Conclusion – Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and Rabbi Ozer Glickman

Dear Readers, the story played out fine. A discussion started in prior prejudice of an alleged misplaced progressivism and an assumed instrumental social view gave way to understanding and shalom between Torah scholars. Below are the final statements from Rabbis Glickman and Katz. Part One with the responsa and original complaints was here.

scholarly debate

From Rabbi Glickman

How Rav Ysoscher Katz fooled me and what I learned

Along with its oft-realized potential for Chillul haShem, the internet can also forge new relationships that can blossom into powerful friendships. I first encountered Rav Ysoscher Katz on Facebook. I knew of him only vaguely through Rav Avi Weiss and Dr. Hillel Jaffe, two friends of mine who have been, of course, heavily involved with Yeshivat Chovevei haTorah. Rav Katz reached out to me since we were both participating in the Orthodox Forum this March and we arranged to eat lunch one day. From there, we began to message one another.

When Rav Katz published a couple of notices that referred to his Torah as “progressive,” I wrote him a private, respectful note asking him why he needed to modify the Torah he teaches. He thought this was an important conversation and invited me to post a note on his Facebook wall which I did. This occasioned a back-and-forth, not about his teshuva but about the couching of it as social commentary. Unlike many of the commenters on FB, I actually read his teshuva before commenting and didn’t think it was at all problematic and hardly needed any criticism or haskamah from me.

The original thrust of our discussion was lost as others shifted the conversation to things that interested them, starting new threads and elevating the discourse. I was happy when Rav Katz acknowledged my point and reformulated his language to make it clear that we actually didn’t disagree. His halakhic teachings are in fact not just a vehicle for his political and social views and everyone is happy.

Late last night, when everyone in my home had gone to bed, I was reviewing a siman of Yoreh Deah in my study when my phone jingled with the distinctive sound that heralds a message of some sort. It was Rav Katz, confirming a date for lunch next week. I was in the middle of a comment of the Shach on why the sugya of tipas chalav is not merely a case of tzli and assur k’dei netilah. It’s a well-known kushya in Yoreh Deah. While Rav Katz was typing a response, I was reading a gloss by haGaon Rabbi Akiva Iger that I had underlined years ago and didn’t remember why. It was just the kind of thing that strikes me. The gaon writes that the din of measuring against the whole chaticha cannot be as the Shach characterizes it, a bow to a safeik as to the nature of milk, because it is mentioned in the mishnah. The mishnah is always mei’ikar ha-din, unless it stipulates otherwise. Without thinking, I shared it with Rav Katz and he seemed as animated by it as I was, referring to a rishon elsewhere that affirms the same thing and his general contention that mishnah is about fact…

Now this insight of the Gaon is the kind of thing that really gets me thinking. II can be lost to the world and my wife will ask me what’s bothering me. I have learned not to respond. She doesn’t share my excitement over comments like these.

Here’s the thing, though: Rav Ysoscher Katz does. He is struck by the same methodological comments that suddenly appear when you least expect them and offer deep insight into the literary nature of the sources.

Well, he had me fooled. The rallying of his base with the modifier “progressive” and the emphasis on the Modern in Modern Orthodox were misdirections. It turns out, as he told me from the outset, that we are interested in the same things, that we share many of the same passions.

Last night, we talked about how a Satmar boy raised in the chassidische yeshiva world wound up in the same place as the son of a maskil who spoke in Ashkenazic Hebrew to his children, who taught his son Bialik and Tchernechovski and made him read Albright and Kramer before his Bar Mitzvah, who taught him hundreds of pages of Eyn Yaakov so he wouldn’t waste his time on halakhah… how these two boys wound up in the same place. Yesterday would have been my mother’s 90th birthday had she lived longer than her 65 years and I thought all day about how I have come to be where I am. Last night’s late conversation about life and journeys was very important to me.

So here it is. I found a new friend who loves Torah in much the same way as I do, who enjoys incorporating insights from academia in the spirit of Mada l’maan ha-Torah. Next time, I think I’ll get to know someone before drawing any conclusions.


Response of Rabbi Katz

Observance of mitzvot is rewarded in Olam Haba’ah. The Mishna in Peah (1:1), however, introduces a special category of mitzvot that carry additional compensation. The Mishna has a list of mitzvot which, in addition to generating reward in Olam Haba’ah, also allows people to be אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה; to reap benefits in this world. According to Maimonides, אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה means that those mitzvot also carry sociological benefits. They have the ability to improve our social fabric and make the world a better place. Somewhat surprisingly, one finds Talmud Torah in that list. Learning Torah, despite being a cerebral pursuit, apparently also has sociological and psychological benefits, it too can make this world a better and happier place.

My experience these last two weeks was an extreme embodiment of this premise. I wrote the teshuvah on breastfeeding in shul for academic and legal purposes. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that this intellectual pursuit will also provide emotional and personal benefits. Instead of being attacked by the usual shrill voices in our community, I was privileged to have someone from across the aisle reach out to me and with a firm but sensitive voice engage me in dialogue. R Ozer raised serious questions about my jurisprudential methodology but did it with the kindness and sensitivity befitting a talmid chacham of his caliber.

While I expected this engagement to be another run of the mill debate, it unexpectedly turned into a very meaningful and stimulating friendship, a true fulfillment of the Mishna’s promise, that proper Torah can also heal social ills.

While we both share an aversion to pesak with an agenda, we respectfully disagree on the degree to which pre-determined convictions can inform the judicial process. While this is an important question, it is not the only one contemporary poskim need to grapple with.

Halakhic Judaism is at a crossroads, new realities confront us with new challenges. To authentically address them important conversations need to happen, some of Halakha’s principles need to be assessed and reevaluated. While there are many questions we need to address, I will list the three most burning ones (in my opinion).

1) What should the posek’s starting assumption be when answering a question? Does the posek assume things are assur, unless proven otherwise? Or, should the starting point be that things are mutar, in which case the onus is on the legal system to prove that the heter assumption was wrong.

2) Given the tradition’s understanding that הלכה is not mere observance, that it is also הליכה, a way of life and a mode of being in this world, how does one create a Halakhic system that generates a proper religious equilibrium, one that runs on the healthy center, and is neither too lenient nor overly stringent?

3) Finally, given my own chassidish upbringing, I am very curious to know if and how Chasidic theology can and should influence our pesika. I have no doubt that in previous generations, Chassidic theology played a role in the judicial thinking of many Chassidish poskim. I would like to unpack that process and figure out how it could be replicated in our current judicial arena.

I am thrilled about this new friendship with my colleague from the other side of the intra-denominational divide. I hope and pray that this relationship can blossom and grow, eventually leading to many more conversations. Hopefully they will ultimately lead to a richer and more sophisticated religiosity for both of our camps.

Apropos of the teshuvah which generated this beautiful debate, chazal actually use a breastfeeding analogy to convey the enormity of Torah. The Rabbis tell us (Eiruvin 64b) that studying Torah is compared to a child being breastfed. Just as the breast provides milk for the infant anytime she latches on, so too does the Torah provide constant nourishment whenever we turn to it for spiritual sustenance. I suspect that this breastfeeding teshuvah will continue to nourish our intra-denominational friendship, allowing it to constantly grow and expand. Working together will give us a better chance at creating a genuine torat emet, one that is true to Torah’s essence and to its mandate.

מורי, ידידי, כהנה וכהנה!

From Rabbi Glickman

I returned to the yeshiva yesterday (I don’t teach every Monday, only every other week). The guys were back from all over these United States, Israel, Europe, etc. where they spent Pesach at home with their families. YU has much more geographical diversity among its students these days. This means there is someone with whom to discuss real football, the kind where you don’t touch the ball with your hands unless you’re wearing gloves. המבין יבין

Wonders of wonders, there was a tremendous amount of discussion about my budding friendship with Rav Ysoscher Katz shlit”a. For those who don’t know him, he’s the talmid chacham who tries to sound cool and progressive but is actually not so progressive, at least not in a prescriptive way. I mean…. enough! He’s a talmid chacham and I like him. That’s good enough for me.

A number of students from my massively overtallied Tuesday halakha class stayed around to discuss l’affaire l’allaitement. They had all read it. Nice to know, at least until all the grades are in, that my students disagree with the assessment of the many commenters on Facebook who found me a) just a politician; b) ignorant of legal theory; and c) a poor student of the responsa literature. The conversation moved out of the classroom after minchah and devolved into a discussion of the internet and the etiquette of posting.

This continued over dinner with one of my colleagues, a very distinguished long-time Rosh Yeshiva. In a nutshell, he doesn’t share my views although he would dispute the contention that I don’t understand shu”t. Thanks for that.

Here are the conclusions I shared with my students (the Rosh Yeshiva doesn’t have a Facebook account although he has heard of it).

  1. Treat people with respect, even if you do not agree with them. We all enjoyed the commenter who addressed RYK with title, called me by my last name, and dismissed what I had to say as uninteresting hackneyed politics. He later apologized by saying he is not a rav and this is the way he and his friends talk in shul. Note to self: find out where he davvens (or talks) and avoid it.
  2. If you are going to comment on a teshuva, read it first.
  3. If you read something written by someone who is generally considered to be a scholar of some standing and you think you can refute it off the top of your head, there is a good chance you didn’t understand what he or she was saying. Even b’nai Torah can be guilty of this.
  4. Most people aren’t interested in what you have to say. They critique your post as an asmakhta for their own ideas. It would be good to first read carefully what you said because they don’t look very fair when they then repeat in other words what you already wrote.
  5. The internet is not the best place for Torah discussion but it is where lots of people meet. Be prepared for all the annoying behavior mentioned above and just get over yourself.
  6. Be aware that there are always angry people with their own issues who take anyone who actually works for the Jewish community in a public role as a target for their own pathologies. Ignore them.
  7. Most of the time, ignore 6. The vast majority of people are nice (a little unthinking sometimes so get over yourself and let them misinterpret and insult you because chances are you do it, too).
  8. Don’t ascribe deep dark motivations to people with whom you don’t agree. This even applies to Open Orthodoxy (joke, okay?).
  9. Which brings me to 8: irony can be lost when words are only printed on a screen. Whenever you’re insulted, chalk it up to a joke that didn’t go over.
  10. Take periodic long vacations from the internet. Like I am about to do.

Kol Tuv

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