By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer
It’s hard to take the article seriously, due to its vast misunderstanding of what Orthodox Judaism should be as well as the article’s quite erroneous general assumptions, but something needs to be said in response. I was hoping to avoid dealing with polemics and controversy for a while, but silence is not an option at this point.
In what is presented as a history of American Orthodoxy over the past half century, R. Yitz Greenberg argues in a lengthy new essay in The Jewish Week that Modern Orthodoxy has been effectively hijacked and distorted by Chareidim and Chareidi sympathizers and must therefore be returned to what he views as its true roots, in the quest for a restoration of the good old days of more liberal standards, greater openness to the non-Orthodox movements, and a progressive social agenda. R. Greenberg blames an upgrade in levels of communal religious observance within Modern Orthodoxy for the departure of many people from Orthodoxy many decades ago, and he seeks to reverse this trend of heightened collective halachic punctiliousness as mandated by Modern Orthodox institutions and organizations. Although readers are advised to go through the entire original article, here are some very relevant snippets:
The Modern Orthodox communal leadership moved to the right, adopting more traditionalist values and policies in their yeshivot and institutions. This included increased separation from (or delegitimation of) Conservative and Reform groups. They made new demands or expressed criticism of the “nonobservant Orthodox” – a significant percentage of members of Modern Orthodox synagogues who drove to synagogue on Shabbat, for example, while preferring the traditional service. Some of these synagogues, especially in the Midwest, had allowed mixed seating, or removal of mechitzot, or instituted both mixed and non-mixed seating sections of the sanctuary. These congregations were pressured to put in a mechitzah or leave the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. These steps were taken to raise standards and to meet charedi criticisms. The result was a significant decline in Orthodox numbers as many of the nonobservant left or their children moved on.
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest group of Orthodox rabbis, suffered membership losses as a number of Modern Orthodox synagogues lost nonobservant members and closed.
The Art Scroll Chumash (funded by a leading Modern Orthodox philanthropist) replaced the generation-old Hertz Pentateuch with its more modern outlook. The new Art Scroll commentary stressed miracles and often offered rabbinic interpretation over the plain meaning of verses. These changes clashed with the secular culture that the Modern Orthodox youth would encounter in college, but the modern community had no influence on the commentary and lacked the scholarly energy to offer an alternative.
There are two classic cases of Modern Orthodoxy being taken over and transformed into charedi lite. One is the Young Israel movement, which represented the cutting edge of modern Orthodoxy up to the 1950s, even sponsoring dances to enable its young men and women to socialize American-style), swung to the right. Many of its rabbis are recruited from yeshivas opposed to secular studies and they mostly follow charedi policy. Its Council of Rabbis, for example, has decreed that no graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss and espousing Open Orthodoxy, may be considered for a rabbinic position in the Young Israel movement.
The other major case involves Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, whose Rosh Yeshiva was the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the acknowledged leader of the Modern Orthodox movement and known widely as The Rav.
His primary successors over the last several decades at YU are yeshievish-charedi in their thinking and have broken with The Rav’s values in fundamental areas concerning modern culture. Unlike Rabbi Soloveitchik, who championed and embodied the synthesis of secular studies and Torah learning (and who sent his children to Harvard to get a quality secular education), his successors urged that Yeshiva College lighten its academic standards and expectations so students could maximize their Torah learning. They took on the mantle of Gedolim [Great Decisors] and taught that the Holy Spirit guides the rulings of Gedolim. Therefore they were, in a traditional sense, infallible and only a handful can qualify as Gedolim. Local rabbis were discouraged from making independent rulings. This is unlike Rabbi Soloveitchik who famously would reply to halachic questions posed to him by rabbis: What do you think? What is your ruling?
These rosh yeshivas have been unrelentingly antifeminist, with one recently questioning whether teaching women advanced Talmud – a YU program started by Rabbi Soloveitchik — was possibly a mistake as it led to the demand to ordain Orthodox women rabbis. (In this instance, YU’s administration said the statement did not reflect its values regarding women learning Torah.)
These rosh yeshivas were charedi in their treatment of alternate views – not as worthy of debate or as enriching Orthodox discourse but as ipso facto heresy to be silenced and expelled. Under their halachic guidance, the RCA refused to admit Orthodox rabbis ordained by the more liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. And the RCA works closely with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is increasingly haredi and exclusivist, most notably in its conversion policy. In return, the RCA’s conversion courts were given exclusive rights to certify or deny the legitimacy of converts, including those who converted through independent Modern Orthodox rabbis.
Over time fewer YU-ordained rabbis have chosen to take pulpits around the country, wary of compromises they may feel pressed to make in congregations with less strictly observant members.
A climax came when Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yeshivat Maharat moved to ordain learned women who passed equivalent Talmud/halacha examinations as the men. Instead of rejecting the charedi position that nothing new [in this case, not hitherto done] is permitted in Orthodoxy, the RCA declared that ordaining women violated mesorah, or inherited tradition.
In charedi style, the RCA threatened to expel Rabbi Weiss and exclude progressive Orthodox Jews from the Orthodox community, thus forcing him to compromise and not use the title of Rabbi (or Rabba) for women. He later withdrew from the RCA in protest.
The institutional expression of the new social base for Modern Orthodoxy has grown rapidly. A remarkable array of options for women’s advanced Torah study has helped raise the most Jewishly learned, halachically knowledgeable and active cohort of women in Jewish history. It began with Drisha Institute in 1979. JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) was founded in 1998, and despite fierce opposition has won many improvements in women’s place in Orthodoxy, including partnership minyanim that expand women’s roles. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah offers a spiritual, ethical and inclusive brand of Orthodoxy and has placed more than 100 rabbis in the field. The International Rabbinic Fellowship, created to serve as a more liberal Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, has over 200 members. Yeshivat Maharat for women began seven years ago and has placed professionally all its initial 11 graduates and has 22 students enrolled this year.
Rabbi Avi Weiss created YCT to teach a more spiritual, ethical and Clal Yisrael-oriented Orthodoxy to rabbis. The school now has more than 100 practicing rabbis in the field, and is growing. The International Rabbinic Fellowship, created by Rabbis Marc Angel and Rabbi Weiss to serve as a more liberal Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, has more than 200 members. They are widely distributed, with particular strength in communal organizations and Hillel/university settings. In 2009, Rabbi Weiss launched Yeshivat Maharat to train Orthodox women clergy. The school has 11 graduates (all placed professionally) and 22 students currently registered, and growing.
Alarmed by this growth and the perceived threat that new women’s roles, as well as deeper connections to the rest of the community, could shift the balance of power away from ultra-Orthodoxy, Agudath Israel of America and its Council of Sages made a preemptive strike. This past year it proclaimed that Open Orthodoxy, the term Rabbi Weiss prefers for Modern Orthodoxy, is a breach of true Orthodoxy and is to be excluded from the community. Sadly, instead of protesting this attempt by charedim to assume total hegemony over Modern Orthodoxy, the RCA (and YU) remain silent – with some internal elements pushing that they join this attempt at excommunication.
The next test of the staying power of the revival is PORAT (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah). This is a new organization, catalyzed by Rabbi Weiss, and its launch is scheduled for May 15 in a public conference at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan. PORAT seeks to become a lay organization to advance the agenda of an inclusive, Jewish Peoplehood- oriented Modern Orthodoxy. Its first goal is to make clear that despite the co-opting of Modern Orthodox institutions by those on the right, a significant percentage of the community wants more equality and dignity for women, more inclusive treatment of gay and other minorities, and embraces the whole Jewish people.
PORAT is calling for policies that respect and cooperate with the other groupings in Jewry and not to put them down or seek to advance Orthodoxy by exploiting or excluding them. PORAT’s founders are committed to create a culture of respectful conversation and plural experimentation so that Orthodoxy can deal positively with the social, economic and cultural advances of our time – without seeking to shut them out via reactionary exclusion. The charedized leadership establishment in Modern Orthodoxy has already raised objections. Progressive laypeople will have to show up and stand up for their values and engage the Orthodox established organizations and move them toward Clal Yisrael and positive modernity.
Among the striking arguments made by R. Greenberg are:
- Those who were marginally affiliated with Orthodoxy (such as the non-observant who attended Orthodox shuls) were basically driven out of Orthodoxy due to its increasingly strict standards, such as the OU requiring mechitzos for all shuls, and the the Young Israel movement regrettably, in R. Greenberg’s view, no longer sponsoring mixed dances;
- R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was tolerant and inclusive, whereas his students/successors are exclusionary Chareidi-style leaders who have tightened standards and put bona fide Modern Orthodoxy out of business at Yeshiva University, the RCA, the OU, and so forth;
- Progressive (Open) Orthodox organs, such as Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), Yeshivat Maharat, International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and now PORAT are here to restore Modern Orthodoxy to its roots and thereby return it to relevancy.
Let’s briefly address each of these points.
The vast and overwhelming majority of people who left Orthodoxy decades ago were not Orthodox to begin with, or were among the “non-committed Orthodox”. People who ate in non-kosher restaurants and/or drove on Shabbos, yet belonged to Orthodox synagogues and were thus technically categorized by statisticians and sociologists as Orthodox, were already quickly on their way out of Orthodoxy, by their own choice, long before Orthodox synagogue organizations cracked down on non-mechitza congregations and no longer sponsored mixed dancing. Like most readers, I personally know dozens of such people, and there is no way that they or their progeny would have remained “Orthodox”, nor did they have any serious intentions of such, no matter what. They were not interested in Orthodoxy as a way of life, and for R. Greenberg to blame the OU, the Young Israel movement and the RCA for those people leaving Orthodoxy is downright wrong. (It is akin to blaming the New York City public school system of a century ago for the abandonment of Yiddish on the part of most of the second-generation Eastern European immigrants who were enrolled in public schools. Although the public school system insisted on English as the language of literacy and instruction, Yiddish among the second generation was in steep decline at that period for various other, far more fundamental reasons, and those who dropped Yiddish at the time would have done so anyway, even had public schools not required English.)
It must also be noted that many of the practices extolled by R. Greenberg are not halachically sound and were pervasive half a century ago due to an abject lack of Torah education as well as massive pressure toward assimilation. Modern Orthodoxy at the midpoint of the 20th century at times meant not only mixed dancing, but also neglect of tefillah and other core mitzvos; observance was often tenuous and at risk. To lobby for a return to such an era is simply incomprehensible to anyone serious about mitzva observance, and to argue that synagogue organizations should intentionally neglect or flaunt halachic requirements in order to retain non-committed members is astonishing.
The vision presented by R. Greenberg that R. Soloveitchik was religiously liberal is extremely inaccurate. Although R. Soloveitchik professed broad educational and intellectual openness, his strict halachic and hashkafic standards were the very same standards that R. Greenberg and his constituency vehemently oppose (!). R. Soloveitchik was insistent, without compromise, on full Kabbalas Mitzvos (Acceptance of the Mitzvos) for every convert, whereas this has been a major point of opposition for many within R. Greenberg’s camp. (Please also see here.) R. Soloveitchik was so insistent on mechitza that he advised people to forego the mitzva of Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as well as other mitzvos, rather than attend a non-mechitza congregation, and he even described mixed-seating congregations as “Christianized temples”. R. Soloveitchik’s articulation about religious dialogue and professional camaraderie with non-Orthodox clergy was stinging, notwithstanding his endorsement of cooperation with heterodoxy in the realm of purely communal issues. R. Soloveitchik was an ultra-traditionalist when it came to Torah study and the integrity of the halachic system, including his stance on the indispensable and central role of Midrash when learning Biblical narratives (in contrast with R. Greenberg’s disfavor for “rabbinic interpretation over the plain meaning of verses”), as well as his firm positions in the areas of synagogue leadership and “ritual”, such as his ruling that shuls may not appoint female presidents and his rejection of feminist innovations to Halacha and Minhag. This all totally clashes with R. Greenberg’s logic and agenda. So much for the “Rav Soloveitchik argument”.
It is also important to consider that whereas R. Soloveitchik believed in the autonomy of the individual rabbi to rule on routine matters in Halacha, such was not the case for pivotal and very weighty issues, such as several of those discussed above and many others. In such cases, R. Soloveitchik did not ask the rabbi “What do you think? What is your ruling?”, but instead was adamant that certain standards must be applied, leaving no room for the “local rabbi” to decide matters on his own. Again, this washes away R. Greenberg’s “Rav Soloveitchik argument”.
Furthermore, to be a bit blunt, I find R. Greenberg’s portrayal of the Rav to be an insult to the Rav’s legacy, and I am quite taken aback by R. Greenberg’s disparagement of the Rav’s closest talmidim, which include my own rebbeim as well as R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who subscribed to many of the views condemned by R. Greenberg above. (Readers are directed to R. Lichtenstein’s letter about the legacy of R. Soloveitchik; the letter was directed against the Edah organization, which is viewed as the forerunner of the new PORAT organization – more on PORAT later.)
Lastly, the Rav’s position about women studying Talmud was nowhere near as innovative as R. Greenberg presents it. Please see here.
Progressive (Open) Orthodoxy is not about restoring Orthodox traditions, but is rather about innovating in areas that have never been part of Orthodoxy, such as ordaining female rabbis and making room for opinions that deny the Singular Divine Authorship of the Torah. We all recall or have read about R. Greenberg’s own very controversial theological positions and the harsh criticism thereof by R. Aharon Lichtenstein and Dr. David Berger, to name a few. This includes R. Greenberg’s post-Holocaust theology of the Sinaitic Covenant no longer being binding (“God is no longer in a position to command…”), as well as his statement that “Jesus is not a false messiah, merely a failed one”, compared by R. Greenberg to Abraham – and much more.
One of the principal founders and leaders of PORAT, the nascent lay organization of Progressive (Open) Orthodoxy in which R. Greenberg plays a central role, has expressed his personal beliefs about the authorship and truth of the Torah:
Did Moses actually write that Abraham pursued his foes until “Dan” in order to rescue Lot (Gen. 14:14), or was the place name a later editorial insert to indicate what by then had become a well-known locale? … Perhaps most tellingly, did Joshua order the sun to stop (Josh. 10:12), or was this either a mythic tale or a memory of a solar eclipse that could be explained only as a miracle at that time? Or, on perhaps the most basic level, did all of humanity descend from Noah’s three sons (Gen. 10), were there really several million Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years (Num. 2, 26), and did diversity of language result from an ill-fated attempt to build a tower in ancient Babylon (Gen. 11:1-9)?
And, as was presented in detail in an earlier Cross-Currents article (hyperlink intentionally omitted here), YCT and Yeshivat Maharat have and continue to knowingly ordain students who reject the Singular Divine Authorship of the Torah and who reject the halachic system, regardless of a somewhat recent denial thereto by YCT leadership.
This is what I wrote last month in a letter published in The Jewish Week:
Recent Letters to the Editor by leaders of the Open Orthodox movement (April 15) argue that there is a need for PORAT, the new organization presenting itself as Modern Orthodox, due to the exclusion of PORAT’s projected constituency from institutional Modern Orthodoxy, as represented by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and other organs. These letters criticize the RCA for denying admittance to some people based on their institutional affiliations (i.e., the rabbinical schools they attended), and they castigate the RCA for not catering to those who have identified with groups that have adopted certain religious innovations.
This criticism is extremely unfair. The RCA has and continues to maintain halachic standards as articulated by the most preeminent rabbinic leaders of the generation, such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of the past generation and Rabbis Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig of the present generation. The fact that certain groupings around the Orthodox orbit have parted ways with the norm and innovated new and controversial halachic practices, such as the ordination of women rabbis and modified conversion standards, does not mean that the RCA or any organ within normative Orthodoxy must sanction this and reform its contours to meet the demands of those who introduced these changes.
The complaints by these letter writers should instead be directed to the groupings that they represent, which have created a new movement that rejects many of the values and practices of normative Orthodoxy, yet insist on full representation at the organs which that new movement has rejected.
Orthodoxy must be inclusive, but not at the expense of its core teachings and core practices, and not by rejecting the traditions passed down and articulated by its most scholarly and prominent rabbinic leaders.
R. Greenberg: PORAT and Progressive (Open) Orthodoxy are not about reviving a tradition within Orthodoxy. They are instead about reforming Orthodoxy into something that it has never was, and that it by definition can never be. Please feel free to develop your new denomination and movement, but kindly omit from it the Orthodox appellation.
This article first appeared at Cross Currents.