RZ vs. MO? RZ = MO? On Non-Charedi Judaism and Rabbinic Authority

One of the more complicated and contested issues which fractures both RZ and MO communities is the issue of Rabbinic authority – who has the right to wield it and how, when does it apply and so on. There are points on which RZ and MO agree on the issues, and there are points where they disagree. But a frank discussion of these issues is critical to understanding how RZ and MO are fundamentally different from Charedi societal norms.

What’s important to understand from the outset is that the attitude of the broader MO and RZ communities towards Rabbinic authority is ambivalent and complex. It is true that both publics have extremists for whom everything is simple. Most of the ink that is spilled comes from these corners, who always yell the loudest.

People on the hard right, generally yeshiva students and yeshiva alumni, have a near-Charedi or Charedi attitude towards Rabbis. That is to say, Rabbis have ultimate sway over dictating broader issues, not just strictly halachic ones, and some even concede the idea that they have ‘Daat Torah’ and whatever the Rabbi says, goes. Laymen, even religiously educated ones, have no right to contravene Rabbinic dictate, certainly not lekula.

Then there are the people on the hard left, people from academia or academic institutes such as the Hartman Institute. These are the folks who consider academia and Western thought with the same reverence that Charedim regard Rabbis, and they have the same deep disdain for non-liberal Rabbis (or even just religious discussion in general) as ideological Charedim have for academia and academic methods. Their ideal is the perfectly autonomous individual, one who makes their own decisions about what’s right for them religiously, who does not require Rabbis and thinks for himself whenever possible. Indeed, some are so enamoured of criticism and bashing that they will only attend ‘critical’ lectures on Shavu’ot or read radical thinkers.

Most RZ and MO do not fall into either of these two categories. On the one hand, most acknowledge the authority of Rabbis to pasken questions of pure halacha such as kashrut or marital relations and so on. They might be choosy on who they go to for questions, but then all frum Jews do so. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of both camps do not accept the “Daat Torah” doctrine of the Charedi camp which grants infallibility and authority of decision over every facet of life to “Gedolim”. Indeed, most Jews I know, myself included, have so despaired of Rabbis’ ability to seriously deal with issues of modernity and modern challenges that they feel that Rabbis can only be taken seriously within the “four amot of halacha”, and even then only in a limited fashion.

Another issue common to both camps is what might be called the “democratization” of Rabbinic authority, whereby there is much greater selection of Rabbis whose views are considered legitimate. There is a much broader spectrum of opinion among Rabbis in the RZ/MO camp on hosts of issues ranging from theology to halacha than exists, at least publicly, among Charedim. Rabbis might seriously argue many issues, but only rarely will they resort to the kind of wholesale condemnation one sees by Charedim. People like Rabbi Avi Weiss or Rabbi Chaim Hirschnezon can at most be marginalized, not spat out, in the RZ/MO world.

Another issue of Da’at Torah that is rejected across the boards is the idea that teshuvot can be given without proper justification or backup of sources. Everyone reserves the right to challenge or at least question the accuracy of various teshuvot, and with the existence of the internet it is very easy to find conflicting positions. Believe it or not, RZ education for a very long stressed the semi-autonomous individual as one of its ‘ideal types’.

So where are the differences?

Well, for one, MO places a much heavier emphasis on a variety of Rabbis and not baalei batim than the RZ world. Check out the yutorah site, for instance, and you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of speakers and thinkers have at least formal, if not functional semicha. I don’t think this lack of educated baalei batim is an accident, and it bespeaks a value position regarding the right to speak on religious matters requiring Rabbinic approbation. Even those who are not technically Rabbis are avrechs with many years’ experience.

Things are different in the world of RZ. It is true that, thanks to the explosion of RZ yeshivot since the late 1960s, there are many more Rabbis who participate in public discourse. Nevertheless, the alternative sources of authority – religious scholars, counselers of youth groups and political activists remain sufficiently strong to prevent this abundance of Rabbis from gaining a monopoly. It is no accident that the figures on the left wing of RZ did not have semichah or at least didn’t stress the fact (Eliezer Goldman, Yishayahu Leibowitz) while the heroes of the left in the MO world do (Rabbi Rackman, Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz to some extent &c).

There are other differences, such as the almost complete lack of community Rabbis in Israel along the lines of the American model. But that will do for now.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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