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.