November 12, The Jewish Press
Note: This op-ed was written in response to an October 29 news story by the JTA on several rabbis with Orthodox semicha who officiate (or are willing to officiate) at same-gender weddings. A shortened version appears in the Jewish Press here, and the full version appears below.
As much as the Orthodox world takes pride in insulating itself from the ever-changing morality of the outside world, it is foolhardy to believe that we can hermetically seal ourselves off from values and lifestyles that conflict with the Torah. Whatever happens in Europe, San Francisco, and New York will eventually find its way into Orthodox Jewish communities, albeit in diluted forms.
Ever since Jews were allowed out of the ghettos the debate has raged on how to approach this challenge. Many have chosen to barricade themselves as much as possible from the outside world, while others have chosen to embrace the outside world and attempt to separate the good from the bad. Both approaches are acceptable and should be respected – but we must also acknowledge that both approaches have serious vulnerabilities.
When either of these approaches are successful, they produce the finest of Jews: Torah scholars with refined character, fear of Heaven, and the ability to produce a kiddush Hashem wherever they find themselves. I am not here to decide between the two, and truly believe elements of both these approaches should be found inside every person.
The more closed approach reduces the infiltration of harmful influences and makes it easier for the average Jew to reject that which is morally unacceptable without fear or shame. His support system is not only strong, it demands this of him.
At the same time, these societies must grapple with the side effects of this approach. The average Jew in this society often lacks the tools to navigate the outside world when he inevitably must deal with it, and can easily be overwhelmed by situations that are outside the safe bubble that is all he knows.
In addition, these societies tend to demand strict conformity to both religious and social norms (which are often blurred and hard to distinguish). Those who are unable to conform, or who can only do so on the outside, are often broken and lost. The same support system that will protect him from outside influences can easily turn against him; protecting the society will always take precedence over supporting the individual. Someone who goes slightly “off the derech” might be kicked entirely away to protect others from his “bad influence”.
Finally, when these outside influences seep in, as eventually they do, these societies tend to react with an exaggerated sense of denial to protect their pristine image. This has precisely the opposite effect, and only handicaps their ability to tackle problems head-on.
The more open approach has pros and cons as well. Members of these societies are raised to feel comfortable dealing with the ever-changing challenges of the contemporary world without compromising on the Torah. In addition, when the average Jew struggles with a problem, he is not viewed as a hostile threat to others and a black stain on his entire family. He will more easily find the care and support he needs to get back on track.
The downsides of the more open approach are extremely serious and have not received adequate attention of late. I am not here to offer chiddushim, but to emphasize what may have been forgotten.
The increased exposure to harmful, seductive influences has drawn countless Jews from fine families away from the Torah, many of them permanently lost.
In addition, it is all too easy for those who embrace the outside world to embrace its values as well. This applies not only to ordinary Jews, but to rabbis as well. Indeed, those with the most brilliant minds are especially vulnerable to the yetzer hara to reconcile that which is foreign, even that which is abhorrent, with the Torah. Their advanced intellect is co-opted to rationalize the immoral, to dissect the Torah in ways that produce the opposite of what it teaches, to gradually erode our sensitivities for right and wrong, eventually adopting the idolatrous notion that nothing is objectively right or wrong.
Ultimately these rabbis lose the ability to be outraged by anything or anyone other than fellow Jews who don't share their “compassionate, nuanced, understanding” approach.
I was asked what makes a rabbi Orthodox. The question is really what makes anyone Orthodox; the answer is not based on one's level of scholarship or achievement.
The answer, for purposes of this discussion, is straightforward. One who would stand before Har Sinai today and proclaim “Na'aseh v'nishma”, who accepts upon himself the ol malchus shamayim, whose fear of Heaven precedes temporal considerations, who accepts that one's personal feelings and values must conform to the Torah and not the reverse, and who believes that Chazal were the most enlightened, knowledgeable, compassionate, and trustworthy people who ever lived – that is an Orthodox Jew.
An Orthodox Jew recognizes that the obligation to love one's fellow applies only to one's fellow – not to one who lives a lifestyle that is directly opposed to the Torah and is proud of it, too. There is a critical distinction between someone who feels guilty when he sins and wishes to overcome it – which is all of us – and someone who has come to terms with the sin and may no longer even consider it a sin at all. We can indeed separate the sin from the sinner, but only if the sinner wishes to separate from the sin. An Orthodox Jew cannot accept someone who identifies with something the Torah forbids and has given up on separating from it.
There is also a critical distinction between one who accepts the Torah as it has plainly been taught since the day it was given and those who reintrepret the Torah to suit their needs and desires. The former is Orthodox, the latter is not.
A rabbi who suddenly discovers that it is not good for man to be alone, and therefore two men should be allowed under the Torah to live together as romantic partners and raise children together, so long as they don't do anything explicitly forbidden (wink wink) has forfeited the right to call himself Orthodox, and media members who mistakenly refer to him as such should be corrected.
Contrary to what many have come to believe in the more open segments of the Orthodox world, it is not the job or the right of rabbis to “interpret” the Torah. It is their job to absorb it from their predecessors who have done the same, transmit it as faithfully as possible to others, and in cases of doubt to use only the traditional process of determining the proper course of action.
Rabbis are not intellectual vigilantes with the power or the right to find a halachic way whenever there is a societal will. It is not the job of a rabbi to teach people that they need not have a conscience or feel bad when they violate the Torah. Sometimes saying “it is forbidden” is the most compassionate response of all, for it saves one from surrendering the ability to ever live in accordance with God's will. We must be compassionate with all those who seek help, but simultaneously remain firm in what is right and what is wrong, and reject those who believe the Torah must bend to their will. No means no.
If someone wishes to convert to Judaism and accepts the entire Torah minus a single letter, he is categorically rejected. Such a person would be more “religious” than almost any of us, but we cannot allow him to join the Jewish people under such terms. Similarly, a Jew who accepts all the mitzvos except one that he believes is not eternal, immutable, and a Heavenly obligation for all Jews cannot call himself Orthodox. The same goes for any rabbi who supports such an ideology.
Such a rabbi might be a great scholar with a kind heart, and he may do many good deeds. He may be many things. But he is not an Orthodox rabbi, and his teachings should not be allowed to draw others down the dangerous path of erosion.
The more open segments of the Orthodox world have allowed far too many foreign values to seep into their thinking, and have lost the willingness to take a firm moral stand against these values. They are worried what everyone else will say, and have lost their fear of what God will say when they stand before the Heavenly Court.
We are not Orthodox Jews because it is always convenient or popular. We are Orthodox Jews because we turn to the Torah to decide right and wrong, and allow nothing else to influence our moral determinations. Rabbis who do it differently might be nice people, but they are not Orthodox, and their teachings are null and void.