Faith Without Fear – Preview

This Monday (19 October 2015) sees the launch of Rabbi Harris’ new book addressing key issues of Modern Orthodoxy. Marc Nohr interviewed Rabbi Harris on the book for our shul magazine. As a preview for Monday’s event, the interview is reprinted below.

Q: The title of your new book is Faith without Fear. Which suggests that “faith” and “fear” usually come as a pair. Is that right and how should we understand the title?

A: Traditionally in Judaism there is a type of “fear” which should go along with “faith”. This is what is known as “Yirat Shamayim”, “fear of Heaven”, i.e. awe and reverence before God.  Certainly I don’t want to argue in the book that that kind of “fear” is inappropriate. But I feel that too often Orthodox Jewish faith, particularly Modern Orthodoxy which is the focus of this book, is paired with different and unhealthy types of fear. One is lack of self-confidence. As the book tries to show, Modern Orthodoxy has at least as much claim as the main ideological alternative in the Orthodox world, namely Haredi Orthodoxy, to be considered a legitimate heir of pre-modern Jewish tradition. Sometimes Modern Orthodox Jews seem to have something of an inferiority complex vis-a-vis Haredi Orthodoxy. This is one kind of fear we should jettison. Another kind of fear we should do without is lack of courage. Modern Orthodoxy needs to have the courage to face up to the huge challenges presented by modernity such as the welcome revolution in the status of women in the modern world.

Q: The book tackles a series of questions. What made you choose these particular topics rather than other potential candidates? Is it because you consider them to be relatively unexplored or because you think we have lacked the “courage” to date to tackle them head on?

A: I chose some of the topics in the book, such as Modern Orthodoxy’s attitude towards mysticism and its messianic hopes, because I feel that these issues are relatively neglected in the oral and written discourse of the Modern Orthodox community both here and abroad. But although neglected, I think they are very significant because they shed light on some of Modern Orthodoxy’s deepest commitments such as its universalism, i.e. its emphasis on those strands of Jewish tradition which most value the non-Jewish world. In the case of other topics discussed in the book such as the role of women and Judaism’s attitude to other religions, much has been written about them, but they are unresolved within the Modern Orthodox world and I have views on these issues that I wanted to express just as another voice in the debate. In the case of one issue, Torah from Heaven, to which the longest chapter of the book is devoted, I do think that far too little attention has been given to it at least partly because of a lack of courage, and I want to encourage further discussion of it.

That’s not to say that the book covers every major unresolved issue in Modern Orthodoxy. Two particularly important areas not discussed in the book which will continue to be debated are attitudes to homosexuality and attitudes to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.

Q: Why did you not decide to tackle those last two particularly given how contested those debates are within the broader Jewish community? Are we not crying out for some intellectual leadership on those issues?

A: As Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, famously says: “lo alecha hamelacha ligmor”  –  one person can’t be expected to do the whole job! I honestly don’t think I’m qualified to deal with every major issue facing Modern Orthodoxy – I feel confident only to try and contribute to the debate on some of the issues. I find the issue of homosexuality particularly difficult to deal with adequately from a Modern Orthodox perspective and am still struggling with and thinking about it. My colleague Rabbi Chaim Rapoport wrote a very good book about Orthodoxy and homosexuality a decade ago – I don’t think it’s the last word on the subject but it’s a very helpful contribution to the debate. Regarding Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox denominations, actually I wonder if, especially in the UK context, we need not so much intellectual as practical leadership. That I have tried to play a part in by attending Limmud Conferences over the last two decades and engaging in public dialogue with non-Orthodox rabbis in different forums.

Q: Courage is clearly one of the abiding themes of the book, as its title suggests. Why, in your opinion, has courage been so lacking on the issue of Torah from Heaven and how would you characterise the view you take in the book?

A: I think that Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, has tended to shy away from the issue of Torah from Heaven for at least two reasons: 1) The theological stakes are very high, as the idea of Torah as Divine Revelation is one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism; 2) Attacks on the idea of “Torah from Heaven” are rooted in parts of the academic world and in disciplines and vocabularies which are utterly foreign to the vast majority of the Orthodox world and which most Orthodox rabbinic scholars and leaders are unable and unwilling to respond to. In the UK in particular, an additional factor is the spectre of the “Jacobs Affair” of the 1960s which still haunts Anglo-Jewry. I argue in the book that shying away from the issue is intellectually dishonest and no longer even feasible in today’s society in which we can access the conclusions of academic biblical criticism via a few clicks on Google. To try and summarise in one sentence the view I present in the book, it is that our tradition contains resources which can allow us to be both intellectually honest and to propound a view of Torah from Heaven which may be unconventional but is still Orthodox.

Q: What is your point of view on the role of women that you felt had not yet been adequately expressed elsewhere?

A: I don’t feel that there have been enough Orthodox rabbinic voices putting forward the view that feminism is essentially a positive phenomenon, that all kinds of apologetics are problematic and that male and female halakhic scholars need to work to develop the Halakhah as it pertains to women in a way which is substantial but which is also gradual, responsible and faithful to the halakhic process. There have been enormous positive developments in women’s roles and opportunities within Orthodoxy in the last few decades and I believe that there are many more to come. The momentum is unstoppable and I welcome that fact.

Q: Modern orthodoxy can be reticent on messianic matters compared to Haredi Orthodoxy. What kind of messianic future does your book suggest should we might look forward to?

A: I suggest that Modern Orthodoxy should anticipate a messianic future in which international peace and economic prosperity reign and all human beings are treated with dignity. This may sound like stating the obvious, but there are strands in our messianic tradition, often responding to terrible anti-Semitic persecutions in the Middle Ages, which perceive the messianic era as a time of Jewish supremacy and even revenge. We need to side with and promote the ethical voices in Jewish messianic thought.

The last point touches on an overall theme of the book. The Jewish tradition we have been privileged to inherit is a very long, complex and rich one. It is no surprise, therefore, that on a wide range of major issues it contains different strands and opinions. Sometimes there is no alternative but to promote (or ‘privilege’, as philosophers would say) one strand over another.