Thursday, August 28, 2008

A dissertation for the J-blogosphere


BA, SUNY Binghamton, 2006

Part II
IV - The Slifkin Controversy 83
V - Metzitza B’peh 126
VI -Halachic Organ Donation 142

A second informative aspect of the poster is the name of the subject, Nosson Slifkin. The name ‘Nosson’ is an Ashkenazic pronunciation whereby the Hebrew letter Tav (English T Hebrew ת) is pronounced as a Sav (English, S). This is contrasted with the Sephardic pronunciation used in Modern Hebrew whereby the same letter is pronounced with a T sound. The Ashkenasic pronunciation is by and large used by those
Orthodox Jewish individuals who are on the more right ‘side’ of the theological
spectrum. The more liberal strands of Orthodoxy would be more apt to use the Sephardic pronunciation of Modern Hebrew. By utilizing this pronunciation the authors of the ban are making a very nuanced ideological move that has theoretical implications for their constructions of heresy. By pronouncing his name ‘Nosson’ the authors are affirming
Slifkin’s identity as a cultural insider who has been led astray by contemporary science.
From a theoretical perspective, the authors are positioning Slifkin in a position that is at the same time both ‘near’ and ‘far’. Slifkin is theologically’ near’ to the authors, he is one of them. Yet ideologically he is an individual who is ‘far’ from their particular worldview.

[Note:As DP wrote to me in an email, this observation is not particularly meaningful since Rabbi Slifkin refers to himself as Nosson in his earlier books - one would not expect the Rabbis to refer to him as anything else.]

For sociologist Lester Kurtz this type of positioning is typical of heretical movements. Such heretics “are close enough to be threatening, yet distant enough to be in error” (Kurtz, 1983. 1087). In order to proclaim Slifkin’s books as heretical, the authors must first make him part of their own theological and social community. Indeed, it is interesting to note that before the ban Slifkin’s books were authored under the name ‘Nosson’, yet after the ban his name linguistically (and culturally) changed to Natan. Using the above paradigm there is some evidence to assume that Slifkin viewed himself as part of the community until the publication of the rabbinic ban. Once his books were deemed to be heretical Slifkin may have desired to place himself ‘outside’ of that community, thus lessening the effect of the ban. Thus within the title, the authors of the ban are very effectively utilizing cultural terminology in an attempt to appropriate Rabbinic authority. By utilizing these terms, they are negotiating a cultural strategy whose effect is a proclamation of heresy.


I will be analyzing one article from the Ultra-Orthodox periodical Yated Ne-eman that was
supportive of the ban. In opposition to this, I will be analyzing a New York Times article
that was highly critical of the ban. Thirdly, I will be analyzing a commentary authored by
an Orthodox female educator that in her own unique way attempted to coherently
synthesize the ideological notions of heresy contained in the above mentioned articles. As
such, I will be studying how these three writers construct their own circles of ideological
discourses by commenting and reporting on the institutional rationalizations (for the
construction of heresy) of others. In this way using the Yated Ne’eman article as an
example, I hope to understand the ways in which heresy is semiotically contextualized
within an Orthodox elite. In contrast using the New York Times article as an example I
hope to understand how that heresy is perceived and commented on by that elite’s
opposition, namely the ‘secular’ journalist. Finally using the commentary from the
female Orthodox educator as an example, I hope to understand how the Orthodox laity
have contextualized – by being influenced by both forms of editorial mediums- in various
ways the banning (the ideological labeling as heresy) of those particular books. As such,
from a theoretical perspective I will be comparing and contrasting three circles of
ideological discourse each expressed from a different perspective, and reflexively
interpreted through this author’s perspective. The socio-cultural result of this semiotic
exercise will be to explore the ways in which these circles of ideological discourse are
used as a means of formulating particular stances on, and paradigms for, the cultural
brokering of traditions


The first sign that I would like to discuss would be the ethnographic location of
this particular commentary. It is significant to note that this commentary appeared in
partial form on an internet blog, and in full form, it took the dual position of the private
musings of an educator as well as a public e-mail to this author. Indeed much of the
Jewish response to the rabbinic proclamation of heresy – and their constructions of
rabbinic authority - has been located within the realm of the internet. Individuals both for
and against the ban post their opinions on internet blogs and message boards. Slifkin
himself has placed much of the material pertaining to the controversy on his website. The
appropriation of the internet as the site for response to rabbinic authority is rather
interesting. The internet affords people a certain sense of anonymity (if they so desire) as
well as a public forum for the expression of ideas. Individuals may say things on the
internet that they may be reticent to express in person or in standard print. Additionally
the internet as a technology is a very ‘modern’ (to appropriate Alex Mindlen’s use of the
term) invention.

Indeed, it entails aspects that comprise ‘modernity’ within its Orthodox
Jewish context, namely globalization and technological advancement. The internet is a
technological advancement that makes long distance communication both faster and
easier. The ultra-orthodox rabbinic authorities have placed numerous bans on the use of
the internet. Utilizing the internet as an (almost exclusive) means of social response to a
rabbinic proclamation of heresy is rather telling in that it points to a general practical
reinterpretation of rabbinic authority. While the internet has been banned, its use is still
widely prevalent. For those opposed to the Slifkin ban the internet provides the perfect
anonymous and public site in which to voice their discontent. To those who support the
ban the very use of the internet implies that they do not necessarily comply with the
institutional rationalizations expressed by the rabbinic elite who signed the ban. For Toby
Katz, the internet probably functions as a means to express opinions and to reach
audiences that she - as a female Orthodox educator - would not necessarily be able to
reach in person.


The commentary by Toby Katz is an example of one woman’s informed response
to the divergent and complementary ideological discourses of the New York Times and
the Yated Ne’eman. Here we have an example of how one woman is confronted with two
opposing circles of ideological discourse concerning the same event. Mrs. Katz
encounters this synthesis by posting her views partially on the internet and wholly in an
e-mail to this author. Thus affording her a partially (we know her name but we can’t ‘see’
her) anonymous voice and a wider readership. The use of the internet as a medium for the
dispensing of ideological discourses may also be viewed in relation to the use of
newspaper editorials that serve the same purpose. As stated, the internet is a relatively
anonymous means of communication. Additionally the internet is a relatively egalitarian
technology. Anyone with a computer and a phone line can post their opinions on the
internet. The same is not true for perspectives published in newspapers. As such, the
internet is a prime site for, and indicative of, a lay ideological response to elite
institutional rationalizations.


The blog Cross-Currents is open for individuals to post their comments to the
various articles. As such, the comments posted by the lay readers are rather instructive.
The very first comment reads, “I applaud R Shafran for his mentioning RHS [Herschel
Schachter] and R JD Bleich’s POVs [Point of View] on this issue. IMO, articles of this
nature illustrate what we need more of-mutual appreciation of Gdolim.” This reader
congratulates Shafran for writing his piece and claims that we need more appreciation for
the rabbinic elite, thus echoing the notion of Da’as Torah and rabbinic infallibility. In a
rather poignant note, one reader indeed points to the theologically bifurcating rhetoric of
the article. “Rabbi Shafran’s insinuation of a league table of halakhic authority is
unfortunate. I note the way Rabbis Schachter and Bleich are tacked on the end as
“leading scholars at Yeshiva University”, after referring to Rav Elyashiv as being
“considered by many Jews to be the most authoritative authority of Jewish law today.””
The reader goes on to note; “As it is, articles of this kind are apt to turn this most
sensitive of issues into the next metzitzah befeh/idolatrous wigs… issue.” The reader
connects the tone of Shafran’s article to the discourses surrounding the Metzitza B’peh
controversy, along with another ‘crisis’ concerning the use of Indian hair in wigs (this
will be explained in the following chapter).


A popular Orthodox Jewish internet blogger using the name Frumsatire recently
posted a fascinating video on Youtube. Frumsatire, or Hesh as he calls himself, was
raised ‘yeshivish’ although now he appears to be slightly disenchanted with Orthodoxy in
general. He calls himself ‘Modern Orthodox’, yet the listener is never quite sure what this
really means, and in his videos as well written blogs, he never quite explains what this
means for himself. He seems to be existing within that very murky and ambiguous area of
a boundary-less Orthodoxy. The listener is never quite sure if he is more ‘yeshivish’ or
‘modern’. Frumsatire analyzes, in a humorous and perhaps slightly irreverent manner,
contemporary Orthodox Jewish culture. In this particular video, frumsatire discusses the
‘Shidduch Crisis’. He says,

“You know I think the Shidduch crisis is there…but when did this happen? You
know, when did someone start deciding there’s so many girls over the age of
nineteen that are single. Like where did this come from? I have no idea where it
came from. I mean all of a sudden…it’s kind of like Indian hair crisis! Someone
thought of an Indian hair crisis. Screw it man! We’ll have an Indian hair crisis.
We’ll have a bugs in the water crisis, we’ll have a strawberries and the bugs
crisis. You know what, now were on the Shidduch crisis”.

This was a fascinating video. Here a ‘regular’ Orthodox individual notices a ‘wave’ of
controversies and he does not really understand why they are occurring. He notices the
series of issues and he takes part in the internet discussion concerning these issues. He
does it in part to entertain, but more importantly to add his particular voice to the ‘wave’.
In so doing, he analyzes the controversies from the ‘outside’, yet at the same time, takes
part in the controversies from the ‘inside’. Yet most importantly, his is a discourse that
seeks to understand why these controversies are appearing at this particular juncture in
history. He answers the question by exclaiming in perfect angst “what the hell!” I would
argue however, that the answer may not be found in the netherworld, but rather, in the
sociological concept of ‘function’.

This thesis attempted to practically explain the reasons for, and the meanings
behind, the recent spate of theological crises within contemporary Orthodox Judaism.
The analysis successfully linked these controversies to current theological and social
paradigms within Orthodoxy. What it cannot do however, is meaningfully predict the
outcomes of such social and theological paradigms. Considering the ways in which
‘Orthodoxy’ is perceived and enacted within an era of ‘post Orthodoxy’ many questions
remain concerning the theological and social future of the movement as a whole.

If this thesis is correct in assuming that new boundaries and definitions of
‘Orthodoxy’ are being mediated within a post Orthodox age, then one should expect to
see no let-up in the rate of controversies and crises arising. Indeed within the past month
of the writing of this chapter (March 16th 2008) several new ‘controversies’ have erupted.
Various rabbis have recently banned a concert that was to be held in Madison Square
Garden by a popular Chassidic musician Lipa Shmeltzer. Several rabbi’s felt that the way
in which this musician adapts non-Jewish tunes to Jewish themes would have a negative
affect on his Jewish audience. In another occurrence within the past month, the
rabbinical dean of the Chaim Berlin seminary in Brooklyn called for a boycott of a
nearby store selling wigs for Orthodox women. The rabbi felt that the images of women’s
faces that were exhibited in the stores front display would have a negative effect on his
students. At this moment, one is forced to wonder as to what forms future controversies
and crises will take. Who will be affected by these controversies, and how will they
respond? Most importantly, how will future controversies shape the ways in which
religion and society are redefined and reinterpreted?

It remains to be seen how such a struggle will play out. Will a new ‘type’ of
Orthodoxy emerge out of this post Modern era? Alternatively, will this moment of
boundary blurring and ideological experimentation subside and eventually give way to
the standard bounded conceptions of religious denominationalism? How will the Jewish
community as a whole - as represented by the communal institutions of monetary support
- respond to these new post denominational challenges? The answer seems uncertain. Yet
the question itself leaves ample room for further research opportunities within this
academic area of exploration.


Rov Durkheim said...

Yup this is my MA thesis. I suppose any publicity is good publicity...but why did you have to copy and paste the most boring part? I personally think Part III would be more interesting..
I mean you could have at least included the abstract:-(

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