A Machloket of Progressive Halacha
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A Machloket of Progressive Halacha

Reflection from the conference hosted by the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard Law School.

Harvard University (Wikimedia Commons)
Harvard University (Wikimedia Commons)

Last month, I was extremely fortunate to attend the conference on Progressive Halacha hosted by the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard Law School. With distinguished guests from across virtually all Jewish denominations, this event provided a remarkably comprehensive view of how contemporary halacha is understood, practiced, and taught in a wide variety of environments.

Perhaps because the conference took place on neutral ground – which is to say, an academic setting as opposed to a specific Jewish institution –participants engaged in dialogue even when they were in disagreement. No single position was advanced as a definitive approach.

Among the issues addressed was one of the most divisive facing Orthodoxy today: the role of women in Orthodox leadership. The final panel of the conference, titled “Communal Boundaries II: Who or What is an Orthodox Rabbi?” featured Yoetzet Halacha Lisa Septimus, Rahel Berkovits of the Pardes Institute, Rabbi Lila Kagedan of Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, MA, and Rabbi Ezra Schwartz of Yeshiva University (Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who was originally scheduled to be on this panel, was moved to an earlier one).

Rabbi Schwartz offered invaluable insight into the procedures that the OU followed in issuing their panel on women in clerical positions, and pointed to the steps toward change that emerged from this document. While not all members of the panel drew the same conclusions about what constitutes an Orthodox rabbi, they all engaged with each other respectfully and in dialogue.

This discussion between erudite and impassioned scholars whose positions incorporated text and tradition enacted for the audience the process of a modern-day machloket. It is worth remembering the value that Talmudic texts place on not only the act of disagreement, but also the human dimension that should be involved as well.

In Chagigah 3b, the Talmud teaches that those who study Torah should, “make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear [both] statements.” Creating platforms for dialogue–where those with opposing views can listen to and sympathize with each others’ positions–is an integral part of ensuring that such debates can continue to be productive, even if factions disagree.

The morning after the panel, I paused during the Birkat Hashahar when I stated that I am grateful to be created “according to [God’s] will” and contemplated the discussion through this lens. How are we to understand God’s will when faced with a machloket?

The question, as this panel reminds us, is not simply academic. In Rabbi Kagedan’s talk, she stated that she was meant to be an Orthodox rabbi, and that this is her understanding of what the Divine wills for her life. Rahel Berkovits suggested that halacha does not change over time, but that the parts unveiled to us–and resonant for our society–change through different generations.

Rabbi Schwartz’s position was that mesorah, tradition, did not support women as rabbis, but that it is our mandate to better integrate women into Orthodox structures; to this point, Yoetzet Lisa Septimus expressed her gratitude that her position had been ratified by the OU, and as a result, she gained credibility within her community.

All of these views, in my opinion, are valid, even if they do not all reflect my own. Whatever path Orthodoxy forges with respect to women in leadership roles, it will be a better one if all voices are given a chance to speak and be heard without coercion. Such processes may not bring consensus, but they will strengthen us individually and collectively.

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