The Battle Over Orthodoxy

A struggle is on between those who wish to minimize the ideological spectrum of Orthodoxy and the modernizers who wish to push the boundaries.

Satmar Hasidim in the Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue in the town of Kiryas Joel, New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
Satmar Hasidim in the Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue in the town of Kiryas Joel, New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Postmodernism’s disdain for absolute truths notwithstanding, Orthodoxy is a surprisingly vibrant force in 21st century Judaism. The burning question is how to delineate the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism.
Judaism is tribal, fragmented and heterodox.
There is no agreement on who is a Jew, what Judaism demands of its adherents, or even what constitutes apostasy. Does playing golf on Shabbat or skepticism about divine reward and retribution rob someone of their Jewishness? Most Jews would say no, according to the Pew Research center.
Sectarian divisions between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism are nothing new. According to the Pew Research Center, of the roughly 5.4 million Jews in the U.S., 35 percent are Reform, 18 percent Conservative, 30 percent are “none of the above” (another six percent or so said they didn’t know) and 10 percent are Orthodox.
Yet, it is the flourishing minority Orthodox that appears ascendant. It may also be the branch of Judaism that is hardest to pigeonhole and the most unstructured. Unlike Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis or the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, no one clerical group guides Orthodox Judaism.
For all the problems they face, the Reform and Conservative movements enjoy organizational and – compared to Orthodoxy – theological coherence. While there is much religious cross-pollination among the Orthodox, the movement is fragmented among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Hasidic, and Mitnagid branches. They do not necessarily accept each other’s kashrut standards, approve of each other’s garb, or easily intermarry. The idea that there could be a single authorized Orthodox prayer book is risible.
Among the American Orthodox, 62 percent belong to Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) groups whose most telling characteristic is insularity – which itself runs the gamut, from thoroughly blinkered to hardly limited at all – and the remainder identify as modern Orthodox.
Overall, 84 percent of the Orthodox, compared to 27 percent of other Jews, say they mostly socialize with other Jewish people.
Sociologists see Orthodox Judaism as being on the rise because of its intellectual vibrancy and prodigious fertility rates. And yet, projecting what American Jewry in general might look like in 50 or 100 years is an iffy venture.
Certainly, 70 years ago anyone studying Jewish population figures might have concluded that the Orthodox stream in America was on its last legs. Its base was aging, numbers shrinking, and its Old-World philosophy unappealing to acculturating Jewish Americans, according to historian Howard Sachar.
Reform and Conservative seemed to be the wave of the future.
The Orthodox got a boost between 1947- 1952 when 100,000 Holocaust survivors were permitted to immigrate to the US. More would follow in the early 1960s. About half were from Hasidic backgrounds and led by charismatic rebbes.
As moral relativism replaced moral certainty in the public square, Orthodox Judaism – with its insistence on fundamental truths – nevertheless thrived.
Today, indeed, demographic trends seem to project a hopeful future for Orthodoxy. The median age of Orthodox adults is 40 years old compared to 52 for all others. Some 67 percent of Orthodox adults are married in contrast to 49 percent of other Jewish adults.
The average Orthodox family has 4.1 children versus 1.7 children (below the replacement rate) for the non-Orthodox, according to the Pew Research Center. The children of the Orthodox tend to receive a more solid religious education, are apt to be Jewishly literate, and are unlikely to marry out.
Overall, the Orthodox world seems to be shifting rightward socially and religiously.
There is greater emphasis on separating the sexes and ramping up – sometimes to what seems the point of absurdity – stringencies about food, culture and ritual. In the 1950s, for instance, ultra-Orthodox, non-Hasidic, rabbis sat with their wives at yeshiva fundraisers.
Now, Orthodox rabbis prefer gender- segregated dinners.
And yet, summing up what Orthodoxy stands for and where it is heading is not straightforward. Adam Ferziger, a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University and author of “Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism” has been calling attention to the many shades of Orthodoxy.
For instance, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS, (founded in 1886 and later to become part of Yeshiva University), once the flagship rabbinical academy of modern Orthodoxy, has taken a decidedly old-school turn. The pastoral role that once animated the modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi has been de-emphasized. These days, RIETS divinity students seem to be dressing in the monochrome clothing of Lithuanian Haredim, exchanging the crocheted yarmulke for the black felt variety, Ferziger tells The Jerusalem Report.
A recent letter writer to a British Haredi magazine bemoaned the numbers of young people showing up in synagogue sans black hats.
EVEN AS some of the “modern” are becoming “ultra,” Haredi elements are assuming characteristics previously the reserve of the modern Orthodox. Orthodox philanthropists have made significant investments in training Haredi-leaning rabbis in kiruv – recruiting non-Orthodox young people to the Orthodox way of life. They’ve financed the outreach activities of Chabad-Lubavitch, Aish HaTorah, and the Orthodox Union’s NCSY, among others, notes Ferziger.
Tactically, Haredi leaders normally committed to stringency and insularity have shown a willingness to allow designated and vetted rabbis to operate outreach programs without, for example, making a fuss over how strictly the sexes are separated during prayer or communal dining.
As it climbs, Orthodoxy finds itself pushed and pulled in opposing directions: Should it basically adhere to insularity and seek out the strictest possible approach to religious practice as the Haredim advocate, or should it pursue engagement with the gentile world and interpret Jewish law in as broadminded a manner that is compatible with Halakha, as perceived by the modern Orthodox? Modern Orthodoxy is emphatically not rooted in the idea of being less fussy about fulfilling Halakha. On basic theology, there is no difference between modern Orthodox and Haredi Judaism. Neither embraces moral relativism or a laissez-faire attitude toward sexual behavior. Both believe that the Torah in its present form was given by God at Mount Sinai; that interpretation of Jewish law must be based on prevailing majority-held Orthodox rabbinic precedents; that mitzvot such as three daily prayers, Shabbat and family purity must be scrupulously observed.
To be Orthodox is also correlated with faith in God. Surveys show that 89 percent of the Orthodox believe in God. Only a minority of Conservative (41 percent) and Reform (29 percent) Jews believe in God — and then with less certainty.
Foremost, the Haredi-modern Orthodox debate plays out over the issue of women’s rights in the synagogue. Indeed, the Haredi world is unabashedly patriarchal; Haredi media outlets portray rabbis as celebrities. There is an obsession over rabbinical tête-à-têtes; fundraisers, weddings and ceremonies are richly documented. Women are often, though not always, airbrushed out. A typical engagement notice might not reference the mothers of the bride and groom.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris, author of “Faith Without Fear” and rabbi of London’s Hampstead Synagogue (part of the UK’s Orthodox United Synagogue movement), has written that when the modern Orthodox give their imprimatur to a less restricted role for women they are not lowering Orthodox religious standards, merely reflecting a different “meta- Halakhic” sensibility. The Judaism he champions is no less frum (or committed to the observance of Jewish religious law), but it is open to “critical engagement” with the modern world.
One US-based Haredi rabbi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that talk of meta-Halakhic sensibilities is essentially double-talk for “post-Halakhic” Judaism and recalls “the sort of misleading language that the Conservative movement used in the 1950s, when it sought only, it said, to “‘conserve’ Judaism, not change it.”
AN EXAMPLE of a meta-Halakhic difference within Orthodoxy is the concept of da’as Torah under which Haredi rabbis are consulted on important life-cycle matters, including marriage, medical procedures and business decisions, on the grounds that their knowledge of the Torah illuminates everything else.
Harris offers several other tenets that he says distinguish modern Orthodoxy from the Haredi version: An open embrace of political Zionism; a commitment to boosting the place of women in the religion; a positive embrace of social science and the humanities; “an emphasis on the universalistic dimensions of Judaism over the particularistic;” a readiness to grapple with science rather than simply ignoring it; and an emphasis on personal autonomy on issues that are outside the Halakhic realm.
“Modern Orthodoxy can be defined as the attempt to combine full commitment to Orthodox Judaism with openness to the modern world,” writes Harris.
The boundaries of modern Orthodoxy are in dispute. The epicenter of the struggle between progressives and traditionalists of various stripes plays out over a subset within modern Orthodoxy known as “Open Orthodoxy.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America, a Haredi public affairs organization, questions whether Open Orthodoxy accepts absolutely the “historicity of the Jewish exodus from Egypt” or “the fact that the Torah, both written and oral, was bequeathed to our ancestors at Sinai” and that “Abraham and Isaac and Jacob actually existed.”
These concerns have been echoed by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America who has argued that Open Orthodoxy is a divergence from modern Orthodoxy – that its rabbis have ordained “students who reject some of the fundamentals of Torah belief and practice” such as “the cardinal Torah principles of an omnipotent and perfect God.”
Arguably, though, Judaism has never been stagnant or unvarying. The 1905 “Jewish Encyclopedia” offered no separate entry for Orthodox Judaism but noted that “Judaism presents two streams or currents of thought ever running parallel to each other: the one conservative, the other progressive and liberal; the one accentuating the national and ritualistic, the other the cosmopolitan and spiritual elements.”
Likewise, writing in the 1938 edition of “Valentine’s Jewish Encyclopedia,” Herbert Loewe, a University of Cambridge scholar of rabbinics, made the argument that while varieties within Judaism existed, actually labeling the distinctions goes “against the spirit of Catholic Judaism.”
He argued that “Judaism demands blind faith only in the existence of God,” but beyond that Jewish civilization “has striven to maintain an equipoise between tradition and progress.”
But as the structure and organization of Judaism’s streams took shape, labeling became unavoidable. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in the US was founded in 1898. A separate group, Agudas Ha- Rabonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada), was established in 1902 and mandated to battle progressive Judaism.
By the late 1920s, the OU insignia was appearing on various products certifying that they were kosher, according to Saul Bernstein’s authorized history of the group. In the 1950s, the OU redlined progressive Orthodox congregations because they had allowed family-style seating.
Orthodoxy’s US network was significantly bolstered by the establishment, early in the 20th century, of yeshivas such as Rabbi Jacob Joseph and Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn’s Torah Vodaas. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yaakov Kamenetsky and Yitzchok Ruderman arrived in the 1930s. Aharon Kotler joined the constellation of prominent European scholars transplanted to America in 1941.
Spearheaded by Kotler, Agudas Israel lobbied against cooperation with Reform and Conservative rabbis, according to Orthodox historian and rabbi Beryl Wein’s “Echoes of Glory.” Kotler, who died in 1962, established the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey, encouraging his students to be full-time Torah scholars even after marriage, according to Wein. This begot the “black hat” Lithuanian Haredi lifestyle, which emphasizes scholarship and insularity over participation in the work force.
Women were not ignored but their prospects were severely constrained. In 1938, Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan (1913-1986) set up the first Bais Yaakov school for girls in Brooklyn (an idea adapted from World War I-era Poland) along with a teacher’s seminary for young women.
WEIN PRESENTS the establishment of Young Israel as, arguably, the first modern Orthodox synagogue group. Founded in 1912, it “served as a lifeline to tradition” in that its rabbis spoke English and its synagogues offered more informal and accessible services. Today, Young Israel is simply an association of 150 autonomous Orthodox congregations.
Orthodoxy’s organizational base was further thickened by the formation of the Rabbinical Council of America (1942), a membership and placement group whose prestige was enhanced by the participation of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993).
A towering exponent of modern Orthodoxy, Soloveitchik held a PhD in philosophy and his wife, Tonya Lewit, a doctorate in education.
Today, the RCA appears to have drifted rightward and has, for instance, denounced Open Orthodoxy’s efforts to ordain women.
Ironically, though, in 2013 the Haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate of Israel challenged conversion to Judaism rituals carried out by a number of member rabbis of the RCA.
However, a Haredi critic tells The Report that Soloveitchik would not have gone as far as supporting Open Orthodoxy. “He was an unabashed rejectionist of non-Orthodox theologies” and would not have sanctioned any change in women’s roles or synagogue participation.”
The rift between modern and Haredi Orthodoxy is manifested most clearly over the place of women, says Sharon Weiss- Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), which lobbies for change “within the framework of Halakha.”
Today’s observant women tend to be comparatively learned in canon, text and ritual, and resist being shunted to the “ladies gallery” as observers. Leaders of Open Orthodoxy have been championing “partnership minyans,” which have sprung up, among other places, in London, New York, Jerusalem, Melbourne and Toronto. Typically, such minyans have a more informal, less cloistered feel although men and women sit separately.
At Jerusalem’s Kehilat Shira Hadasha, which was established in 2002 and is widely regarded as a pioneering community with regard to women in Orthodox ritual, services don’t start until 10 women are present in addition to the required quorum of 10 men.
Waiting for a tenth woman is symbolically, albeit not halakhically, a way to embrace the egalitarian ideal. Partnership minyans invite women to take leading roles in any part of the service that is not halakhically “obligatory for men” and that is non-mandatory for women.
This translates into women leading portions of the service, including as Torah readers.
Partnership minyans generally offer aliyot to women to offer blessings during the Torah reading part of the service. Weiss-Greenberg notes that a number of rabbis have written teshuvot (responsa) providing halakhic ways for women’s participation in this manner.
She tells The Report that while some Orthodox women may be uncomfortable being labeled feminists, many nonetheless embrace JOFA’s ideals. Women like herself, who are totally committed to Orthodoxy’s worldview, can’t simply transfer their allegiance to one of the progressive streams where egalitarianism is, purportedly, taken for granted.
“Orthodoxy is my home. We are Orthodox feminists because we are constantly thinking about the role of women and where the red lines ought to be within Orthodoxy,” Weiss-Greenberg says.
ONE INSTITUTION that has provided the intellectual underpinning for a reinvigorated modern Orthodoxy is Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, based in Riverdale, New York. Founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who is credited with coining the term “Open Orthodoxy,” the faculty of rabbinic scholars includes Dov Linzer. Weiss’s Maharat Yeshiva is the first to have ordained women as Orthodox clergy – among them Lila Kagedan, who is serving in the title of rabbi at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey.
Linzer has authored Halakhic responsa that determined that women may lead certain portions of the pre-High Holy Day selichot services as long as they do so with a minyan of men present, and from the female side of the mechitza (room divider). Elsewhere, and within defined boundaries, he permits a married couple to hold hands in public – something pretty much unthinkable in Lithuanian Haredi circles. Hasidic newlyweds are sometimes encouraged to hold hands as they leave the wedding canopy.
Open Orthodoxy proponents of partnership minyans have faced considerable pushback from Haredi authorities and even modern Orthodox-leaning rabbis such as Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of Britain’s United Synagogue. The Haredim argue that the modernizers have embarked on a slippery slope that will inevitability lead to theological wobbliness or worse.
Another manifestation of Open Orthodoxy is the organic embrace of leniency within Halakha.
Take for example the Shabbat eruv – a Halakhic measure that permits carrying on Shabbat, thereby enabling mothers to push prams and men to carry tallit bags to synagogue.
Some, though by no means all, Haredi- dominated Orthodox communities look askance at the urban eruv.
A malleable approach to Halakha is not a new-fangled innovation. Rabbis now known as the Rishonim (round about the 11th to 15th centuries) often sought to interpret Jewish laws in ways that lessened the burden on ordinary people. For example, Rabbeinu Gershom (circa 1040) banned polygamy and also required husbands to obtain the approval of their wives before filing for divorce. In fact, one modern Orthodox New York rabbi tells The Report that the Rishonim were by no means outliers in this regard and that rabbinic authorities throughout the ages did much the same.
Today’s Haredi Judaism, in contrast, shows a penchant for stringent, austere, and rigid interpretation of halakha – an approach known as seeking a humra. Take, for example, hair-covering: Orthodoxy requires married women to conceal their hair. In quest for a humra, some Sephardi and Hasidic Haredi rabbis oblige women to wear a hat atop their wig lest the hairpiece be mistaken for natural uncovered hair; other rabbis have ruled that wigs are themselves immodest and insist on kerchiefs.
Many Haredim will not use Shabbat elevators that stop automatically, obviating the need to push a button on the Sabbath. This is not a case of seeking a humra, a Haredi rabbi tells The Report, but rather being concerned “about a clear Halakhic problem” with Shabbat elevators involving changes in electric current resulting from added weight.
Unlike the Amish, the Haredi world does not abjure the use of technology, but its media shuns voices and pictures of women in advertising and in news coverage. Haredi educators labor to hinder access to the Internet.
Many yeshivas forbid cell phones and most prohibit smartphones. Such insularity demands extraordinary self-discipline.
Both modern and Haredi Orthodoxy offer warmth and rootedness, Weiss-Greenberg notes.
In a digital age that seems to foster anomie, dislocation and loneliness, many previously non-observant Jews have been drawn to Orthodoxy. The strictures can prove liberating.
The prohibition on driving automobiles or using public transportation on Shabbat forces observant Jews to live in proximity to each other, to their synagogues and to kosher shopping – thereby creating genuine communities.
Moreover, Haredi insularity comes with unique positives: Members are part of tightly knit communities; mutual aid and charity are ubiquitous; and a regimented lifestyle provides comfort and purpose.
Materialism is not renounced, but Torah scholarship is elevated above all, and elders are respected. The fabric of life is enriched even when economic circumstances are impoverished.
And there is a sense of fellowship and shared loyalty in the demanding task of keeping unwanted external cultural influences at bay.
Despite their commonalities, Orthodoxy’s intramural argument between modernizers and Haredim rages on.
THE HAREDI or “Torah world” – and many within the mainstream of modern Orthodoxy, as well – try to minimize the “ideational spectrum” of Orthodoxy; the modernizers work to extend its boundaries. The “Haredi-modern Orthodox mainstream core” have sought to nail down what Orthodoxy is – thereby relegating Open Orthodoxy to a heretical corner, according to Ferziger.
And yet for increasing numbers of observant Jews this sort of jousting is beside the point. In the post-modern era, they see Judaism as a menu of choices making it hard to set parameters for heresy, says Ferziger. In place of denominations, streams and factions, it’s possible nowadays to think of a “spectrum of observant Jewry,” he says. Weiss-Greenberg concurs: People have stopped being enamored with denominational labels.
In a sense, the competition for the soul of Orthodoxy reflects a vibrancy missing from the other streams of Judaism. It is unlikely to end with one camp vanquishing the other. If anything, it could herald a post-denominational Judaism, expand the mosaic of choice, and thereby further enrich Jewish civilization.
Elliot Jager invites you to follow him on Twitter #Jagerfile