American Orthodoxy

The State of the Conversation

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Editors’ Note: The Orthodox Union’s recent statement regarding professional roles for women in Orthodox synagogues has sparked heated debate for the sake of heaven. In the hopes of contributing to that ongoing conversation, Lehrhaus has convened a symposium to reflect upon the statement. Over the course of the next week we will post further installments, so please check back frequently. Each contribution will contain links to the other pieces in the symposium.

Symposium Contributions: Sara WolkenfeldTzvi SinenskyShmuel WiniarzLeah SarnaRivka Press SchwartzMatt ReingoldLaura Shaw FrankChaim TwerskiChaim Trachtman,  Shayna GoldbergShaul RobinsonTodd BermanJeffrey FoxElli FischerJeffrey WoolfZev Eleff & Ari Lamm

Zev Eleff and Ari Lamm

On January 21, 1997, 62 members of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens met at a Forest Hills restaurant. The group convened in response to a query submitted by the principal of the Yeshiva of Central Queens. Rabbi Aaron Brander and members of the school’s parent body were deeply concerned about the contents of a bat mitzvah invitation circulating among seventh graders. The note invited the girl’s friends to join her at a women’s prayer group where the young lady would be “called to the Torah to read.” Parents had asked the YCQ head of school whether their daughters were permitted to attend this quasi-halakhic service. So Rabbi Brander submitted the question to the local rabbinical council.

The 12-year-old girl’s rabbi defended the practice. Rabbi Simcha Krauss, then of the Young Israel of Hillcrest, lectured the Vaad that there was nothing wrong with the ritual, so long as the women’s group omitted all parts of prayer that could only be recited among a minyan of at least ten men. Rabbi Dale Polakoff of Great Neck Synagogue articulated the same position, but to little avail.

Some members of the Vaad offered Rabbi Krauss his due respect as a sober halakhist. But with some finesse, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld and other prominent rabbis explained that they preferred the more stringent position penned more than a decade earlier by five leading Yeshiva University scholars. In this manner, the Vaad politely implied to Rabbi Krauss that he was outranked. According to a Long Island Jewish weekly, one far-less-civil member of the group reportedly said before the vote about Rabbi Krauss and the bat mitzvah supporters: “This is what happens when you let women learn Talmud.”

For today’s Modern Orthodox community, this tale is all-too-believable. It’s a reminder that so much of our discourse centers almost exclusively on religious authority. Since then, other issues and politics have come into focus, but rabbinic power remains the looming matter. Our forums for debate have changed since then. However, the shape and tone of the conversation has remained more or less the same. The reason: Modern Orthodoxy has not yet demonstrated sufficient confidence to grapple with the big questions.

Now, more than ever, this will not do.

Causes and Commotions
The rest of the rabbis’ business that evening was predictable. Surely, the vote was unremarkable, given the rabbinic climate. Twelve members of the Vaad left the room to avoid implication. The vast majority of the remainder voted against prayer groups, just days before the scheduled bat mitzvah. Here is the official statement: “Following serious deliberations, the Vaad Harabonim of Queens has come to the conclusion that these practices are breaking the boundaries of Jewish tradition and are prohibited.”

Most members of the Vaad were confident in their decision, sure of the “Psak Din.” The rabbi of the Young Israel of Queens Valley feared that “today it’s in Rabbi Krauss’s community, tomorrow it could easily be in my own shul.” The practice needed to stop, they believed, even if halting it required harsh measures like this one. A few, like new Vaad member Rabbi Marc Penner, were taken aback (“I didn’t think it was a Psak,” he was quoted as saying. “I didn’t see the wording.”). Some decried supporters of women’s prayer groups as so-called Orthodox rabbis who aim to “trample over Mesoras Yisroel at every turn.” Most certainly, none could have been fully prepared for the discourse that ensued.

The commotion did not halt the bat mitzvah, which defenders were quick to point out took place outside of official religious spaces like the local synagogue or school. That the celebration took place anyway only further fueled the vitriol—on all sides. Then again, the issue at hand had much more to do with rabbinic authority than gender roles or bat mitzvah rituals. In response to the uproar, the Vaad explained that its decision comported with rabbinical sensibilities, in that it merely “relied on the prior work of highly regarded decisors of Jewish law.”

There was another byproduct of the Queens affair: it helped launch JOFA. One week after the Vaad issued its statement, the nascent Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance held its first public meeting. The organizers had published a modest number of conference programs, figuring that at most only a few hundred would attend the liberal Orthodox group’s convention. Instead, 700 women and men gathered at the New York convention, spurred by the rabbinical condemnations and invigorated by Blu Greenberg’s hope for a more egalitarian Orthodox Judaism.

The Modern Orthodox—represented by what many reduced to shorthand as “YU/RCA/OU”—did not respond. They were trapped in the precarious center, unable to appear too “right” or too “left.” This gave ample space to others. With great rancor, the Orthodox Right rattled their sabers. Their attacks mirrored the Queens’ Vaad. For instance, a writer in the Yated Ne’eman offered the following:

Some of the leaders of “Orthodox feminism” have declared that they [have] seen an unfair imbalance against women in some of the laws of the Torah itself, as for instance in Hilchos Gitten. Such statements are akin to rejecting the dvar HaShem. Some have made common cause with Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist feminists in such groups as the Women of the Wall. Such alliances demonstrate these leaders’ readiness to blur the lines in the service of their aim of changing Jewish norms and hence raise the questionability of their entire self-determination as “Orthodox.”

The agitation continued, as did interest in JOFA. In 1998, more than 2,000 attended the organization’s Second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. Of course, the Orthodox Right did not suffer much attrition. Their group was strong and theologically confident. Decades earlier, Rabbi Moshe Sherer and others invested heavily in Zeirei Agudath Israel (for boys) and Bnos Agudath Israel (for girls), rightly believing that this “secret weapon” would cultivate a new generation of committed and abiding Orthodox Jews.

Instead, it was the Modern Orthodox whose unofficial members filled the seats at JOFA and other similar conferences. For many rank-and-file Modern Orthodox Jews born in the Seventies and Eighties, this was their first chance to be a part of something ideologically fresh and religiously dynamic. The OU boasted a youth movement, but NCSY was predominantly—by this time anyway—interested in outreach rather than inreach. In the 1990s, Orthodox Judaism’s “centrist” groups had taken a mostly reactionary stance, and without a budding generation of young people prepared to take up their elders’ cause. Certainly, plenty of Modern Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders did not want their coreligionists to attend these meetings, but they had little currency or substance to dissuade them.

The Core Issue: Rabbinic Authority
The Queens episode sheds light on the role of religious authority in Modern Orthodox debates. Back then, and decades earlier, of course, polemicists used not-so-clandestine terms and phrases to inform interlocutors that they were unfit to weigh in on matters. Twenty years later, the conversation hasn’t changed much. Religious authority and, to a lesser extent, gender, remain the swirling undercurrents beneath the surface. Often, this materializes in a listing of present-day Modern Orthodox gedolim. If one made the unofficial list, then he (never she) was entitled to an opinion.

Was there ever an alternative? Modern Orthodoxy never featured a democratic system of halakhic decision making like the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. For a generation or two, it relied principally on one individual to decide on or to inspire policies. In the 1950s, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik assumed the mantle of chairman of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Halakhah Commission. His word was by and large happily accepted without question, to the chagrin of envelope-pushing agunah advocates like Rabbis Eliezer Berkovits and Emanuel Rackman, and interfaith-dialogue champions like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. Their efforts often positioned them on the fringes or even beyond the boundaries of Modern Orthodox Judaism.

It wasn’t in the spirit of American republicanism. But, it worked. For this reason, the sociologist Charles Liebman predicted in 1965 that the “future leader of the modern Orthodox world is likely to be Rabbi Soloveitchik’s successor to the chairmanship of [the] RCA’s Halakhah commission.” But ever since 1985, when the Rav retired, the RCA has never truly installed anyone in that position. Another of Liebman’s observations therefore merits closer attention:

The Rov may be the leader of modern Orthodoxy, but he is not really modern Orthodox. Modern Orthodoxy has yet to produce a leader from its own ranks because it still continues to acknowledge mastery of the Talmud as a qualification for leadership and yet has refused to endorse, even at Yeshiva University, a restructuring of talmudic education that would encourage bright, inquisitive minds which lack the fundamentalist position of the rashe yeshivot to undertake the many years of dedicated and arduous learning required to become a talmudic authority.

There is what to quibble over in Liebman’s assessment of the Rav. It is, however, worth acknowledging his prescience in assessing the future of the American Modern Orthodox: they would turn to select gedolim, even if they eschewed calling it that. Like the Orthodox Right, Modern Orthodox Judaism has preferred to place significantly greater power in the hands of roshei yeshiva than congregational rabbis. The OU’s recent rabbinical panel, for all intents and purposes, reflected this model.

From an historical standpoint, this preference is not unreasonable. In late 2006, historian Stuart Miller published a book exploring the relationship between the sages of the Talmud Yerushalmi and the broader Jewish community of that time. Miller noticed, as many had before, that most Talmudic rabbis clustered together in cities, while others spread out into more remote, rural communities. How did the rabbis concentrated in the centers of rabbinic learning relate to those rabbis in more out of the way villages? Miller observed:

It is striking that the interests assigned to village sages in the Yerushalmi are largely non-halakhic and exegetical … The distinction in the Yerushalmi between the rabbis of named urban settlements and the sages/rabbis who are associated with specific [rural villages] is, therefore, quite conspicuous. Even those who bear the title “rabbi” in the [villages] do not possess the authority of their urban counterparts … The urban counterparts of these rabbis acknowledge the expertise of the village sages in understanding Scripture, but they do not yield when it comes to authority over halakhah.

Miller certainly wasn’t writing with intra-Orthodox polemics in mind. But a serious person interested in such things can’t help but notice the ancient parallels to modern struggles between roshei yeshiva in the center and congregational rabbis on the periphery. In fact only a few months before Miller, historian David Berger took stock of texts “from the Talmud to Maimonides to Nahmanides to the Sefer ha-Hinnukh to Mikhtav me-Eliyyahu of Rabbi Eliyyahu Dessler,” concluding:

[M]y overall impression is that the evidence militates against the most extreme version of da’at Torah in vogue in certain haredi circles, but it also points in the direction of a greater degree of deference to rabbinic authority than some of the more liberal elements of Modern Orthodoxy are prepared to acknowledge.

In a broad sense, then, perhaps history might vindicate the Modern Orthodox establishment’s predilection for more rather than less centralization of authority. At the very least, there might be an appropriate balance to strike.

But there’s another side to this story. The contrasts between center and periphery, or greater and lesser halakhic expertise, may be important considerations in determining who may claim rabbinic authority. So might geography, in the form of minhag ha-makom or the concept of a mara de-atra. But what about ideological affinity? Many concerned observers wanted their own ‘gedolim’ to have a say in the OU’s policy making. They worry that their modern spirits have not adequately (or at all) been represented in the process. The halakhic system does indeed appear to take these sorts of factors into account.

These are valid concerns, certainly worth a conversation. After all, halakhah has a lot to say about change and modernity. In a recent essay acknowledging—while still critiquing—such concerns, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder outlined an entire fourfold typology of halakhic change. However, the Modern Orthodox community by and large has not yet figured out how properly to negotiate this issue in a consistent, sophisticated manner.

The status quo therefore persists. In all probability, the decades-long reticence to tackle the matter of halakhic change head on has had something to do with complacency. More than that, though, this issue has been too freighted, too delicate to handle. Instead, the Modern Orthodox doubled down on the question of Orthodox rabbinic authority, hoping that someone of the rabbinic caliber of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein or Rabbi Hershel Schachter (full disclosure, our teacher), would emerge from among the ranks of younger generations to take on the more profound questions.

Shoddy Scholarship and Name Calling
In the meantime, the Modern Orthodox leadership has not stayed out in front of the public discourse. On the whole, leadership among Modern Orthodoxy’s old guard stays silent, breaking that stance when provoked to react. In their place, for several years, the Yated and other like-minded organs regularly blast the so-called Open Orthodox Movement, assuming that role on the grounds that those in the “center” refuse to respond.

The Digital Age has made this absenteeism apparent. Beyond that, the Internet has not changed the condition of the conversation all that much. The chief accomplishment of blogs like Times of Israel, for instance, has been in removing the level-headed editorial board. This has democratized the conversation, enabling anyone with an opinion and an inclination to express themselves. On occasion, this has lent a platform to enriching voices that might otherwise get left out of the conversation. Most often, though, it has empowered unchecked and unhinged editorialism.

Most attacks still center on authority. It cuts both ways, of course. In 2015, one renowned member of the Orthodox Right in Chicago devoted an entire night of Shavuot learning to expounding why the “modernists” are not entitled to an opinion. Then two years later, in nearby Skokie, an outspoken lay leader argued that not every authority figure is sufficiently “modern” to issue rulings for the Modern Orthodox community.

Sometimes, the conversation moves in other perplexing directions. For example, recent events have reawakened the rightist polemicists who resort to shoddy scholarship in excommunicating rabbis and organizations from Orthodox Judaism. This is, of course, far from innovative. Almost 30 years ago, a prominent rabbinical scholar declared that Maimonides prohibited the study of any text whose content violated one of his principles of faith. The trouble is, as historian Marc Shapiro noted, for moderns to follow such a policy in practice would rule out many of our most revered Rishonim. Moreover, even for scholars willing to accept Maimonides’ principles as a baseline requirement for Jewish thinkers, Maimonides himself—as scholars Lawrence Kaplan and David Berger pointed out—certainly did not adhere to any such prohibition on reading principle-violating texts. Nevertheless, cantankerous Orthodox exponents have in recent years composed lengthy essays and book-size treatments featuring just this sort of argument.

Or, consider a 2015 essay that attempted to define the crucial but elusive term “mesorah.” The author designed a thought-experiment: imagine a community holding a vote on whether or not to adorn its synagogue with pictures of professional athletes and comic book superheroes. The only bulwark against such an artistic intrusion into the synagogue’s precincts, the author suggested, would be “one word: Mesorah (Tradition).” After all, claimed the author, “Never for a moment would any shul be decorated” in such a fashion, and such a uniform historical consensus must itself be of halakhic relevance.

Whatever the argument’s substantive and procedural merits might be, there’s a problem: the historical record actually reveals the opposite reality. Many of the earliest synagogues in the Land of Israel were in fact decorated with images of foreign deities, including Helios, the Greek sun god. Moreover, the evidence suggests that this did not trouble Hazal.

The same goes for eccentric and whimsical biblical commentary. The hard-and-fast rule to refrain from criticism of biblical personalities and to censor far-fetched, bordering-upon-psychoanalytic explanations of biblical narratives would leave the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Nahmanides, Neziv, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Hasid and most hasidic commentators outside of the Orthodox canon. The Ponevezh Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Elazar Shach, took this position when he prohibited his followers to read the Rav’s writings. But this approach certainly cannot be a tenable one for our community.

At the same time the Orthodox Left have done themselves little favors in this public back-and-forth. Its rabbinic leaders have staked philological claims about rabbinic literature—in one prominent case, the meaning of the phrase “aval ameru hakhamim”—that do not hold together. More conspicuously, its proponents abandon the seriousness that a proper dialogue deserves by issuing outlandish claims about the restoration of the Temple and resorting to dubious analytical categories (“Rav Soloveitchik himself was a Haredi, who combined that ideology with religious Zionism and tried very hard to give it a place in the world of philosophy and modernity”) to point out the challenge of carrying Rabbi Soloveitchik’s vision into the twenty-first century.

To be sure, there is no reason to assume these, or any other such position for that matter, represent the views of the majority affiliated with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the school most associated with the Orthodox Left. Several of the school’s graduates have publicly repudiated the sensationalism. In other contexts, some felt sufficiently compelled to issue a formal statement regarding their commitment to essential Orthodox tenets. However, these views too often go unheard amid the more provocative proclamations.

Sadly, proactive Modern Orthodox voices are largely missing. It’s a longstanding and irresponsible trend that we can longer afford to tolerate. The right individuals need to be leading the charge, ones who can provide an honest accounting of the sources, Judaism’s greatest gift to its people. It may well be that the current cast of rabbinic leaders—many, better pastors than scholars—needs to place greater trust in an emerging generation to speak up. No matter what, the discourse must be sincere and carried out without cynicism and sensationalism.

Moving Forward
In large measure, Modern Orthodox institutions lack the currency and credibility to call everyone to order and take stock of the current situation. The Orthodox Union’s decision to launch a rabbinic panel to address the matter of women’s ordination was an earnest effort to tackle a crucial issue in the Modern Orthodox community. Some have questioned the broadness of the committee. Others have wondered aloud if the document the panel produced was sufficiently clear. We submit that the panel’s statement was a very good start.

Yet it was a very late start, to say the least. The OU’s press release described the recent statement as “unprecedented.” It certainly was. For so many years, Modern Orthodox Judaism’s leaders have refused to comment and weigh in on the big questions.

The neglect has been costly. Consider two events that took place in New York on January 15, 2017. JOFA’s ninth annual conference attracted 1,200 participants. The demographics at the Manhattan event trended young. A minimal number of organizers recruited many high school students and college-age Orthodox Jews. On that very day, the Orthodox Union’s “Torah in the City” program in Queens tallied 1,500 participants. The numbers were slightly higher, probably owing to a larger pool of potential attendees and more institutional resources from which to draw.

More important, though, is that the average age of the attendees at the OU event was much higher than its counterpart. We fear that Modern Orthodoxy is not reproducing itself at a necessary pace. No doubt, Rabbi Shaul Robinson is correct that the OU needs to invest in educating and “enforcing everything that is positive and encouraging about its psak.” In addition, this organization and others need to give serious consideration to our “secret weapon:” raising up generations of Modern Orthodox Jews.

There’s hope. The rabbinic panel’s responsum might very well inspire a new direction for Modern Orthodox discourse. Its writers approached their task with sensitivity and nuance, even if the state of our communal conversation made this hard to see. They put forward arguments steeped in halakhah and considered thought. Certainly, it was much more than was offered by the Queens Vaad two decades ago. Still, not all of the recent decision is most agreeable—not to rabbis in the field, nor to people in the pews.

Nonetheless, the document has rejuvenated a conversation, a healthy one at that.

All of this explains the intentions of our forum’s symposium. As of this writing, thousands of readers have clicked on the fifteen essays included in the Lehrhaus symposium. The essays endeavored to move the conversation past the tired topics of religious authority and basic notions of gender and Judaism. We pray that they—and we—have achieved some success.

Of course, there’s much more to do. For Modern Orthodoxy’s sake, something has got to change. We’re ready.

[UPDATE: Paragraph on Maimonides edited for clarity]