Schachter: Better to die than to believe in God

Well, I agreed with Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, last week, but unsurprisingly, this didn’t last long. Cross-Currents reports that, at this week’s Rabbinical Council of America convention, Schachter taught a class on why women could not be ordained, and said that ordaining women was a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor (i.e., in the category of violations that Jews are commanded to die rather than transgress), “because the Conservative movement had made egalitarianism a key plank in its platform”.

First of all, if Cross-Currents is reporting his statement accurately, Schachter is wrong on the facts, and giving the Conservative movement much more credit than it deserves. The Conservative movement has always been timid about egalitarianism, treating it as a leniency rather than as a principle, and certainly not as “a key plank in its platform”. There are still a number of non-egalitarian Conservative congregations, and the movement doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.

But let’s look at the general principle that Schachter propounds, that any key plank of the Conservative movement’s platform becomes a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor for Torah Jews. One of the things that Emet Ve’Emunah, the Conservative movement’s “Statement of Principles”, actually does say is “Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God”. Therefore, anyone following Schachter’s opinion must conclude that it is strictly forbidden to believe in God, and that this prohibition is so serious that it is better to die than to violate it. Yes, some (presumably left-wing fringe) Orthodox Jews and congregations still believe in God, but we can assume that they will fall into line soon.

I can see the scene now: Schachter and his students giving up their lives al kiddush [REDACTED], having their skin flayed with iron combs as they say with their last breaths, “Hear O Israel: There is no God!”

25 Responses to “Schachter: Better to die than to believe in God”

  1. Wow. So much to say, so little time. Well done BZ. Bomb post. I wonder how many of my JTS peers knew that we are all supposed to believe in God, my guess – not many. I guess, you are allowed to decide what God means… Anyway, I wonder what it means that Conservative Judaism got singled out… Well done.


    Jonah · April 28th, 2010 at 9:28 pm
  2. I object to calling people like this Torah Jews.


    KRG · April 28th, 2010 at 9:31 pm
  3. KRG-
    Me too. I was putting those words in Schachter’s mouth.


    BZ · April 28th, 2010 at 9:40 pm
  4. Jonah, the Conservative movement is often singled out in these discussions because, unlike the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, it maintains the idea that halakha is normative. In fact, it only differs radically from the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy on a few points. So, while an Orthodox Jew might be free to dismiss Reform Judaism as a different religion entirely, Conservative Judaism is more likely to be perceived as a heretical stream within Judaism, and therefore a threat.


    Pāħām · April 28th, 2010 at 11:50 pm
  5. Jonah, the Conservative movement is often singled out in these discussions because, unlike the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, it maintains the idea that halakha is normative.

    Does this mean that the idea that halakha is normative is a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor?


    BZ · April 29th, 2010 at 12:01 am
  6. BZ, sarcasm aside, he’s probably objecting to what he sees as positions held by the Conservative movement (or of specific Rabbis within the movement) that are to the left of mainstream Orthodoxy. He’s not objecting to every held belief of Conservative Jews. I can think of another example that would likely be similar – Agunot issues. Because there have been times in history that Conservative Rabbis had more lenient positions that mainstream Orthodox Rabbis, when a YU-trained Rabbi later on came to a very similar (or the same) position, it’s not easy for the mainstream Orthodox to accept, despite any valid Halachic precedent. In this case of ordaining women Rabbis, it probably falls into a similar catergory.


    Jason · April 29th, 2010 at 6:51 am
  7. @Jason: IN fact, it’s worse than that. IN several cases Orthodox poskim independently came up with solutions to particular problems (e.g agunah) or offered a particular psak. Then, when the Conservative movement adopted that position or that solution, they threw it away, regardless of however it harmed people simply because the Conservative movement (or some group within it) had adopted it. That’s what makes BZ’s post particularly appropos – because in fact, it is essentially what they’re doing – throwing away the ikar simply because Conservative Jews are doing something the same way as them, BZ is just taking them at their word and making a perfectly valid reductio.


    KRG · April 29th, 2010 at 7:50 am
  8. Not to defend the position, but lefi aniyat daati i would assume that Rabbi Schachter’s issue is that a movement that believes in a redacted biblical text (even if everything else was identical to traditional orthodoxy) de facto becomes an unbeleiving faith and following in any of their footsteps becomes a Yehareig ve’al ya’avor


    avtherav · April 29th, 2010 at 9:21 am
  9. That would be “aniyut daati”. (Just a grammatical comment, not a substantive critique.)


    Aryeh Cohen · April 29th, 2010 at 11:15 am
  10. RE: “Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God”. Therefore, anyone following Schachter’s opinion must conclude that it is strictly forbidden to believe in God,

    I guess that convoluted thinking and twisted logic is not the sole right of the Palestinian negotiators.

    To see just how twisted your reasoning is – please follow this same line of thought.

    The Christian religion affirm the critical importance of selfless commitment to Chessed. Therefore anyone following the same logic must conclude (since according to most opinions Christianity is also Yeherag v’al Ya’avor) that it is strictly forbidden to do acts of Chessed.

    Common BZ debate “probitas”!


    Sechel HaYashar · April 29th, 2010 at 10:38 pm
  11. There are still a number of non-egalitarian Conservative congregations

    Are you sure? Where?


    DK · April 29th, 2010 at 10:49 pm
  12. DK-
    Ohr Kodesh in Maryland is non-egal (though their Library Minyan is egal), and the Highland Park Conservative Temple in New Jersey was entirely non-egal until recently and now has a mix of egal and non-egal services. And that’s just the examples near me and near my in-laws.


    BZ · April 29th, 2010 at 11:00 pm
  13. Sechel HaYashar-
    Hey, I didn’t say it, Hershel Schachter did.


    BZ · April 29th, 2010 at 11:01 pm
  14. against logic (and appion), and (tragically) in defense of r’ schachter, if we look at his statement from less of a doctrinal angle and more of a functionalist angle, it makes more sense. i.e. the ordination of women and egalitarianism is one of the main factors that come to mind when discussing the conservative movement. while there are plenty of critiques to be made of the CM’s commitment to egal, and while their stated cluster of dogma state otherwise, egalitarianism and the ordination of women define the conservative movement at this point in history.


    invisible_hand · April 30th, 2010 at 8:31 am
  15. Egalitarianism and the ordination of women define the conservative movement at this point in history.

    If true, that’s as much the “fault” of Orthodox Judaism as of Conservative Judaism. If more women were being ordained in Orthodox contexts, then you’d say “Egalitarianism defines the Conservative movement”, and if Modern Orthodoxy didn’t exist, then you’d say, “Egalitarianism, the ordination of women, and a desire to embrace and interact with the best of the modern world from a halachic perspective define the Conservative movement”. It’s all relative, and all tautological.


    Desh · April 30th, 2010 at 10:03 am
  16. Hershel Shachter is also saying that it is a greater violation of Jewish law to ordain a woman than to eat pork, eat bread on passover, you name it. Ordaining women is now as severe a violation as killing someone.

    Bravo, Hershel. Bravo.


    MS · April 30th, 2010 at 11:23 am
  17. Desh writes:
    It’s all relative, and all tautological.

    I think it’s the same mentality that led the Senate Republicans to vote almost unanimously against Obama’s small-business tax cuts. It doesn’t matter what they think of the content; if Obama supports it, it must be wrong.


    BZ · April 30th, 2010 at 12:06 pm
  18. East Brunswick Jewish Center in central NJ remains a non-egal conservative congregation, although that is a condition not likely to persist for more than another year.

    As to Highland Park, it depends what you mean by “recent”; its been at least five years since the dual minyan solution was adopted.

    And a significant number of Canadian conservative congregations remain proudly non-egal.


    Too Old to Jewschool Steve · April 30th, 2010 at 3:51 pm
  19. As to Highland Park, it depends what you mean by “recent”; its been at least five years since the dual minyan solution was adopted.

    All non-Shabbat/holiday morning services were non-egal until much more recently (and many are still non-egal).


    BZ · April 30th, 2010 at 4:29 pm
  20. a movement that believes in a redacted biblical text (even if everything else was identical to traditional orthodoxy) de facto becomes an unbeleiving faith

    Apparently you’re not familiar with Rishonim or even the Talmud. Take a look at David Weiss haLivni’s Revelation restored or just read ibn ezra. Did you know that the halakha for the batim of tefilin is based on a girsa of totafot that is not in our masoretic tradition?

    In any case, there’s no logical argument that if the Torah was redacted by human being that God doesn’t exist. I think it’s fair to say that the positive-historical view common the Conservative movement will yield a different perspective and outcome than the “minhag avoteinu hoq” and “he-hadash asur min ha torah” crowd.


    OJ · April 30th, 2010 at 5:41 pm
  21. first off, less people make judgments of my own point of view based on my comments, i remain a staunchly fundamentalist egalitarian. i too have been frustrated by the conservative movement’s big tent style which tacitly approves of non-egalitarianism. (that is a similar problem the democrats are having with their own big tent approach).

    so, let me reiterate and clarify: what i am saying is precisely that the conservative movement, as understood in the general, public discourse, stands for the choice to become egalitarian. this is framed by the orthodox as a break with tradition. depending on one’s own perspective, one might be inclined to agree with that perspective (for a whole number of reasons) or to see such a choice as consonant and in continuity with rabbinic halakhic thinking.
    i agree that the orthodox have had a great role in defining the conservative movement thusly, even against the facts. this can perhaps be seen as parallel to the success of the republicans winning the “message war” in the media. the debate is argued on these terms, from this perspective.

    so, my “marching orders,” as it were, are that to be most effective in this debate, one needs to realize that the “actual” principles of the conservative movement are not the issue at hand. what is at hand is what conservative stands for in this discourse, namely, trying to have one’s cake (of tradition and observance) and eat it too (by ordaining women, by being egal, etc).


    invisible_hand · May 1st, 2010 at 11:49 pm
  22. also, i think his use of “yehareig v’al ya’avor” referred not to literally dying as a human being, but rather as referring to the death of orthodoxy. if they choose to go the more egal route, r’ schachter fears the death of orthodoxy, which, sadly, is identical to “true judaism,” from this perspective.


    invisible_hand · May 1st, 2010 at 11:50 pm
  23. [...] Rabbi Shai Held has written a beautiful article on Jewish gender egalitarianism in response to last week’s Hershel Shachter brouhaha. [...]


    In Defense of Torat Chaim | Jewschool · May 4th, 2010 at 2:06 pm
  24. The original Cross-Currents post has since added this update, likely referring to this post:
    [Note: It did not take long for the ignorant to demonstrate their ignorance. There are reports that people outside of Orthodoxy are reporting that RHS argued that it is better to be killed than to [fill in the blank.] I was not at the shiur, but anyone who spent time in a beis medrash understands that his reference was almost certainly to the Yam Shel Shlomo in Bava Kama which states that falsifying or misrepresenting what Torah stands for is impermissible under all circumstances. “Yehareg v’al ya’avor” translates into “No way!” and nothing more. People citing him to any other effect are only demonstrating their inability to handle rabbinic text.]

    And since they’re not approving my comments there, I’ll respond here:

    The precise interpretation of “yehareg v’al ya’avor” (whether literal or metaphorical) is irrelevant to my main point. While the choice to understand it literally certainly made the post more fun to write, you could change the title from “Schachter: Better to die than to believe in God” to “Schachter: Belief in God is impermissible under all circumstances” if you prefer. People reading my post to any other effect are only demonstrating their inability to handle blog posts.


    BZ · May 9th, 2010 at 10:11 am
  25. [...] Orthodox? Then all those who define themselves by being not-us (yeah I’m calling you out Hershel Schachter, tell me what you stand for without it being a response to other Jews; wanna know what I stand for? [...]


    First post of the year... - JCast Network · June 26th, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Leave a Reply

If your comment does not immediately appear, do not freak out and repost your message a dozen times. Please note that all new visitors must have their first comment approved by the editor, and you must provide a legitimate e-mail address and use the same username for the system to "remember" you. The editor maintains the right to refuse comments deemed inappropriate or unhelpful. Users who repeatedly delve into ad hominem attacks or other troll-like behavior will be banned.

Trackback (Right-click & 'Copy Link...') | Comments RSS

"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik