The Mesorah Blogcast

The term Mesorah, or tradition, is regularly used within Orthodoxy to both include and exclude. Halakhic and hashkafic positions that might seem insufficiently grounded in texts may be deemed acceptable because they are “part of the mesorah”; positions that reasonably interpret texts may be rejected because they are “not part of the mesorah”. While “the mesorah” seems like an inherently exclusionary term, Orthodoxy also recognizes the legitimacy of multiple mesorot, and the right of those who bear even a minority mesorah to maintain their distinctive ways.
The concept of mesorah resembles the concept of “canon” in the humanities; and the Orthodox mesorah is prima facie even more subject than Western culture to the critique that it excludes the thoughts and experiences of women, LGBTQ people, and others. Because the Judaism conveyed through mesorah is so powerful however, both intellectually and experientially, serious Jews increasingly seek to participate in rather than repudiate that tradition, while at the same time maintaining their identities and voices as members of communities they see as marginalized by the masoretic past. Some of them focus on the Masoretic future, while others seek to create a “usable past”, a mesorah (re)constructed rather than transmitted.
This online panel is meant to explore the extent to which those efforts can and should succeed. There are no predetermined outcomes. Each participant is taking a risk by entering the dialogue; there is a chance that things precious to them will be appropriated or devalued by their interlocutors in painful ways. But there is also a chance that the conversation will increase mutual understanding in ways that will enable mesorah/bearers to be inclusive of more Jews, and more Jews to be open to identifying with mesorah. JOFA sponsors it in that hope.
The Mesorah Blogcast
  • Welcome everyone! I am so excited to begin this conversation with you all on traditionality and mesorah. I'd like to jump right into it and ask that you all introduce yourselves briefly by way of this opening question: 


     1. What would you like us to know about you and how has the concept and practice of mesorah shaped your relationship to Judaism?

  • Hello to all and thanks to JOFA for organizing this important conversation and inviting me to take part.  Thanks as well to my fellow participants in this blogcast and I look forward to learning from you all.


    I am both a rabbi and an attorney, so my bias is definitely toward the written legal text rather than accepted practice.  I think my personal journey also affects my outlook as I grew up in a fairly active but not strictly observant Conservative Jewish family.  If momentum had too much of a say about how we should practice our Judaism, I wouldn’t be halakhically observant.  I know my practice and outlook are very much shaped by my experiences as well as attitudes that were nurtured in me by my those who touched my life (family, teachers, friends, etc.), but I think it important to always check those attitudes and practices against our texts since, as, as a general rule, I think texts are a more reliable guide to understanding Torah and halakhah and, ultimately, God’s will.

  • Hello! Thanks for having me and for organizing this exciting conversation.

    I'm a writer and occasional lecturer. I grew up in a Yeshivish family but I’ve rejected that mesorah as too modern and too heavily shaped by trauma and misogyny. Of course, rejection is its own kind of relationship.

    I’m deeply interested in ‘ghost’ mesorahs that have been silenced by the patriarchal mesorah dominant in Orthodox Judaism, particularly the mesorah of women, the mesorah of LGBTQ people, and the mesorah of extra-rabbinical Judaism.
  • Hi Leah, we have a question from the audience for clarification on what you mean by "ghost mesorahs". Could you elaborate please? It sounds intriguing!

  • Sure! When I say ghost mesorahs I mean historical traditions within Judaism that have been rendered almost invisible in some Orthodox communities by the domination of a homogeneous patriarchal mesorah.

    Women, LGBTQ people, and extra-rabbinic Jews have always made up at least half of the Jewish experience, but nowadays we often only catch sight of their rich and authentic traditions, mythologies, and canons through little clues and small archeological hints. One tiny example: medieval Nasi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, who, in their poem Evan Bochan, longs for a female identity and says that their assigned gender 'has maimed me with an immutable deformity.’ I string this together with the many genders explored in the Talmud, and with the defining of a human, further back, in Genesis, as a multi-gendered creature, and I find myself straining to hear the ghostly echoes of all the trans/multigender voices silenced between these small clues.

    There is a precious mesorah there, too, even if it only comes to us in pieces.
  • Thanks for that provocative response, Leah, on voices that have been perhaps snuffed or silenced but which still beckon for sound and relationship. While we are waiting for the others to introduce themselves, I thought I'd follow up to the way you both framed mesorah in quite different ways.


    I see on the one hand an approach that sticks close to text over experience and relationship, and on the other an approach that raises experience and voice, both of the individual and the collective, as the central element of mesorah.


    To explore our working definitions further, how would you define "mesorah" and how you have come to use and undersand it? For the newcomers, please feel free to respond to both questions together.

  • Hi, thanks for starting this conversation!  As someone who grew up in two different Jewish communities - the orthodox community in Baltimore with my ba'alat teshuva mom, and a liberal havurah with my dad, I think a lot about how mesorah isn't necessarily handed to us on a silver platter but is something we have to reach for.  Often, this gap can feel like a loss.  Instead of mourning this gap, and seeing a clash between mimesis and text, I see the larger endeavor of Talmud Torah in our times as a part of claiming our mesorah.

  • As a biographical note - I will add that I am a rabbi and teacher at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan

  • I suppose I would define “mesorah” as any data received from prior generations.  The data can be text, law, lore, attitudes, behaviors, etc.  My primary interest is halakhah, so I keyed into that area in my first answer, but I definitely agree that there are other forms of mesorah out there and many of those traditions may positively impact how we choose to live our own lives. 


    As far as halakhah goes, there are a number of forms of mesorah that play into halakhic decision making, and I think a lot of halakhic discussions revolve around the relative weight to give to different mesorot.  To me, our legal texts are the best guide, while common practice tends to fill in the gaps where the texts are silent or sufficiently ambiguous.  However, I think we also have to be careful not to elevate every common practice into de facto law.  The main function of this gap-filling is to provide communal cohesion.  While this is a somewhat important goal, if there are other goals of greater importance we should be far more willing to change common practice than to change law (I would argue the latter can only be changed on an emergency basis – see Rambam Mishneh Torah Mamrim 2:4).

  • I’m Aryeh Klapper, Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership.  My job, which I love, is to develop present and future Modern Orthodox leaders, male and female, through unique programs of intense Talmud Torah that catalyze intellectual creativity and educational innovation.


    I don’t really see a conflict between culture and text, rather an ongoing dance in which each recognizes the necessity of partnering, although they may disagree as to who gets to lead.  (The metaphor is admittedly risky because it’s utterly beyond my experience, and because of its highly gendered history.)


    I’m very grateful that my family and education have given me access to a wide variety of experiential, epistemological, and intellectual masorot within the framework of halakhah.  A family simcha may have more substantive Jewish pluralism than most interdenominational get-togethers; Zionists and Neturei Karta, feminists and anti-feminists, Chabad and Satmar, Yeshivish and Yekkish, etc., all sharing religious experience.  I recognize that Orthodoxy has walls, and that they both wall in and wall out; but I resist the term homogeneous.


    I also think that it is important to distinguish between changing the Law and changing the law.  It may be that debating the meaning of a passage of Rambam is too much fun for this setting, but certainly Mamrim 2:4 relates only to specific types of law, and has to be put at least in the context of Mamrim 2:1, so that a sharp distinction must be made between changing the law and adopting with integrity an interpretation of the law that is different than the one previously held to be authoritative.  Masoret and chiddush, tradition and creativity, are mutually necessary, not mutually exclusive.  T.S. Eliot argued compellingly that creativity only exists in the context of tradition, and a key purpose of a tradition is to enable human beings to navigate change intentionally.  The alternative is randomness and meaninglessness./p>


    That’s probably way too much for an introduction.  I look forward to having these broad frameworks challenged and developed in the course of our conversation.

  • Rabbi Klapper, I agree with your distinction (I’m sure we would find some differences in how we would apply the distinction). My reference to change of law was more in the sense of abrogating the law than in re-interpretation/finding that the law applies differently in a different situation.


    Let me suggest the following and I’ll look forward to comment from other panelists. When deciding law, I think we act as judges, interpreting/applying the law, which can involve such interpretive activities mentioned above but should not involve creating new law or abrogating old law (though anyone who disagrees with a decision will tend to think that that’s what’s being done . . . an “activist judge” is any judge with whom we disagree), whereas when it comes to deciding issues of common practice we may act as legislators and have much wider latitude (and that which we legislate probably becomes a low-grade norm in our time and place). Of course, these guidelines can be rough around the edges. Sometimes, for instance, common practice may be relevant data to determining what the law is.

  • I appreciate these nuances about interpretation versus change, and law versus practice and norms. But I am not convinced that this is the best frame for thinking about mesorah.


    In the opening of Avot, mesorah seems more like a gift - that we receive, cherish/tend to, and give over. In another example of this gift model in an aggadah in VaYikra Rabbah, R. Yohanan talks about selling his fields, vineyards and olive orchards to invest in Torah. Torah as mesorah is the true inheritance in this story, analogous to plots that require cultivation and care. I find this a more compelling frame for how we think about what we are doing when we learn and interpret Torah.

  • Rabbi Klapper, this metaphor of culture dancing with text points to some of the urgent questions we need to consider when we speak of mesorah* because of course, Jewish culture is not monolithic. Which Jewish sub-culture gets to dance with the text? What do we do when one sub-culture purposefully blocks out all others? How is this dynamic of one sub-culture silencing others understood in the context of a mesorah that has generally championed diversity? 

    A related question: are the laws and customs of Jewish culture (in general or in any particular sub-culture) established according to that which is believed to be political feasible and popular in that culture or that which is believed to be moral by the leaders of that culture? Can we be honest and transparent about what the actual balance is between these two, so that we can campaign for moral truth with the right strategy/audiences? An example: as a yeshivish child it seemed pretty clear to me that the standards of my culture were immune to certain kinds of popular opinion. Even if every yeshivish woman wanted entry to the rabbinate, that was never going to happen. Decisions were made by what was believed to be moral by the leaders of our culture, our gedolim. Years later, when I was working on raising awareness about the cover-up of sexual abuse in ultra-Orthodox communities, I met with a rabbi who had the ear of the gedolim. I asked this rabbi why the gedolim weren’t taking action about the cover-up of sexual abuse and was gobsmacked when he told me: they don’t think they can. The people aren’t ready for it.   

    *to answer the moderator’s question, I prefer a non-linear metaphor for the mesorah, as Rabbi RIchman does. I like the metaphor of a plot of land passed down from generation to generation, a kind of ongoing cultural Garden of Eden for us to tend, that is rich and ever-changing with an ecology of ancient wisdom, new ideas, noxious weeds, and life-giving fruit.   
  • Thank you everyone and good morning again. This panel recognizes in its inception the almost murkiness of what mesorah actually "is"--its definition and its "thingness". Even in this brief discussion, we've seen numerous senses of mesorah, from experience/voice, to text, law, practice and gift. Our efforts here will be to undo that murkiness as much as possible and to give as much concrete form as possible to a term that is often used without that. In that vein, if I could push everyone a little bit more to really explain what mesorah "is" for them in a practical sense, that would really bring some light onto those differences. Here are some furthering questions in that regard:


    1. What in a practical sense is "mesorah"? Where is it located and how do we access it? Are there people in charge of mesorah (and if so who)? Or does it belong to people (again, if so who)? And is there a difference between the above three models: access, authority and ownership in this context?
  • I think mesorah is anything derived from the past (can be legal, philosophical, historical . . . ).  We get it from books and we get it from people who teach us formally and informally (parents, family, teachers, friends, etc.).  Obviously, each person has different opportunities to learn the contents of the mesorah both because of situations that are foisted upon us and because of the opportunities we create for ourselves.


    Innovation, analysis, etc. are what we do to mesorah in order to understand and apply it.  Though part of the mesorah helps guide us in that innovation and analysis (for instance, the methodologies of analysis evident in our mesorah), the actual analysis and innovation that we do is not mesorah (it will be in future generations, and I suppose once we teach our insights to others, what they get is a mesorah from us).


    No one is in charge of mesorah, though some are more respected sources of mesorah than others for good and bad reasons (ranging from the person’s knowledge and intellect to the person’s gender, standing in society, etc.).  Similarly, some are more respected than others when it comes to the ability to distill the mesorah into practical advice and instruction for today – also for good and bad reasons.  Ultimately, we choose by whom we care to be guided and taught (~aseh lekhah rav, Mishnah Avot 1:6), though obviously there are lots of things that constrain our choices, including our desire to be a part of a particular community.

  • Thank you, Noah! I see within Noah's definition of mesorah as "anything derived from the past", some space for Leah's "ghost mesorahs"--alternative pasts that are either conveniently forgotten or actively prevented from entering the present. I also see some kinship in this definition with R' Aviva's: this idea that mesorah is not imminent or present but something that has to be reached toward, something that is almost far away. While Noah emphasizes temporality, R' Aviva emphasizes relationships that create either closeness or distance (perhaps Noah also includes this!). I wonder then about the valuing of things that are far away from us, in time, place or relation, over that which is more present. There seems to be some kind of epistemological hierarchy provided by distance in this approach, one that perhaps can be used to override needs, desires, movements and persons who are very much alive today.


    There also seems then to be an almost inherent contradiction in the concept of mesorah: that it is on the one hand a gift to us and very relevant or even obligatory to how we live our lives today, and on the other hand something that is often defined as out of grasp and beyond us.


    Do any of you have any thoughts on this contradiction? I am also curious about R' Klapper's citation of T.S. Eliot and the insistence that creativity can only come through engaging tradition, and what Leah might think as an OTD person who rejects tradition, about her and others' who share her identity, efforts to be creative, intentional and lead meaningful lives specifically by disengaging with tradition.

  • Well, I do largely reject the Yeshivish mesorah, but I don’t reject tradition entirely. Unlike many OTD people, I’m passionate about many traditional Jewish values, stories, and laws. The Chasidic notions of shevirat hakeilim and tikkun olam are central to my understanding of the world. I’m doing a great deal of writing now about notions of moral justice which are deeply rooted in the Jewish mesorah’s prioritizing of justice and its ideas on the chain of moral consequence that surround every misdeed. And I wrote the book Legends of the Talmud as a love letter to Judaism, an attempt to reclaim my heritage from those who stole it from me by saying women couldn’t learn Talmud and only misogynistic, oppressive Talmud was valuable, while progressive Talmud was irrelevant.

    The most important moment of my relationship to mesorah happened when I finally realized in my late twenties how heavily edited the ultra-Orthodox presentation of mesorah actually was. I began to return to the very simple teachings I had received as a young girl about the importance of standing for truth at all costs (Daniel in the Lion’s Den) and the importance of being willing to destroy false idols (Avram in his father’s idol shop) as a scaffold for reconstructing my own relationship to mesorah that gives my life a great deal of meaning. I wish I had more sophisticated textual reference points as I do this work, but these children’s stories were the mesorah I got as a girl.

    Many of the laws and values that guide my life can, in fact, be traced to some mesorah, but I have also shed almost all of the laws of the mesorah that would be recognizable as mesorah by most Jews.  
  • Anything passed on from the past, even accidentally, can be termed a masorah. But I prefer to use the term in a richer sense, as describing a passed-on coherent body of knowledge – intellectual or experiential – that enhances our understanding or behavior.  The broader the sphere of understanding or behavior that is enhanced, the more valuable the masorah.


    Thus for example in the realm of religious norms – one can have a masorah that a particular subspecies of grasshopper is kosher, or one can have a masorah that political support for civil rights is a religious obligation, or a masorah that when the only halakhic decision one can make with integrity will cause great human suffering, one should make sure to leave as much room as possible to be overruled by others who can make a different decision with equal integrity.  I do not at all dismiss the first, but I find the second and third more compelling, and it is that sort of masorah that I have tried my best to acquire and transmit.

    But these examples are still reductive – the deepest kind of masorah is one that is more than the distillation of its parts, and cannot be boiled down into propositions.


    Here – leaving aside any religious commitments – is why I have trouble with the notion that one can abandon enormous sections of a coherent culture and still claim to be carrying on its masorah.  I think that Judaism at its core is rooted in Torah, and Torah at its core requires – though it certainly cannot be reduced to – the proposition that the Jewish people are a political community bound by Jewish law.  Take that away, and it seems to me that one is doing the equivalent of transmitting the masorah of America without reference to the Constitution, government structure, and the like.


    This does not mean that micro-masorot cannot be effectively carved out.  But it is important not to mistake the part for the whole.


    I am much more in sympathy for the notion of reclaiming “ghost” mesorot.  Perhaps a better metaphor, influenced by Tolkien’s Silmarillion and my dear friend Rabbi Dr. Elisha Ancselovits’ theory of halakhah, is that of reclaiming lost harmonies and counterpoints.


    Tolkien’s symphony is composed by G-d, and so the devil’s best efforts to intoduce discordance inevitably fail.  This is not the case with humanly composed symphonies, or traditions.  Years ago, at my first interdenominational event, two nonOrthodox rabbinic students learning in chavruta with me argued that since goddess-worship was so vocipherously denounced by the prophet Yechezkel, it clearly represented a manifestation of “women’s Judaism” that had been suppressed by the patriarchy.  This strikes me as illegitimate cultural appropriation, or unassimilable discord.


    Here is a model that strikes me very differently.  Dr. Aviva Zornberg notes in the introduction to The Particulars of Rapture that according to Rashi, women participated neither in the Sin of the Golden Calf nor in the Sin of the Spies. Now the Book of Numbers is all about the experience of being denied access to the Land because one has sinned – but this is a purely male viewpoint.  For the women, who did not sin, the experience was – perhaps – of choosing to stay in Exile rather than reaching the Land without those one loves.  Yet we have almost no direct record of this experience.  There is so much we can learn by exploring it, which will enhance all the rest of our Torah.


    This model raises crucial issues of authority and authenticity that I hope to address later, as well as the question of whether it is possible to identify with a tradition that one is convinced in the past would not have given full voice to, or suppressed, people of one’s gender, race, etc.

  • I include in mesorah the great expanse of our textual tradition and practices that have flowed from and around these texts. This includes, for example, the words of tefillah, nusach and niggunim, and the halachot and practices of how to daven in various circumstances, like with small children, where I would include the Yiddish tkhines referred to by the Magen Abraham when he talks about women's obligation in tefillah (that is an example where we get a glimpse of a ghost mesorah).


    I identify with a lot of Leah's adamantly articulated concerns, but my response is different. I agree with Rabbi Klapper, that taking a self consciously selective approach to / appropriation of "micro-mesorahs" leads to a real loss. Part of claiming our Mesorah means that the Mesorah has a real claim on us.


    Unlike Rabbi Klapper and Rabbi Gradofsky, I am not convinced that the authority and binding nature of halakhah is best expressed through the language of Law and analogy to the constitution of a sovereign state. I find it more compelling, and textually supported, to see our obligations from and towards the mesorah stemming from deep relationship - such as parent/child or a spouse. When our Mesorah seems to fail us we need to probe more deeply for those "lost harmonies" and dynamic voices that can most honestly engage our experiences and circumstances. This is about leaning in rather than opting out. Rashi is careful to stress the love between G-d and the Jewish people at the beginning of his commentary to each book of the Torah, most explicit in VaYikra where he quotes the midrash that G-d didn't give over any piece of Torah without first calling Moshe's name out of love. It is impossible to receive any piece of the Mesorah without this prior sense of being in deep relationship, that is the basis for its authority and power.


    As for authority, there are multiple modes. There are poskim whose job it is to probe our textual tradition most deeply. But there are also much more diffuse sources of authority - anyone who mediates another person's access and encounter with the mesorah - parents, teachers and even peers. I am curious to hear more about who Leah thinks "stole" the Mesorah from her, what gave them that authority, and what the process of reclaiming means in terms of authority.  


    Personally I often feel that debates over authority are simply a tactic to avoid taking responsibilty to jump more deeply into substantive issues in the mesorah.

  • I think in the last few comments we have moved on from the question of “what is mesorah” to questions such as “what are the more valuable and meaningful mesorot” and “how do we interact with those mesorot”.  If I am reading Leah correctly, there are some core Jewish values that she finds deeply meaningful, while she is alienated from much of the more detailed content.  Rabbi Klapper argues that too much of the core of Judaism is lost with that approach.  For what it’s worth, my brand of Judaism is generally in line with Rabbi Klapper’s in this regard, with sincere respect for Leah’s different derekh (I don’t care for the term OTD, particularly the T). 


    Rabbi Klapper does some interesting work seeking examples where Leah’s ghost mesorot can be invited into the discussion, but I think closes with a recognition of the difficulty inherent in demanding that such ghost mesorot simply weigh in to a dialogue where the deck has already been stacked for millennia.  For me, a partial response to this dilemma is be to do what we can within the halakhic system to minimize the impact of the inequities Leah recognizes without overturning the entire system and further to recognize that matters outside of halakhah are not subject to psak and therefore are ripe for more robust rethinking (for instance, my rabbi and teacher Rabbi David Weiss Halivni writes about how matters of philosophy are not subject to psak).  Of course we have to do our best to minimize the inequities of the dialog in the future, a goal that is a major raison detre off JOFA as I see it.


    I like R’ Aviva’s metaphor of mesorah as relationship in general, but I don’t think this requires moving away from the idea that a large part of that relationship is our relationship to God as lawgiver and our mesorah as trying its best to determine and transmit God’s will for us as expressed significantly, if not primarily, in terms of a legal and political system.  We do well, however, to take R’ Aviva’s point seriously that this is not merely a system of law but an expression of God’s loving will for us and our predecessors’ continuing efforts to strengthen and perpetuate our relationship with the Almighty and the world of the Almighty’s creation.


    To the moderator’s point that there is an inherent tension between the “epistemological hierarchy provided by distance” and our concern for the issues of the here-and-now I can only begin to respond and hope other panelists have wiser words.  It strikes me that this balance may help us temper the “fierce urgency of now,” to borrow Dr. King’s phrase, and our perpetual obligation to seek justice and righteousness with the necessary humility to recognize and be cautioned by our own fallibility as well as with the risk of losing our senses of commitment and commandedness that are an important inspiration toward fulfilling God’s will.  In some ways I am borrowing here from the Declaration of Principles of my beloved Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ, see www.utj.org/principles).

  • I sympathize with your point, Rabbi Klapper, that it’s dangerous to "abandon enormous sections of a coherent culture and still claim to be carrying on its masorah,” and agree with Rabbi Gradofsky on "the difficulty inherent in demanding that such ghost mesorot simply weigh in to a dialogue where the deck has already been stacked for millennia.” America’s mesorah is an interesting thought experiment: would we accept that we were giving our children an authentic American mesorah if we only passed on the history, literature, and laws of white men in this country? In the fifties, the answer would have been yes for most people. In the sixties and seventies, as we awakened to the fact that we had been silencing female/African American/Native American/queer American experiences, we began rewriting our textbooks, songs, and national rituals to recognize these experiences as vital to the American mesorah, even if they had not been recognized in the halls of learning or the halls of power for a very long time. Many of these changes played out within established courts and governmental systems, but they did mean a radical change to laws and mores. What would have happened if those courts and systems had refused to budge more than a millimeter? I would argue that there would have been something profoundly un-American about that—untrue to our deepest national values of diversity and self-expression--and that those courts and systems would have lost a great deal of their moral standing when it came to determining mesorah. Orthodox culture has dragged its feet on including these "ghost mesorahs" in ways that I find profoundly un-Jewish. I think this compromises their ability to make a claim to speaking for the mesorah.

    But that’s just what I think and one of the interesting questions about mesorah is the way the public and private sphere differ, overlap, and relate to each other. There’s a strain of that in this conversation: as the only non-rabbi on the panel (and as a no-longer-Orthodox person), how is my permission to define the mesorah different or the same as yours? How does the fact that my Judaism was always almost entirely experiential and personal (as opposed to rooted in public text) alter my claim to define the mesorah or speak to its flaws or potential? 

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    Rabbi Richman: I believe that every Jew has a right to engage with their mesorah if they want to. Yeshivish girls are denied that right by their parents, schools, education, and culture. I think it’s an act of theft. That’s a violent way to put it, but the tools by which access to Talmud and other texts are denied to girls can become quite violent. Yeshivish girls do not see themselves represented in positions of learning or power and they are continuously taught that they are no more than sexualized bodies who should not challenge their father's or husband's intelligence. When I was twelve, thirteen, I tried to participate in the “men’s” conversation at the Shabbos table and was mocked and laughed at for being so immodest. It is hard to convey the damage done in those experiences.  
  • Leah - thank you for articulating this so poignantly.  I don't think theft is too violent a term at all.  It is really a double theft - theft from the rich textual Mesorah that has had such limited access for so long and the theft in our modern world where alternative mesorot havent been valued and passed down.  I am fully aware that much of my stance towards mesorah comes from having the privilege of attending a yeshiva day school that conveyed the message that the mesorah in its entirety was mine to learn and own - including teaching Talmud to girls in sixth grade.  That was a short lived experiment in Baltimore - there is now a binary of yeshivas that limit women's access to learning or more liberal schools that don't value teaching our mesorah in as rigorous a way. 


    It sounds to me, Leah, that on the one hand you are naming an act of theft, and that in the process of reclaiming what was stolen you are also relocating authority, rather than having any expectation or hope that those claiming to have authority will change.


    I think that a personal re-weaving and re-imagining of mesorahs that speak to you is incredibly valuable, and that your writing makes that personal meaning making accessible to many others.  


    The challenge I feel motivated to tackle is whether and how it is possible to maintain the view that the Mesorah as a whole makes an authoritative claim on us, and at the same time not feel paralyzed and limited about how to address gaps and inequities, as R. Gradofsky discussed.

  • An example that is surely provocative and hopefully enlightening: At a yom iyyun about kiddushin in Israel recently I heard a rabbi suggest that if people weren't happy with kiddushin they could simply not get married. He meant this as a joke but there are actually many religious people considering not getting married through the rabbanut in Israel. One could apply Rabbi Gradofsky's argument here (he might call this ad absurdum but I just want to play it out) - that the drastic changes in gender and status in our world makes the partnering of two individuals today something entirely different than the kind of relationship inscribed by kiddushin in halakhah. Therefore it falls outside of halakhah and halakhah simply has nothing to say to it.


    This seems like an extremely narrow approach to halakhah, but certainly accords a large degree of freedom. My standpoint is to recognize this gap as serious but hope that with enough effort and creativity our mesorah can actually be a valuable and authoritative source of wisdom about intimate relationships rather than being damaging at worst and irrelevant at best (I would call this hope emunah) .

  • Amen, 'R Aviva (Even if you did use an ad absurdum based on my comments to create the strawperson you beat up :-) I think we are largely on the same page).


    Leah, on your question about permission to define mesorot, ultimately, I think we all define our own worldview (though some are more empowered than others to do so critically) and obviously our experiences in life and learning will influence the conclusions we draw.  Optimally, holding of title or even breadth of text knowledge should have far less influence on your ability define and/or speak to mesorah than your ability to convincingly argue from the evidence (though breadth of knowledge is helpful in making evidence-based arguments, of course).  Our mesorah is clear about the importance of being open to hear the truth (truths?) from whatever the source.

  • This discussion is actually a perfect segue into our next question: 


    Multivocality and disagreement is something that Judaism typically embraces. However, alongside the value of disagreement there is a rabbinic Jewish principle of going after the majority. Many of today's most pressing questions in Jewish communities often involve potential changes to exclusive, sometimes majority-centered norms that can be harmful to people who fall outside that scope: women--female rabbis in particular, LGBTQ people, Jews of Color, disabled people and converts, to name a few. How do you see mesorah intersecting with issues of inclusivity? 

  • Our mesorah has lots of emphasis on justice, caring, and compassion including innovating within the system where the status quo was unfair and particularly where it ended up causing violations of other laws and values (e.g. ketubah, pruzbol).  This mesorah calls on us to be open to recognizing areas where we were blind to certain groups that have been treated unfairly and to seek to change our perspectives and practices to accommodate our new understandings (with some of the caveats and concerns I've discussed above cautioning us from "throwing the baby out with the bathwater.")
  • I apologize that this is response is late and should be inserted before the last set of questions. I’ll try to tackle those questions directly later.


    Thank you Leah for bravely identifying and facing critical issues, and R. Aviva for your sensitive and thoughtful response. I recognize and acknowledge fully the damage Leah reports, and the unfortunate dichotomy R. Aviva reports. I have and continue to devote myself both personally and professionally to preventing the first and resolving the second.


    My commitment to women’s equal opportunity in Torah study goes back to fifth grade, when my Modern Orthodox school started a Talmud enrichment program for three of the four best Mishnah students, i.e. the boys. But I also had the advantage of growing up in a family that surrounded me with brilliant women, so that the idea that women were intellectually less capable never seemed plausible to me.


    There are of course triggers of exclusion other than gender. One of my high school rebbeim openly debated whether it was wise to teach me Torah, or whether it was a case of arming the enemy, because of my commitments to Zionism and to the value of “secular” literature and philosophy. People (such as me) are excluded from specific visions of Torah because of their clothing choices, their political commitments, their (stance on) sexual orientation, and so forth. These exclusions work both to the right and to the left.


    What this means is that Torah is a morashah but not a yerushah – it is an inheritance that nonetheless has to be actively acquired. This model, as R. Aviva beautifully points out, requires hope that is grounded in faith. I would explicate this further by saying that one has the hope of finding a place within the tradition that empowers you to live a life that accords fully with your deepest values and aspirations, and this hope is grounded in the faith that the tradition embodies what is good for the Jews to do. Where it gets hard is that one has to live in the here and now, where the hope has not yet have been fulfilled, the faith not yet justified. Not every tradition deserves that faith. I understand why people lose their faith in traditions that I care deeply about. I understand why people often try to “eat their tradition and have it to”, i.e. to introduce radical departures while claiming that they are true heirs.


    In the end of the day, my two lodestones are that Jewish masoret requires halakhah to preserve its identity, and that according to my understanding of that masoret you can argue for any halakhic result you want, so long as you recognize that your argument may lose, and see yourself as bound by the result when it does. This seems to me the best way to balance inclusion with what might be termed a tradition’s right to self-preservation in the most literal sense.

  • Does tradition have a right to self-preservation in and of itself? I think that might just be communal narcissism.  I think we have to argue that tradition serves certain purposes and helps guide us to better understanding of and/or commitment to God's will. 

  • What does it mean for a halakhic argument to lose - or win for that matter?  And what kind of responsibility does one have to ensure that what they think may be the best halakhic argument will "win"?

  • I love the term “communal narcissism”, and I’m very grateful for the question about responsibility.


    I agree entirely that a tradition must facilitate avodat Hashem, or it has no value and no “right” to continued existence.  The point I was trying to make was that a tradition which has value as-it-is is entitled to have very high barriers to the introduction of innovations which threaten its “selfhood”.


    I think that we have an enormous responsibility to ensure that the halakhic arguments we think are “best” win.  The motto of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership is “Taking Responsibility for Torah”!  It’s vital that we understand that halakhah is subject to politics like any other legal system, and so choices about which institutions to fund, where to educate our children, which religious professionals to hire, how we react to people taking positions, all have enormous effect on the development of halakhah.  It’s also vital that we understand that these effects often take a long time to manifest, and don’t always manifest in the way we expected.  There are at least two reasons for this.  The first is that circumstances change over time, and the effects of the ideas we invest in change accordingly.  The second is that our investments are often embodied in people, and people change as they age or assume new positions in society.  The career of Justice Souter is a useful for-instance.


    “Winning” and “Losing” are wonderfully complicated concepts, reflect a continuum rather than an either/or, and often in practice depend on the observer.  Let’s say as a starter that one meaning of “losing” is that halakhic communities that adopt contrary positions do not recognize this position as a legitimate basis for practice, in other words that they exclude it from the practical halakhic pluralism that characterizes the Orthodox community today.  And by that token “winning” means that those who adopt contrary positions nonetheless regard those who follow this position as acting legitimately, even if they evaluate them as acting wrongly, unwisely, unambitiously, etc.


    To bring this back to Shira’s question, the principle of acharei rabbim lehatot (which will be treated in my LOOKJED “Teaching Halakhah” podcast next week) has at most very limited application in contemporary Orthodox halakhah.  There are no formal “votes” in halakhah outside of the Rabbanut Court System, and on the whole no formal bodies with halakhic authority that could even imagine holding such a vote outside of small local areas.  Orthodox halakhic authority is pixellated among Chassidic groups, individual yeshivot, ideological camps, ethnic subgroups, geographic communities, and along many other axes.


    A core contemporary challenge is preserving or developing a conception of authority that can hold in such circumstances, if one holds as I do that halakhah without authority is meaningless.

    A core question regarding inclusion is inclusion within what?  The case study I like to bring, grounded in Chaim Grade’s terrifyingly instructive novel The Agunah, are people who wish to change halakhah so as to free women without considering whether those women will consider themselves free, or whether anyone they would wish to subsequently marry will consider them as free.  This can be merely a political problem.  But sometimes it is more than that.  (Many) Orthodox women rabbis wish to serve communities that accept them and also have a deep sense of commandedness and of the halakic system as Divinely ordained and binding upon all Jews.  (Many) Orthodox people who understand themselves as exclusively homosexual want to build lives within communities that believe that G-d dictated every word of the Torah literally to Moses along with a comprehensive Oral Torah, and that Moses transmitted this Oral Torah to Joshua, and so on down to the Orthodox halakhic scholars of our day.

  • Is mesorah then about including everyone who emerges from that tradition as part of the same community? While I didn't mean following the majority in the strict legal sense anymore, as R' Klapper points out, that concept of serving the majority socially seems to have remnants of that attitude and is often how Jewish life is structured, and used to eliminate dissonance and change. Is mesorah mostly used colloquially as a way to prohibit? 
  • To elucidate this question further: there are many areas where power and social status are concerned where there appears to be absolutely no way to grab onto and inherit the mesorah without breaking with it first. Women's learning and women's smicha are one of those examples. It was not the mesorah to do either, and yet some women want to be "yorshot" the mesorah more directly, and in order to do so they have had to on some level violate it. How do we relate to issues like that, where power seems to be fundamentally bound to what mesorah is, not separate from it?

  • (in response to the moderator's previous question:)

    I’m so heartened by all of your thoughtful replies to the concerns I raised. Thank you.

    The problem about challenging majority-centered norms to speak for the excluded is that those who care about this issue are often already precariously positioned and to pursue the moral/Jewish good of speaking for the excluded further jeopardizes their social capital and reduces the chance that they’ll be heard.

    I do think that one of the most important things that any stakeholder invested in this question can do is to take a vocal and unambiguous stand against ultra-Orthodox practices that dress up immoral, non-Jewish values in the costume of mesorah. Stripping women of human rights is not our mesorah. Ostracizing LGBTQ people is not our mesorah. Paralyzing the evolution of mesorah is not our mesorah. Insisting that our mesorah be monolithic and uniform is not our mesorah. Ultra-Orthodoxy’s mesorah is just one among many and has major problems that must be addressed. It did not reflect mainstream views until its construction forty years ago in response to the trauma of the Holocaust. To build space for a more inclusive mesorah that can keep up with a changing world and still be true to our heritage and Jewish law, I believe the mantle of authenticity must be wrested back from ultra-Orthodoxy. 
  • Thank you all for participating in this lively discussion. I will end with one final question. Please feel free to include any last thoughts or comments here as well.


    1. The different denominations clearly relate to the concept of mesorah differently: its origin and its stability. Differences in these things also cause people to move themselves into new communities other than the ones they were born into. In your experience, what is positive and negative about the way your present and/or original community relates to mesorah? What if anything would you want to change about it?
  • I imagine this will likely be my last comment on this blogcast, so let me begin by again thanking JOFA for asking me to participate and the moderator and panelists for joining me on this journey.

     

    First, to Leah’s most recent post: Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.  I would like to amplify two points she made.

     

    There is a HUGE issue with the fact that often authority is given to people and texts as much if not more because of the frequency with which they affirm the regnant culture rather than because of their expertise in analyzing our sources.  And, in fact, often when those same “authoritative” people happen to question the culture, they are often ignored.  To give a sublime example, there are many who would profess that Mishnah Berurah is the last word of halakhah, and yet many of those same people would not wear a tallit until marriage (see MB 17:10). 

     

    Second, I would like to borrow a phrase from Dr. Noam Stadlan’s excellent take-down of the OU teshuvah on women in clergy published by JOFA (www.jofa.org/sites/default/files/uploaded_documents/ou_paper_for_publication_1.pdf), in which he distinguishes between values that are traditional and timeless and values that are merely ancient.  There are plenty of behaviors that enter common practice and even stay there for millennia that are not necessarily good and right.  Ours is a tradition that recognizes the potential for communal error (see e.g. par he’elam davar, the sacrifice brought when an error being made by the entire community is realized, and the story of the lost scroll of Torah, 2 Kings 22-23, 2 Chronicles 34-35).  Ultimately, our tradition is about seeking to understand and fulfill God’s will, and if simply mimicking ancient practices keeps us from constantly growing in this regard, we are doing anything but following our tradition.  To draw a parallel that I hope is instructive, there are those who think they are being traditional-minded when they insist on adopting Rashi’s every understanding of Torah.  However, when it comes to this great sage who was constantly seeking new understandings of Torah (See Rashbam on Gen. 37:2), to uncritically accept the opinions of Rashi is to do anything but to walk in his footsteps.  Similarly, to walk in our ancestors’ footsteps we must have great respect and veneration for their wisdom and commitment to fulfilling God’s will on earth and yet accept our personal responsibility for moving that project forward.


    To the moderator’s last question, my spiritual home is the Union for Traditional Judaism and (www.utj.org), and I am happy to travel in the circles of Open Orthodoxy.  I believe these are the groups that are struggling to affirm our sacred traditions by maintaining commitment to the halakhic process combined with courage and compassion in order to creatively, but authentically, respond to the needs of the modern world as well as the truths that that world has helped reveal (while recognizing the modern world has also offered a few stumbling-blocks as well).  The negative is that we can’t always find the ways to the answers we might prefer while remaining within that authentic process (as Rabbi Klapper has mentioned a few times above).  My greatest angst is that most of the answers that I don’t like (e.g. in regard to women or the LGBQT community) have a greater negative impact on other people than on myself.  I pray that on balance our process will result in the greatest good, bringing as many people as possible into our community and inspiring each other to maximum fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot.  

  • As I mentioned in my previous comment, I think that the ultra-Orthodox myth of authenticity is harmful both to its own community and to all Jewish communities, but there is much that is positive in my community of origin. The ultra-Orthodox mesorah around identity is particularly admirable: the notion of sartorial codes (even if I take issue with what those codes currently are), the collection of powerful central cultural mythologies, and the fierce sense of pride. The gemach network is also admirable and worthy of emulation.

    Rabbis Richman, Gradofsky and Klapper, each of you has given me a great deal to think about and a great deal to be hopeful for. I find your perspectives incredibly exciting. Thank you. Thank you JOFA for hosting this conversation and for all of the important work that you do. Thank you moderator for your probing and thoughtful questions. It’s been an honor to be a part of this conversation.     
  • I echo the gratitude of my cobloggers for the opportunity and the moderation.


    It is not a coincidence, but rather a credit to Rabbi Gradofsky’s character that his greatest angst is that most of the answers that he doesn’t like (e.g. in regard to women or the LGBQT community) have a greater negative impact on other people than on himself. Ovdei Hashem should always bear their own halakhic burdens lightly, and yet recognize the true weight of the burdens that halakhah places on others.


    It is a similar credit to Leah Vincent that she find so much to praise in a community that caused and causes her so much pain.


    Rabbi Richman’s comments and questions were consistently beautiful and enlightening.


    In response to the previous question, I will echo the framing in saying that masorah can be used to hegemonize (e.g. “you are outside the masorah”), or to legitimate minority positions (e,g. you are entitled to follow your masorah). I would rather Modern Orthodoxy used it more in the second than the first sense, rather than in the current ratio. There is also a second legitimating sense in which creative changes are accepted because the “fit with the masorah”, and I’d like to hear more of that as well.  


    I regret that we did not have a chance to do justice to the questions Shira posed at the end about power and gender, and a closing comment seems the wrong time to take on new issues in depth. I look forward to other occasions.

  • Thank you all for these reflections and gracious back and forth. I am left thinking about the various ways in which Mesorah is acquired and given over and what our responsibilities are in each of these modes.


    Leah presents an amazing challenge to all of us as individuals, to engage deeply and imaginatively with our Mesorah so it will be in conversation with the parts of ourselves that might feel most distant.


    Rabbis need to take responsibility for the possibilities that our communities see as the contours of Mesorah. This can require taking responsibility to elucidate that something people consider as marginal to Mesorah could actually be a critical part of its unfolding. An argument of this type is never won in the intellectual/theoretical sphere alone. It can only come as an organic part of communities dedicated to living and loving our Mesorah and wanting it to grow to its fullest potential, as it simultaneously nurtures us.


    I hope we can strive to be more empathetic learners and bearers of our Mesorah, to listen more carefully to the needs of those living lives bound by the Mesorah, to listen more closely for dynamic voices within the Mesorah, and that when we are tackling the most difficult gaps between the Mesorah and its holders, we turn to each other for support and creativity rather than turning away from each other due to political divides. Yagdil Torah ve'ya-adir.
  • Thank you all for your participation in this lively discussion. I am heartened by one of R' Aviva's comments about her belief in the ultimate value of the Mesorah as something that enriches our lives, and naming that belief "Emunah". This statement demonstrates a kind of love and relation that all the panelists seem to have expressed one way or another, and the sincere desire to be in full relation with their Mesorot, which includes bringing their entire selves, and their "ghosts", with it, and looking out for the ability of others to do so as well. Thank you all again, and I hope others will be able to learn from this engagement with the topic, and that we will be able to bring these Emunot into the real to impact our communities.