Rethinking Rabbinic Authority

Published January 19, 2018 by Lea Taragin-Zeller

Lea Taragin-Zeller reflects on religious authority in contemporary Judaism and explores the connections between ethical freedom, religious consultation and intimate decision making.

I visit Rachel, a well-respected Bais Yaakov seminary teacher, at her home on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As I knock on the door, I can see various faded stickers on it. I walk into the house. Rachel is praying and signals to wait until she finishes. I look for a place to sit. I move the laundry aside and look at the voluminous library right in front of me. Rachel comes back into the room. "Is it ok that I cook while we talk?" We enter the kitchen and start chopping vegetables. She tells me how her dreams were fulfilled when she married a Torah scholar. "It all happened so quickly, I remember those years as a blur". She starts. "I got pregnant immediately. Child after child. Boy after boy. Finally, I had a girl. I was so happy. Now I have someone to help me", she says smiling. We move on with the story. Pregnancies are very hard for her each time. She stops. I am sure she is about to tell me how she decided enough is enough but she surprises me. "I am debating if I should have another one". At age 41, 11 children… I was sure she was done. But she goes on. "It is so hard. I have been teaching at the seminary and also offering individual classes to other women. I struggle to maintain a household, care for the kids and also teach. I am not sure – who am I supposed to contribute to? My family or my students? I am not sure. I think I will go and see my Rabbi soon." "Soon?" I ask her. "I need him to decide for me". She grins at me and adds – "But I will decide when to ask him. You see, I have to be ready to accept his opinion".

This vignette demonstrates one of my encounters with religious consultation regarding birth-control during fieldwork conducted in Israel (between 2012-2016). As I went deeper into the study of reproduction and religion, I found that religious consultation is a central practice in the decision making of modern-Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Whether engaging in face-to-face encounters or posting questions anonymously on-line, orthodox Jews were asking for guidance about many aspects of their lives. Should a newlywed couple have a child immediately or finish their studies first? Can they take a break after having three children? What types of contraception are permitted? The question I kept asking myself was: How could people put such weighty decisions in the hands of others however knowledgeable and divine-inspired as they might be? As an anthropologist the task I set out to explore was "how sensible, reasonable people who live in more or less the same evidential world as the sceptic" (Luhrmann, 2012, p. xvi) learn how to engage in practices that sceptical seculars would call problematic (at the very least)?

This was not an easy task. As I struggled to make sense of this phenomena, I realised I was used to thinking about religious authority in black and white terms. Further, as scholars, human rights activists and NGO's deem religious authority as a synonym for power and oppression, authority is usually considered troubling, unethical and at times, dangerous. Hannah Arendt (Arendt, 1956) describes how authority has come to be confused with coercion. She explains how underlying assumptions that characterize liberal thought have created a difficulty to distinguish between the two. Namely, the idea that a true self must be a free self, and that freedom is to follow inspirations that originate (solely) in one's self, automatically turn any mode of willing obedience into a paradox.

During my fieldwork, however, I found many shades of grey, continuously challenging the customary binary between ethical freedom and authority. I found that many Orthodox Jews engage in religious consultation as they question the high-fertility norms that are customary in their communities (rooted in a hyper-idealized context of national and religious reproduction). I listened as couples described how during a time of uncertainty, rabbis offer a "kosher" and legitimate space to discuss some of their most intimate struggles. Drawing on these insights, my findings reveal that as they rethink fertility norms, religious consultation serves as an essential practice in the formation of Israeli Jews ethical selves.

It is easy to dismiss these findings and claim that Rabbi's should have nothing to do with the bedroom. However, I found that couples were actively creating individualized and nuanced practices to engage with rabbinic authorities. As Rachel, whose story I described above, put it: "I need him to decide for me, but I will decide when to ask him. You see, I have to be ready to accept his opinion". Intrigued by this creative practise, I wonder – What theoretical tools can be used to think about religious authority while taking into account the creativity these practices entail? My attention to this phenomenon is also inspired by Hussein Ali Agrama (2010) and Morgan Clarke (2012) who have described similar practices among various Muslim communities. This, of course, reminds us that this phenomenon is not only a Jewish one. What, then, can we learn about religious authority while engaging in a comparative perspective?

At the end of this month, I am co-convening an inter-disciplinary academic workshop dedicated to these questions: "Ask a Rabbi/Ask a Mufti: Rethinking Religious Authority in Judaism and Islam". This workshop is an attempt to create a conversation between anthropological (Agrama, 2010; Caplan & Stadler, 2009; Clarke, 2009; Ivry, 2010) and socio-legal perspectives (Baudouin Dupret, 2012 and Rosemary Hunter, 2010, John Bowen, 2010, Marie-Claire Foblets, 2012) regarding religious authority in everyday Judaism and Islam. By bringing together a broad range of scholars we will begin an inter-disciplinary dialogue about religious authority. During this workshop we will identify common core principles (Scott, 2015) and encourage cross-cultural perspectives as we address the similar and different historical, social, cultural and political factors that have created two different models of religious authority (Agrama, 2010; Clarke, 2012, Amira Sonbol, 2015). Using this comparative perspective, we will strive to find a nuanced language to explore the ever-changing face(s) of religious authority.

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