Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rav Hershel Schachter's Visit to Woodmere Last Shabbos and the Mantle of Leadership

Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, the Rosh Yeshiva and posek from YU, spent this past Shabbos at Aish Kodesh in Woodmere in connection with YU's quadrennial chag hasmicha. It was a true privilege having him and I was surprised to see that he indirectly addressed the recent brouhaha involving the "open orthodox" movement's recent innovations to Jewish practice involving women putting on tefillin and "partnership minyanim," wherein women lead parts of the davening. He did not speak about the issues directly but touched on the main theme of his recent teshuvos on those topics. See here for the one on tefillin and here for the one on partnership minyanim.

I will summarize a small portion of his drashos and then share some of my thoughts about what these developments mean to me as a baal teshuva.

Rav Schachter's Drashos over Shabbos

Friday night, between Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv, when Rav Moshe Weinberger usually speaks, Rav Schachter spoke instead. In the course of a larger discussion, he quoted an opinion that unlike earlier times, one should not repeat Shmonah Esrei if he forgets Yaaleh VeYavo on Rosh Chodesh because we are likely to forget the second time as well. This is because we concentrate less during davening and are likely to forget Yaaleh VeYavo again,  unlike earlier generations when people had better concentration. He then commented, as an aside, that "Some think many more halachos should change today!"

Shabbos morning, he spoke about how Moshe ascended through the cloud that covered Har Sinai and that according to one opinion quoted by Rashi (on Shmos 24:18, quoting Yuma 4b), Hashem held Moshe by the hand and led him through a path through the cloud.

He related this teaching by Chazal to a teaching of Rav Simcha Kook that connects to a well-known  pejorative story misnagdim tell about chassidim. That story goes as follows:

Three chassidim were talking and each one was trying to show that his rebbe was better than the others' rebbes. The first chossid said, "My rebbe is so great that one time he was traveling with a horse and wagon and it began to rain. He did not want to be delayed by muddy roads so he davened to Hashem and He made a miracle. It rained on one side of the road and on the other side of the road but it was dry in the middle and he was able to travel."

The second chossid responded, "Well that's nothing. One time my rebbe was traveling with a horse and wagon and it was almost nighttime. There were no street lights, so he would not be able to travel in the dark. He therefore davened to Hashem and He made a miracle. It was dark on one side of the road and on the other side of the road, but it was light in the middle and he was able to travel."

The third chossid answered, "That's all very nice but your rebbes are small potatoes compared to my rebbe. One time he was traveling with a horse and wagon and it was almost Shabbos. He knew that he could not travel on Shabbos but he need to get to town. He therefore davened to Hashem and He made a miracle. It was Shabbos on one side of the road and Shabbos on the other side of the road, but Chol in the middle and he was able to travel!"

Rav Schachter related that he once heard Rav Simcha Kook speak at YU, which is in Manhattan, the "great-grandfather of impurity." He commented that YU had accomplished a miracle even greater than the final rebbe's, making a small strip of Chol with Shabbos on both sides. He said the miracle of YU is that it exists in the middle of Manhattan, with Chol surrounding it on both sides. Yet it creates a little strip of Shabbos in the middle. That is true greatness!

Rav Schachter followed up that we live in such confusing times. We are surrounded by confusing, cloudy secularism on all sides. Like Moshe, it is so difficult to find that path of Shabbos, that path of Kodesh in the middle of all of the Chol without getting lost. Just like Moshe had Hashem to hold him by the hand and guide him through the dark cloud up to Har Sinai, we too need great poskim and gedolim to show us the path through the cloudy secularism of this world so we do not become confused by the misleading appearances of the world around us.

Reflecting on Rav Schachter's Message

I grew up Reform and became religious in high school as I have written about elsewhere.  One central aspect of the Reform and Conservative denominations which I was happy to get away from was the hypocrisy of religious systems which tailored religious doctrine to appeal to the desires of the masses. Among many others, I borrowed two sociology books from my local JCC library to learn about orthodoxy during that time. These two books had a major influence on my thinking. One was The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, by William Helmreich and  the other was Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism, by Lynn Davidman. Both books were written by people who were not part of the communities they were portraying and were not necessarily trying to write complimentary portrayals.

I made one observation based on the communities profiled in these and other books and certain attitudes held by many people I came across. There is a segment of the modern orthodox community that institutionally approaches Judaism in a qualitatively similar manner as the Reform movement in which I grew up. I do not judge them as people, but I observed people who attempted to find religious justifications for whatever they wanted to do.  This smacked too much of the Reform background I left behind so I made sure to distance myself from the perspective of that subgroup of modern orthodoxy.

It pains me to watch when people within the ostensibly orthodox world fail to learn the lessons of the failure of the Reform and Conservative denominations' "doctrine on demand" approach.  Whether it was the "women's tefilla groups" craze in certain enclaves twenty years ago or the "partnership minyanim" of today, I am baffled at people's shortsightedness. How can they not look past the end of their noses to see the long term outcome of a policy which institutionalizes the practice of finding halachic justification for whatever secular-influenced morality happens to be in vogue?

Note that it is clear that these issues are nowhere near the forefront of the main challenges facing orthodoxy today. Many other issues loom much larger, like the problem of child abuse and the problems outlined in Rav Moshe Weinberger's famous article from Klal Perspectives, Just One Thing is Missing: The Soul. That being said, we can only correct the failures within orthodoxy to the extent there is still an orthodoxy to correct. If we sit idly by and abandon a segment of our brethren to oblivion in a few generations, like other sects which broke off from Judaism, any correction of  various issues will be a moot point with respect to those who are lost.

That is why I am so grateful for leaders like Rav Schachter. He and other rebbeim in YU and the RCA care too much about the modern orthodox community to stand idly by while a not-insignificant minority of it begin walking down the slow path out of orthodoxy while still maintaining that they are orthodox - but "open." He wrote his well-known essay "B'ikvei Hatzon" twenty years ago to address the issue of women's tefila groups then and he wrote his recent teshuvos on women wearing tefillin and "partnership minyanim" in recent weeks to "lead us through the cloud."

Many rebbeim, talmidei chachamim, and poskim prefer to learn and teach their own talmidim and shul-goers and are too "humble" to offer our generation the leadership it needs. But where there is a vacuum in leadership, that void is filled by bloggers and rabbis, "little foxes destroying the vinyards." This contrast between fitting leaders who take up the mantle of leadership and unfit individuals who take up the role of the poskim is reflected in the Rambam's words in Hilchos Talmud Torah (5:4):
... So too any sage who is fit to pasken and does not do so holds back the Torah and places stumbling blocks before the blind... [This is in contrast with] the little students who do not amass sufficient Torah yet seek to aggrandize themselves before the ignorant people and among the residents of their cities and jump [to the forefront] and sit at the front to judge and pasken for the Jewish people. They multiply machlokes, destroy the world, extinguish the light of Torah, and destroy the vineyards of the L-rd of Hosts. Shlomo said about such people, in his wisdom (Shir Hashirim 2:15), "We have been gripped by foxes, little foxes destroying the vinyards."
I am grateful that some have learned the lessons of the failure of the heterodox world I merited to leave behind. We are fortunate to have giants in Torah, poskim like Rav Schachter, who heed the words of the Rambam to lead the generation. May Hashem help such leaders guide us through the confusing cloud of life in exile and may they leave little empty space for the "little foxes" to mislead segments of our community along the path of the Reform and Conservative movments.

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Anonymous said...

Beautiful words. Thank you!

Moshe said...

Yasher Koach...

But doesn't this drive much deeper. Into every day actions of parents letting kids watch Sunday Footbal. Giving into teenagers having iPhones. Adults taking teenagers to rock concerts. Wearing untucked T Shirts, Shorts, and Sandals on Sunday because its a "day off".

These are good pure people who identify as "Modern".

These "little" things creep up just like the Yetzer Hara. We start to become lax, lose our focus, and slide down into the world of secularism around us leading to people looking for a Rabbi that conforms to their view ending in some people distorting Emet because they are so lost.

g said...

Your post states "How can they not look past the end of their noses to see the long term outcome of a policy which institutionalizes the practice of finding halachic justification for whatever secular-influenced morality happens to be in vogue?" I am clearly not as perceptive as you since I do not know the motivation of others. What I do know is that if a practice is within halachic boundaries it is acceptable and there are Rabbonim (albeit perhaps not those whom you choose to follow) that have opined that partnership minyanim are within halachic bounds. Remember practices such as a sermon in shul, in the vernacular as well as celebrations of bat mitzvoth originated outside the so-called 'orthodox' fold and since those are within halacha we accept them today within orthodoxy. Perhaps people are motivated by trying to engage in avodat hashem that speaks to them just like those of prior generations who did not understand Yiddish.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

G, all of these points were addressed in the teshuva on the topic I linked to at the top of the post.

With regard to the point about motivation, Rabbi Gordimer addressed that one nicely in this piece:

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Also, with regard to people's good intentions, I'm sure you remember which road is paved with those.

g said...

Beit Shamai amd Beit Hillel married each other but disagreed. We cannot seem to disagree without vilifying each other. You take pride in your kids not knowing labels yet you support R Shachter's tshuva as answering concerns about people's motivations and intentions. Those motivations and intentions are known only to those people and HKBH. Fact is those people are following their own Rabbonim who differ with Rav Shachter. That is what one is supposed to do. The complete disrespect of another's viewpoint - justified by asserting that that person's motivations are not lshem shamaim - is exceedingly troubling to me.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


It comes down to the fact that we can't be so open minded our brains fall out. There are 70 faces of the Torah... but not 71.

Although some of his points are unique to the SAR school situation, many of Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt's delicate points address your points here:

g said...

Actually I have listened to rabbi Rosenblatt's excellent explanation on this and he agrees with my points. In fact one of the things that is so disturbing in these events are the attacks on Rabbi Hartstark who paskened a Sheila privately for two young women - and got attacked - some saying he was motivated by x or y. Those attacks were completely false and outrageous. That is a situation where there is a sincere disagreement between Rabbonim(R Rosenblatt and R Hartstark) over what the halacha is - choosing to view it as a 71st approach to Torah - well that is putting on labels.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Agree that R. Hartstark was judged unfairly (not that I agree with this particular decision of his).

There's probably not much more for us to say but I'll close with the thought that just because someone has smicha doens't make them a bar hachi to pasken about innovations to Judaism. Again, I refer you to Rav Schachter's teshuva on the topic for that point.