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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Formulating Responses in an Egalitarian Age, edited by Marc D. Stern.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.  228 pp.  $34.95.


How to respond to the modern egalitarian age which impacts on and may even threaten the religious observance of the Orthodox Jew—the subject of this book—is not a new topic, and opinions have always spanned a wide spectrum. Responding to the Emancipation, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808–88), the dominant figure of the German Orthodox community, welcomed the changes as offering the Orthodox Jew the opportunity to participate fully in the life of modern society without compromising in the slightest his religious practices. A very different opinion was voiced by the Hatam Sofer (Moshe Sofer, 1762–1839), the leader of Hungarian Orthodox Jewry, who was completely opposed to any changes in society, asserting, “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah.” Anxiety stemming from possible problems for Orthodox Jews arising from the current climate of religious tolerance continues to plague our religious leaders. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that this complex topic was chosen for the twelfth volume in the Orthodox Forum Series of Yeshiva University.

                  We have here a series of nine essays written by leading thinkers in the Modern Orthodox camp, whose flagship institution is Yeshiva University. Although the writers are all firmly rooted in Modern Orthodoxy, one nevertheless finds significant differences in their understanding of just what the problems are, not to mention different views regarding how to respond to these problems.

                  The book begins with an introductory essay by Marc D. Stern, who comprehensively surveys the scene. Stern calls attention to the deep-seated conflict between egalitarianism—equal treatment of all people—and the often non-egalitarian requirements of halacha. We all want to be fair to our fellow human beings and to respect their right to hold opinions and engage in practices (that injure nobody) differing from our own. Equality has become the bedrock principle of modern civilized society, and for all of us, a fundamental commitment, ethically, emotionally, and philosophically. Therefore, how are we to respond when halacha forbids the practices of our fellow man? Is there a difference if these anti-halachic practices (say, homosexuality) are carried out by Jews or by non-Jews? Just what are our responsibilities towards our non-Jewish fellow man? Can halacha adapt to modern conditions? Did halacha respond in the past by adapting? Are there any new features present in the egalitarianism of today? These are just some of the questions that Stern raises, admirably setting the tone for the essays that follow.

                  Stern’s introductory essay is followed by two outstanding overviews. In the first overview, by Aharon Lichtenstein, we receive the profound, nuanced, and penetrating analysis that one has come to expect from this writer. Lichtenstein rejects out of hand the anything-goes concept of moral relativism that accompanies unbridled egalitarianism. Not only our behavior, but even our opinions, must be restricted by halachic and Torah considerations. But, having said that, Lichtenstein does not hesitate to castigate those who would ignore the human element, because the Torah itself requires us to recognize—he quotes Milton—“the human face divine.” Discrimination, we are told, is an “outrageous spiritual abomination.” Nevertheless, Lichtenstein makes clear that the Torah has singled out the Jewish people as a unique, holy nation (kedushat Israel), and “halacha does not regard every inequality as an inequity.” His essay is devoted to advising us how to wend our way safely through the spiritual and moral minefield engendered by this seeming contradiction.

                  The second overview is by Suzanne Last Stone. From the comprehensive legal analysis, one easily recognizes the author to be a professor of law. Stone places the subject of egalitarianism in its legal context, clearly distinguishing “the variety of related, but distinct ideals that characterize our age [of egalitarianism]: equality, personal autonomy, liberal toleration, identity politics, and the acceptance of morally diverse ways of life.” She points out that promoting human equality—a precious Torah ideal—does not require accepting the less desirable features that often accompany egalitarianism, such as unlimited personal autonomy and moral relativism. Stone stresses the centrality of human equality in Torah literature—what she refers to as “creation be’tzelem.” She presents a penetrating analysis of the various legal theories and frameworks within which a synthesis might be affected between the human values so vital to us all and the halachic considerations that sometimes appear to be inconsistent with these values.

                  Both Lichtenstein and Stone leave us in no doubt about how highly the Torah places human values. Nevertheless, both authors emphasize that one cannot simply ride roughshod over the halacha whenever it seems to lead to unpalatable conclusions. Therefore, both discuss at length how we might maintain our commitment to halacha, without abandoning our sensitivity to human personality and its welfare.

                  It is in their discussion of the last issue that Stone and Lichtenstein part company. In deciding where one might find the necessary flexibility in halacha, the criteria of Stone are not those of Lichtenstein. These two authors not only differ regarding the extent of halachic flexibility, but even more significantly, they seem to view this flexibility through different prisms. The reader is indeed fortunate to have such articulate spokespersons for each approach to this fundamental Torah question.

                  The remaining six essays, by David Berger, Michael J. Broyde, Jay R. Berkovitz, Edward Breuer, Jack Beiler, and Gidon Rothstein, deal with more specific issues. These issues include relationships between Jews and non-Jews, halacha and public policy, historical perspectives, and educational considerations. The level is not always uniform, but each essay has something of importance to contribute to the overall discussion.

                  This collection of essays is required reading for anyone interested in questions relating to the tension and confrontations that can arise between the spiritual and moral values inherent in human equality and the sometimes seemingly contradictory demands of halacha.

                                    Nathan Aviezer

                                    Department of Physics

                                    Bar Ilan University