Interview with Rabbi Michael Harris – Faith Without Fear

What does Modern Orthodoxy look like across the pond over in London? How would the Torah uMadda Journal or Orthodox Forum sound outside of the original American context? One can get a sense from reading the new book by Rabbi Dr. Michael J Harris Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy (hc available pb due in May). Faith without Fear vividly conveys the important religious issues that are on the mind of Michael Harris, a leading Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi and Cambridge don. Harris presents an overview of contemporary debates within Modern Orthodoxy and then offers his own perspective, one man’s Judaism.

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Rabbi Dr Michael Harris studied at Ma’ale Adumim, Machon Harry Fischel and Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat. He holds rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel;  his first degree in philosophy from Cambridge University, Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem., and Ph.D in philosophy from the University of London. Rabbi Harris became Rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue in 1995.(The historic synagogue is located in bastion of downtown wealthy liberalism and its past rabbis included Raymond Apple and Norman Solomon.)  He is an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge.  And as his bio notes: “When unable to find sufficient aggravation within the Anglo-Jewish community, Rabbi Harris seeks it in his capacity as a proud, card-carrying member of Chelsea Football Club.”

His father was Cyril K. Harris, Chief Rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa from 1987 to 2004, before that he held pulpits in London for 30 years.  His son, Michael grew up as part of the old-time United Synagogue.  He is still an advocate of a broad tent synagogue and a Rabbi needing a doctorate in philosophy as essential for a sophisticated rabbinate.

Harris thinks that Modern Orthodoxy must have the courage to be modern and to be secure enough to not submit to the rival Haredi world. Hence Harris addresses issues with Orthodoxy that he feels others are afraid to publicly tackle from a modern perspective. The work is a summary and evaluation of current answers written for a British community and will not be new for an American audience. His six topics for a modern Orthodoxy are (1)A need to reject the encroachment of Haredi views (2) a support for increasing women’s roles (3)superstition and kabbalah (4)Torah mi Sinai (5) messianism and messianic politics, and (6) other religions.

British modern Orthodoxy is currently converging in certain aspects with United States modern Orthodoxy. Originally, a hundred years ago they were quite different.   American modern Orthodoxy tended to be low-church and led by the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. In contrast, the British United Synagogue was high church movement funded by the wealthy to have  Victorian Anglican Catholic sensibilities.  The seminary that they established- Jews College-  was modeled in its curriculum on Western European model seminaries and structured by Rabbi Hertz to follow his alma mater JTS of America and over the decades it was staffed by graduates of both JTS of Breslau and Berlin Hildesheimer.  They originally did not have Eastern European attitudes or patterns of study.

On the other hand, they also lacked the immense influence of Mordechai Kaplan on modern Orthodoxy in that their synagogues remained high church rather than a community center with a pool, men’s and women’s club, social hall, and suburban values. They avoided the divide between Orthodoxy and Conservative that defined the American landscape.  The majority of congregants in United Synagogue congregations defined themselves as traditional.   Imagine, if the majority of traditional and right wing Conservative congregations of the 20th century remained in the Orthodox rubric.

I have blogged in the past about Herbert Loewe, Abraham Cohen and Isidore Epstein who operated using the Victorian model, It was  Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits who sought to bring the United Synagogue more into line with Modern Orthodoxy.

However, currently, according to the  2015 United Synagogue Strategic Review, their own self-study, they are losing 1000 members a year of their meager 80, 000 members since the old-time traditionalists Jews are increasingly moving to define themselves as just Jewish. Of United Synagogue members,  23% keep Shabbat and 73% separate meat and milk at home and only 36% avoid non- kosher meat when eating out, in addition 60 % of the congregations are in areas of declining Jewish  population. (The report also noted that Kiruv organization rabbis make more money than synagogue rabbis.)

The report encourages synagogues to become community oriented focusing on families and children, become warmer, more outreach, to become welcoming and more inclusive, reach out to former members, and to have more cultural events.

At the same time, there is within congregations a tension between those who want to continue the broad tent model and those who advocate making the synagogue focused more only on the Orthodox (which over time would shrink the membership  to a mere fraction of its current numbers.)

Rabbi Michael Harris was one of the few Orthodox rabbi who has attended Limmud and has attended since  1994. His view is for stronger Orthodox rabbinic participation at Limmud with  Orthodox rabbis at Limmud in larger numbers. He has written against those who think Limmud as a “rejection of all that is precious to Orthodox Judaism.” Harris  has also written concerning those who ban Limmud: “ I struggle to understand how rabbonim, however senior and respected, can claim to know the mind of HaShem concerning Limmud – a claim that could legitimately be made only by a prophet…  I struggle to understand a simplistic Manichean view of the world in which haredi Orthodoxy is the sole, direct and simple continuation of Torah miSinai and every other contemporary form of Judaism is deluded. “ Hence Harris’s book is offering a British alternative to those “rabbis who deliberately live lives totally secluded from the mainstream British Jewish community. One doubts whether they understand that community, let alone Limmud.”

Harris’ view may have already been stated in the United States- it almost reads like a series of EDAH  (a”h) lectures-  but he is writing for his British audience.  He also has taken pen in reaction to rabbis who in submission to the Beth Din has stopped allowing women to carry a Sefer Torah.  For Harris, “if rabbis are not permitted to rule on such issues in their own synagogues, we risk – as I have said in previous such instances – the infantilisation of the United Synagogue rabbinate. “

He has also been outspoken on women’s roles in the synagogue. In Harris’ opinion, “the momentum towards greater empowerment of women in our religious and communal life is unstoppable. That is the good news. The bad news is that US  [United Synagogue] members who would like to see principled movement and development in this area will likely have to go outside the United Synagogue to find it. “

And they have found it by starting a branch of JOFA in the UK and Rabbi Harris invited a Maharat student studying in the Maharat program in NY  to give lectures and has appointed her as Scholar-In Residence.  This was condemned obliquely by the current Chief Rabbi Mirvis  as a call not to invite “inappropriate speakers” but the newspaper wrote “Michael Harris, of course, has long been the flagbearer for modern Orthodoxy within the United Synagogue…” We have come full circle with an apparent convergence of modern Orthodoxy between the two countries on selected issues. This book points out those issues.


  1. Why should Modern Orthodoxy have faith without Fear? Why is there so much fear in Modern Orthodoxy?

Modern Orthodoxy should have faith without fear because the challenges confronting Orthodoxy in modernity, such as the welcome revolution in the status of women in society and our knowledge of the Ancient Near East, have to be met and not avoided if we are to have an Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually and morally compelling. We also need faith without fear in privileging certain strands of our tradition over others – for example Maimonidean universalism over kabbalistic essentialism and noble messianic visions over vengeful ones.

Further, Modern Orthodoxy has no reason not to be self-confident rather than diffident vis-a-vis Haredi Orthodoxy. There is no such thing as a contemporary form of Judaism which constitutes a seamless continuation of pre-modern Jewish tradition. The changes brought about by modernity have made that impossible. What can be done is to try and continue pre-modern traditional Judaism as faithfully as possible in the modern world, and Modern Orthodoxy has at least as much claim to be doing that as Haredi Orthodoxy, which in some respects, perhaps most obviously the doctrine of “da’as Torah”, has introduced phenomena which were not a feature of historical Jewish tradition.

I think that much of the fear in Modern Orthodoxy comes from an inferiority complex and the unspoken feeling that Charedi Orthodoxy is somehow more authentic. That inferiority complex is, as I have tried to explain above, misguided, but it is unhelpfully bolstered by what seems to be the sociological fact that more Jews who identify with Modern Orthodoxy are lax about mitzvah observance in some areas than are haredi Jews. There ought of course to be no difference between Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews on e.g. the details of Shabbat, kashrut or taharat hamishpacha observance. There may be ideological difference over some chumrot, but when it comes to punctiliousness in observing Halakhah, there is no ideological difference and ought to be no sociological difference.

It is crucial to note that perceived ‘leniency’ for ideological reasons is no less ‘frum’ than Haredi stringency. As the Seridei Eish points out in his famous responsum on Bat Mitzvah, those who are in favour of celebrating Bat Mitzvah are no less concerned about the continuity of Jewish faith and tradition than those who oppose such celebration.

2) How does British United Synagogue differ from American Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy?

The lay membership of the British United Synagogue is much more varied. Its synagogues contain haredi Jews (although not a large number, and by no means in every Shul), Jews who are Modern Orthodox in the American sense, Jews who are not and would not claim to be fully Shabbat– or kashrut-observant but who are strongly traditional, and a large proportion of non-observant Jews who just want to belong to an Orthodox Shul for their own lifecycle events and for the High Holydays. My impression is that American Modern Orthodox communities, certainly in the greater New York area, are much more homogeneous in profile, religious observance and ideology.  The rabbinate of the United Synagogue also seems to be more diverse than that of American Modern Orthodoxy, comprising haredi (with a particularly marked Chabad presence) and Modern Orthodox, with the haredi rabbis probably in the majority. The ideology of the United Synagogue is also deliberately not specifically Modern Orthodox despite the organisation containing several Modern Orthodox rabbis and many Modern Orthodox congregants.

3) What is the divide between Haredi  and Modern Orthodoxy? Why should Modern Orthodoxy resist Haredi influence?

There is a deep divide of mindset and Weltanschauung. Modern Orthodoxy’s mindset is much more rationalist (as opposed to mystical) and scientific than that of Haredi Orthodoxy. Moreover, Modern Orthodoxy views the modern world as something to be engaged with, albeit critically, rather than as something to be shut out, in most respects, as far as possible.

At the level of specific though major issues there are of course further important divides. These issues include the religious significance of the State of Israel (as opposed to the religious significance of Eretz Yisrael which is agreed by both camps), the role and status of women in Judaism, secular studies, particularly the humanities and philosophy, modern scientific understandings of the universe, rabbinic authority versus personal autonomy, and universalistic versus particularistic emphases.

Modern Orthodoxy should resist Haredi influence at the ideological level because its own ideology is (at the least) every bit as legitimate as Haredi ideology as a faithful attempt to continue millennial Jewish tradition in the modern world, and from a Modern Orthodox perspective, many fundamental Haredi positions are deeply mistaken – for example, its failure to appreciate the religious significance of Zionism and the State of Israel. Haredi influence towards punctiliousness (though not necessarily stringencies), intensity and enthusiasm in the observance of mitzvot is however salutary, and I think that both communities would actually benefit from more dialogue and interaction.

4) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward the role of women and toward feminism?

Modern Orthodoxy should view feminism as an essentially positive phenomenon. Beneath all its varieties and manifestations, the core values of feminism are values that Modern Orthodoxy views or should view as being at the heart of Judaism – the fundamental equality of men and women, justice and human dignity. This is what some Orthodox critics of feminism miss when they talk of feminism as alien to traditional Judaism or as a passing fad.

Modern Orthodoxy should work towards enhancing the role of women in Jewish religious and communal life. There is still much work to be done and we should not take refuge in the apologetic idea that men and women already have equal though different roles. Expanding the role of women should be done in a way which is halakhically rigorous and faithful to traditional halakhic texts and methodology, and at a pace which allows the global Modern Orthodox community to sense continuity with rather than a radical break from previous generations of halakhically observant Jews. But I think that within those parameters, much positive development is possible  – witness, to take just one obvious and central example, the wonderful growth, both quantitative and qualitative, of  women’s Torah study (in parts of the haredi world as well as the Modern Orthodox world) in recent decades. This phenomenon has greatly strengthened rather than weakened Orthodoxy.

Similar developments are possible in many other areas once we accept the insight of gedolim such as the Chafetz Chaim and the Seridei Eish who taught us that sometimes the ‘frumest’ response is not ‘no change, ever’ but rather recognising radically altered social circumstances and accommodating them in a responsible halakhic way.

5) How can you go against the chief rabbi on women’s issues? Why did you invite a Maharat?

I do not ‘go against the Chief Rabbi’ on women’s issues. I have expressed disagreement with some initiatives in some shuls being stopped when I believed they should not have been stopped.  That is healthy debate. It is perfectly possible to accept the Chief Rabbi’s authority while expressing polite disagreement.

Dina Brawer, who is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, is Scholar in Residence for the current Jewish/academic year at our Shul, where she continues to deliver superb shiurim and attract large audiences from both our own and neighbouring communities. The aim is to have a different woman scholar in residence at our Shul every year in order to further encourage women’s Torah scholarship. Dina is a local and fine scholar and was an obvious choice, and there was no opposition whatsoever to her appointment in our Shul. The onus is on those outside our Shul who unsuccessfully opposed the appointment to explain why an Orthodox woman scholar with whom some may disagree on particular issues should have been denied a platform to give valuable shiurim on non-contentious topics. To my mind, their position reflects a lack of intellectual and religious self-confidence.

6) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Kabbalah, mysticism, and magic?

Jewish mystical traditions pose a fascinating challenge for Modern Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox mindset is rationalistic as opposed to mystical and so mysticism tends to be marginalised or ignored. But there is much in our mystical traditions that can enrich the spiritual world of the Modern Orthodox Jew – prayers, Torah commentaries, practices such as meditation. Rav Kook is fascinating here because he holds out the intriguing possibility that distinctively Modern Orthodox positions like a positive attitude to Zionism or evolution can actually be grounded in our best-known mystical tradition, Kabbalah.

At the same time, some aspects of Kabbalah, in particular, present severe difficulties for Modern Orthodox Jews. Essentialism, whether applied to men and women or Jews and non-Jews – the idea of deep, intrinsic differences which make one sex or one group radically superior to a (sometimes literally demonised) other – has to be jettisoned by any plausible Modern Orthodox ethics. One strategy here is, as consistently advocated by Menachem Kellner, to take Maimonides as our guide in rejecting essentialism and to privilege his deep universalism.

Regarding magic, we should follow Me’iri in adopting naturalistic interpretations.

7) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Biblical criticism?

The first thing is to be prepared to face the challenges posed by Biblical criticism and, more broadly, academic biblical scholarship and not simply to try and hide from them, as most of the haredi world and much of our own Modern Orthodox world tends to do. The conclusions of Biblical criticism are easily available on the internet, encountered by many of our kids at college, and familiar to many educated people in our community. It is not possible to ignore them, and much more importantly it is intellectually dishonest to do so. The Maharal’s beautiful passage at the end of Be’er Hagolah about the courage to take on intellectual challenges to our faith and strengthen and refine our faith through our encounter with them is the only feasible model for Modern Orthodoxy in the area of Biblical criticism as in other areas.

The next step is to analyse academic biblical studies into its relevant component parts and to respond appropriately. Lower Biblical Criticism is unproblematic and even religiously salutary, as argued by Rav Chaim Hirschensohn and others. Regarding Higher Criticism or the Documentary Hypotheses, my view is that Modern Orthodoxy does not need to and should not follow the approach of (for example) Rabbis Louis Jacobs and accept the view of the Torah as a composite document. The underlying assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis and its many contemporary versions can be coherently questioned.

To my mind, the most serious challenge to Orthodoxy from contemporary academic biblical scholarship comes from our modern knowledge of the Ancient Near East. In particular, close similarities to the wording of verses of the Torah in texts such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Eshnunna, which predate the traditional date of the Giving of the Torah, need to be explained.

I suggest that a way of addressing this issue is to draw on the Byzantine midrashic tradition highlighted by Rav Amnon Bazak in his book Ad Hayom Hazeh but not applied by him to this challenge. This tradition posits an alternative to the model of the Torah as totally ‘dictated’ word-for-word by God to Moses and allows Moses a greater role in the formulation of some verses in the Torah. It seems to make more sense that Moses might draw on existing legal texts in faithfully formulating in words the Divine content of certain laws than to say that God ‘dictated’ to Moses using almost the precise language of other ancient Near Eastern law codes. This proposal may be unconventional, but I believe it is fully compatible with Orthodox belief in the Divinity of the Torah. It may have sounded very strange to many people in previous generations, but they simply did not have the knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern texts that is easily available to us today.

8) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Messianism?

Messianic hopes are of course an important part of traditional Jewish belief and very much reflected in our liturgy. But Modern Orthodoxy needs in my view to think more about the nature of the Messianic era that we pray for and not restrict its interest in messianism to debates about whether the religious significance of the State of Israel should be construed in messianic or non-messianic categories. There are radically differing conceptions of the messianic era in our sources and in particular in our medieval rabbinic literature. Maimonides’ conception, for example, is very naturalistic: the messianic world will resemble the present world in many respects. A good representative of the other major medieval trend is Abarbanel, whose messianism is apocalyptic, viewing the messianic world as essentially a miraculous new world built on the ruins of this one.

I don’t think that Modern Orthodoxy necessarily need privilege the naturalistic over the apocalyptic vision in all respects. What is wrong with a world in which wolves literally live peacefully with lambs, even though Maimonides sees this as only a metaphor? But where Modern Orthodoxy does have to choose which messianic vision to endorse is when it comes to the ethical arena. Medieval apocalyptic messianism sometimes went with anticipation of the humiliation or even annihilation of the non-Jewish world. Modern Orthodoxy’s messianic vision needs to privilege those strands in our tradition which look forward to a messianic future of universal peace, justice and harmony.

9) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Other Faiths?

I believe that Modern Orthodoxy should resist a strong pluralism which views Judaism and other faiths as equally true, so that, for example, Judaism is true for Jews, Christianity for Christians and Islam for Muslims. There is a more moderate but still valuable kind of pluralism suggested by Me’iri according to which we validate the self-understanding of other religions as religions without accepting all their truth-claims as being on a par with our own.  Believing in the truth of the core claims of our own faith is also perfectly compatible with a positive attitude towards other faiths.

As a religious Jew who believes that Judaism is right and Christianity (for example) wrong on the messianism of Jesus and the relative status of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, I can still and should still accept that Christianity teaches a great deal of moral truth, that it brings blessing to the lives of many individuals and communities who adhere to it, and indeed that it strengthens the moral fabric of many contemporary societies, including the Western ones in which we live. We should also be open to what other faiths and their literatures can teach us – for example, as Jerome Gellman suggests, by their ability to convey shared truths in a particularly powerful way.

10) Was it OK to have mixed choirs in United Synagogue synagogues?  

No, it was not OK, mostly in my view because it involved men and women sitting together in services. My Shul, Hampstead, famously had a mixed choir for longer than most other synagogues (it disbanded many years before I became the rabbi, I hasten to add). [They removed the mixed choir in 1987]  Mixed choirs in United Synagogues were a reflection (though by no means the most serious) of precisely the somewhat lax attitude to some areas of Halakhah that does Modern Orthodoxy no favours and has nothing to do with its ideology.

11) Do major rabbis need a PhD? Why is it important? How has a PhD helped in the Rabbinate?

I think that rabbis of major congregations need to be at least as well secularly educated as their congregants. A PhD isn’t the only way of trying to achieve this goal but it is one way of helping to attain it. Having a PhD and more importantly having ongoing academic interests has been invaluable to me in the rabbinate because the teaching side of the rabbinic role, and the academic research and teaching, feed off each other and are mutually enriching in ways which are productive not just for me but I hope for my congregants as well. To give just one example, working recently on an academic paper on aspects of the interface between treatments of the problem of evil in Chazal and in contemporary philosophy of religion at the same time as teaching an adult education course on the same topic in my shul enhanced both projects. Among other things, the academic project lent another dimension to what I could present to my congregants and forced me to do this in a way that was hopefully clear and accessible to non-specialists, while my congregants’ questions and discussion sharpened my thinking on the academic project.

12) What should the criteria for membership in an Orthodox synagogue?

I have had various ideological battles with colleagues in the United Synagogue over the years. But for me the United Synagogue has got something right that is absolutely fundamental. It is this: although its shuls are Orthodox, with Orthodox rabbis, mechitzot and davening, the only criterion for membership is that one is halakhically Jewish. It upsets me to hear of shuls where one has to be shomer mitzvoth in order to be a member. What is the point, in the contemporary Jewish world where so many Jews need encouragement and support in their Jewish lives, of shomrei mitzvot setting up their own homogeneous shuls and just looking after themselves? Yet this seems to be such a widespread phenomenon in the Orthodox community globally – homogeneous Shuls, even homogeneous yishuvim or neighbourhoods in Israel. The most noble way of running an Orthodox shul is to open it to every Jew. With all the difficulties it entails, that is the best way of fulfilling our responsibilities to the Jewish people as a whole.

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