On Being Controversial

Rabbi Alan Yuter writes:

Religious Jews speak about Jewish education, Torah commitment and the commandments. The culture of religious Jews and the culture commanded by the sacred library of Judaism are often very different. While Jewish education gives lip service to the commandments of the Torah, in practice the message given always justifies the elites who speak in the name of Torah. Rebbe cards reflect this phenomenon. The canonized book is superseded by the holy man. Calling attention to this disconnect causes consternation and is termed, “controversial.”

While Tradition finds 613 commandments in the Torah, there seems to be a 614th commandment, lurking in the shadow or penumbra of the oral that has gone unrecorded in the sacred Torah library. That commandment is “Thou may not be controversial.” When informing a Rabbi Joseph Tender, an educator at Ner Israel High School in Baltimore County, that I am a student of Rabbi Yosef Faur, this gentleman informed me that my mentor was “controversial.” I responded, “So was Rabbi Kotler,” the founder of Lakewood Yeshiva and the Ashkenazi teacher of Rabbi Faur. Rabbi Faur’s approach is based on law and not politics, and does not defer to social convention. Such independence calls attention to the disconnect between Torah ideals and the reality of Jewish religious life, and is assigned the stigma of being “controversial.”

What does it mean to be religiously controversial in the Orthodox world? The idiom attaches to people and positions that on one hand are not indefensible based on Torah documents, because if the position were in violation of an explicit norm, the error could be identified, cited, and condemned directly. Positions which conflict with those taken by people in power that are reasonably defensible must be attacked by more subtle means.

On one hand, we must disapprove of wrongful thinking; on the other hand, we do not engage in “leshon hara”, negative speech. And by referring to a person or an idea as “controversial,” the syntax is descriptive and the prescription is implicit. We pretend that are not really being negative, but we ominously make our point that to persist in what the culture determines to be deviant thought, behavior, or policy will lead to a social ban. Since for parochial religious society, the sanction of exclusion is so great, being labeled “controversial” is a mark no less damning than Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, which proclaimed disapproval, disdain, and the desire of a community’s dredges to cast the first accusatory stone.

Just because an idea, person, or principle might valid according to the letter of Jewish law does not mean that the principle, person or idea is “appropriate” in living religious society. According to this ideology, the letter of the law is known to all Israel. But the “spirit” of the law is known, by oral tradition and inspired intuition, to the right reverend rabbis. No one can possibly know the intentions of the Divine Father except through them. Rabbi Herschel Shachter, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, proclaimed at a recent Rabbinical Council convention, that synagogue rabbis are clergymen and real Jewish authority is possessed by the great rabbis of the Yeshiva. Apparently, it is controversial to remind the learned rosh yeshiva that it is his job to train rabbis to be his peers and not his pawns, that Torah authority resides not in the academic office of the professor of Torah law, but in the community rabbi, who is ordained to make legal decisions. And if this aspect of Jewish tradition, that it is the community rabbi and not the academic who possesses authority may undergo change, one wonders where, how, and why the non-Orthodox movements are different as well as wrong when they claim that they have the right to change Jewish law.

Now, since the term “controversial” carries disapproval, applying it in the negative context of disapproval constitutes prohibited speech according to Jewish law. But in the emerging religious society where convention trumps covenant because deviant ideas are too dangerous to be tolerated, the term serves a very important social function that cannot be dismissed: it serves as the sanction that reminds insiders to Jewish religious society that not all of its definitions and boundaries are based upon Torah texts. The great rabbis or Torah people have the right to define right thought and action. Our kind of simple Jews, including community rabbis, may not determine proper thought and action by canon and code but must apply convention and custom as determined by the real rabbis of the rabbinical elite. Loyalty to God is defined as loyalty to the rabbinical culture heroes who canonize convention and codify custom and are so great that they may, when necessary, even suspend law and precedent in order to preserve the thick culture of religious society that obeys them, pays them, and honors them.

In this non-controversial and pious world, Rabbis Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Noson Slifkin the evolutionist Orthodox rabbi, the fabulously learned Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University, and the activist consciences of the modern Orthodox world, Saul Berman and Avi Weiss, have earned the stigma of being “controversial.” These rabbis have never consciously violated Jewish law. They have, however, violated what some would consider being accepted convention. Considering convention to be covenant improperly distorts the covenant and is therefore regarded by God to be “controversial.”

It is controversial to claim and to complain that Israel ought to draft all its Jewish citizens, including Orthodox women and Yeshiva students. It is also required according to bSota 44b. Why are the rabbis who claim that the Daas [opinion of] Torah of their communal conventions and intuitions are superior to the revealed religion of the public text of the Oral Torah? Therefore, if one obeys the letter of Torah law, one is a deviant Jew. And by not deferring to those endowed with the intuition to read the mind of God, it is implied that one is not minding the will of God.

The problem with this culture sanction, of dismissing people as “controversial,” is that it violates the real principles of Torah Judaism. If the idiom “controversial” is indeed negative because of connotation, it may not retain the innocence of association implied by dint of denotation. Furthermore, the person who is object of the criticism is denied the opportunity to defend him or herself, as required by Jewish law. Jewish law does not demand obedience in the face of wrong, silence when protest must be heard, or loyalty when Torah values are being subverted or misrepresented. Abraham was controversial when he left the idols of Iraq in order to create a Godly community; Moses was controversial when he challenged the accepted, expected, conservative world of Egypt that deified its elite while defiling its humanity.

Before the Biblical Joshua could be allowed assume the mantle of leadership, the Torah presents a narrative that shows Joshua how to appreciate the fact that the real religion called Torah is the word of God, not convention, custom or culture as conceived by social or political elites. After the Assembly was convened and Eldad and Medad were acting as charismatics in the camp, Joshua dutifully and loyally reported their uppity “offense” to Moses. Rather than restrain talent, Moses would share power with anyone talented who is morally worthy to exercise power. Having learned the lesson that right is based on loyalty to the divine master, and not the human master, Joshua, with Caleb, defy the great elders of Israel by insisting that Canaan is conquerable. Rather than concede to the majority, who outnumbered him 10-2, Joshua took the socially incorrect and theologically courageous position and defied convention. When measured against the benchmarks of canonical Jewish values, might those who exploit the “controversial” epithet be considered to be themselves “controversial?”

When people are told that they are controversial, they are being warned, “we lose too much by being close to you,” you are deprived of approval, and we hope that the sanction social intimidation is sufficient to resolve the insolence of your non-conformity. The idiom is always leveled at those who challenge convention and with whom conversation and dialogue is dangerous. After all, they may be right. Right wing rabbis like Mendel Shapiro, Aron and Mordecai Tendler, Matis Weinberg, or Ner Israel’s Moses Eisenmann are theologically correct and, in spite of charges of sexual and homosexual impropriety, never earn the “controversial” epithet. The modern Orthodox world is not exempt from this controversy. We recall that Baruch Lanner, an abuser of Jewish boys and girls, was first defended with the claim it is improper to say bad things about a rabbinical authority figure. Given the sad fate of Nadav and Abihu, God likely considered this rabbinical ethic to be controversial.

Who fears controversy and who embraces it? The tyrant described in Maimonides, Laws of idolatry 1:1-2, for whom invented religion is the opiate of the masses he deigns to control, controversy is heresy because it asks people to ask the seditious question, “why.” Tyrants who fear accountability condition their community to avoid controversy. These people rule on the basis of intuition—what is good for them is good for the community.

A Torah community that believes in God will be controversial when God’s Torah demands and commands. Women’s prayer groups are “controversial” but sexual abuse must go unreported because rabbis will be shamed. A Torah education worthy of the appellation creates an autonomous religious personality for whom right is determined by principles and not principals. The authentic Torah education will expose wrong even against community pressure. Canon, covenant, and conscience are informed and inflamed in the authentically religious soul. The religiously mediocre soul wants to fit in and be accepted by doing what is expected by culture, community and convention. Only when we are prepared to measure culture and convention with the benchmarks of canon and conscience will the method of “being controversial” translate into “being holy.” And the authentic Jewish leader empowers people to be holy by leading, by exercising the moral courage to be controversial. Rabbis who are unwilling to be controversial in principle have fear of people but not fear of God. In his essay, “Half-Consolation,” on the blood libel, the secular Hebrew writer, Ahad ha-Am showed that the majority who believes the blood libel are wrong, and the Jews, who protest their innocence, are right. Since God is one and truth is one, the authentic believer sanctifies God’s name by being willing to be controversial. Authentic Torah religion demands that we respect an impartial and just God before the partisan pressure of authority persons.

JOE EMAILS: "But R. Faur IS controversial. He had a little Syrian cult going of "return to the Rambam" with this anti-ashkenasi teachings, and wreaked havoc in various communities, such as Seattle. He also had some rather reactionary concepts about the role of women, etc, as well as advocating for things like using bathtubs for mikvah. He was banned by most Sephardic communities."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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