By: Doron Levine  | 

Defending Rav Schachter From His Defenders

Passion carries greater risk than apathy. An indifferent stoic may find himself guilty of callous insensitivity, but passivity has limited destructive potential. A riled zealot, on the other hand, if he fails to think through the implications of his ire, is a roaming hazard, not only to the objects of his wrath but to the very ideology he professes to champion. By jealously defending his views with an ardor not governed by wisdom and prudence, he does his own religion a disservice.

I’m speaking of individuals who leveled a certain sort of criticism against The Commentator for its coverage of Rav Schachter’s actions concerning Rabbi Klapper’s appearance at YU. Under the pretense of defending the honor of an outstanding talmid chacham, some eagerly excoriated The Commentator for publishing Rav Schachter’s opinion in a pair of news articles.

In so doing, these people ignored the words of Rav Schachter himself. When I approached Rav Schachter on behalf of The Commentator to inquire about his taking down a sign for Rabbi Klapper’s shiur, he agreed to be interviewed for the newspaper, willingly offered a comment, and even stated, “you can quote me on that if you want.” The claim that The Commentator disrespected Rav Schachter by performing an action that Rav Schachter explicitly permitted is outrageous.

You cannot criticize The Commentator for quoting Rav Schachter without disputing Rav Schachter’s attendant permission to publish his statement. So unless you neglected to think through your righteous anger to its proper conclusion, your indignation at The Commentator is perhaps more insulting to Rav Schachter than it is respectful. Does a talmid chacham need to be defended from his own opinions? Can’t he express them without his very talmidim denouncing their publication? This attempt to defend Rav Schachter is doubtless motivated by an admirable impulse to guard the Torah’s honor by defending one of its preeminent expositors against the perceived perennial scourge of journalistic treachery. But even if skirmishes between journalism and traditional authority do occasionally erupt, in this particular instance any conflict is wholly imagined.

In a speech to the Glueck Beit Midrash about this controversy, Dean of RIETS Rabbi Menachem Penner seemed to absolve all relevant parties of responsibility other than the newspaper itself. According to Rabbi Penner, Rabbi Klapper “was set up for failure” since he was probably invited to lecture on this controversial topic; the organizers of the shiur presumably had pure motivations (Rabbi Penner clarified this in a brief second speech to the Beit Midrash); and Rav Schachter, provoked by the presence of the signs on the doors to the Beit Midrash, “said nothing publicly—The Commentator did.”

I cannot emphasize enough that Rabbi Penner’s evaluation of Rav Schachter’s statement is mistaken – if telling a newspaper reporter that he may quote you does not make your statement public, I lose any grasp I thought I had on the parameters of that classification. By erroneously claiming that Rav Schachter’s statement was not made publicly, Rabbi Penner shifted the responsibility for this controversy away from the parties directly involved and onto the shoulders of the newspaper that simply published the facts.

Rabbi Penner then urged the Beit Midrash crowd, “Let’s not talk by reading The Commentator .... Why don’t we actually talk about the issues?” This statement alone is odd. Granted, reading and conversing are two independent activities, but often what we read provides ripe material for fruitful conversation. In this case, discussions about this matter would most probably not have transpired if not for The Commentator’s coverage. So Rabbi Penner’s call to discuss these issues but avoid reading The Commentator is as counterintuitive as it is alarming.

More to the point, though, Rabbi Penner’s exhortation to “not talk by reading The Commentator further fueled the perception of some that the newspaper was somehow the antihero of this drama. If we must play the blame game (though honestly I’d prefer to sit this round out), it seems to me that indicting only the newspaper for causing this kerfuffle is, considering the evidence, unjust and untenable. While it is true that Rav Schachter might not have offered his statement had The Commentator not approached him, it is also true that Rav Schachter would not have offered his statement had Rabbi Klapper not come to speak at YU. And it is also true that Rav Schachter would not have offered his statement had Rav Schachter not offered his statement. The Commentator made the decision to publish an article about these events, but there would have been nothing to write about had the events not occurred.

This situation touches on fundamental questions about our religious leadership. Why are many Rav Schachter talmidim upset with The Commentator, and why did Rabbi Penner feel the need to address this situation at all? There seems to be a widespread perception that something bad has happened here, something problematic. But what is so concerning about our religious leader expressing his opinion?

To the extent that theological issues are at play here, I am no theologian; and to the extent that halachic issues are at play here, I am no halachist. But it is clear even to us laymen that Rav Schachter meant what he said; he unequivocally and unabashedly expressed an opinion which, if we took it seriously, would have practical relevance to university policy. So unless you think that what Rav Schachter said is wrong, what exactly is the problem here? Every ideological community has its boundaries, and Rav Schachter stated where he thinks ours should be. It seems incongruous to turn to our rabbeim for matters of serious halachic import but then to fall into disoriented turmoil when they offer pertinent socio-religious assessments. People with respect for Rav Schachter’s religious leadership should be pleased rather than bothered when his opinions become public knowledge.

One segment of Rabbi Penner’s speech touched on this matter. He asked, “Can you have alternative views and still be a part of the YU community? And can you even perhaps speak on campus if you have a different view?” He answered, “The answer has been, and remains: yes.” He qualified, “Roshei Yeshiva do not insist that you agree with them. But if you ask them what they think of something, they might just answer you. If you ask them for their opinion, then you may have to deal with whatever that opinion is if that’s what you asked for.”

In apparent disagreement with Rav Schachter’s position that Rabbi Klapper should not be allowed to speak at YU, Rabbi Penner maintained that even “if you have a different view” you can still “speak on campus.” His subsequent qualification, that if you ask for a Rosh Yeshiva’s opinion “then you may have to deal with whatever that opinion is if that’s what you asked for,” raises myriad questions. Does it imply that we should “deal with” Rav Schachter’s opinion in this instance, given that I asked for it? Does dealing with an opinion entail accepting and complying with its directives? Can dealing with the opinion of a Rosh Yeshiva involve rejecting it? And why shouldn’t we eagerly approach our religious leaders to ask for their advice on all matters of spiritual import instead of grudgingly moving to “deal with whatever [their] opinion is” on a post facto basis?

Rabbi Penner explained that he is “often in the uncomfortable position of being the boss of the people who are the Roshei Yeshiva.” His discomfort is quite understandable since our university doubles as a religious community with an ancient tradition of viewing its premier Torah scholars as authorities on matters of communal policy. So what exactly is the relationship between the authority of the administrators and the authority of the Roshei Yeshiva? Does the boss of the Roshei Yeshiva just serve as a point person, directing questions about YU’s religious policies to their rightful arbiters? To what degree can and should administrators use their personal judgment to determine which policy questions are brought to the Roshei Yeshiva in the first place? Is there room for administrators to exercise unilateral authority once the Roshei Yeshiva have made their relevant opinions clear?

These meta-policy questions seem to touch on matters of religious outlook, if not strict religious law. Should we address them to the Roshei Yeshiva?