Some Personal Reflections on Communal Discourse

This past February, the OU distributed to its member shuls the responses of its Rabbinic Panel to questions posed to it regarding women’s ordination and related issues, together with a Statement from the OU regarding these responses. To summarize their primary conclusions, the Panel determined that women: (i) should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position (i.e., carrying out the duties generally expected from, and often reserved for, a synagogue rabbi); and (ii) could, with the guidance and approval of the synagogue’s lay and rabbinic leadership, carry out a wide array of critical roles, including teaching classes and shiurim; serving as a scholar-in-residence or community educator; serving as a professional counselor to address the spiritual, psychological or social needs of the community; serving as a mentor to guide women through the conversion process; serving in senior managerial and administrative positions within the synagogue; and (with the approval of the synagogue’s or community’s rabbis, and in close consultation with them) serving as a yoetzet halachah.

Reactions to the responses and the accompanying OU Statement were virtually instantaneous; they were numerous, varied and often vociferous. Many of the reactions—from communities across the country—hailed the documents as a significant step forward in expanding the opportunities for women to serve Orthodox congregations and communities in multiple, significant—and halachically acceptable—ways. Other reactions—perhaps predictably—were quite negative, questioning both the substance of the Rabbinic Panel’s Responses, the necessity for having solicited them and their potential impact on the unity of our community.

I have no intention in this forum of either reprising these arguments—either for or against —or debating their substance or merits. Perhaps on another occasion. What follows, however, are some purely personal reactions to the manner in which the various reactions unfolded and, perhaps in the process, some observations (again, purely personal) on how our community can productively engage in reasoned discourse on matters that are complex, nuanced and often divisive. I want to stress that these views are my own, and I share them not only because I believe them deeply, but also to encourage rigorous, thoughtful and respectful discussion about them that can hopefully strengthen us as a community.

Conversation vs. Sound Bites
One of the more distressing reactions to the debate was the all-too-frequent absence of meaningful analysis; the inability to recognize or appreciate subtleties and alternative vantage points; the reduction of complex thoughts and issues to simplistic sound bites. My distinct impression in reading a number of the comments was that the authors had failed to read (or to completely read) the material they were commenting on, relying instead, it often appeared, on misleading headlines or the summaries of others.

Perhaps some of this superficiality can be attributed to a desire to argue rather than to reason, to demarcate rather than to converse. F. Scott Fitzgerald defined “the test of a first-rate intelligence” as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I have no doubt that our community is largely populated by those with first-rate intelligence; we need to train ourselves to be more reliant on it.

One culprit standing in the way of real communal conversation is the ubiquitous use of social media as the medium of choice for social discourse. For all of its benefits, the digitalization of discussion has, in my view, left us increasingly bereft of the ability to reason together.

In her recently published New York Times bestseller Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, author Sherry Turkle documents the impact of digital communication on our ability (or inability) to converse with one another:

Although the web provides incomparable tools to inform ourselves and mobilize for action, when we are faced with a social problem that troubles us, we are tempted to retreat to what I would call the online real. There, we can choose to see only the people with whom we agree. And to share only the ideas we think our followers want to hear.

Halachah is not determined by popular petition, or op-eds or Facebook posts.

Real conversation requires listening—the recognition that a subject of consequence is more complex than one may have imagined. It requires the openness to changing one’s mind, in whole or in part. Real conversation requires courage and compromise. It involves moving beyond mere sound bites. One can elect to avoid meaningful conversation both on and off the web; the infatuation with the “online real” just makes it a lot easier to do so. The remarkable technology that makes it possible to interact with everyone does not necessarily result in everyone interacting. Quite the contrary. As Turkle concludes:

The web promises to make our world bigger. But as it works now, it also narrows our exposure to ideas. We can end up in a bubble in which we hear only the ideas we already know. Or already like. The Philosopher Allan Bloom has suggested the cost: “Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities.”

The Hierarchy of Pesak
I do not believe that anyone can seriously doubt that the Rabbinic Panel we approached was comprised of seven of the most distinguished halachic decisors of our community— individuals of unparalleled reputation and integrity, to whom broad segments of our community have routinely turned for pesak on matters of personal and communal import and consequence.

Yes, there were those within our community who disagreed with their pesak. But such disagreement must acknowledge a fundamental principle that is foundational to our lives as Orthodox Jews—pesak is not democratic; it is, by its very nature, hierarchical. Not every rabbi is a posek (certainly not in the sense of determining halachah in matters of true novelty, or those that affect broad issues of significant communal concern). In such instances we turn to gedolim. If I needed medical advice for a family member with a critical health issue, I wouldn’t turn to my general practitioner. I would seek the opinion of the foremost medical authority I could find. The realm of halachic determination is not, and should not, be different. In short, halachah is not determined by popular petition, or op-eds or Facebook posts. It is the province of controlling halachic texts, as elucidated by our mesorah and the careful, systematic explication of the Torah and Torah values by renowned halachic authorities using time-honored methods of halachic analysis developed and accepted over the millennia. As committed Jews, we accept the authority of our gedolim, who in each generation translate Hashem’s will into practical halachic determinations for the Torah community.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, decried the populist approach to halachic determination. The determination of halachah is not a democratic act, in which every intelligent person may engage. To the contrary, Rav Soloveitchik argued, “when people talk of a meaningful Halacha, or of unfreezing the Halacha, or of an empirical Halacha,” they are basically proposing an egalitarian approach to the determination of normative halachic conduct—an approach that may align with our democratic sensibilities, but which flies in the face of the halachic system that has guided and sustained us for 2,000 years.

Civility Matters
The line between zealous advocacy for one’s point of view and language that is demeaning, disrespectful—or worse—surely is somewhat porous and occasionally subjective. But much of life requires us to exercise such judgments, and remain on the right side of the line—all the more so when respect for talmidei chachamim is at issue. Fortunately, much of the debate, while intense, remained dignified. I particularly commend the Lehrhaus Symposium, which invited a number of distinguished participants to comment on the Rabbinic Panel’s Responses and the OU Statement. The participants did so—candidly, occasionally critically, but with respect and due regard for the complexity of the issues.

Occasionally, however, the debate engendered by the Rabbinic Responses and the OU Statement crossed that delicate line. For example, one writer likened the Rabbinic Responses to a sermon delivered on the eve of the Civil War, defending the institution of slavery.

One theme that repeated in a number of blog and other social media posts accused the Rabbinic Panel of formulating their views in order to maintain their “hegemony” as well as their “dominion and control.” Not only was such an argument the height of disrespect, it was also entirely illogical. While the Panel made clear that ordaining women as rabbis was at odds with halachah and mesorah, they likewise emphasized—indeed, repeatedly celebrated—the enormously important and successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as community educators and scholars.

The Rabbinic Panel . . . emphasized—indeed, repeatedly celebrated—the enormously important and successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as community educators and scholars.

Regardless of our substantive point of view, can we not all agree that civility in our communal discourse matters? Tone matters. Courtesy and respect for divergent viewpoints, even if they are believed to be fallacious, must be the order of the day. As our sages recognized: “Divrei chachamim be’nachat nishmaim—The words of the wise are most likely to be heard when communicated pleasantly.” Wherever we stand on any issues, particularly those of communal importance, we need to begin with this goal in mind.

We have only scratched the surface of the constellation of challenges facing our community. Many of these challenges are not new. The numerous passionate and insightful comments on the Rabbinic Responses and the accompanying OU Statement—from both women and men across the Orthodox spectrum —highlight the need for ongoing, vigorous but respectful discussion. Such a discussion can elucidate the multiplicity of pathways available to meet our communal imperatives while remaining true to halachic and hashkafic norms. Let us pray that our community can truly internalize this imperative, l’hagdil Torah ul’ ha’adirah—to glorify the Torah and ennoble it.

Allen I. Fagin is executive vice president of the OU.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2017.