Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Farber Affair Part III- Talking to and Not Past Each Other

Already, in the time of the gemara, there was a recognition that few knew how to properly give or receive rebuke. If that was true then, it is even more true today. When Zev Farber published his article on the origins of the Torah, there were a number of responses. I already addressed the least serious and valuable of the responses. In this post, I'd like to analyze the other responses.

Part of the problem with looking at the response to Farber's articles is that for the most part, they were not just about what he said. Instead, the critique of his position, which was seen by many as being one which could not be reconciled with Orthodoxy, was used as a way to challenge the legitimacy of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, the institution from which Farber received his ordination. For those who believe that YCT can not be considered an Orthodox institution, such as Gil Student and Avraham Gordimer, Farber's article was lumped together with other alleged problematic positions taken by YCT musmachim, and policies and positions of YCT itself, as a way of criticizing the institution.

To me, this was a mistake for several reasons. It prevented an appropriate analysis and response to the particulars of Farber's claims. Perhaps more importantly, it put YCT on the defensive, and made it close to impossible for them to respond in a way that might have been productive. While it may be legitimate to discuss who should be accepted into an Orthodox semicha program, it most definitely is not acceptable to judge an institution based on changes that a musmach undergoes after receiving semicha. Furthermore, even if one would want to suggest that YCT deserves a level of criticism, the critique needs to be about ideas and not people. Unfortunately, that line has, at times, been blurred, if not crossed.

I was particularly heartened to read Yoram Hazony's article “Open Orthodoxy?”, which was posted on Gil's online journal “Hirhurim”. Using his experience at an Open Orthodox shul as the background, Hazony asked some very strong questions, with sophistication, and without getting personal. I was happy to see Ysoscher Katz's initial response:

Yasher Koach Yoram Hazony for rebuking Open Orthodoxy. This essay is a model for proper tochacha. Successful tochacha is kind, constructive and said with sophistication. 
And, to answer your question: No, what you experienced isn't Open Orthodoxy. Open Orthodoxy is devoutly orthodox and passionately open, without ever compromising one for the other.

In the interest of making those two work perfectly well together we explore multiple options. Some of the approaches work and some of them need to be discarded. Healthy mussar is a valuable tool in helping us sort out the bad ideas from the good ones. 

What remains to be seen is whether the leadership at YCT responds in a reasoned fashion. While they do not owe anybody a response, a detailed and specific official response could be used to express which mistakes have been made, and how they might be rectified. It is my hope that will be the next response so that those of us, like myself, who find ourselves somewhere in the middle between YCT and its critics, can gain some clarity. YCT has a chance to play a pivotal role in the development of Modern Orthodoxy. The ball is in their court.


  1. "Perhaps more importantly, it put YCT on the defensive, and made it close to impossible for them to respond in a way that might have been productive."

    The issue with YCT vis a vis Zev Farber is not that they have not publicly repudiated him. That they might be forgiven. However, the fact remains that, his very public assertions notwithstanding, they still afford him a position and a pedestal. He is still listed as a member of Yeshivat Maharat's advisory board. The Young Israel of Toco Hills (under a YCT musmach) lists his classes in their weekly events. Even if one accepts that YCT is under no obligation to publicly comment on the actions of their musmachim (even one as prominent as he), the fact that he is still given a position of kavod in that community indicates that they consider his stances to be within the misgeret of acceptable opinions, which is itself a troubling statement about their values.

    1. Their actions going forward will determine what happens. I hope they make the right choices.

    2. I for one do not share your optimism, however guarded. This is not a new issue. Rabbi Gordimer has been writing about Zev Farber since last July. The registration for his incredibly presumptuous domain (thetorah.com) was most recently updated last April. YCT, the IRF, Yeshivat Maharat, YI of Toco Hills, and the the other Open Orthodox institutions have had a year to take action. Further, while I have heard Farber called many things, "duplicitous" is not among them, nor does he appear to be one who keeps his controversial views to himself. As such, I have a hard time believing that nobody in the OO leadership saw this coming. They should not have required external prodding to, at the very least, quietly ask him to step aside.

      The fact remains that they have allowed somebody who is not only a min, but is actively and openly engaged in promoting minus to remain in positions of authority and leadership. One can only conclude that they quietly endorse his views or lack the courage to to take a stand against one of their better known talmidim.

      I too shall await their actions going forward, but I do so with less than bated breath.

    3. The central theme that unifies the problems I personally have with Open O is that they give religious authority to modernity. Whether its being okay with a dayan who sided with academic consensus over our own tradition about where the Torah came from and who wrote it, or egalitarianism, or the inability to simply accept the absolute nature of the prohibition against homosexuality (ie crossing the line between welcoming the sinner and refusing to condemn the sin).

      When the pagan didn't understand what thunder was, he got a handle on the experience by blaming Thor. And so, there has always been a strain in religion that thinks it is supposed to only explain what we can't otherwise get ahold of. This is the mindset that thinks the advance of science means the retreat of religion -- both on the part of those who let their religion retreat, and on the part of those who therefore deny the science.

      True Modern Orthodoxy, where religion gives depth and meaning to the world as we actually live it, is neither. As R' YY Weinberg put it in a memorial volume titled "HaRav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch Mishnaso veShitaso":

      The Torah, according to Rav Hirsch, is the force that gives form. Form, to Aristotle’s thought, means a thing’s essential nature — in distinction to the substance from which it is embodied. Derech Eretz is merely the matter on which Torah works.

      OO has allowed modernity to share the role of form, rather than letting it remain the substance.

  2. AM - your facts are wrong. Young Israel is not under a YCT musmach. And Farber no longer gives shiur there.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. You are partially right: Rabbi Starr is a YU musmach. My mistake. However, he served for eight years at Avi Weiss's Hebrew Institute of Riverdal. I don't think I'm amiss in describing his synagogue as Open Orthodox. So I'm going to classify this one as the best kind of incorrect: technically incorrect, but substantively fine.

      On the other point, I never asserted that he gives shiur there. I said that they include his shiur in their weekly events flier. I even helpfully linked to it. Here's the link again (it's on page 2, in the orange box titled "Learning Opportunities"). As you can see, while it may be given in his home, there is certainly no distinction made there between "official" shiurim given by Rabbi Starr and this, apparently, I guess, unofficial (if you say so) shiur given by Dr. Farber.

      While we're on the topic of YI of Toco Hills, it should be noted that they gave Dr. Farber the a well-publicized honor (The "Rabbi Meltzer Torah and Scholarship Award") just as he was setting up TheTorah.com. Perhaps, though, we can dan l'kaf zechus and assume that their official leadership was somehow unaware of his views at that time.

      My apologies for the double post.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. It seems the link was stripped out. Here it is:

  3. AM - that award was before Torah.com. YITH is sympathetic to OO but they wouldn't describe themselves officially as OO. Rabbi Lopatin spoke there recently as did Rabbi Perry Tirchwell. Rabbi Starr tries to remain centrist. I think the demographic hews to OO tho.

    1. Presumably he didn't form his views simultaneously with the launching of the website. Further, the domain records indicate that he was working on it last April (the award was given in May). It is quite difficult to imagine that nobody in the YITH leadership knew they were honoring a true, full-fledged kofer. Did he truly keep his views that well hidden from his friends just one month before declaring them to the world via his website?

    2. Regarding YITH's not being OO: I'm hard-pressed to think of a practical way in which they are not, short of hanging out a banner proclaiming it. Their stances on women's issues (leining on Simchat Torah, reading the megillah on Purim, etc.) alone would indicate their direction. YITH's founding rabbi was even a member of the IRF, albeit under a pseudonym. Their current rabbi served under Avi Weiss for eight years. They still maintain an association with (former?) golden boy of the OO movement, Zev Farber.

      Of the two speakers you cited, their hosting Rabbi Lopatin is far more telling than their having Rabbi Tirchwell. The president of National Counsel of Young Israel's speaking at a Young Israel while on a national tour of Young Israels is hardly news.

      YITH may not proclaim itself officially Open Orthodox, but from the outside it sure looks like it is.