Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is President and Professor of Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va'ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which writes responsa and gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. He is the founder and Director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at The Schechter Institute whose goal is to publish a library of halakhic literature for the Conservative and Masorti Movements. He is also the Director of the Center for Women in Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute whose goal is to find halakhic solutions for agunot or "chained women" who are unable to obtain a get from their husbands.
In part three of this exchange about his new book- The Status of Women in Jewish Law:Responsa- we talk with Rabbi Golinkin about how Orthodox Rabbis ignore the responsa of non-orthodox Rabbis and about what could be done to create a broader and more inclusive Halakhic debate.
Your detailed answer, in addition to the detailed and illuminating book, only makes it more puzzling that so many other rabbis disagree with your analysis and conclusion - and that is the topic of my next question. Surely, there were debates, at times fierce ones, between rabbis who made different rules for different communities. It does seem though - and correct me if you think my impression is wrong - that today the problem isn't just differences in interpretation but even more so the lack of discussion between different factions/ schools of thought/ streams/ denominations - you name it. In other words, when you write your responses you are debating "within" the faction but your responses have little chance of convincing the rabbis of other factions.
So my question is really this: should we strive to make the Jewish debate on Jewish law more broad and inclusive, and do you have any idea how such a goal of having an all-encompassing Jewish discussion could be achieved?
At the outset, it should be stressed that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Kohelet 1:9). This is not the first time in Jewish history when there was a lack of discussion between different factions/schools of thought/streams/denominations in Judaism. Some famous examples include the Pharisees, Saducees and Essenes in the late Second Temple period, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, Rabbanites and Karaites, the Maimonidean controversies, the pro- and anti-Sabbateans, the Hassidim and Mitnagdim, and the pro- and anti-Zionists. In some cases, these controversies led to a permanent split in the Jewish people; in other cases, such as the Hassidim and Mitnagdim, the storm passed and it is difficult today to tell the difference between these two groups.
Today, as you indicated, Orthodox rabbis tend to ignore halakhic discussions by non-Orthodox rabbis, as I explained in the book under discussion (The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, pp. 26-27):
"Orthodox Rabbis and congregations, as a rule, ignore non-Orthodox rulings on women in Judaism in two ways: They usually do not cite non-Orthodox responsa… More interestingly, Orthodox Rabbis seem to go out of their way to find a different way to allow the same or a similar thing...
In my opinion, this approach is a shame. Maimonides already stated 'accept the truth from he who says it' and this idea was echoed by many famous Rabbis (I cite in a note sources such as: Berakhot 5b, Shabbat 55a, Rav Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Abraham the son of Maimonides, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato, and Rabbi Kook). Ignoring non-Orthodox responsa or looking for alternative approaches entails a lot of wasted effort and leads to unnecessary or even mistaken halakhic results."
You further ask: "should we strive to make the Jewish debate on Jewish law more broad and inclusive?" My answer is an unequivocal "yes"! Indeed, there are Orthodox scholars and rabbis who adhere to the words of Rabbi Judah the Prince: "do not look at the jar but rather at what is inside" (Avot 4:26). Prof. Zvi Zohar, a modern Orthodox scholar who teaches at Bar Ilan University and the Hartman Institute, is one of the world's leading experts on modern Sefardic responsa. As he stated at a symposium marking the tenth anniversary of the Va'ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel which I chaired for many years (Responsa of the Va'ad Halakhah, Vol. 6, 1998, p. 334, also available at www.responsafortoday.com): "In my opinion, distinctions by stream are not relevant. He who writes halakhah well, let him write halakhah well, without dependence on the question where he or she comes from and what is their ideological affiliation…; and a person who does not know, let him not write." A similar approach is reflected in his recent review of the book we are discussing (Times of Israel, May 29, 2013).
I myself adhere to this approach. When I write a responsum, I utilize Orthodox, Conservative and Reform responsa on the subject, along with a wide range of sources and interpretations gleaned from the modern academic study of Judaism. Utilizing a Reform or Haredi responsum doesn’t mean that I agree with everything the writer says or believes. It means that I respect all rabbis and hope to arrive at a correct halakhic decision by "accepting the truth from he who said it". I hope that this approach to halakhah will spread both as a way of improving the responsa we write and as a way of uniting the Jewish people.
Finally, you asked: "do you have any idea how such a goal of having an all-encompassing Jewish discussion can be achieved?" This question leads to the much broader topic: how can we teach and propagate Jewish pluralism? As I have shown elsewhere (Israel as a Pluralist State: Achievements and Goals, The Schechter Institute, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 3-4), our Sages believed that pluralism is good when studying Torah, among people and within Jewish Law.
Pluralism in the Torah – how so? Our Sages said that "There are seventy faces to the Torah" (Bemidbar Rabbah 13: 15-16) and they taught in the Academy of Rabbi Ishmael: " 'And like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces' (Jeremiah 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings" (Sanhedrin 34a). In other words, the same verse is interpreted in different ways and this is perfectly fine.
Pluralism among people – how so? We have learned in the tractate of Berakhot (58a): "Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Israelites, he says: Blessed is He who discerns secrets - for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other”. In other words, we bless God for having created millions of people who are different form each other in their ideas and appearance.
Pluralism in Jewish law – how so? The rabbis valued pluralism so much that they even praised halakhic disagreements! We have learned in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4:2, 22a): "Rabbi Yannai said: if the Torah were handed down cut and dried, [the world] would not have a leg to stand on… [Moses said to God]: Master of the Universe, teach me what the law is? He said to him: 'Lean towards the majority' (Exodus 23:2)…". In other words, Moses our Teacher, requested a Torah with clear and unequivocal decisions, but God preferred that the Sages argue over every detail and decide according to the majority.
If and when we succeed in teaching Jews that pluralism is an integral part of Judaism, it will be much easier to have a broad and more inclusive discussion on many important halakhic topics.