An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Rabbi carries Torah scrolls as others dance during Simhat Torah celebrations in a synagogue in Bnei Brak.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Consider an astounding pattern that has appeared over and over again in recent Jewish experience. Individuals or groups advocate radical change in Jewish tradition and then have the temerity to deride those who simply refuse to accept their unilateral “suggestions.”
Until now, this phenomenon has primarily been evidenced in interdenominational debates. Today, however, it is clearly occurring within the Orthodox community, as adherents of “open orthodoxy” move to unilaterally challenge the boundaries of Jewish practice and then publicly attack those unwilling to follow their lead as out of touch, misguided and obstinate.
Baruch Stein’s recent op-ed in the pages of this paper is a classic example of this disingenuous pattern of attack. Through an amalgam of disconnected quotes, statements, inaccurate comparisons and half-truths, Stein proceeds to make a case against the Rabbinical Council of America, Agudath Israel and others for failing to fall in line with the drive toward modernization of Jewish practice. Quoting a series of clearly partisan sources, including Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Chovevei Torah, the flagship seminary of the Open Orthodox community; Rabba Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, one of the “newly ordained women”; Meira-Welt Maarek, a graduate of the Susi Bradfield Institute for Halachic Leadership; and Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Stein makes the case that the RCA’s rejection of the ordination of women and other halachic changes “is extra-halachic,” lacks a textual frame of reference and is, in fact, “PR stunt by the rightwing membership of the RCA in order to further deepen the dividing lines among orthodoxy.”
Absent in Stein’s piece is the admission that many of these changes are based upon minority opinions within the halachic world and that the majority of Modern Orthodox decisors in America reject these changes at this time. Absent is any recognition of the real possibility that the “divisions” in the Orthodox community today are deliberately being created by the very groups pushing the envelope of change, with full cognizance that their advocated policies will not be accepted by many. Absent is the honest acknowledgment of the use of these familiar tactics: create unilateral change and then attack those who fail to fall in line.
Absent, as well, is any acknowledgment of the complexities involved; complexities notably evident in the complete positions of the same authorities whom Stein chooses to selectively quote.
Rabbi Riskin, for example, cited by Stein as an advocate for change in women’s role in orthodoxy, himself opposes the full ordination of women as rabbis. In a recent letter to members of the RCA leadership, Rabbi Riskin wrote: “We do not wish our women [graduates] to use the title of Rabbi or Rabbah, especially because the Synagogue is largely devoted to Communal Prayer and Communal Torah Reading, two areas in which women may not serve in the capacity of ba’alot tefillah [leaders of the prayer service] and ba’alot keriyah [Torah readers]; neither may they be Assistant or Associate Rabbis, who may be called upon as the sole religious leader in the absence of the official Synagogue Rabbi.”
Would Stein maintain that Rabbi Riskin is caving in to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world because of his opposition to full women rabbis? Even more egregious is Stein’s conflation of legitimate opposition to unilateral halachic change with the apparent acceptance of all sorts of horrible excesses, including, and I quote: unwanted marriages, systematic corporal punishment in schools, vigilante attacks on those suspected of listening to radio and reading secular magazines, the unwillingness to participate in the halachic imperative of self-defense, the abuse of halachic converts, the abuse of government programs intended to help the underprivileged, and more.
In Stein’s world black and white world, if you’re against women rabbis, you are guilty of all the above, because of “misguided rejections of modern unknowns.”
In a recent column in another forum, I bemoaned the looming split (some would say the already irrevocable split) in the Modern Orthodox world. What makes this split even more devastating, I argued, is that it didn’t/doesn’t have to be.
Much positive movement is already taking place in the Modern Orthodox community in the areas deemed critical by proponents of change today.
Increased Jewish education and the creation of appropriate leadership roles for women; resolutions concerning ethics within the Jewish community; studies of the conversion process and advocacy on behalf of halachic converts; discussions of greater inclusion into the Orthodox community and more are all unfolding in many forums and settings.
Halachic change can be prodded, but it must eventually occur through evolution and consensus, so that our Judaism will be recognizable as the Judaism of our grandparents and our children’s Judaism will be recognizable as our own. The mandate of every Jewish generation is to fashion a critical balance: a Judaism that enfranchises as many of the generation as possible, yet remains true to the traditions of our people. That balance can only be struck through honest, thoughtful discussion and debate – not through simplistic and unwarranted accusation and attack.
In the final analysis, there is something that Stein and I can agree upon: he claims that now is the time for the RCA “to take a stand.” I agree. The parameters of that “stand,” however, will be determined both by halachic guidelines and by the approach of those around us. If the proponents of “change” are willing to work together in mapping the path of modern orthodoxy towards the future, guided by Halacha and halachic process, they will find many willing partners within the RCA. If their expectation is, however, that change can be determined by minority opinion and summarily mandated and forced upon orthodoxy, they will indeed find that the RCA “will take a stand.” In the judgment of history, the resultant split within the Orthodox community will be on their ledger, not ours.
The author has served as rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, for over three decades. He is past president of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently chairman of its review committee on conversions. His articles have appeared in The Jerusalem Post and numerous other publications.
He is the author of the five-volume set “Unlocking the Torah Text,” and has lectured widely across the globe.