Torah Sociology: Dati Torani and Dati Liberal - Is Dialogue Desirable?

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The recent, bitter, pre-election, rabbinic arguments in the national religious camp raises the question of whether a halakhic dialogue between rabbis of contrasting social outlooks is either possible, or beneficial. When discussing this issue with rabbis with whom I am close, I was surprised to discover a range of sharp, conflicting opinions. This article uses social science concepts to analyze the issue, and concludes that   public, rabbinic halakhic discussion on social dilemmas will help our sector better cope with these challenges.

Defining national religious, Torani and liberal rabbinic social philosophies

The media uses various terms such as chardalknik, Torani, liberal, neo-Conservative, and dati lite to label the poles of rabbinic opinion. Such terms tend to be judgmental, and sometimes pejorative, and usually reflect the social preferences of the writer. In reality, rabbinic halakhic opinion, like laymen halakhic behavior, is an ongoing spectrum that does not always embody firm ideological camps. However, social science analysis suggests that we can more effectively analyze the sociology of rabbinic halakhic opinions by theoretically creating two contrasting archetypical models based on concepts taken from social philosophy. Employing the social philosophy of Leo Strauss we will define two models of halakhic opinion: traditional as opposed to liberal, halakhic social outlooks.

Strauss defines a liberal social outlook as one that gives prominence to individual self choice, creativity and development. It is willing to change or compromise traditional, social precedent - in this case longstanding accepted Orthodox practice - so as to complement current, socially changing individual needs and preferences. In contrast, Strauss defines a conservative social outlook as one that gives preference to traditional, Torah and halakhic precedents by Torah sages, one that opposes allowing changing social circumstances to bring about adaptation of halakha , and one that gives lower priority to individual desires, although those are taken into account, when they are in conflict with overall communal and national welfare. In this article national religious rabbis positing a conservative social outlook will be termed 'traditional-Torani' because of the overriding importance that they grant to traditional, halakhic precedent and practice in the present and the long term, and national religious rabbis positing a liberal social outlook will be termed 'dati-liberal' because of the importance that they give to individual self fulfillment and creativity over traditional halakhic norms.

Differing conservative-Torani and dati-liberal perspectives on coexisting with secular modernity

These differing social philosophies are often reflected in differing attitudes to secular society.   The dati-liberal rabbinate generally looks favorably on secular, liberal modernity, recognizing within it many positive values and traits, while admitting the problematic nature of liberal, secular attitudes to modesty, relationships between the sexes as well as family and couple intimacy, for example.  Dati- liberal rabbis thus try in their rulings to bridge the gap between the halakha and the social realities of modernity. Particularly in the area of the role of women, they try to make the halalha more amenable to every day secular life. The discussions of the rabbis of Beit Hillel are the foremost example of a liberal rabbinic social outlook. They encourage trends of religious women serving in the army, despite the halakhically-based prohibition of the Chief Rabbinate,  increasing feminine involvement in synagogue worship and liberalizing the process of conversion.

In contrast, rabbis with a traditional-Torani social outlook see a great tension, if not contradiction, between the basic social values and institutions of the Torah and those of today's super liberal and permissive secular society.  They believe that their halakhic rulings must be firmly based on traditional, halakhic precedent which they feel has preserved normative Jewish society. They see their major educational purpose as one of defending the institutions of Torah study, and Torah based family-community life, against the onslaughts of secular society. Given the dangers of secular life, they encourage the national religious sector to develop a social-communal life distinct from that of secular society. The foremost examples of a traditional Torani, rabbinic social outlook are the rabbis connected to the neo-hassidic dati leumi yeshivot, and the rabbis that identify with the teachings of Merkaz Ha Rav, and Har Hamor yeshivot.

The arguments of Traditional-Torani rabbis against a rabbinic dialogue

The rabbis that I confide in, and to whom I turn for my Torah education and halakhic rulings, definitely hold a traditional-Torani  rabbinic social outlook. However I was shocked, and even pained, when I recently discovered that they feel that a rabbinic liberal-Torani social outlook dialogue on halakha and current, social dilemmas is likely to be non-productive, misleading and even dangerous.

By dialogue I mean rabbis appearing together and exchanging Torah-oriented social views in educational forums or seminars, and in newspapers, journals, and internet sites, and over the air waves. I first encountered the reluctance of Torani rabbis to dialogue when my beloved beit midrash teacher insisted that the national religious sector's most popular weekend newspaper (which does not wish to be considered a religious newspaper) be boycotted because of its overly liberal, and non and sometimes anti-halakhic content and viewpoints. When privately meeting with him and suggesting that it would be better to submit articles and present the Torani view in a substantive, articulate manner, he disagreed. He said, "in parenting, and in close informal, interpersonal relations we have to be pluralistic, empathetic and accepting of divergent social opinions and behavior. But we, traditional, Torah-true rabbis, find ourselves now in ideological combat with liberal rabbis, and boycotting is a legitimate tactic in ideological conflict."

Very disturbed, I then had a meeting with three basically conservative-Torani rabbis with whom I am very close for many years (my settlement rabbi, and two religious dayanim and halachic researchers), and they told me basically the same thing. Their arguments were a) open halachic dialogues are frequently unproductive, and quickly turn into bitter debates with neither side truly listening nor learning from the other.  b) liberal rabbis are usually inferior in the depth of, and in their existential commitment to, Torah learning c) certain liberal rabbis are not sufficiently G-d fearing, being overly influenced by secular culture d) a public dialogue grants underserved, halachic legitimacy to the liberal viewpoint e) and therefore, a public dialogue can create the dangerous illusion in the audience that one is free to choose between two, equally legitimate, halachic opinions.

The reasons that do justify a traditional-Torani and dati-liberal rabbinic dialogue

I happily and lovingly try to accept the halakhic opinions of theses rabbis in my private life. However, I believe that their position regarding a more public dialogue with dati liberal rabbis is somewhat flawed for both personal and educational-sociological reasons.

Personally, G-d has created within me a very pluralistic soul. This is probably because I grew up not religious, have a very deep, ongoing relationship with my very assimilated siblings in America, became observant forty years ago basically through a personal search outside the direct influence of any yeshiva or religious mentor, worked forty years as a social worker, spent many fruitful years teaching and writing in academia, and still enjoy and find stimulating many areas of the social and liberal arts (trying to enjoy and learn from them through the eyes and the ears of the Torah). The pluralistic soul thus formed just cannot "swallow" the idea that dialoguing –even in the area of religious law- cannot be beneficial.

Second, in the long run, refusing to massively advocate and teach the traditional social outlook, halakhic viewpoint in a public forum is most likely an educationally strategic mistake. Eighty percent of the national religious sector is neither ideologically liberal nor traditional. They simply are sincerely struggling, in their families, communities and work places, to cope with the dilemmas of simultaneously living the Torah social world and the secular social world at the same time. This is a daily, bewildering personal struggle. And they welcome ongoing, empathetic, educational religious guidance regarding not only how to survive, but also how to personally flourish, when experiencing two contrasting social worlds at the same time.

Most of our current younger generation wants to 'bond' with the Torah, more than it wants to 'obey' the Torah. It does not feel comfortable accepting halakhic decisions solely on the basis of rabbinic authority, always a foundation of Orthodox society from the earliest times, and for which attitude it is criticized and looked down on by the hareidi sector . Thus, for example, on issues of the halakhic role of women, it is not religiously, educationally sufficient to show that 95% of all rabbinic legal precedents oppose women serving in the army, or acting in rabbinic leadership roles. Such  rabbinic positions must be taught combining halakhic precedent, together with sociological and psychological analysis. Much of the generation will sympathetically listen to Torani rabbinic halalhic positions if these positions are explained in a manner that pays attention and respects the social dilemmas that our younger generation is experiencing.

Technically, Torani rabbis can teach halakha in a psycho-social sensitive manner while remaining in their own beit midrash and conversing with their own students, and not bothering to engage in public dialogue with dati- liberal rabbis. The disadvantage is that they will reach a small audience, and relegate the contested playing field to the liberal camp. Tradotonal-Torani rabbis today have to reach beyond parochial forums. Sharing the internet, radio and newspapers with dati liberal rabbis is an effective way to bring the conservative, social outlook halakhic position to a wider audience.

Although the Rabbanei Emunah actiivist group of traditional-Torani young rabbis does write and appear in the media in order to counter liberal-rabbinic arguments, it does not debate with these rabbis, rather it speaks after they have finished making their point, because it does not wish to recognize the liberal-rabbis as being on equal halakhic footing.

However, by refusing to openly dialogue with liberal rabbis they are not, in practice, denying them legitimacy in the eyes of the national religious public; they are simply leaving the dati-liberal rabbinate without enough of a suitable opponent on the playing field. The openness of the internet has made obsolete the argument that, "I will bestow legitimacy on liberal social outlook halakhic positions by publically debating with them". For better or worse, the internet has created instant, relativistic legitimacy.


The conservative, Torani halakhic position on social issues is a very "marketable" product. We simply have to get up from our chairs and present it in a manner that combines halakhic precedent with psychological and social analysis. Dialoguing with dati- liberal rabbis is nothing of which to be afraid.  In proper circumstances, it can be a very significant way to reach the general national religious public.   

More Arutz Sheva videos: