What should I do when my best and most honest reading of halakhic texts contradicts
my deepest sense of right and wrong? Can I relate with reverence to talmudic
rhetoric that, if used by a contemporary, would fill me with disgust or
outrage? What should I think when I am intellectually convinced by historical
or philosophic positions that seem to contradict significant elements of Jewish
Torah is the standard by which values must be judged, yet a person without values
cannot properly interpret Torah. If Torah cannot anchor us against the winds
and tides of moral fads, what use is Torah? And yet—how can we know that “Do
not murder” is the norm, and “Erase the memory of Amalek” the problematic
exception, unless we approach Torah with a prior unshakeable commitment to the
value of all human life?
I have struggled with these questions since high school and emerged with an
enhanced but clear-eyed commitment to and appreciation for halakha and rabbinic
tradition. In that process nothing challenged my faith more than finding
teachers who were afraid of difficult religious questions or whose character
made it hard to believe that Torah improved the world. Nothing strengthened my
faith more than friends and teachers who faced religious challenges without
flinching, and whose character embodied Torah at its best—but they were all too
The Center for Modern Torah Leadership (
years ago to make sure that my children and students would have a community of
friends and teachers who would model commitment to Torah through intellectual,
religious, and personal courage. More than that—it was created to make such
friends and teachers the norm in the Orthodox community.
Judaism that embraces the intellectual and moral challenges of modernity as
spiritual opportunities and takes the ultimate significance of all human beings
as tselem Elokim (created in the image
of God) as a norm by which all Torah interpretations should be evaluated. We recognize that
ideas and rhetoric have consequences, and we understand that Torah is mediated
by the character of Torah leaders.
Torah. We believe that the Jewish people is responsible for the face that our
Divine Torah presents in this world, and that we are obligated to produce Torah
that represents the best in ourselves and constitutes a sanctification of God’s
We further believe that the Modern Orthodox community could and should be the lead
contributor to that project, but is not fulfilling its potential. I want to
offer here a diagnosis of why that is so, and explain how
work will enable Modern Orthodoxy to fulfill its mission.
Modern Orthodoxy at its best combines passionate and punctilious halakhic observance
with commitment to core concepts such as recognizing the tselem Elokim in every human being, regardless of gender or ethnicity,
and affirming the intrinsic importance of knowledge, regardless of its source.
In a healthy law-based culture, values and law continually interpenetrate, and
jurists, legislators, and laity alike see themselves as engaged in the common
task of aligning law and cultural values and practices with one another. Many
of the best and brightest of Modern Orthodoxy’s laity, by contrast, seek at
best to reconcile themselves to halakha as it is, and Modern Orthodox rabbis
often feel compelled to choose between intellectual and moral integrity when
deciding halakhic issues.
For example: Many Modern Orthodox Jews believe that all human beings are created
equal, but that halakha requires breaking Shabbat to save Jewish lives and bans
breaking Shabbat to save non-Jewish lives. Many Modern Orthodox Jews believe
that men and women are equal partners in marriage, but that halakha gives
husbands the power to financially blackmail wives in case of divorce. Many
Modern Orthodox Jews find spiritual inspiration and deep meaning in Shakespeare
and Milton, but believe that halakha forbids reading all Christian religious
works or works with erotic components. This cannot continue if Modern Orthodoxy
is to thrive.
Let me dramatize the effects of this in the following way. Imagine for a moment two
Orthodox Jewish communities. In the first, rabbis are given the narrowest of
talmudic educations and censured if they seek any kind of breadth of knowledge.
Rabbis are expected to remain ignorant of economics, history, jurisprudence,
biology, and the liberal arts except insofar as they can be derived from
traditional talmudic study.
In the second, rabbis are expected to obtain broad and deep general knowledge and competence. Rabbis are
expected to have a good grasp of economics, history, jurisprudence, biology, as
well as the liberal arts, and to have graduate competence in at least one field
other than traditional talmudic study.
Now imagine further two Orthodox Jewish communities. In the first, rabbis are given broad
authority over areas of religious life that impinge on economics, history,
jurisprudence, biology, and the liberal arts. In the second, rabbis are given
authority solely over issues of technical halakha.
It should be evident that Modern Orthodoxy is the community that expects great
breadth of knowledge in its rabbis while greatly narrowing their authority. The
reason for this is that the community does not believe that its rabbis live
integrated religious lives, that their breadth of knowledge is effectively
translated into Torah and halakha. And the community is certainly not entirely
mistaken in this regard. The gaps between values and law, and between
intellectual commitments and creeds, are significant.
I do not wish to suggest that this problem emerges entirely from clear
misunderstandings of Torah, whereas the Torah properly interpreted would be in
perfect consonance with Modern Orthodox commitments. This would be facile; “The
Torah is not in Heaven,” and so halakha, for example, is what the halakhically
observant community and its halakhic authorities see as halakhically
justifiable. That category today—we need to acknowledge this openly—includes
positions that many of us in the Modern Orthodox community would exclude, and
excludes positions that many of us would include. For example: It seems to me
halakhically justifiable today to assert that non-Jewish doctors may not
perform abortions even to save the life of a mother, and not halakhically
justifiable to say that women have the same obligation to study Torah that men
do, although I would be more comfortable with the reverse situation.
Nor do I wish to suggest that Modern Orthodoxy should create a sectarian,
separatist halakha on the basis of its values, paying no practical or
intellectual attention to those who disagree with or delegitimate its
conclusions. First of all, I think that in all but the most extreme cases this
would itself be a violation of lo
titgodedu, the halakhic prohibition against forming factions. Second, a
major premise of the Torah and rabbinic tradition is that the Jews are a
political community bound by religious law. As Abraham Lincoln noted, no legal
community can survive as such if everyone reserves the right to secede when a
legal decision goes against them. I think the attempt to create a sectarian
Modern Orthodox halakha would most likely produce not a new halakhic community
but rather yet another non-halakhic community.
What I suggest instead is that Modern Orthodoxy needs to follow the strategy of Bet
Hillel. We need to remain in dialogue with and cite those with whom we
disagree, while at the same time seeking to change the contours of the overall
halakhic community’s understanding of Torah. This does not mean that we need to
convince every observant Jew that our interpretations are correct, although we
should strive to convince as many as possible. It does mean that we need to
develop a community that models complete devotion to Torah and halakha and
believes with complete intellectual and spiritual integrity that our core
values emerge from and are rooted in Torah, and in language and texts that
speak to the entire observant community.
There is a vicious cycle here. The felt gap
between values and the halakhic community’s understanding of Torah can prevent
commitment to halakha, yet Torah will not expand to include values that are not
endorsed by those committed to halakha. But I believe that we can imbue our
students, our colleagues, and our friends with the conviction that the Jewish
people is responsible for Torah as well as to Torah.
Here are some illustrations of how
accomplishes the tasks outlined above:
The Rabbis and Educators Professional Community
challenging issues in an environment of intense listening and complete
commitment. This is, to my knowledge, the only Orthodox leadership setting that
explicitly sets out to have women and rabbis work as equals in the task of
producing Torah, measured by their scholarship, talent, commitment, and
character—without regard for titles. Our first conference addressed the prima
facie conflict between the central modern value of autonomy and the phenomenon
of “asking a sh’elah,” of asking a
halakhic decisor for a binding decision. Among the issues discussed was whether
students should be taught to see that act as a valorous symbolic submission to
the Divine Will, or, on the contrary, as a recognition of personal inadequacy,
which they should strive to overcome through greater education. We’ve now run a
highly successful second conference and have over one hundred rabbis and
educators interested in forming an ongoing professional community.
The Summer Bet Midrash
For the past twelve summers, we
have brought a group of college and semikha
students with excellent textual skills together for a full-time, six-week
seminar centered on a practical halakhic topic. Summer Bet Midrash Fellows
learn to take responsibility for Torah by writing a practical halakhic
responsum to a case that tests their knowledge, skills, commitment, and
character. They are challenged to confront areas of discomfort and use them l’hagdil
Torah u’leha’adirah, to expand and strengthen Torah. Summer Bet Midrash
Fellows discover, for example, that finding ways to free agunot and finding mandates for treating non-Jews as beings created
b’tselem Elokim is a matter of obligation to Torah as well as to human
beings. They discover that Torah is shaped by those who teach and implement it.
Finally, they discover that Torah is affected by the character of scholars as
well as their ideas, and particularly the necessity of courage and integrity
for healthy pesak halakha (halakhic decision-making).
It is worth noting that to our
knowledge the Summer Bet Midrash is the only Orthodox program that explicitly
seeks to give women the experience of deciding halakha.
The Campus Program
shiurim and discussions of religious issues that have immediate relevance to
their experiences. Our goal is for these students to see themselves as the
vanguard of Orthodoxy, as those who have the first opportunity to see how and
whether contemporary ideas and values can contribute to the expansion and
strengthening of Torah. Students from Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, Wellesley,
Lesley, and Boston University participate, and we look forward to making our
reach broader through an East Coast Shabbaton next semester.
also sponsors lectures on many campuses.
The tsad ha-shaveh, the
unifying theme, of all these programs is that they help participants develop a
vision of Torah that fosters a holistic religious life. They enable
participants to affirm their experience of being deeply moral and religiously
inspirational Jews; their love of great art, music, and literature; their
commitment to improving the ethics of every society they feel part of; their
belief in the ontological equality of men and women—and all in the context of a
community that supports their questions and is willing to profoundly challenge their
for example, have served or are serving as Jewish Learning Initiative Fellows
at Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Brandeis, and University of Maryland.
But our current programs are only a kernel that we anticipate will grow into
the intellectual engine of our community, including a semester-long full-time
fellowship integrating Israelis and Americans, a program for Orthodox
investigative journalism, and major curriculum development initiatives.
I want to close with a d’var Torah
that in some ways encapsulates everything I’ve tried to say here.
Mishnah Tractate Avot (often translated “Ethics of Our Fathers,” but better translated
as “Chapters of Principles”) begins by reciting the chain of transmission of
the Oral Torah. “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to
Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets
transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.” Two questions about the
wording are apparent:
1. Why does the chain begin with Moses as receiver, rather
than with God as transmitter?
2. Why are the transfers from Moses to Joshua, and from the
Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly, distinguished as “transmissions,” as
opposed to those from Joshua to the Elders and from the Elders to the Prophets?
The answer to the first question
is that our tradition wishes to emphasize that authority in Judaism can never
be based on a claim of direct Revelation. All Jewish claims of authority must
go through Moses’ revelation and be accountable to the text and traditions that
record it. This makes Judaism profoundly anti-charismatic, as appeals to Divine
authority have no standing. But the price of eliminating such appeals is that
we cannot count on God to correct our errors.
However, this picture is
oversimplified. How can I claim that Judaism is anti-charismatic when prophecy
continued for many years after the death of Moses? We need to qualify that
claim as follows: While Moses was alive, he turned to God for the answers to
both his halakhic and his less formal, more value-oriented questions. Before Moses
died, he transmitted Torah to Joshua, that is to say that a qualitative
change occurred, and it was no longer legitimate for halakhic questions to be
resolved by unmediated Divine Revelation. Prophets could still claim that the
Mosaic revelation intended particular values, but their charismatic authority
was subject to the intellectual processes of the legal tradition. On the other
hand, the outcomes of the formal processes of halakha could be critiqued on the
basis of prophetic value statements.
Prophecy ended by the time of the
Men of the Great Assembly, at which point Torah underwent yet another
qualitative change—to an era of complete human responsibility for Torah, in
which we have no tool other than the text of the original Revelation to correct
our errors. Only our own study of Torah can correct us if our halakha ignores
the cries of the weak, or if our rhetoric denies the humanity of those we see
The Center for Modern Torah Leadership makes it possible for our community to fulfill that responsibility.
It creates the contexts and content that let us hold a mirror up to our
community and ask whether the Torah we learn and live by is everything it
should be. If you’re interested in learning more of our Torah, or about our
program—or if you are interested in helping us take responsibility for
Torah—please visit us at www.Torahleadership.org.