Orthodoxy and Diversity: Thoughts on Parashat Vayera, November 12, 2011

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Rabbi Marc D. Angel

(This  column is based on my article that appeared in Liber Amicorum, a book of essays in honor of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, published in Jerusalem, 2006.)

The Talmud (Berakhot 58a) teaches that one is required to recite a special blessing when witnessing a vast throng of Jews, praising the Almighty who is hakham harazim, the One who understands the root and inner thoughts of each individual. “Their thoughts are not alike and their appearance is not alike.” The Creator made each person as a unique being. He expected and wanted diversity of thought, and we bless Him for having created this diversity among us.

The antithesis of this ideal is represented by Sodom. Rabbinic teaching has it that the Sodomites placed visitors in a bed. If the person was too short, he was stretched until he fit the bed. If he was too tall, his legs were cut off so that he fit the bed. This parable is not, I think, merely referring to the desire for physical uniformity; the people of Sodom wanted everyone to fit the same pattern, to think alike, to conform to the mores of the Sodomites. They fostered and enforced conformity in an extreme way.

Respect for individuality and diversity is a sine qua non of healthy human life. We each have unique talents and insights, and we need the spiritual climate that allows us to grow, to be creative, and to contribute to humanity’s treasury of ideas and knowledge.

Societies struggle to find a balance between individual freedom and communal standards of conduct. The Torah, while granting much freedom, also provides boundaries beyond which the individual may not trespass. When freedom becomes license, it can unsettle society. On the other hand, when authoritarianism quashes individual freedom, the dignity and sanctity of the individual are violated. I wish to focus on this latter tendency as it relates to contemporary Orthodox Jewish life.

Some years ago, I visited a great Torah luminary in Israel. Because of his independent and original views, he was increasingly isolated from the rabbinic establishment. He commented sadly: “Have you heard of the mafia? Well, we have a rabbinic mafia here.”  The issue is whether a rabbinic scholar has the right and responsibility to explore and discuss ideas, even when these ideas are not currently in fashion. To apply crude pressure to silence open discussion is inimical to the best interests of the Torah community. This is the way of Sodom.

Similar cases abound where pressure has been brought to bear on rabbis and scholars who espouse views not in conformity with the prevailing opinions of an inner circle of Orthodox rabbinic leaders.  Over the years, I have been involved in the planning of a number of rabbinic conferences and conventions. Invariably questions are raised concerning who will be invited to speak. Someone says: If Rabbi so-and-so is put on the program, then certain other rabbis and speakers will refuse to participate. Someone says: if such-and-such a group is among the sponsors of the conference, other groups will boycott the event. What is happening in such instances is a subtle—and not so subtle—process of coercion. Decisions are being made as to which Orthodox individuals and groups are “acceptable” and which are not.

This process is insidious and is unhealthy for Orthodoxy. It deprives us of meaningful discussion and debate. It intimidates people from taking independent or original positions, for fear of being ostracized or isolated.

Many times I have heard intelligent people say: I believe thus-and-so but I can’t say so openly for fear of being attacked by the “right”. I support such-and-such proposal, but can’t put my name in public support for fear of being reviled or discredited by this group or that group.

We must face this problem squarely and candidly: The narrowing of horizons is a reality within contemporary Orthodoxy. The fear to dissent from the “acceptable” positions is palpable. But if individuals are not allowed to think independently, if they may not ask questions and raise alternatives—then we as a community suffer a loss of vitality and dynamism. Fear and timidity become our hallmark.

This situation contrasts with the way a vibrant Torah community should function. Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein, in the introduction to Hoshen Misphat of his Arukh haShulhan, notes that difference of opinion among our sages constitutes the glory of Torah. “The entire Torah is called a song (shira), and the glory of a song is when the voices differ one from the other. This is the essence of its pleasantness.”

Debates and disagreements have long been an accepted and valued part of the Jewish tradition. The Rama (see Shulhan Arukh, Y.D. 242:2,3) notes that it is even permissible for a student to dissent from his rabbi’s ruling if he has proofs and arguments to uphold his opinion. Rabbi Hayyim Palachi, the great halakhic authority of 19th century Izmir, wrote that “the Torah gave permission to each person to express his opinion according to his understanding...It is not good for a sage to withhold his words out of deference to the sages who preceded him if he finds in their words a clear contradiction...A sage who wishes to write his proofs against the kings and giants of Torah should not withhold his words nor suppress his prophecy, but should give his analysis as he has been guided by Heaven.” (see Hikekei Lev, O.H. 6; and Y.D. 42)

The great 20th century sage, Rabbi Haim David Halevy, ruled: “Not only does a judge have the right to rule against his rabbis; he also has an obligation to do so [if he believes their decision to be incorrect and he has strong proofs to support his own position]. If the decision of those greater than he does not seem right to him, and he is not comfortable following it, and yet he follows that decision [in deference to their authority], then it is almost certain that he has rendered a false judgment.” (Aseh Lekha Rav, 2:61) Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in rejecting an opinion of Rabbi Shelomo Kluger, wrote that “one must love truth more than anything.” (Iggrot Moshe, Y. D., 3:88)

Orthodoxy needs to foster the love of truth. It must be alive to different intellectual currents, and receptive to open discussion. How do we, as a modern Orthodox community, combat the tendency toward blind authoritarianism and obscurantism?

First, we must stand up and be counted on the side of freedom of expression. We, as a community, must give encouragement to all who have legitimate opinions to share. We must not tolerate intolerance. We must not yield to the tactics of coercion and intimidation.

Our schools and institutions must foster legitimate diversity within Orthodoxy. We must insist on intellectual openness, and resist efforts to impose conformity: we will not be fitted into the bed of Sodom. We must give communal support to diversity within the halakhic framework, so that people will not feel intimidated to say things publicly or sign their names to public documents.

Orthodoxy is large enough and great enough to include Rambam and the Ari; the Baal Shem Tov and the Gaon of Vilna; Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Benzion Uziel; Dona Gracia Nasi and Sarah Schnirer. We draw on the wisdom and inspiration of men and women spanning the generations, from communities throughout the world. The wide variety of Orthodox models deepens our own religiosity and understanding, thereby giving us a living, dynamic, intellectually alive way of life.

If the modern Orthodox community does not have the will or courage to foster diversity, then who will? And if we do not do it now, we are missing a unique challenge of our generation.