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Determining The Parameters Of Modern Orthodoxy
Mon, 03/31/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
David Berger
David Berger

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 (yeshiva leaders) 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 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 advisers with formal, synagogue-sponsored positions in areas of family purity. A prenuptial 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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If the girls at bat mitzvah cannot be called to the Torah, then such "celebrations" can never be said to "rival bar mitzvahs". ---Mark Berch

With all due respect, the penultimate paragraph of this essay is truly insulting to the intelligence of the readers. Is there even a meaningful minority of YU affiliated Orthodox synagogues where a bat mitzvah can give her speech from the bimah, where a yoetzet halachah is a member of the clergy staff, where women with advanced Talmudic degrees lead shiurim or kollel classes? Let's also not forget that the RCA does NOT require its member rabbis to use the pre- and post-nuptial agreement, and some Orthodox synagogues will not allow events encouraging their members to sign such agreements on their premises - all this points to the uncomfortable rift in the Modern Orthodox world with a significant right-leaning portion that seeks legitimacy from the Agudah and the charedi world. These "changes" aren't banked by critics - they are noted for their paucity.