Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The dilemma of the Orthoprax

Talmud professor David Halivni writes in his autobiography The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction (pp.112-14) about the crisis he faced when the JTS was about to have a vote on whether to ordain women or not, something he feels is halakhically indefensible (although he writes of a long search through the halakhic literature to try to find some justification, even as hora'as sha'ah). He sent his fellow faculty a long letter explaining his opposition. He explains his view of halakhah, that
Changes [in halakhah] did take place, but they were not done consciously. The scholars who legalized them did not perceive themselves as innovators. the changes were integrated into community life long before they sought - and received - legal sanction. They originally came about imperceptibly, unnoticed, the result of a gradual evolutionary process. By the time they demanded legal justification, they were ripe, overgrown, as it were. So much so, that in many an instance, whoever opposed the changes was considered a breaker of tradition, adopting a "holier than thou" attitude.

A Jew knows no other way of reaching out to God other than through halakha....

I hope you will understand why I cannot participate in the vote on women's ordination.... I am committed to Jewish tradition in all of its various aspects. I cannot, therefore, participate in a debate on a religious issue of major historical signifigance where the traditional decision-making process is not sufficiently honored; its specific instructions as to who is qualified to pass judgement not sufficiently reckoned with. Even to strenghten tradition, one must proceed traditionally. Otherwise it is a mitzvah haba'ah ba'aveirah.

It is my personal tragedy that the people I daven with, I cannot talk to, and the people I talk to I cannot daven with. However, when the chips are down, I will always side with the people I daven with for I can live without talking. I cannot live without davening.
When I read these words, the latent triumphalist in me thought "what else did you expect?", courage of his conviction notwithstanding. Orthodox Jews always considered Conservative Judaism if not ahalakhic then irreversibly on a slippery slope away from halakha, right or wrong.

But the truth is that nearly any idiosyncratic thinking Orthodox Jew can relate to the first sentence of the bolded paragraph, if not only 'Orthoprax' Jews. What people choose to do with the dilemma is another matter. Calling it a personal tragedy may be dramatic, but I am sure I know what he means.

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