On the Victims of Communal Strife: Or Why R. Avrohom Gordimer Scares Me

I’d like to start with a story of an event that made me sad.

There was a guy I went to elementary school with, let’s call him M, who was, is, and always will be a brilliant brilliant
guy. Math genius, gemara genius, all around genius. We were good friends, not just because I was a smart kid, he was a smart kid, and we’d get bullied a lot, but because we were both very big baseball fans. We used to debate about which players were the best, passing notes to each other in which we detailed our personal all star teams. We collected and traded baseball cards, played baseball video games, etc etc. We were big baseball fans. Both of us.

Time went on. We went to the same high school. We drifted apart a little bit, but stayed on good terms, for the most part. He had a stronger work ethic than I, and he got put in top gemara shiurs, top Math classes, and he became a poster boy for our school’s academic excellence. I went in a different direction, not an opposite one, but a different one. I became more interested in philosophy, Gemara bored me even as I remained pretty good at it, and I got into movies, music, and other stuff that M never really touched, to my knowledge. And of course, I remained just as into baseball as I always had been.

One day, I don’t even know how it came up, I casually mentioned that M was a big baseball fan. My interlocutor was incredulous. “M?! A baseball fan, I thought all he did was learn gemara!” No, I insisted, M was a big baseball fan. We used to talk about baseball all the time! My interlocutor demanded proof, so I proposed we ask M. We went over to M, and said “hey, you’re a big baseball fan, right?” M didn’t know what we were talking about, or at least, said he didn’t. “Baseball….is that the one with the baskets?” he asked.

M damn well knew it wasn’t.

Now, let me explain why this makes me sad. It doesn’t make me sad because I think M is a bad person. He’s not. I haven’t talked with him in a while, but he has always been an incredibly nice, down to earth, humble person who at this moment is probably in the process of becoming a leader of Orthodox Jewry. It doesn’t make me sad that M grew out of his baseball fandom. That is his right, and if he felt that his time could be better spent learning than following the wild card standings, then all the power to him, and maybe I should have that kind of willpower.

What makes me sad is that he felt the need to pretend that he had never even heard of baseball, that the idea of a budding Talmud Chacham even being acquainted with sports was such an unheard of idea that he had to pretend he was someone he wasn’t.  He could have said, “you’re right, I used to be a baseball fan, but I kind of grew out of it.” He did not. He pretended he had never heard of baseball.

What makes me sad about that is that if all my teachers had been like M, there’s a chance I wouldn’t be frum today. Looking back at the people who most affected my spiritual journey (ugh, I hate that term. Whatever), I found myself drawn to people who expressed a broad array of interests yet never lost sight of the primacy of Judaism and Torah. One of the (many) reasons I picked the yeshiva I picked was specifically because both of the Roshei Yeshiva were (and still are) huge baseball fans, and I learned from them that one can be a baseball fan and also a ben torah, also a Talmid Chacham, also an oved hashem, and that Judaism always comes first. That the person I was was not incompatible with a life suffused by the divine. R. Yitzchak Hutner, in a letter to a student concerned about how having a career may constitute “living a double life”, talks about how one should value not leading a “double life”, but having a “broad life”. From my mentors, I learned that it is okay to have a broad life. And to this day, I am grateful for that. And yes, we still talk baseball.

I thought about this story when I saw yet another broadside launched against “Open Orthodoxy”/Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, this time by one Shmuel Landesman for Yated Ne’eman. Just to preface, I am not Open Orthodox. I am a proud RIETS student. I have my issues with Open Orthodoxy, and the article did indeed raise what I think is a fair point regarding the rigor of the YCT curriculum. But what concerns me, at this moment, is the straws that are being grasped in this debate, and why those straws are actively harmful to the future of Orthodoxy. I’d like to hone in on this paragraph:

It is fascinating to read the information Chovevei puts out about its current students. Its students are primarily graduates of secular universities; only a small minority attended Yeshiva College/YU. Most Chovevei students graduated from state schools (University of Connecticut, Brooklyn College, Queens College), while a few are Ivy League grads (Columbia, University of Pennsylvania). Most were liberal arts majors – i.e., sociology, religion, psychology, education; though a few majored in the hard sciences – i.e. chemistry, biology. Today’s Chovevei students formally list an amazing array of interests: reading comic books, playing banjo, harmonica, rapping, beat-boxing, films, movies, comedy, raw foodism, craft-beer tasting, social justice, art history, art museums, antique home restoration, knitting, badminton, squash, tai chi and qi gong, yoga and German idealism.

The YCT Students have hobbies and interests! Perish the thought! I’d like to publicly state here first, before the House Committee of Un-Rabbinic Activities comes for me, that I enjoy movies *and* films and reading comic books, I’ve been known to drink a craft beer from time to time, and I own a harmonica, even as I never could figure out how to play it. Kidding aside, what seems to be underlying this paragraph is the unstated assumption that rabbinical students ought to have no interests besides learning Torah, such that quoting their varied interests is relevant in an article attacking their institution. What is being attacked, then, is not so much a breach of halakha but a breach in what the writer considers to be appropriate rabbinic activities when compared to a preconceived notion of what a rabbi ought to be interested in. In other words, its not that there’s anything necessarily wrong halakhically with all these things, its just that the author is uncomfortable with rabbis doing these things.
The problem is that demanding that all of our rabbinic leaders conform to a specific prefabricated mold necessarily means that there is only one type of Jew with which we ought to supply only one type of rabbi, that no one with a broad view of the world or a broad array of interests ought to be a rabbinic leader and thus no one should have broad interests. This is an approach that, had it guided my education, would have led to me leaving Orthodoxy, no question.
But this goes beyond this one article. Whatever you want to say about Open Orthodoxy, the attacks on it, particularly from R. Avrohom Gordimer, (which, if you’re reading this on your weekly jaunt through the blogosphere, hi!) have all too often consisted not of a sourced halakhic critique of certain activities, but the mere expression of discomfort with other people’s approaches that is then equated with heresy. R. Gordimer has attacked people for beginning a lecture with a provocative question (with no mind given as to what the eventual answer was), or for even entertaining the possibility of certain questions. My personal favorite was when R. Gordimer attacked R. Dov Linzer for having the temerity to quote a gemara that he thought was inappropriate to be discussed in public, one that said that the Keruvim in the Beis HaMikdash were engaged in coitus. Yeah, its a weird gemara, but who are you to decide which gemaros ought to be quoted? The overall impression from R. Gordimer’s oeuvre is not that he has a critique of Open Orthodoxy based on particular issues, but based on their character; R. Gordimer has issues with a certain kind of person who asks certain kinds of questions and has certain kinds of views being considered Orthodox, and has a very specific pre-fabricated notion of what an Orthodox person ought to look like.

This terrifies me. I feel like I have been caught in a cross-fire. Do I agree with the conclusions made by some people within Open Orthodoxy? No, and occasionally vehemently so. But I am not the kind of person R. Gordimer believes ought to be Orthodox. I find myself sometimes, perhaps even often, having the same questions, sometimes having the same approaches, as people within that movement. I furthermore have other interests besides Torah and Judaism; baseball, detective fiction, blues music, Quentin Tarantino’s movies, I’m not a guy who dresses in white shirts and black pants, and I’m politically liberal. I worry that all this communal strife is paving the way towards a future where all those things will be seen as incommensurate with a life lived according to halakha. I don’t want to live in an Orthodox world that only allows one type of rabbinic leader. I don’t want to be part of a rabbinate that would have turned my high school self off from Judaism. And I fear for an Orthodox world that totally rejects the notion of living a broad life.

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2 Comments

  1. Gordimer is yukky. But Gordimer is not the leader of any community. Mixed in with all the yukkiness of his articles are legitimate points about the theology and practice of OO (granted, not so much in this particular article). If OO can quote the stronger arguments of secular Biblical critics without accepting their entire worldview, why can’t we quote the stronger arguments of Gordimer without accepting his entire worldview?

    Reply

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