Editor’s note: This op-ed was written in response to an October 29 news story by the JTA on several rabbis with Orthodox semicha who officiate (or are willing to officiate) at same-gender weddings.
Ever since Jews were allowed out of the ghettos, the debate has raged on how to approach the outside world. Many have chosen to barricade themselves from it as much as possible, while others have chosen to embrace it and separate the good from the bad.
I’m not here to decide between the two, and I truly believe elements of both approaches should be adopted by everyone. But while both approaches are legitimate, we must also acknowledge that both have serious vulnerabilities.
For example, it is all too easy for those who embrace the outside world to embrace its values as well. Even rabbis are susceptible to this temptation. Indeed, those with the most brilliant minds are especially susceptible to the yetzer hara to reconcile that which is foreign – even that which is abhorrent – with the Torah.
Their advanced intellect is co-opted to rationalize the immoral, dissect the Torah in ways that produce the opposite of what it teaches, and gradually erode our sensitivities for right and wrong; indeed, they eventually adopt the idolatrous notion that nothing is objectively right or wrong. Ultimately these rabbis lose the ability to be outraged by anything or anyone other than fellow Jews who don’t share their “compassionate, nuanced, understanding” approach.
I was recently asked what makes a rabbi Orthodox. The question really is: What makes anyone Orthodox? And the answer, for purposes of this discussion, is straightforward:
Any person who would stand at Har Sinai today and proclaim “Na’aseh v’nishma,” who accepts upon himself the ol malchus shamayim, whose fear of Heaven precedes temporal considerations, who accepts that one’s personal feelings must conform to the Torah and not the reverse, and who believes that Chazal were the most enlightened, knowledgeable, compassionate, and trustworthy people who ever lived – that person is an Orthodox Jew.
A rabbi who suddenly discovers that it’s not good for man to be alone, and therefore two men should be allowed to live together as romantic partners and raise children together has forfeited the right to call himself Orthodox, and media members who mistakenly refer to him as such should be corrected.
Contrary to what many have come to believe in the more open segments of the Orthodox world, it is not the job or the right of rabbis to “interpret” the Torah. It is their job to absorb it from their predecessors who have done the same, transmit it as faithfully as possible to others, and in cases of doubt to use only the traditional process of determining the proper course of action.
Rabbis are not intellectual vigilantes with the power or the right to find a halachic way whenever there is a societal will. It is not the job of a rabbi to teach people that they need not have a conscience or feel bad when they violate the Torah. Sometimes saying, “It is forbidden” is the most compassionate response of all, for it saves one from surrendering the ability to ever live in accordance with G-d’s will.
We must be compassionate with all those who seek help, but simultaneously remain firm in what is right and what is wrong, and reject those who believe the Torah must bend to their will. No means no.
If someone wishes to convert to Judaism and accepts the entire Torah minus a single letter, he is categorically rejected. Such a person would be more “religious” than almost any of us, but we cannot allow him to join the Jewish people under such terms. Similarly, a Jew who accepts all the mitzvos except one that he believes is not eternal, immutable, and a Heavenly obligation for all Jews cannot call himself Orthodox. The same goes for any rabbi who supports such an ideology.
Such a rabbi might be a great scholar with a kind heart, and he may do many good deeds. He may be many things. But he is not an Orthodox rabbi, and his teachings should not be allowed to draw others down the dangerous path of erosion.