to create a messy, complex world with lots of shades of grey. It's much easier to pretend it's black and white, but it just isn't. We just call them as we see them, if there is a confluence to a specific opinion, fine, but it's the process, not the result imho that defines the "MO" (at least as my wife calls it , in "Joel Land")
    Joel RIch

  9. I'd like to line up with both Micha Berger and Joel Rich on this one. (okay, behind them in the next row...)

    In a complex varied world that Hashem created, why can't we simply proclaim that the true nature of His Torah is also complex and varied. There are definable parameters in many cases; but not always monolithic points to which all must intellectually (or even halachicly) adhere the same way. What's more, if the nature of Hashem (can one say that) is unknowable in our usual cognitive terms; then too much definition may be inappropriate.

    BTW, of all the examples you gave, I have no problem at all with the Beit Yosef speaking with angels and producing Magid Meisharim or other things. Why is it so incredible to attribute to him (and some of the other greats of Tzfat at his time) a level of ruah hakodesh/prophetic experience?

  10. I agree with your main critique: that modern orthodoxy has not developed works that seriously grapple with some of these issues (aside for some individuals focused on specific topics like R. Nosson Slifkin). This was a major critique developed by some perceptive modern orthodox people as well, and I think this lack of engagement threatens the future of the movement. But what I don't fully grasp is why the modern orthodox need to agree on the conclusions. Even models of synthesis in the past did not agree on the proper way to bridge the gap between their world and the Gemara. That's why Rambam's More Nevuchim challenged R. Sa'adya Ga'on Emunot Ve-de'ot. Gray area is legitimate; the issue is why the modern orthodox community is not trying at all.
    As mentioned by some previous commenters, while the charedi critique may have legitimacy, there is also a lot of hubris involved. The self perception of the Charedi community as "anti-modern" is a myth that feeds into their own sense of superiority over the modern orthodox. I agree with those comments (I have seen this myself) who say that many who identify as Yeshivish would not take most of the aggadot that you mention seriously, and at the same time would pat themselves on the back for "being frum," even as they ignored the issue. I also agree that they likewise interpret texts (such as Tashbetz) in ways that suits them but that does not take historical facts into account (a convincing case could be made that the Tashbetz was referring to individuals involved in avodas ha-Kodesh, not to entire societies learning instead of working. Ironcically, this is also a "modern" phenomenon.)The psychology of much of "Charedi" society is modern: they participate in elections, talk the language of "rights," are involved in sciences and business, etc. The fact that many see themselves as aligned with Evangelicals, and that many of the current books out there reflect the suburban ethos of "what religion can do for me," shows they are well-integrated into modern society and that their Judaism expresses itself in modern forms.

  11. Wow, This is so wrong-headed I don't know where to start.

    What, in the entire Talmud, convinced you that Jews have EVER agreed on what they believe, or should agree?

    Isn't the whole point the preservation of a dialectic, in which dissenting voices are retained, and remembered?

    It's only in modern times that Judaism claims to be something monolithic and uniform. And it's not surprise that the boundaries around each group have to get tighter and tighter in order to be able to delineate who is "in" and who is "out."

  12. Bob, Joel, Joseph-
    So let’s get out of the business of looking for a consensus – but can an individual MO Jew explain what he trusts, and what he doesn’t trust, and about what he is uncertain?

    I hear.

    R’ Mordechai-
    1. Complex world – Because the complexity of the world shouldn’t keep me from saying, “I believe in X, I don’t believe in Y, I’m not sure about Z.”
    2. Maggid - Because speaking to a malach is generally associated (certainly by Rambam) with nevuah.

    I would challenge your view of history, but it’s not really the point, because the past has a vote, not a veto. (heh)
    I don’t see this push as being about losing dissenting voices – I think it’s about identifying them for what they are, instead of lumping all voices together as one.

  13. but can an individual MO Jew explain what he trusts, and what he doesn’t trust, and about what he is uncertain?
    For me-I'm uncertain about just about everything, I trust that my Parents/teachers did their best to pass on the mesorah to me and am certain that I have to use a "clear and logical mind" (cue R'YBS) to try to make sense of it all.
    Joel Rich

  14. it also forced me to ask what other biblical passages those Conservative writers might similarly downgrade.

    Sometimes I think that we spend more time worrying about what could or might happen than reality.

    Furthermore I think that sometimes people are so afraid of change they refuse to think critically about what they have learned because that is just how it is done.

    But I am part of that hazy group that is called Conservative Jewry. Although it should be pointed out that those on the farthest right of Conservative Judaism and farthest left of MO are kind of sharing a home.

  15. Josh-

    For someone who promotes an analytic approach, your understanding of both Conservative and Orthodox seems rather non-analytic.

    If a school of thought proposes that passages of Torah are not Divine, why is it inappropriate to ask about the logic, limits and application of that approach?

    And if another school of thought insists that passages of Torah are Divine, why assume that this insistence is a product of a failure to think critically, and an insistence on following "how it is done"? Is it impossible for people to think critically and come to a conclusion that differs from your own?

    Such a dismissive approach to both Conservative and Orthodox schools is surprising.

  16. For someone who promotes an analytic approach, your understanding of both Conservative and Orthodox seems rather non-analytic.

    Hah, you think that people act logically. Bah, I gave up that fallacy years ago. While some definitely do so, far too many do not.

    We are all products of our experiences. My neighbors tell me that they know what my shul is like, but they admit that they haven't stepped inside. They have never learned with my rav or read anything he has written.

    They have chastised me from driving on Shabbos, but if you were to go there you'd find the television "magically" turned on by a timer or nanny.

    It is much easier for my "side" to walk into your shul than vice versa. With the talk in the community your Temple President would be forced to sit you down and speak about concerns over whether you might be sliding off the derech.

    Bottom line- I don't care if anyone agrees with me. It is ultimately immaterial. I am comfortable where I am at and have reached this place the way that most do: through arbitrary decisions and the Magic 8 ball.

  17. Okay, so Josh says that for him - Torah is no authority. Then there's no problem, and nothing to get clear. Everyone does what he wants because it is all arbitrary. (Imagine what chaos would reign if society operated on such a thoughtful approach!)

    Rabbainu, I'll agree with you that the effort to clarify what we believe in, what we don't, etc. is important. Even critical. My only real objection is that you started out advocating that we have to do this on a cultural level. I'm not sure that is necessary. If I recall the Kuzari correctly, until there is a Sanhedrin again we won't have consensus on many halachic issues, and I would so then certainly so on non-halachic issues.

    The learning, questioning, clarifying is critical for each of us, and groups or communities of us; but I think not for the entire Jewish world. What is true, is the ideas have to be put out there for consideration by others as part of a pursuit of the truth of Hashem's Torah.

  18. "So let’s get out of the business of looking for a consensus – but can an individual MO Jew explain what he trusts, and what he doesn’t trust, and about what he is uncertain?"

    Mori ve-Rabbi,in this, I am with you all the way, as I stated originally. But "the individual MO Jew" involved in his own life does not always have the skills or time to figure out what he does or doesn't believe on any one issue; all he does is lap up information that he can and analyzes it to the extent that he can. Just as the "individual yeshivish Jew" does not always have the requisite time and/or skills to truly explore what his community tells him to believe in (or not to believe in). I think that the modern orthodox leadership, which has or should have the expertise, needs to step up to the plate. I await a modern orthodox Emnuot ve-De'ot and Moreh Nevuchim (incidentally, the release of R. Kook's li-Nevuchei ha-Dor does much of what you are calling for).

  19. Josh-
    If I didn't know you better...

    R' Mordechai-
    Fair enough; I concede the cultural point.

    I'll have to read l'nvuchei hador; I haven't done so. And such a magisterial work would certainly be welcome.

  20. Important question.
    I,however do not know if it is only related to the MO world.
    The Chareidi world may state that ex,.shedim "nishtane hateva".While we might say that was the "scientific" thinking of that time.
    Already the Rishonim like the Rambam and Meiri interpreted shedim as "internal"as opposed to actual objects.

  21. RH - lol, touché.

    but I don't get your point about "lumping them all together." both the format and pedagogy in traditional Talmudic study very clearly delineate majority and minority opinions.

  22. Confession: while I have a copy of R. Kook's Li-nevukhei ha-Dor, I have not read through it systematically, but a number of experts have summarized major elements of it. For easy reference see:

  23. there's a typo in the 2nd paragraph I think. Im pretty sure I know what you meant to write...but not 100%. mind fixing it?

  24. Joseph-
    Thanks for the link.

    Thanks for catching that.