An orthodoxy of its own

For the RCA, this is a defining moment.

January 19, 2016 21:04
American Jews

An American Jewish man praying . (photo credit: REUTERS)

With the ordination of a large cohort of Orthodox women, and resolutions by the Agudath Israel of America (Agudah) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) rejecting women’s ordination, Orthodox women’s leadership received renewed attention in 2015.

The press coverage included statements such as that of Rabba Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, one of the newly ordained women, who in a Haaretz op-ed wrote that, “The strength of our tradition has always rested on the ability of our leaders to meet the needs of their generation.

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I pray that the RCA will not make themselves irrelevant through their gravely out-of-touch pronouncements.”

And that of Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, who referring to the Agudah said, “I hope that over time, they’ll be convinced we are Orthodox.”

My question is, why? The persistence of many who combine orthodoxy with modernity to cling to the “religious” label, contrasting themselves with “secular” Jews as though it were by virtue of their still “Orthodox” identities that their practices are legitimized, is one of the biggest problems facing Open Orthodoxy. Far too many in the Modern Orthodox community get sucked into the psychology of simply toeing what they have been manipulated into accepting as “the religious line.” Its past time they stepped out of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) shadow, and stood on their own theological feet.

From the ordination of rabbot, to conversion, marriage, the administration of holy sites, and other topics, time and again the haredi establishment adds extra-halachic terms to the bureaucratic mechanisms in their charge. These are not expressions of Halacha but of misguided reactionary rejections of modern unknowns.

In his memoir about life as a Skverer Hassid, Shulem Deen describes a world of sometimes unwanted marriages, systematic corporal punishment in schools, vigilante attacks against those suspected of “abominations” such as listening to a radio, reading secular magazines, and other horrors.

A haredi lifestyle is not something to aspire toward. As a practitioner of Modern Orthodoxy, I consider many systematic haredi practices to be violations of halacha.

Examples include the abuse of government programs intended to help the underprivileged; the rabbi worship found not only in Lubavitch and Breslav communities but in others as well; the unwillingness to participate in the halachic imperative of self-defense; the failure to accept, and even the abuse of halachic converts; and the prevalence of violence and intimidation as a means of coercing others.

My legitimacy does not depend on being accepted by those who commit such sins, or their apologists. Contrary to the way Modern Orthodoxy is often perceived, I do not consider myself a theologically haredi Jew who is “just not religious enough.” What I subscribe to is something different altogether.

I certainly have friends and relatives who are far from me on the religious spectrum, to the Right and Left.

Theological, ideological and political divisions should not become personal, but the RCA and the Agudah are not social clubs. They are theological associations.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, the executive vice president of the RCA said that his “hope is that [the rabbot resolutions] should not be a point of separation” that would “create an unbreachable divide.” But Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of ITIM, was quoted by the Post calling the RCA’s October resolution rejecting women’s ordination a “PR stunt by the right-wing membership of the RCA in order to further deepen the dividing lines among orthodoxy.”

Rather than being a precedent-setting statement, the resolution is a repetition of previously passed material reasserted out of a need among agitators, who represent enough of the RCA to repeatedly garner a majority in voting, to continue expressing their extra-halachic rejection of rabbot.

As Chief Rabbi of Efrat Shlomo Riskin told the Post, the resolution “makes no sense halachically since they accept yoatzot halacha. That’s why it seems to be a political decision and not one based on Halacha.”

Meira Welt-Maarek, a graduate of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership, a program overseen by Riskin that uses a curriculum through which men are ordained, elucidated, “A halachic argument has a textual frame of reference and they have none, it’s just an opinion which creates divisions.”

Riskin summarized the halachic argument supporting rabbot, saying, “There is no question whatsoever that throughout the generations women have often provided halachic and spiritual leadership as is shown from...

Deborah the judge, [to] Bruriah... to the rulings of major halachic decisors of today including former chief rabbi [Eliyahu] Bakshi-Doron, that state that women can become... the gedolei ha’dor... provid[ing] rulings for halachic direction.”

Despite my disagreement, I respect the fact that others are as intent on following what they believe to be God’s law as I am on following what I believe it to be. We have arrived at some machlokot leshem shamayim (arguments for the sake of Heaven) about what God requires of us that are fundamental enough to necessitate a realignment of our identities.

The belief that the acceptance of rabbot (among the topics over which Orthodoxy is dividing) is a deviation from God’s law leads those who hold it to attempt to discredit and remove from their ranks rabbis and institutions that accept such practices.

For the RCA, this is a defining moment. They have traditionally been viewed as mainstream within Orthodoxy, but when they replace halachic considerations with prejudice they give up their legitimacy and might as well join the more conservative Agudah. As they agitate in that direction, 2016 should see more of their moderate members stop lending their names to an organization whose majority seems intent, not just on voicing its disagreements, but as those stands are publicly repeated with increasing aggression, it seems that it is coming to the sin of attempting public humiliation.

The author holds a degree in political science. After leaving the Conservative Movement where he grew up he affiliated with haredi-led institutions but has since gravitated to the liberal-most wing of Modern Orthodoxy.

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