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The Cherubim and The Community 

02/03/2014 02:15:00 PM


The Cherubim and the Community - Talking to each other or talking past each other?

Rabbi Shaul Robinson, Lincoln Square Synagogue, Shabbat Parashat Terumah 5774

The recent, and much discussed decision by the principal at SAR high school in Riverdale to allow girls to wear tefillin under certain circumstances has provoked a deep debate in the community that shows no signs of abating. This debate, both the content and its character, tell us much about the community we live in, what our values, fears, aspirations and problems are. It seems to have held up a mirror to our collective face, and shown us a picture of a community at a point of time, both flattering and unsettling. 

The whole discussion has generated an incredible amount of heat and light. In talking to people, emailing, reading on the whole very learned and articulate pieces by rabbis, educators and lay people alike, many crucial issues come to the fore that really say a lot about who we are as a community, what we are confident in and what we are scared of. I am going to name the questions, merely set them out, and I hope to spend the coming years discussing and teaching them with you.

The first is change. Religion is about tradition, what we call the Mesorah. In our religion the past has a vote, and frequently a veto. On the other hand, are we a community threatened by the very idea of change? Can we accept that not everything we grew up will stay the same?  Somebody once showed me a letter from the teachers of a school called the Uptown Talmud Torah condemning in strong terms the idea of showing children slideshows from  magic lantern illustrating bible stories – “a departure from our holy traditions, where will it end?”, wrote the rabbis in 1919. On the other hand, are there elements unwilling to hear, even tolerate, traditional understandings of gender differences. Is it no longer acceptable in Modern Orthodoxy to affirm traditional roles, is the plea for egalitarianism in halacha one that we have no ability - no willingness, to resist? 

What is the role of halacha nowadays?  The world has changed. Do halachic norms and values, the precedents of centuries matter still? Or is Jewish law ossified and fossilized?  If for many Rishonim something was clearly permitted, even if not the norm, is it an option for us? Who is in charge of changing the halachic system? Do we believe, in our camp, in poskim, rabbinic decisors, from whom ultimately we accept psak halacha? To look at in another way, in a world where poskim are more and more removed from what many people see as the real world, certainly the Modern Orthodox world, why must we bound to increasingly remote or alienating authority figures?

Does a school have a responsibility to consider the wider implications of its actions – how it affects the rest of us, or is a school’s first and primary duty to the spiritual welfare of its own students? Are we still part of the Orthodox community, or an increasingly separated from it? Some are deeply concerned that our schools and shuls are no longer seen as authentically, remotely, Orthodox, and what will that say about our relationships, family – including shiduchim -  and institutional ties with the wider frum world?  Others complain that as the Orthodox world goes to the right and towards more extremism, as they see it, there is no point in even pretending we are part of the same universe. Some wonder what the big deal is – “alavai” this should be our biggest problem; that someone wishes to do a mitzvah.  Others are astonished that halakhic concerns are nowadays something so casually dismissed.

These questions are exhilarating, fascinating and also exceptionally important. On all sides there is a sense that the future of Orthodox, Modern Orthodox communities is at stake, that this is a debate that must be conducted, and for many must be won. But if I have characterized these debates as being cerebral, intellectual, thoughtful, then I fear I may have been exaggerating somewhat. Because for all of the issues raised, and because of, or despite, their critical importance, there is something profoundly unsettling. Not just that these debates are conducted in a shrill, sometimes aggressive manner. That’s one thing. But that there is a deep sense of dislike, fear, disparaging, dismissiveness bordering on the actual hatred of the other side. Not always, but very, very often. If that’s the way we are going to talk about these issues, then I can guarantee one thing- we will all be losers, the result will be weakened communities and disengaged Jews

I was reading the Facebook comments of a piece responding to a piece responding to another piece by a certain rabbi, when I came across the following comment: 

Those two girls are likely among very few at SAR serious about t’fillin. Unfortunately, incorporating their commitment to the wearing of t’fillin into the religious life of the school, is a consequence of the lack of commitment to religion at SAR, not a consequence of a desire to keep Orthodoxy vital in the modern world

SAR’s decision was born of accommodationism, not principle, and nothing important or good for the Jewish Jews will come out of it. How many SAR High School graduates will even remain a part of the Orthodox community or will send their own children to an Orthodox High School?

And in reading that piece I had a moment of revelation. For the first time I realized what was at stake. For  a women to wear tefillin may well be assur, forbidden , but you know what is unquestionably assur, what is definitely wrong? To speak like that. That’s assur. What’s going to drive people to keep more mitzvot – allowing or banning tefillin, or nasty, divisive scornful judgmentalism? 

Are there boys who are graduates of SAR who don’t put on tefillin every day? Without question  And that’s a problem we are going to have to really face up to, the failures of Modern Orthodoxy to pass on commitment to the next generation,

But, here’s the thing – there are graduates of every yeshiva – I meet them the whole time, we know them, some of them are us – graduates of Mir and Torah V’das and Chaim Berlin and Lakewood and Satmar and Lubavitch – and Ramaz and MTA and Gush and Hakotel and YU, graduates from 50 years ago and from 2 years ago who don’t put on tefillin.

This individual to assumes so blithely that too much tolerance, too much liberalism drives people away from Orthodoxy. History also shows that too much intolerance, too much judgmentalism, too much inflexibility does exactly that as well. This dismissiveness, this complete unwillingness to debate anything other than the presumed wickedness of the other side, is present on the other side of the debate too. A person writing about the bad rabbis who dare question SAR’s decision writes

This obstinate reliance on fallacious halakhic arguments merely highlights how deeply rooted misogynistic perceptions are in Orthodox life. It’s not about halakha. It’s about how some men think about women’s bodies and their roles in society.

It is profoundly wrong to throw around the accusation of sexism or misogyny against people who take a different halachic view. That is not the way halakhic discussions ought to be conducted.

In considering how far we have come – here we are debating questions of incredible modernity – it seems we haven’t come so far at all. Today we read parashat Teruma – “build Me a Holy place” says Hashem – v’asu li mikdash, vishakanti betocham’. We seem unaware that the reason we no longer have such glory in our life is because of the sin of sinat chinam – baseless hatred, which as the Netziv points out, is the sin of turning halachic differences of opinion into personal, hate filled divisiveness.

At the heart of the Mishkan is the Holy of Holies. In the holy of holies, rested a box, an Aron Kodesh. Inside is the Torah – the tablets of stone from Har Sinai. And on top are two keruvim, angels. The Torah tells us how the keruvim were to be placed on the Aron:‘the cherbs are to face each other, and their faces are to look to the cover of the Aron’. We have a contradiction! The keruvim are to face each other, but they are also to look down. Which is it?

An answer is as follows: Shivim panim ltorah, there are 70 faces to Torah – When we learn Torah and when we keep Torah and discuss Torah, we encounter people who look at it differently than we do. When we debate, we have to look at the other person – we acknowledge, their validity, even when we disagree with what we say. We talk to them, not past them, not about them. And so the keruvim look at each other, not away from each other.

These debates about Torah have to be rooted in Torah, ‘el Hakaporet’ – the keruvim have to be looking downwards, at the Aron and the Torah. We have to look at the Torah and be guided by what it really says, not what we wished it says, or assume it says. Loving debate, respectful debate, rooted in Torah – that’s what lies at the heart of the Mishkan.

May Hashem bless us that we can rebuild this model of loving respectful discourse in our communities, and in that merit soon merit the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, bimheyra Biyameynu!

Sun, February 25 2024 16 Adar I 5784