Monday, December 29, 2014

Is there a posek for modern orthodoxy? -- revisiting Rabbi Walter Wurtzburger's 1994 Tradition article on RYBS

In Fall 1994 Rabbi Walter Wurtzburger penned an article for Tradition entitled “Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Posek of Post-Modern Orthodoxy.”  Putting aside Rabbi Wurtzburger’s choice (which he discusses in the article) of the term “post-modern” as opposed to the more common term “modern orthodoxy” (which I will use going forward), what exactly defines a “modern orthodox posek” as opposed to any other posek?  Rabbi Wurtzburger writes that he disagrees with Moshe Sokol's and David Singer's contention (in an article in Modern Judaism vol 2), “…that the Rav, for all his philosophical brilliance and his extensive scientific knowledge, really cannot be invoked as an authority figure for Modern Orthodoxy, since in his halakhic decision-making he operates exclusively with traditional methods and does not permit philosophical ideas or the findings of modern textual scholarship to impinge upon the formation of his halakhic rulings.”  Instead, Rabbi Wurtzburger argues that, “What differentiates the approach of Rav Soloveitchik from that of Haredi poskim and makes him the authority figure of so-called "Modern Orthodoxy" is his endorsement of secular studies, including philosophy, his espousal of religious Zionism, and his pioneering of intensive Jewish education for women.”  In other words, it’s not the Rav’s method which distinguished him as a modern orthodox posek, but rather it was his conclusions in particular areas that distinguished him.

Whether the modern orthodox movement has or should have a categorically distinct type of psak or posek is an assumption worth examining, but for now, let’s let the assumption stand. One of my son’s Rebbeim refers to a certain YU Rosh Yeshiva as a “modern orthodox gadol.”  I don’t know if he could define what makes the individual in question “modern orthodox,” but not being able to define what makes something different doesn’t mean one can’t recognize that there is indeed a difference.  So let’s play along and accept that there is a difference and ask ourselves the following question: it’s been 20 years since Rabbi Wurtzburger’s article appeared.  The Rav is no longer with us.  Is there a present day posek for modern orthodoxy?  Is there in fact a "modern orthodox gadol?"
I would argue that if we use Rabbi Wurtzburger’s criteria for what made the Rav into the posek of the modern orthodox community, namely, 1) his endorsement of secular studies; 2) his espousal of religious Zionism; and 3) his being a pioneer of intensive Jewish education for women, then there is no one in the diaspora who has successfully followed in the Rav’s footsteps.  That is not to say that there are not great talmidei chachamim and poskim within the modern orthodox community – there certainly are.  But if Rabbi Wurthburger’s measure of what made the Rav unique is accurate, then it seems to me that these other poskim are no more uniquely modern orthodox than a rebbe ordained in Lakewood who happens to teach in a modern orthodox yeshiva high school is.  We have poskim for modern orthodoxy, but I don't know if we have any truly modern orthodox posek.
Without naming names, even without the migration of some of the senior Roshei Yeshiva in YU to Touro, anyone who has attended YU will recognize that many of the Roshei Yeshiva are more sympathetic to a Touro-like philosophy of Torah u’Secular-studies-for-the-sake-of-making-a-Living than Torah u’Mada.  (I think it is fair to say that Touro and its philosophy sits at least in the outer orbit of the RW world while YU does not.)  I can't see any of them endorsing the study of secular philosophy for its own sake, something that Rabbi Wurtzburger identifies as a sign of the Rav's openness.  While Rabbi Avi Weiss and a few others have been very vocal in advancing women’s issues, these figures have largely been marginalized and pushed to the fringe by a much stronger center/right-wing contingent within modern orthodoxy, and besides which, I think Rabbi Avi Weiss would himself acknowledge that he is not a go-to posek for the larger community. I don't see any major Roshei Yeshiva or poskim going to Stern to deliver a lomdus-packed shiur to make the point that it could/should be done.  It is only in support of religious Zionism that I think the likes of Rav Hershel Shachter and others distinguish themselves from their colleagues outside the modern orthodox world.  A one for three batting average is OK if you are playing baseball, but I don’t know if it says much if we are weighing commitment to a particular philosophy such as modern orthodoxy.
Debating whether Rabbi Ploni or Rabbi Almoni fits the bill invites too much ad hominum discussion.  I would be more interested in what criteria you would use -- other than those given by Rabbi Wurtzburger in judging whether the Rav was a modern orthodox posek -- to assess whether someone fits the bill.  Perhaps the modern orthodoxy communtity of 2014 sees itself differently than the community of 1994 and therefore attaches itself to Rabbinic figures with different values than those identified by Rabbi Wurtzburger.  Perhaps we are truly in a post-modern orthodox period, though in a far different sense than Rabbi Wurtzburger meant.


  1. Interesting post

    Before you get to the question of whether there is a modern orthodox Posek that fits Rabbi Wurtzberger's criteria, I think you first have to ask why anyone would need a modern orthodox Posek?,Is there a population that fits his criteria? Is there really a community out there in the real world that cares about Torah U-Mada, rather than Torah U-Parnassa? Using the example of secular philosophy as a yardstick, how many people out there really view that kind of study as valuable (aside from the prestige factor of a degree/doctorate from a fancy university?)

    A second point - if you define a Modern Orthodox Posek as one who values secular knowledge for its own sake, and favorable views towards womens' issues and Zionism, I really don't see any value in having a "Modern Orthodox" Posek (unless he happens to be paskening in one of those three areas.) Just because the Rav held his opinions in those areas, what impact will that have on paskening a shayla in Baser Vechalav or hilchos nidda?

    1. On point #1, agree with you -- there is no such real world community.
      On point #2, I think R' Wurtzburger was talking about posek as an authority figure you come to with the heavy communal issues, not questions like what to do if you used a milchig spoon to dish out the cholent. I am always amazed when I read questions like the latter that are addressed to people like R' Chaim Kanievsky -- you mean there was no one else the person could ask something like that to other than a gadol hador? (That's just a pet peeve of mine.) But I do think your point hits on what I see as a major flaw in R' Wurtzburger's article -- is it the Rav's conclusions or his methodology that make him distinct? In the sentence I quoted, the implication is that it's the Rav's conclusions in these specific areas that made him different, but in the very next sentence in the article R' Wurtzburger speaks about the Rav's "conviction that a Torat Hayyim addresses
      the realities of the world rather than seeks an escape from them." I.e. modern orthodoxy confronts reality; RW orthodoxy wants to escape from it. "It is this religious philosophy, which engenders a unique approach tohalakha, which has made him into the posek par excellence of Modern Orthodoxy." It seems that the three areas highlighted are a siman, not the sibah, and therefore, through R' Wurtzburger gives no other examples, in theory this attitude could impact the posek's approach to other areas as well.
      Yet, after all is said and done, I don't see** how** the Rav's philosophy impacted his psak. I would have liked R' Wurtzburger to point to an address, a teshuvah, or something like that of the Rav's and contrast it directly with athe way a RW posek dealt with the same issue and prove that the Rav's arrived at a different conclusion by virtue of his philosophical stance. Sadly, we no longer have R' Wurtzburger with us to ask for clarification.

    2. As your question is phrased, it sounds like you're looking for a posek for an ideology, which, phrased slightly differently, would be reduced to looking for a posek whose piskei halacha will be driven by MO ideals (whether these ideals are indispensible aspects of Torah or foreign values I would assume is not the intent of your post.) Or, whose piskei halacha end up there simply through the prism of a Torah mind, without needing to attribute any lack in said posek or his contemporaries.

      Could we rephrase your question further as asking why the majority of the logical successors to RYBS have not embraced his hashkafah in these areas? The opposite question, of why he differed from his predecessors, is one addressed at multiple points in his corpus, so it doesn't seem like an unfair question to ask.

    3. >>>Could we rephrase your question further as asking why the majority of the logical successors to RYBS have not embraced his hashkafah in these areas?

      Once you ask the question that way you are conceding that there is no leading torah authority who is modern orthodox.

      >>>The opposite question, of why he differed from his predecessors,

      What is interesting is that the Rav had the self-awareness to know when he was striking out on a new path and setting precedent. However, each one of his students, on both the right and left extremes, I think would respond to your question by arguing that he is the the "genuine" talmid following in the mold of his teacher and are not being mechadesh anything and it's only the (mis)perception and (mis)characterization of the Rav's legacy by others that would give that impression.

  2. Rav Herschel Schachter believes that one should be seeking a rav of his own community and worldview:
    The topic there is more about daas Torah-type questions, where RHS thinks one should be asking a rav, but the rav's answer should be pointing out the halachic issues in each factor, and not a firm answer as though the main unknowns were the Torah ones. Meanwhile, he happens to make a statement about finding a rav who agrees with you hashkafically.

    Personally, while I agree in theory, I cannot find myself anywhere near agreement in practice. Our communities evolved so that certain specific issues like personal autonomy (vs daas Torah), secular education and culture, how much emphasis to place on learning in comparison to other mitzvos, etc... have become community division points. That wasn't always true. Nor are they always the most burning hashkafic differences I can have with a poseiq. And most importantly we had posqim and even still have posqim such as Rav Moshe, R' SZ Aurbach, lbchl"ch R Asher Weiss who can answer a question given the norms of the sho'el's qehillah.

    In fact, ironically, the difference that our social fractures have put into the spotlight might be the easiest for a poseiq to compensate for.

    In contrast, some people view their avodah most often in terms of polishing their tzelem E-lokim. Others, on connecting to Him. (I myself am a humanist and believe that Hashem "planted eternal life [ie the Torah] in our midst so that our greatest desire would be to be good to others.") A poseiq is unlikely to think of this kind of thing as a big issue. But if the soul-polisher and G-d-seeker both oversleep, so that they have to choose between rushing through Shema not fully awake or missing zeman, a poseiq would ideally tell one that timeliness is an act of self-refinement and tell the other that kavanah is the greater chiyuv for him. But a fellow MO rav is as unlikely to catch that as a more yeshivish one. So you need a rav who knows what path you're trying up Har Hashem, or knows to ask.

    Second, and this can't be compensated by the rav asking, you need a rav whose placement of values on the relative factors that go into pesaq are ones you're comfortable with. As stereotypes, a Yekke or Oberlander rav is likely to give a lot of emphasis to established minhag. The stereotypical Litvak would be emphasizing logical argument. A student of Rav Ovadia would be looking toward rules of source authority -- which position is rov posqim, which is the noted rishonim's, which community gives more weight to which rishon, etc... The textbook Chassidishe poseiq would be looking to meaning; which of the legally defensible positions fits the Zohar, the Ari or some hashkafic point.

    Every poseiq has to weigh those four factors -- communal acceptance, legal logic, textual authority, hashkafah -- although the last is generally more or less a tirebreaker. Emphasize "spirit of the law" too much and the result is no longer Orthodoxy. And every poseiq has their own balance. It can't be done algorithmically, it would be like asking whether X was heavier than Y was loud. It has to be done by feel. It is not picked up from books, but from apprenticeship, from shimush. That feel, though, needs to be one the sho'el can live with.

    So yes, I do think a person needs a poseiq of the same hashkafah as he has. But the areas of hashkafah to look at first are metahalakh and takhlis hachaim, and they do not necessarily correlate with agreeing on whether there is value in reading Shakespeare.