Determining The Movement's Parameters

Modern Orthodoxy is modern, but it is also Orthodox, writes a Yeshiva University professor.

Mon, 03/24/2014
Zysman Hall at Yeshiva University. Wikimedia Commons
Zysman Hall at Yeshiva University. Wikimedia Commons

Steven Bayme, whose devotion to serving the Jewish community over a long career deserves the highest regard, has written an Opinion piece (“Modern Orthodoxy at the Crossroads,” The Jewish Week, March 7) that requires the attention of everyone concerned about the future of this critically important movement.

The article addresses a letter sent by Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school to a student who had organized a “partnership minyan” in his home. Though the issue has now been resolved, the letter indicated that his imminent ordination would be withheld unless he agreed to defer to the authority of major decisors in “areas of established custom and public ritual…even when there are no purely halachic issues at stake.” Bayme “take[s] this logic to its conclusion,” providing a series of reductios ad absurdum such as the need to consult roshei yeshiva when preparing a sermon about the Jewish historical experience.

He sees this approach as a capitulation to the reliance by haredim on what they call “Daas Torah,” i.e., the opinion of leading rabbis, which is determinative in all spheres of life, and he notes that back in 1977, an incoming dean Of YU’s Division of Communal Services pledged to resist the growing trend to consult roshei yeshiva rather than local rabbis in matters of Jewish law.

Bayme goes on to address the specific issue of partnership minyanim as follows: “Leaders of partnership minyanim found sanction for their practice among halachic authorities… of impeccable scholarly credentials. They merit communal support rather than condemnation for their efforts to synthesize tradition with modern culture.”

Let me begin with this last point and then proceed to the broader issue. Bayme’s first sentence can justly be reformulated as follows: “One rabbi of stature, who, despite his genuinely impressive learning, has never been seen as a premier decisor of Jewish law, has argued for the acceptability of partnership minyanim, the majority of which call women to the Torah in the face of an apparently explicit prohibition in the Talmud and the codes. Every other Orthodox rabbi of stature in the world regards the practice as unacceptable, and the vast majority of these see it as a direct violation of halacha.”

Bayme may feel that that such behavior should be supported, but to regard opposition to it as a betrayal of the mission of Modern Orthodoxy is to misconstrue the very core of what the movement represents. It should also go without saying that the letter from YU referred to major deviations from centuries of Jewish practice and did not endorse either Bayme’s reductios ad absurdum or the expansive understanding of Daas Torah in the haredi world.

Bayme’s essay is part of a recurring critique of Modern Orthodoxy on the part of many of its liberal critics from within and without. This critique, which has appeared in The Jewish Week and other venues over the course of many years, often takes the form of purportedly dispassionate sociological analysis. The movement is said to have moved to the right by embracing a range of haredi positions at odds with its historic identity and resisting virtually any change proposed by enlightened elements who remain loyal to that identity.

It is indeed not difficult to point to various trends within Modern Orthodoxy over the past generation or two that can justly be characterized as moves to the right. It is true, I think, that the tendency to consult roshei yeshiva rather than local rabbis on matters of Jewish law has grown, although the latter continue to be the prime address for such inquiries. Other changes have generally been driven by weighty texts and traditions. Mixed dancing has declined dramatically and is no longer sponsored by Orthodox institutions. Mixed swimming has declined less dramatically. Considerably more Modern Orthodox men avoid listening to a woman sing than was the case a generation ago. Far more men attend daily services and regularly study Talmud. More men, especially young men, display their tzitzit, though they remain a fairly small minority.

At the same time, consider the following changes (among others) in the most-discussed area of gender: Bat Mitzvah celebrations that rival Bar Mitzvahs. Advanced Talmudic study for women at Yeshiva University and elsewhere. Women as scholars-in-residence in synagogues. Women advocates in Israeli rabbinical courts. Trained advisors with formal, synagogue-sponsored positions in areas of family purity. A pre-nuptial agreement formulated by a YU rosh yeshiva and strongly supported by the Rabbinical Council of America. 

When such changes occur, critics simply bank them and announce the further haredization of Modern Orthodoxy whenever a new, radical proposal encounters resistance. Modern Orthodoxy is Modern. But it is also Orthodoxy.

David Berger is the Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.

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Stop Orthodox b.s. and enjoy life!

More B.S. from YU

Reb Yid, I believe what you are doing is parrotting propaganda. There is no "essential" difference between a talmid chakham and a posek. It is just a matter of what areas one is expert in, and whether others find that his practical and legal judgment is reliable.

But if people are a priori *forbidden* to consult a talmid chakham who is not mainstream, then since he is not consulted he will never be able to considered a posek... :-) That is the Catch-22. It's a good propaganda tactit.

To "A Former Student:"

You may be confusing two different types of people. A posek is not the same as a talmid chacham. The former is widely or universally regarding as an authority, an expert on Jewish law. The latter, while perhaps quite knowledgeable, isn't an authority. So, let's say, a Professor Sperber, while possible possessing a fund of knowledge of Torah sources, would never be regarded as a posek. He's just too radical to be accepted by the broader Orthodox community. Further, your harking back to your YU education is incomplete. Surely, the same YU that taught you to seek out a posek also taught you the limits of that process.

You are 100% correct in all aspects of your post. Being a sholar or academic does not make one a posek. Sperber, Farber, etc., are never considered poskim.

A Former Student:

First, it isn't that he isn't mainstream, he does not deal psak halacha.
Second, Shalom had a Rebbi, that was Rabbi Wieder who thinks the practice is forbidden. Does a person need to follow his Rebbi on everything, possibly not. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein writes (Leaves of Faith, vol. 2 pp. 290-291:):

That right [to follow Rav Soloveitchik's approach to Judaism] is relevant not only to the Rav personally but to any declared member of his ideological community. Those who identify with his worldview and halakhic orientation can rightly regard their similar views as legitimized by his authority - with the proviso, of course, that they generally submit to that authority. They need not routinely accept every jot and tittle of his every ruling. While the Rashba spoke of communities "which have been accustomed to act consistently on the basis of the codes of the Rambam," it seems unlikely that this left no room for exceptions. He himself goes on to distinguish between the status of an accepted historical posek and that of a community's rav...

They should, however, meaningfully identify themselves as his followers. As is manifest from the Rashba's teshuva, to those who meet this standard, a gadol's authority extends beyond his lifetime. The post-mortal Rambam could, through his Mishneh Torah, still be decisive after several generations; and the Rav זצ"ל remains, even in death, a bulwark of his spiritual community. Just how long a protective shadow a gadol may cast deserves thought. Presumably, it should be confined to the duration of the continuous existence of the sociohistorical entity to which he had belonged and which had belonged to him. As regards the Rav זצ"ל, in any event, we are not at this juncture at the point of expiration.

Rav Aharon Lichteinstein acknowledges one need not always follow one's Rebbi on every little matter. In my opinion, it is very hard to argue radically altering the nature of tefilah b'tzibur would be considered a minor matter. See also the Chazon Ish Yoreh Deah 150:1.

David Berger, a Medieval Jewish Historian, is undermined by his own CV. He has a history of starting unnecessary and dangerous crusades (ironic for a Medievalist) against large groups of religious Jews. Remember, according to Dr. Berger any wine produced in Italy is not Kosher because the kashrut is run by Chabad, which he considers to be Avodah Zarah equivalent to Christianity. If you've ever davened at a Chabad house, you've worshiped Avodah Zarah, according to Dr. Berger's reasoning in his book about the Rebbe.
Dr. Berger is an ivory tower academic who should stop commenting on communal manner which do not concern him and who should stop demonizing all Jews except for the small pocket that surrounds him in YU.

Ely, Professor Berger's ideas are well articulated. It might be worth your while to respond to the content of his Op-Ed, not his C.V.

“One rabbi of stature, who, despite his genuinely impressive learning, has never been seen as a premier decisor of Jewish law, has argued for the acceptability of partnership minyanim, the majority of which call women to the Torah in the face of an apparently explicit prohibition in the Talmud and the codes. Every other Orthodox rabbi of stature in the world regards the practice as unacceptable, and the vast majority of these see it as a direct violation of halacha.”

Rabbi Berger, even if we grant your ungenerous recapitulation (for the sake of argument), something very severe has changed at YU. You may think it is not a good idea for someone to consult a Torah scholar of "genuinely impressive learning" who nevertheless "has never been seen as a premier decisor of Jewish law". But is not "aseh lekha rav" still a matter of individual conscience? Does a YU student no longer have the freedom to choose his rav freely? In my period as a semikhah student it would have been unimaginable for someone to be told that as a YU student I was forbidden to consult a serious talmid hakham of my choice, since he didn't meet the approval of the rashei yeshivah.

The YU I remember was one where you needed to know when to consult knowledgeable people, but you consulted was your own choice, and your choices were respected (even if they weren't mainstream).

On the other hand, it may be that the true underlying reason for your position is to make sure that "liberal" posekim can never develop, because from the outset it is forbidden to consult them since they are not recognized by the current posekim. Nice Catch 22, but not very honest.

Perhaps all that changed was that the caliber of students went up, and therefore the students started to understand what the Roshei Yeshiva had been saying all along.....your comment sound like "modern orthodoxy has moved to the right because the average person (or even Rabbi) no longer goes mixed swimming (=blatant violation of halacha.)

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