Monday, February 28, 2011

How many opinions?

We've been seeing a rise in rabbinic petitions: from the extremely right wing (Don't sell land to Arabs!) to more left wing (accept LGBT individuals in Orthodoxy!) to everything in between. So it was interesting to read this blog suggesting that this approach actually 'flattens' dialogue. I take his point but I'm not sure I agree entirely. I don't know that such a response gives a mistaken view of consensus; I do think that in some cases, petitions or the like can become an 'easy out' for a rabbi on challenging issues; instead of engaging in real discussion with his or her congregation he/she can say 'but I signed on the petition/letter/whatever!'. I think it can also become something of a mindless task. You get an email from a congregant, however well meaning, who asks you to sign on for-or-against whatever issue, so you sign it. It makes the congregant happy, it doesn't actually require any work, maybe you drop it in your blog, but that doesn't lead to real advocacy (necessarily) nor any real reflection on the part of the rabbi. It can be another slide toward rabbi as 'warm fuzzy' provider rather than change agent.

Anyway, the posting is found below. Feel free to share your thoughts!
Getting 100 rabbis to sign on something used to be difficult. After all, the “escape clause” on the rabbinic ban on polygamy, now over 1,000 years old, allowed the husband of a woman who could not or would not accept divorce to marry a second wife if he could obtain the signatures of 100 rabbis from 100 different communities. This loophole was designed to make sure that the ban on polygamy would be difficult to circumvent. It appears not to be too difficult anymore.

The trend is disturbing for several reasons. Firstly, there are tens of thousands of rabbis in the world, if not more than 100,000; there is no rabbinic consensus on virtually any issue. Thus, getting a bunch of rabbis to support one thing or another is not difficult, but it can give the mistaken impression that there is some sort of broad agreement on an issue.

When numerous rabbis sign on a single document, it flattens dialogue. Positions tend toward sound-bites and away from nuance. There is little room for shades of grey, and there is little room for the rabbis with unique voices to create their own space. Furthermore, these letters tend to give the erroneous impression that all rabbinic voices are equal. A social media-savvy recent rabbinical school grad is not the same as a gadol be-Yisrael, but on a petition they each get one vote.

Rabbinic disagreement has classically taken place in a beit midrash or through the exchange of personal letters. Rarely were there public pronouncements that did not invite dialogue. It would be terrible if as a result of these letters different groups stop having dialogue with each other. As Rav Shach once lamented to Rav Amital, “we’ve grown so far apart that we don’t even argue anymore.”

Finally, people will eventually stop listening to rabbis who cry “Wolf!” When everything is worth a public petition, those things that really demand a public outcry will be ignored. Rav Moshe Lichtenstein calls this “inflation.”

I hope that rabbis, individually and collectively, begin to realize that the cost of these statements are not worth the benefits and, accordingly, think long and hard before affixing their signatures to such petitions.

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