The rabbi’s answer is questioned

July 12, 2017 by Rabbi Fred Morgan
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Rabbi Raymond Apple’s column on Orthodoxy and Reform is expressed with his customary courtesy and wit, but I believe it misses the point as far as Progressive Judaism is concerned.

Rabbi Fred Morgan

I think I have to begin by pointing out that Rabbi Apple rather disingenuously speaks about the American Reform movement but we use a different terminology here in Australia, and the difference is there for a reason.  Our “Progressive Judaism” has features of American Reform but it’s a more traditional expression of Judaism than American Reform congregations tend to be.  More significantly, its cultural and historical context is different.  Though Orthodoxy doesn’t generally take cultural and historical context into account – that’s clear from Rabbi Apple’s discussion, which focuses on the halakhah – Progressive Judaism does.  Indeed, we might say that sensitivity to historical context is precisely what sets Progressive Judaism apart from Orthodoxy; while sensitivity to tradition is what sets it apart from some expressions of Reform Judaism in America.

Rabbi Apple is describing the non-Orthodox movements from an Orthodox perspective; hence the attention paid to halakhah as the determining factor.  This fits the way he has phrased his sh’eilah, the question that is posed.  It asks why Orthodoxy doesn’t accept Reform as a valid option.  The simple answer might have been, because Orthodoxy doesn’t accept options at all.  It recognises that there are differences of opinion – machloket – as Rabbi Apple stresses, but these take place within the circle of halakhah.  What he doesn’t say, however, is that the circle or loop of halakhah stretches far wider than some Orthodox rabbis assert.  In fact, it is stretching so far these days that it is in danger of breaking.  As a sign of this, the “blacklist” from the Israeli Chief Rabbi’s office, revealed a couple of days ago, is directed mainly at conversions done by Orthodox, not Reform, rabbis.  So, which Orthodoxy is Rabbi Apple favouring?  Ultra- or Charedi Orthodoxy, one of the many warring Chasidic Orthodoxies, Modern Orthodoxy (I imagine that R Apple, with his urbane British training and his reliance on Rav Soloveitchik’s theory of two covenants, would favour this brand of Orthodoxy), Mizrachi, Sephardi, Egalitarian Orthodoxy; which is it?  They are not all representative of the schools of Hillel and Shammai.  For some of them, their machloket is for the sake of heaven, but for others it certainly seems to be more in tune with the machloket of Korach.

However, that’s for Rabbi Apple to sort out.  My concern is more with the place of Progressive Judaism in the spectrum of Jewish experience.  The reality is that Progressive Judaism is concerned with halakhah, but it is not governed by halakhah.  It is governed by principles of Torah. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on the rabbi and community, it will attempt to adjust its behaviour to halakhic norms.  The “ham sandwich” argument that Rabbi Apple introduces is simply silly.  But these halakhic norms are culturally and historically bound.  They reflect the times and places in which they are enunciated.  If these norms are contradicted by trans-historical principles of Torah which seem to override them, then the principles of Torah will prevail.

In other words, Torah is eternal, given on Sinai, so to speak; but it was delivered in a particular historical context, written in a way that would be meaningful to the people of its day.  We have the written word, which is bound to its history, but embedded within it are principles that hold for all time.  It invites us to critique its own historical material with the principles which that material itself transmits, so Torah continues to “progress” through history in its meanings and applications.  In every age we reassess Torah in the light of its principles.  These are principles of fairness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion – the key words that enter our religious imaginations from the Torah text, and that invigorate and renew our religious lives from generation to generation.  That is what Progressive Judaism is about.

A good example of this process is mamzerut, “bastardy”.  According to Torah, when two people who are in a forbidden relationship have a child together, that child is called “mamzer” and is forbidden to marry a fellow Israelite apart from another mamzer for ten generations.  The “sin” of the parents is visited upon the children, through ten generations.  The Progressive approach to mamzerut is to see it as a product of its time.  But we can criticise and overturn it by the application of Torah principles, especially the principle tzedek tzedek tirdof, “justice, justice shall you pursue.” We believe if God gave Torah today, mamzerut would not be in it, not because we’d prefer not to have it in the book but because God has taught us that mamzerut is unjust.  In other words, historical circumstances have sensitised us to Torah’s principles. This is what makes Torah the unique, eternal text it is.

The fact that the Progressive approach is different from the Orthodox approach is not in doubt.  If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.  But I think it’s incumbent on anyone who would criticise Progressive Judaism to find out first what it’s about in its own terms, before subjecting it to standards that are not true to it.  Otherwise, the argument is purely apologetic, and what’s the point of that?

Rabbi Fred Morgan Movement Rabbi, Union for Progressive Judaism

Professorial Fellow, Australian Catholic University


2 Responses to “The rabbi’s answer is questioned”
  1. Doron Stoltz says:

    Is the author here not arguing the exact same as christianity – namely that the original torah became outdated and we have now evolved away from the original law?

    I fear this Rabbi has spent too much time in the catholic university!

  2. Andrew Blitz says:

    Would the writer rather an apologetic response than an unapologetic one? Within the framework of Orthodox Judaism Rabbi Apple has gone as far as he can go without breaching the limitations of his tradition. In the context of rejecting that position, the goodwill (intent) associated with Rabbi Apple’s position should at least be acknowleged.

    Further to this, the essence of Rabbi Apples considered article drew a distinction between Brit Goral and Brit Sinai, drawing on the responsa of Rabbi Soloveitchik. To skip over this matter, the essence of the article itself is intellecutally dishonest.

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