Response to Times Article

An article appeared yesterday in The Times, “Rabbi challenges Orthodox Jews to embrace modernity” (07/05/16), concerning my recent book Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy.

I requested from the author of the piece, Michael Freedland, to show me the article before it was published but he declined my request. Unfortunately, the article as it has appeared is in my view sensationalist, inaccurate in some important respects and not reflective of my views in other significant respects.

I would like to make a number of points and clarifications, some more general and others more specific:

  • The tenor of the article suggests that my book has been divisive, even inflammatory. The very first sentence claims that British Orthodoxy is currently embroiled in “arguably its biggest controversy for 50 years” as a result of the book’s publication. This is simply not the case at all. Indeed, I am not aware of any public (or for that matter private) controversy sparked by the book. Some Orthodox rabbinic colleagues have privately disagreed with me on particular points; others have been kind enough to warmly congratulate me on the book. The launch of the book at my shul, The Hampstead Synagogue, in October 2015 sparked interest but not controversy. My JC article of that month briefly setting out some of the book’s main ideas caused no controversy. Neither did the talks on the book I was kindly invited to give in recent months at the synagogues of two United Synagogue rabbinic colleagues. Neither did the panel discussion on the book at Limmud Conference in December 2015. The idea that the Orthodox community in the UK is in the throes of another “Jacobs Affair” is absurd.
  • I would like to emphasise that I respect the Chief Rabbi, respect his authority and do not have any conflict with him. I appreciate the time he has given me since taking office for two detailed and constructive conversations about issues surrounding women and Orthodoxy, even if we did not agree on all aspects of this intricate topic. I applaud the range of beneficial recent initiatives in this area undertaken by the Chief Rabbi and the United Synagogue.
  • My criticism of widespread Charedi positions on the religious significance of the State (not just the Land) of Israel, the role of women and secular studies is expressed in the article in words less nuanced than those I used in my conversations with Michael Freedland and in the book. The criticism on these issues as expressed in the book is absolutely standard from a Modern Orthodox perspective and does not reflect any lack of respect for Charedim. I have only admiration for the excellent infrastructure described by Rabbi Pinter. Anyone who reads the first chapter of my book will see that the tone is simply one of respectful disagreement with standard Charedi positions on some important theological and ideological issues. As I said at the book launch last October, Modern Orthodox Jews have much to learn from the Charedi world and I wish that we had more interaction with it.
  • There is almost no discussion in my book of the issue of women rabbis. There are two issues which are somewhat conflated in the article. The first is the question of whether in fact there will be recognised Orthodox women rabbis in the UK in the fairly near future. I happen to think that the answer to that question is yes, but one could be an opponent of the idea of Orthodox women rabbis and still predict that it will happen. The second question is whether there ought to be Orthodox women rabbis. I believe that the short answer is again yes, but issues surrounding precise functions and titles need to be addressed. The topic requires separate treatment. I realise that my view is not shared by most Orthodox rabbinic colleagues but would refer readers to the moving op-ed on the issue published in the Jerusalem Post in February 2016 by my revered teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in which he pleads for a “wide tent” in Orthodoxy on this issue, explicitly stating that “although I had never intended for our women [i.e. those in Rabbi Riskin’s women’s ordination programme] to use the title Rabbi or Rabbah, I… do not believe that those who use titles other than those I have chosen should be read out of Orthodoxy”.
  • The Times article refers to my book as “the first book to put the case for… Modern Orthodoxy””. This is somewhat misleading. Obviously many other books and articles, many cited in my own book, have put the case for various Modern Orthodox positions, though books like mine discussing a wide range of issues from an explicitly Modern Orthodox perspective are less common.
  • While my book rejects the idea that women are accorded equal but different roles in Jewish life and argues that the roles are not equal, it urges that halakhic development towards greater equality should be subject to certain constraints, above all that the pace of halakhic development must be such that “the community senses continuity rather than rupture with the Torah observance of Jewish communities of the past”.
  • I did not say that there are inaccuracies in the details of the Exodus in the Torah. That is not my view, and I believe, as I say in Chapter 4 of my book, that the traditional understanding of the whole Exodus narrative should be adhered to. Chapter 4 briefly discusses how Orthodox Jews might respond if hypothetically, in the future, evidence mounted against the historicity of the Exodus to such an extent that belief in its literal understanding became intellectually untenable. I suggest there that Orthodoxy ought not to be abandoned even in such an eventuality.

Professor Marc Shapiro kindly wrote in the Seforim blog a few days ago:

Another noteworthy recent book is Michael J. Harris, Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy. In my blurb that appears on the back cover, I write: “A proud and sophisticated manifesto of Modern Orthodoxy, one which builds on past thinkers but does not hesitate to chart new ground as well.” Rabbi Harris deals with a number of issues such as the role and status of women, mysticism, academic biblical scholarship, and religious pluralism. He generally comes down on the more “liberal” side of what is known as Modern Orthodoxy. (An exception to this generalization is his chapter on academic biblical scholarship.) Anyone who is interested in the intellectual trends of Modern Orthodoxy will want to read Harris’s book, as it is engaged scholarship at its best.

 I would ask people please to judge me on the book, not the Times interview. I seek conflict with no one, only respectful and enriching discussion and debate lehagdil torah uleha’adirah.

 

FAITH WITHOUT FEAR: UNRESOLVED ISSUES IN MODERN ORTHODOXY

 

 The following article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 15th October 2015.

My new book, Faith Without Fear, is about Modern Orthodoxy. The definition of this term is of course subject to debate, but I believe there would be broad consensus among thinking adherents of the ideology that it includes the following central features: an appreciation of the enormous religious significance of the State as well as the Land of Israel, a commitment to enhancing the role of women in religious and communal Jewish life, openness to secular studies including the humanities, and a determination to integrate our current scientific understanding of the world with traditional faith rather than reject that understanding (the theory of evolution being a key case in point).

Traditionally in Judaism there is a type of fear which is an integral part of faith. This is what is known as Yirat Shamayim, “fear of Heaven”, a keen sense of awe and reverence before God.

I have written Faith Without Fear because I feel that too often, Modern Orthodoxy is affected by a different and unhelpful kind of fear. To be sure, the intellectual world of Modern Orthodoxy boasts much excellent scholarship and lively debate. But we also need to have the courage to frontally address the huge challenges posed by modernity.

The issue to which the longest chapter of the book is devoted is a key example. Despite a very recent upsurge, far too little attention has been paid overall to the issue of Torah min Hashamayim, Torah from Heaven. Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, has tended to shy away from this issue for at least two reasons. First, the theological stakes are very high. The idea of Torah as Divine Revelation is one of the most fundamental principles of traditional Judaism.  Secondly, attacks on the concept of Torah from Heaven are rooted in parts of the academic world and in disciplines and vocabulary foreign to the vast majority of Orthodox people and in particular to Orthodox rabbinic scholars and leaders. In the UK in particular, a third factor is the spectre of the “Jacobs Affair” of the 1960s which still haunts Anglo-Jewry. I argue in my book that avoiding the issue is intellectually dishonest and no longer even feasible in a world in which we can access the conclusions of academic biblical scholarship via a few clicks on Google. I argue in the book that our tradition contains resources which allow us to be both intellectually honest and to develop a view of Torah from Heaven which may be unconventional but is still Orthodox, and which, unlike the views of thinkers such as Rabbis Louis Jacobs and Zev Farber, does not involve accepting what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.

Faith Without Fear deals with other issues too. There have not been enough Orthodox rabbinic voices putting forward the view that feminism is essentially positive. Although feminism is of course a complex and varied intellectual phenomenon, it includes as central components ideals which are key to a Modern Orthodox understanding of Judaism, such as the fundamental equality of men and women and the importance of human dignity and justice. The book argues that the prevalent kinds of apologetics around this issue are unsatisfactory. Instead, male and female halakhic scholars need to work to develop the Halakhah as it pertains to women in a way which is substantial but which is also gradual, responsible and faithful to the halakhic process, allowing the community to sense continuity rather than rupture with the Torah observance of past generations of our people. There have been extensive, positive developments in women’s roles and opportunities within Orthodoxy in recent decades, and there are many more to come.

The book also addresses topics which tend to be far less widely discussed but which are both intrinsically significant and also help to shed light on the fundamental nature and commitments of Modern Orthodoxy. These include Modern Orthodoxy’s complex relationship with Jewish mysticism, and the nature of its hopes for the messianic era. Chapters are also devoted to the status of Modern Orthodoxy and its key ideological competitor within the Orthodox world, namely Haredi Orthodoxy, as heirs of pre-modern Jewish tradition, and to the question of Modern Orthodoxy’s wider perspective on faiths outside Judaism and on the doctrine of chosenness.

Faith Without Fear advocates faith with courage. Intellectual openness is a sign of strength. Evading important issues or shutting down debate about them is a symptom of weakness. Modern Orthodoxy needs to become a morally and intellectually fearless interpretation of Jewish faith for contemporary Jews committed to classical Jewish tradition.

 

Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy is now available in paperback at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Faith-Without-Fear-Unresolved-Orthodoxy/dp/0853038996