The Market For Halakhic Authority - Some Reflections on Gadolnomics

Aryeh Klapper

It is my great pleasure to respond to Prof. Chaim Saiman’s characteristically erudite, well-reasoned, and provocative essay about Liberal Orthodoxy and “gedolim.”[1] I agree entirely with his fundamental thesis that halakhic authority requires both supply and demand.  Nonetheless, there remain differences of emphasis, evaluation, and prediction that are worth exploring.

It is vital to distinguish at the outset between gedolim as leaders and gedolim as figureheads. Prof. Saiman writes that, in Orthodox discourse:

invoking the gedolim serves as a powerful rhetorical tool. A viewpoint approved by a recognized gadol is automatically deemed in the bounds of acceptability, even if a majority find it wrong, novel, or idiosyncratic. By contrast, positions that fail to garner support of gedolim live under a perpetual cloud of suspicion, no matter how widespread amongst the laity.

But this puts the cart before the horse. In much of contemporary Orthodoxy, the positions of gedolim (past and present) are in the hands of Procrustean censors who strive to ensure that nothing genuinely novel or idiosyncratic escapes, let alone anything “suspicious.”[2] When such a position nonetheless escapes, the result is generally loss of gadol status rather than legitimization of the position.[3] 

Moreover, none of the great posekim of the twentieth century had (or sought, or would have accepted) anywhere near the authority that the Orthodox Right attributes to its current figureheads (many of whom in fact have no authority at all, and cannot even control the release of documents bearing their signatures).[4] As opposed to the current façade of absolute consensus, those posekim regularly disagreed with one another in no uncertain terms and in full view of the laity. So I do not believe that the ‘cult of the gadol is a necessary constituent of halakhic authority, which both flourished before it and God willing will survive it.

Prof. Saiman claims that “positions that fail to garner support of gedolim live under a perpetual cloud of suspicion, no matter how widespread amongst the laity.” This formulation draws a stark dichotomy between gedolim and laity; ordinary posekim play no role. This is contrasted with Liberal Orthodoxy, with regard to which Prof. Saiman quotes the founding statement of the International Rabbinic Fellowship as follows:

The alternative and preferred model of rabbinic authority is one in which that authority is not consolidated into the hands of a few, but proliferated into as wide a circle of responsible rabbis as possible. In this model, the role of the rosh yeshiva is not to control his students, but to empower them to think for themselves, to assume responsibility, and to act on their own.

This vision of the rosh yeshiva and the rabbinate is familiar in Modern Orthodoxy as that plausibly attributed by many students of the Rav to their teacher.[5] It also has deep roots in Slabodka and its many descendant yeshivot. 

I contend, however, that this description matches only Liberal Orthodoxy’s self-perception, not its reality. For example, the IRF speaks of rabbinic autonomy, and to some extent was founded to oppose the RCA’s centralization of conversion via the GPS system. But it rapidly set up its own conversion system asserting its own halakhic standards, with YCT Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer at the head of its halakhah committee. Rabbi Avi Weiss used similar rhetoric when beginning YCT, but in fact Chovevei musmakhim send their serious she’eilot back to their yeshiva teachers, as those teachers regularly assure me. When Liberal Orthodox powerhouse (and RIETS musmakh) Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Maharat Ruth Balinsky wanted to allow female converts to immerse without a beit din present, they sent the she’eilah to Yeshivat Maharat Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Jeffrey Fox.

It should also be much more acknowledged by the “Centrists” that no YCT musmakh has instituted radical changes in a previously “mainstream” Orthodox shul, nor has any YCT grad officially accepted a position at a partnership minyan. That will likely change soon, but because of policy changes at the home institution, not because of satellite autonomy.

Prescriptively, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Critics often suggest that YU roshei yeshiva produce “out of touch” pesak, whereas shul rabbis better understand the laity’s needs. I think this is simply false. Roshei yeshiva receive she’eilot because people like their answers, and in any case many YU roshei yeshiva are successful shul rabbis as well. They are also in constant conversation with their shul rabbi students. The eclipse of shul rabbis occurred because they were less capable than the roshei yeshiva of serving a more educated and more observant generation of Orthodox men and women, and the balance is shifting back as a remarkable new generation of rabbis takes the field.

Centrist pesak may be New York-centric, and the she’eilah-asking audience for roshei yeshiva likely skews young. But Liberal Orthodoxy skews young and metropolitan as well. In other words, Liberal Orthodox halakhists currently use roughly the same structural model of authority as Centrists.

This fundamental structural agreement is often obscured by a key conceptual error. Expanding the range of acceptable pesak in the direction of “leniency” does not increase autonomy unless local rabbis can reject the results of their colleagues’ lenient decisions just as they can with regard to stringencies. For example: Demanding that I validate the Jewishness of anyone any colleague has ever converted may be a very good thing, but it limits my halakhic autonomy. This is why Liberal Orthodox activists regularly protest against the autonomy of marriage registrars in Israel. Enforced pluralism constricts autonomy. This may be good or bad, but either way it must be understood.

We must therefore look elsewhere than rabbinic autonomy for the cause of what is—here I agree fully with Prof. Saiman—the lack of a sufficient “sense of halakhic authority” on the left, as opposed to in the center and on the right.[6]

One possibility is that, in this regard, the right and center are living on borrowed time. The cult of the gadol springs up in the absence of true halakhic leaders, as a (an often successful) stopgap attempt to maintain halakhic authority. But sooner or later people notice the lack of genuine halakhic responsiveness to changed circumstances, the fundamentally totalitarian mindset necessary to maintain the façade of consensus, and the inevitable corruption surrounding figureheads. They become cynical or rebel.

In my view, this is currently much more of an issue on the right than in the center, where various YU roshei yeshiva such as Rabbi Hershel Schachter and my teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, have emerged as genuine leaders. Some of the distortions of “gadolatry” remain all too present, but I think it would be dishonest and churlish not to acknowledge that they regularly take, publicize, and sustain novel, idiosyncratic, controversial, and courageous positions on issues ranging from the prenup and anti-me’agen demonstrations to kashrut to niddah to Zionism. One need not wish to follow them everywhere to acknowledge their genuine leadership, and to contend that the Haredi world has no one to match them.

That kind of true leadership, I contend, is the vital source of halakhic authority. It does not require the belief that these leaders are superhuman talmidei hakhamim with incomparable mastery of kol ha-Torah kulah; even those who think that Rabbi Schachter is unequalled in the area of halakhah recognize that he is not an incomparable lamdan or baal mahshavah.

This revival of centrist authority has made serious inroads to the right, and I think better accounts for Haredi acceptance of Centrism than a delayed acknowledgement of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lichtenstein’s respective gadolness. However, it has not spread to the left. Rather, it has alienated many on the left. This is partially a function of Rabbi Schachter’s very direct and sometimes caustic or derisive opposition to positions and personalities dear to the left.

The question is why the Orthodox Left has not produced comparable leadership, or alternatively, why its comparable leadership has not produced a comparable revival of halakhic authority. Prof. Saiman suggests that “[i]n a radically autonomous culture, it is very difficult to promote voluntary obedience to a demanding system of law whose norms are out of sync with contemporary mores.” This applies as well to ordinary posekim as to artificially hyped gedolim. On this account, halakhic authority cannot exist without hierarchy, and the Orthodox Left objects in principle to hierarchy, even intellectually meritocratic hierarchy. The new democratization of halakhic knowledge facilitated by widespread higher Jewish learning, disruptive technologies, and ArtScroll means that there is no basis for some individuals having more authority than others.

I do not believe that this description of the left is accurate, at least not entirely. Even the most anticlerical of partnership minyanim eschew full egalitarianism because they are willing to grant halakhah some authority even when it conflicts with a fundamental norm of the rest of their lives.

At the same time, I think it is clear that Orthodox Left communities include many fellow travelers who want the benefits of halakhah—authenticity, discipline, etc.—without paying any price in autonomy. It also remains to be seen whether halakhic authority can be sustained, even in a community that deeply yearns for it, without belief in literal Torah mi-Sinai. Yet requiring that is certainly a deal-breaker for some on the Orthodox Left.

It may be that the Orthodox Left will yet fracture many times, along many axes, before we have any sense of which, if any, elements will succeed in revitalizing halakhic authority.

This brings us to the predictive element of Prof. Saiman’s essay:

If liberal Orthodox communities can create a structure of commandedness that feels consonant, even if not identical, with classical forms, then eventually other Orthodox subgroups will come to recognize it—much as centrist Orthodoxy eventually gained the begrudging acknowledgment of haredim. But if it fails to do so, then claims that liberal Orthodoxy is engaged in a qualitatively different project than Orthodoxy will ring true, and comparisons to the trajectory of Conservative and Reform Judaism may yet prove accurate. So while I am rooting for liberal Orthodoxy’s success, it bears the burden of proving its vitality. From where I sit, the jury is still out.

I think it is worthwhile to compare this thesis to one advanced by Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff a year ago:

In the post-World War II era, Conservative Judaism routinely looked to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to justify and prescribe normative Sabbath behavior (riding in automobiles), oblige a widely accepted solution to the agunah crisis (the “Lieberman Takkana”) and to defend dietary practices (Rabbi Isaac Klein’s swordfish responsum). Accordingly, it was the institutionalization of a particular brand of Halakhah that finally separated the Conservative Movement from its Orthodox coreligionists.

Where Prof. Saiman argues for halakhah as the ultimate unifier of Orthodoxy, Dr. Eleff argues for it as a primary cause of sectarianism. The historical example of the Pharisees and Sadducees supports Dr. Eleff; Prof. Saiman can cite Hasidim and Mitnagdim as counterpoint.

I agree with Prof. Saiman that developing in the lay community “a structure of commandedness that feels consonant, even if not identical, with classical forms” is necessary for halakhah to function as a unifier. I don’t agree that it is sufficient. Rather, I suggest that unity requires each side to feel at least somewhat accountable to the other (recognizing that the degree of accountability will vary inversely with relative sociological power). This means inter alia that

  1. each side makes halakhic arguments in a manner that is generally recognizable to the other, while eschewing arguments that the other sees as out of bounds. 
  2. each side respects and takes into account the other’s objective evaluations of its arguments. 
  3. each side restrains itself from acting on conclusions that the other sees as inconceivable.

In short, each side seeks to avoid “making the Torah into two Torahs.”

This brings us back, finally, to the subject of gedolim.  One development relevant to both the Saiman and Eleff theses is the recent move of YCT to establish the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies, with Rabbi Ysoscher Katz as Director.  The Center has published responsa on a variety of subjects, and can be seen as an effort to establish its authors as “gedolim” in the sense intended by Prof. Saiman, namely as figures whose imprimatur suffices to legitimate an otherwise marginal-at-best community or otherwise out-of-bounds behavior. The risk is that it will instead instantiate Dr. Eleff’s thesis and lead to out-and-out sectarianism.

Part of the mythos of American Orthodoxy is that the aspirationally halakhic elements of the Conservative rabbinate erred fatally by issuing new permissions to a community that did not feel itself bound to obey the old prohibitions.  The jury is certainly out as to whether Rabbi Katz’s teshuvah endorsing partnership minyanim repeats this error.

But there is a deeper issue.  For “gedolim” to legitimate, their Torah must resonate not only in their community, but in the other community.  Put differently, the gadol of one community must plausibly appear as a gadol to the other, not just sociologically but substantively.  This requires that their Torah products reflect real accountability to at least some of the other community’s standards.[7] Rabbi Katz currently rejects such accountability, in ways that are evident in his teshuvot.[8] 

I tentatively suggest an alternative to Prof. Saiman’s explanation for the grudging acceptance of YU Orthodoxy by the right; it just got better at their own game. Similarly, I believe that if Liberal Orthodoxy produces a deep cadre of halakhically committed scholars and laypeople who are equal to or better than their Centrist counterparts at halakhah and Talmud etc., with different sensibilities but with accountability, it will invigorate its own “structure of commandedness” while gaining the (perhaps grudging) acceptance of Centrism, and at least benign neglect from those further to the right.

With Prof. Saiman, I am rooting for that end, and doing my best to help bring it about.

[1] Some of the ideas in this response were first presented orally at the Hartman conference on “Orthodoxy and Boundary Anxiety.” I will attempt to use Prof. Saiman’s term in this essay to cover the same groups that he intends, without venturing my own opinion as to the boundaries of “Orthodoxy”. On partnership minyanim specifically, please see

[2] See, for example, the chapter on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Marc Shapiro, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History (Oxford: LIttman, 2015).

[3] See in this regard the responses to a recent hetter nisuin issued by Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky and Rabbi Nota Greenblatt.

[4] Consider Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Eliezer Waldenburg, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, to begin with. This statement is possibly not true of Rav Yosef in his later years.

[5] Many of these students have not chosen to identify with the Liberal Orthodox wing.

[6] The term “sense of halakhic authority” is left undefined both in Prof. Saiman’s essay and here, and deserves extensive separate discussion. For now, either you share the intuition that something along those lines is lacking, or else much of what both Prof. Saiman and I write is nugatory.

[7] It is certainly also the case that leading figures on the right exhibit no accountability to the left.  The acceptance-as-legitimate within other segments of Orthodoxy of positions that are deeply offensive to the left, such as bans on women driving, or tolerance of racist language, also hasten and exacerbate the split, as does the dismissal of otherwise valid critiques or positions simply because they are advanced by the left.

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Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, which develops present and future Modern Orthodox leaders through unique programs of intense Talmud Torah that catalyze intellectual creativity and educational innovation.  CMTL brings rigorous traditional scholarship, interdisciplinary openness, and a deeply humanist understanding of halakhah to every aspect of Jewish and public life.  For more of Rabbi Klapper's Torah, please browse, like the  CMTL  Facebook page, or sign up  here for his weekly Torah essay.
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