Category Archives: Pluralism

Agudath Israel of America: “Jewish Pluralism” Undermines True Jewish Unity

In advance of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, that group passed a resolution on “Jewish pluralism” in Israel, opposing a bill to enshrine a single conversion standard in the country and asserting that the Israeli Government’s decision to freeze an agreement about the Western Wall has “deep potential to divide the Jewish people.”

It is sadly ironic, although not surprising, that leaders of heterodox movements that have in fact undermined true Jewish unity and continuity by inviting intermarriage and breaking away from the Jewish religious heritage have of late been lecturing others about Jewish unity.

More disappointing still are the unity-cries of the Jewish Federation movement.  The historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened.  Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.

The Jewish Federations of North America, moreover, has traditionally sought to represent all of American Jewry, but here it entirely ignores the feelings of the substantial and growing American Orthodox community.

The Reform and Conservative movements, despite their great efforts over decades, have few adherents in Israel. Most of their members do not visit or settle in Israel, nor do they visit the Western Wall in large numbers.  And yet their leaders seem prepared to offend the religious sensibilities of their Orthodox brethren, who regularly visit and move to Israel, and who come to the Kotel to pour out their hearts to G-d there.  A holy place should not be balkanized, nor wielded as a tool to advance partisan social goals.

And the patchwork of standards for conversion that exist in America has created an Ameican Jewish landscape where those who respect halacha as the ultimate arbiter of personal status cannot know who is in fact Jewish.  Creating in Israel a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples,” as is the tragic reality in America, would not foster unity but its opposite.

To our dear Jewish brothers and sisters, we say: Please do not push for changes at the Kotel that will only cause discord and pain to the vast majority of Jews who worship there. And please realize that the conversion standards that have ensured Jewish unity for millennia are the only ones that can preserve it for the future.

Two Apologies, One Disagreement and a Reiteration

In an article for the Jewish feminist group JOFA, Dr. Noam Stadlan objects to what I wrote in the Forward about the Orthodox Union’s stance on women being appointed as Jewish clergy.

His objections are several, and I will respond briefly to each below.  But, as explained a bit further below, the doctor glosses over the most salient, central point of what I wrote.

Dr. Stadlan is correct that I did not acknowledge the fact that there are Orthodox circles where women study Talmud. My apologies for that omission, but what texts are appropriate for formal teaching of women was not my topic.

Whether any recognized poskim consider it proper for women to speak before men was likewise not my topic. My en passant reference to women speaking to women was written from my personal experience (though not only in “haredi” shuls), and I apologize here too if it inadvertently insulted anyone.

I strongly disagree, though, with Dr. Stadlan’s stark judgment that it is somehow out of bounds for someone like me who looks to haredi poskim for guidance to offer an opinion about a challenge faced by a “Modern Orthodox” organization committed to halacha. I think, on the contrary, that it reflects a feeling of concern for other halacha-respecting Jewish communities than one’s own.  (Incidentally, as the bio at the end of my Forward piece indicates, I wrote my piece as an individual Jewish blogger, not in the name of Agudath Israel, which is mentioned only afterward for identification purposes.)

Most important, Dr. Stadlan seems to misunderstand the essence of what I wrote.  I did not set out to make a halachic case “against the ordination of women.”  I am not qualified as a posek, and would never arrogate to write as one.  It may well be the case, as some writers cited by Dr. Stadlan assert, that a “halachic case can be made for the ordination of women.”

What I wrote – and this is the central point Dr. Stadlan somehow misses – was that the question of women rabbis, which may be a legitimate one and is certainly one of great societal import today, was responsibly placed by the Orthodox Union before poskim to whom it looks for halachic guidance.

There is, pace Dr. Stadlan, no Jewish concept of halacha divorced from recognized poskim qualified to apply halachic principles (and, yes, meta-halachic principles no less, which have always been and remain very much part of reaching authoritative halachic decisions).  Whom one turns to for a psak is one’s own business, but acknowledging that there are widely recognized and respected poskim in various communities (be they “centrist”, “yeshivish”, or any particular flavor of Chassidic) is not a “no true Scotsman fallacy”; it is the very essence of how halacha has been applied over history to new circumstances – and how it must be responsibly applied today.

Death of a Slogan

Le roi est mort, vive le roi!”

That’s the famous French declaration that was traditionally made when a monarch had breathed his last: “The king is dead. Long live the king!”

Recent days have revealed the news that a slogan has expired. The late phrase is “Open Orthodoxy.” No longer will it be employed by the institutions that once proudly held it aloft as a banner. It has been summarily dispatched, sent to its grave. But what the phrase stood for, at least for now, lives on.

It was disclosed last week that back on July 26, The New Jersey Jewish News received a communication from “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,” or “YCT,” the seminary of the movement that must no longer be named, informing the paper that “We have been referred to as an ‘Open Orthodox Seminary’ by your newspaper, which is incorrect. ‘Open Orthodox’ is not a term that we use to describe ourselves, nor is it part of any language on our site, mission, marketing materials, etc.”

Note the present tense. It is employed because the term now prohibited was in fact the institution’s credo, included even in its mission statement at its founding in 1999, and used thereafter until relatively recently.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the father of the now-disdained phrase, extolled it when he introduced it as “expressing vibrancy, inclusivity and non-judgmentalism”(implying it seemed, that others lacked vibrancy, rejected Jews and sat in judgment on them – and that they were “closed’), and as conveying the new movement’s embrace of non-traditional ritual roles for women, celebration of people engaged in aveiros chamuros, relaxation of halachic requirements for geirus and encouragement of interfaith “dialogue.”

None of that, of course, has changed, only the unfortunate phrase. The once “open” movement has now claimed an adjective once employed by others but that had fallen into disuse: “Modern”.

What was once called “Modern Orthodoxy,” which never dared abandon what the erstwhile “openers” have happily jettisoned, shed that phrase long ago in favor of “Centrist Orthodoxy.” And so, un-copyrighted as “modern” was, the new group dusted it off and decided it looked nice on them.

The change, though, of course, is cosmetic. The Open/Modern group whose institutions include the earlier mentioned YCT, “Yeshivat Maharat,” which trains female religious leaders, and a small rabbinical association called the International Rabbinic Fellowship (“IRC”) has, if anything, “liberalized” its stances even more.

As the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah felt compelled to state with sadness two years ago, the Open Orthodox movement “reject[s] the basic tenets of our faith… and [is] no different from other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected these basic tenets.”

Some leaders of the errant group took umbrage at that statement, which they took as a personal rejection.

But it wasn’t people being rejected, but rather a concept – that the Torah and halachah can be molded, like so much Silly Putty, to comport with “modern” mores.

And, speaking of kindergarten, Humpty Dumpty famously insisted that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” With all due respect to the fictional fellow, in the real world words in fact have objective meanings.

To be sure, words’ meanings can change. Once, not very long ago, a “mouse” was exclusively a furry creature, and “gay” meant only “joyful.” But a theology that is indistinguishable from that of the Conservative movement cannot, pace Mr. Dumpty, be called “Orthodox.”

Over the past century or two, “Orthodoxy” has been synonymous with full acceptance of the mesorah – including, of course, the historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim; the fact that the Torah Shebichsav and Sheb’al Peh were bequeathed our ancestors at Har Sinai; and that the avos existed – concepts that prominent products of or leaders of the “Open Orthodoxy” movement are on record as rejecting.

So why must the YCT/Yeshivat Maharat/IRC nexus seek any new adjective at all? What it needs is not an adjective but a new noun. And a prefix for it. To wit: “Conservative” and “Neo,” respectively.

Calling themselves a new branch of the faltering Conservative movement, though, would deprive the group of the free publicity and celebration some Jewish media so eagerly offer it. After all, there’s nothing very newsworthy, or for that matter new, about a Jewish movement that “updates” the Torah to “teach” what its leaders feel it should have said.

But, were the guiding lights of the Open/Modern movement truly dedicated to honesty and forthrightness, that’s just what they would do.

© 2017 Hamodia

Time to Come Home

An article I wrote back in 2001 for Moment Magazine, a Jewish periodical, was not well-received at the time in some circles.

Understandably. The article’s thesis was that the Conservative movement’s claim to halachic integrity was not supported by fact, and that Conservative Jews who respect the mesorah should consider joining Orthodox communities. Conservative leaders were not pleased by the assertion or invitation, and their reaction was fueled further by the incendiary title the publication placed on the piece. I had titled it “Time to Come Home”; Moment ran it under the oversized headline “The Conservative Lie.”

The article (which, I immodestly add, won an American Jewish Press Association award). inspired several Conservative movement officials to vent, and to insist that their movement was in fact, despite my claim, committed to halachah.

But I turned out to be a navi of sorts (no badge of honor there; Chazal see nevuah after the Churban as the province of fools and children). I predicted that the Conservative leadership would one day “halachically” approve certain relationships that halachah expressly forbids in no uncertain terms. In 2006, I was vindicated when the Conservative movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” made the precise endorsement I had foreseen.

It didn’t occur to me, though, at the time, that the movement’s clergy might one day actually consider going so far as to give their hechsher to intermarriage.

But, it was recently disclosed, in late June, 17 members of the Conservative movement’s clerical group, the Rabbinical Assembly, sat down for a meeting to decide what to do about intermarriage.

Since the 1970s, the movement has banned its clergy from officiating or even attending wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews.

Of late, though, resistance to that stance has been steadily building.

An erstwhile assistant dean at the Conservative movement’s flagship school, the Jewish Theological Seminary, quit her position over the intermarriage ban. The former religious leader of Philadelphia’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Seymour Rosenbloom, wrote an op-ed about officiating at the wedding ceremony of his stepdaughter and her non-Jewish husband last spring.

Roly Matalon, a member of the Rabbinic Assembly who presides over a large Manhattan synagogue, announced not long ago that the institution’s clergy would begin officiating at intermarriage ceremonies.

The previously mentioned Seymour Rosenbloom says that “It seems like we’re coming to a tipping point [on embracing intermarriage]… Everyone is talking about this right now.”

Not all his colleagues, certainly, are happy with the trend. “To bless an intermarried union” said David Wolpe, the senior clergyman at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, “is … to in some way betray the very thing that I’ve given my life to, which is to try to maintain the Jewish tradition.”

“It’s not fine,” he contends, “and it can’t be made fine.”

And what about halachah? My “revelation” in 2001 that raised such hackles seems to have achieved ho-hum status.

t this point in the history of the Conservative movement,” Daniel Gordis, an American Conservative clergyman, asserted, “to start making an argument on the basis of what Jewish law mandates feels to me a bit hollow… That’s not intellectually honest. The horse has left the barn. The train has left the station.”

The Jews, though, haven’t left the movement.

Many of them, of course, are ambivalent about, if not pleased by, the Conservative slide toward celebrating intermarriages. They may be products of such marriages, parents or siblings of intermarrieds, or intermarried themselves.

According to the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, the percentage of Conservative synagogue members who were intermarried tripled from 1990 to 2013, from 4 percent to 12 percent.

What’s more, the sheer number of American adults who belong to a Conservative synagogue has fallen during that period from 723,000 adult Jewish congregational members in 1990 to 570,000.

And yet, fully 94% of Jews affiliated with Conservative synagogues say that being Jewish is very important to them; 91% fast on Yom Kippur; 96% attend services on the Yamim Nora’im.

The Conservative world still harbors well-meaning Jews who care about their religious heritage, who are parts of Conservative congregations by accident of birth, or who migrated there from the Reform or the unaffiliated Jewish worlds, seeking to reconnect to Jewish tradition.

And there is no small number of young Jews from Conservative-affiliated homes who, through camping or Birthright trips or campus kiruv efforts, found their way to the world of shemiras Torah u’mitzvos.

It would be irresponsible of us to write off Conservative Jews as hopelessly estranged from our mutual mesorah.

Ironically, the movement’s drift toward accepting intermarriage might just push its more Jewishly aware members to conclude that it really is, now, time to come home.

© 2017 Hamodia

Demographics Denial

The italics in the following seven paragraphs’ phrases are mine.

Haaretz column headline, in the wake of the Israeli cabinet’s decision to not upend the status quo at the Kosel: “Netanyanu to American Jews: Drop Dead.” An article headline in the same paper: “Israel Preps Diplomats for Backlash From U.S. Jewish Community Over Kotel Crisis.”

A Guardian headline: “Jewish diaspora angry as Netanyahu scraps Western Wall mixed prayer plan.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky: “We’re fighting all efforts to weaken the Israel-Diaspora relations.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett: “The representatives of U.S. Jewry feel they were slapped in the face.”

And, speaking of slaps, Former Jewish Agency head and ambassador to the U.S. Salai Meridor: “[The Kosel decision is] a slap in the face to world Jewry.”

American Jewish Committee chief executive David Harris: [The decision is] “a setback for the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews.”

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America: “We urge all [executives] to communicate with their local Israel consul-general and share with them the community’s disappointment… [and how] disastrous conversion legislation would be for global Jewry.”

My list is much longer, but space is limited. If you haven’t divined the italics’ intention, they are meant to call attention to the implication that phrases like “American Jews” or “Diaspora Jewry” are synonymous with members of the Reform and Conservative movements.

It’s an implication that, at least for the uninformed and simpleminded, makes some sense. After all, Orthodox Jews in the largest Diaspora community, our own, comprise only about 10% of the Jewish population.

But government officials and Jewish thinkers might be expected to be both informed and intelligent. And, thus, to know that 1) most American Jews have no interest in the Kosel (according to the 2013 Pew report on American Jewry, a mere 43% of even Reform members say being Jewish is very important to them – and that doesn’t include the 30% of American Jews who are unaffiliated with any movement); and that, 2) the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, those who actually live their Judaism (not to mention, support Israel) are… the Orthodox.

Reform lays claim to being the largest Jewish religious movement in North America. Its official magazine, “Reform Judaism,” claimed a quarterly circulation of “nearly 300,000 households, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions.” But very few (maybe only me, who inherited a subscription from Rabbi Sherer, z”l) actually ever read it, and the periodical folded in 2014.

And its final issue’s cover story, tellingly, celebrated Jews who sport tattoos, an issur d’Oraisa.

Which leads to the unpleasant but undeniable truth that the non-Orthodox Jewish movements have, by effectively abandoning Jewish observance, diminished much of American Jewry’s connection to its religious heritage.

Even more tragically, by “rewriting” the halachic concept of conversion, they have effectively created a multiplicity of “Jewish Peoples” in the Diaspora. Once upon a time, an American baal teshuvah’s halachic status as a Jew could be all but assumed. Today, unfortunately, that is no longer the case. The majority of many a Reform temple’s members are simply not Jewish.

And what segment of the American Jewish community produces large circulation, well-read newspapers (like this one, the only Jewish daily in the country) and magazines? One guess.

According to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, in fact, within two generations, the Orthodox fraction of the American Jewish population has more than quintupled. More than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger, moreover, are Orthodox. Public policy experts Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel estimate that, by 2050, the American Jewish community will be majority Orthodox.

With the growth, baruch Hashem, of the American Orthodox community has come increased communal and political standing as well. My colleague Rabbi Abba Cohen, who has headed Agudath Israel of America’s Washington Office for decades, notes that the Orthodox community has clearly moved “beyond mere ‘access’ to” public officials, “which it has had for some time,” to a point, today, where “Orthodox advocates not only find open doors but are sought out and invited into the process.”

When realities like those are delivered, however, the messengers are verbally assaulted, accused of “triumphalism.”

But it’s not “triumphalism,” it’s triumph. Not of any population but rather of Yiddishkeit, of the Jewish convictions and practices that defined the lives of all Jews’ forebears until, historically speaking, fairly recently.

It’s really time that media, politicians and the pundits faced that fact, and began to qualify their use of “American Jews” and “Diaspora Jewry” accordingly.

© 2017 Hamodia

Agudath Israel Statement on Recent Jewish Federation Stances

Leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America and local federations have spoken out loudly about their disappointment in the Israeli government’s decision to suspend the Kotel resolution and about a contentious conversion bill that was recently put on hold.

A self-described Jewish state, of course, must maintain some Jewish standard, both with regard to its holy places and its definitions of personal status.  The only reasonable standard in all such matters is that of the mutual Jewish past, the Jewish religious tradition, or halacha.

There are those, unfortunately, who agitate for different standards in Israel.  That is their prerogative as individuals.  But the historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened.  Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.

It also entirely ignores the American Orthodox community, which harbors quite different sentiments.

The most conservative estimates are that 10% of American Jewry is Orthodox.  The Orthodox community, moreover, is poised to become a much more prominent sector of American Jewry.  More than a quarter of all American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox.  And even at present, the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, those whose lives are infused with Judaism (and, not to mention, who are among the most strongly involved with Israel) are the Orthodox.

Any American Jew can, again, hold and promote a personal position on any issue, including the current ones in Israel.  But federations are communal entities, not private ones.  By proclaiming positions on religious controversies and ignoring the convictions of American Orthodox Jewry, federation leaders do grave damage to the very Jewish unity they profess as a goal.

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