The People vs. Moses
view counter
Modern Orthodoxy At A Crossroads

The movement tries both to preserve rabbinic authority and allow for intellectual freedom and the expression of diverse viewpoints.

Tue, 03/04/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Steven Bayme
Steven Bayme

Thankfully, the recent controversy at Yeshiva University over a rabbinical student who had held a private “partnership minyan” in his home has been resolved satisfactorily, and hopefully without harm either to the student or to the critically important institution that he attends. Cooler heads, fortunately, have prevailed. Yet the fact of the controversy itself raises broader questions concerning the future directions of Modern Orthodoxy and its role within the American Jewish community.

Modern Orthodoxy generally dates its origins to 19th-century Germany and its rabbinic leader Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch argued for upholding the integrity of Jewish law in contemporary society. Nonetheless he embraced modern culture in so-called “neutral” areas — dress, politics, secular education — in which personal conscience could prevail. To be sure, some on Rabbi Hirsch’s left criticized this approach as bifurcating Torah values and general cultural norms and called instead for a distinctive synthesis between these two very different value systems. Nonetheless, Rabbi Hirsch departed sharply from haredi Orthodoxy, whose leaders argued for “Daas Torah,” meaning that all questions — halachic or extra-halachic — must be submitted to Talmudic authorities whose views were binding. For example, the latter generally rejected secular culture save for utilitarian purposes of earning a living.

It is in this context of what constitutes “modern” and what constitutes “haredi” Orthodoxy that the recent rabbinical student controversy carries great significance. In the fall of 1977, Yeshiva University appointed a new dean of its Division of Communal Services and convened a symposium of its rabbinical alumni to mark the occasion. Featured speakers were the renowned social scientist Charles Liebman and the acclaimed philosopher David Hartman, both of blessed memory. Each spoke brilliantly and critically on trends within contemporary Orthodoxy. In closing the symposium, the incoming dean added an astute observation: He noted the growing trend for local rabbis to issue rulings, which congregational laymen then appealing to their roshei yeshiva, who in turn felt free to overrule the local rabbi.

Dean Vic Geller declared that he and his colleagues were determined to reverse that trend. Presumably they realized that the trend was rooted far more in the culture of the haredi world than in the Modern Orthodox communities they were determined to enhance.

Unfortunately, the recent controversy suggests that the precise opposite has occurred. The letter to the student issued by the acting dean of Yeshiva’s rabbinical school, Rabbi Marc Penner, suggests that local rabbis do not possess such authority. All questions, in his view, must be submitted to roshei yeshiva for adjudication. Presumably these men, albeit far removed from local conditions and needs, are more qualified to issue pronouncements, and their views must be considered binding.

Remarkably, Rabbi Penner extends this mandated process to “areas of established Jewish custom and public ritual … even when there are no purely Halachic issues at stake.” To take this logic to its conclusion, the local rabbi must consult respected Talmudic scholars before taking the liberty of inviting public officials or guest scholars to address the congregation. Similarly, if a rabbi wishes to compose a sermon based on Jewish historical experience, theoretically he need consult not the history books but the Talmudic scholar!

Why is this significant? First, demographically, Orthodoxy is on the rise in American Jewry today. It can contribute enormously to enriching Jewish life. Yet an Orthodoxy governed so narrowly will only prove alienating to so many who stand to learn from it. Leaders of partnership minyanim found sanction for their practice among halachic authorities — not the ones referenced in Rabbi Penner’s letter but others of impeccable scholarly credentials. They merit communal support rather than condemnation for their efforts to synthesize tradition with modern culture.

Second, Orthodox leaders, like all Jews, must confront the reality, documented by the recent Pew Research Center report, that assimilation poses our single greatest danger. Currents and movements that enable Jews to connect more seriously with Judaic tradition deserve encouragement. Orthodox rabbis open to exchange and dialogue on these issues have the opportunity to play a most constructive role within Jewish communities. By contrast, Orthodox rabbis who segregate themselves from such currents may well find themselves alone in a “purist” Orthodoxy acceptable to their roshei yeshiva, but not to the broader Jewish community.

Last, professor Liebman, while teaching at YU decades ago, argued that freedom within the haredi world meant consulting the “gedolim” or Talmudic authorities. That definition of freedom admittedly possesses the virtues of consistency and clarity of direction. Prof. Liebman noted, however, that the wisdom of the gedolim on the major questions of Zionism, immigration to the U.S., and secular education had been proven wrong by history. By contrast, Modern Orthodoxy treads a far more difficult path of seeking both to preserve rabbinic authority yet constrain that authority so as to allow for intellectual freedom and expression of diverse viewpoints. Modern Orthodox leaders today may choose to engage modern culture and thereby exercise leadership on the critical questions of gender equality, conversion to Judaism, Jewish education, intra-Jewish relations, and the challenges of contemporary biblical scholarship to traditional faith, to say nothing of Israel’s future as a Jewish state.

Alternatively, they may opt to shelter themselves in the cloister of an Orthodoxy far removed from the social and intellectual currents of modernity. My hope is that Modern Orthodox leaders will opt for the former course. My fear is that the latter course will prevail, to the detriment of the collective Jewish interest.

Steven Bayme is national director of the American Jewish Committee’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department.

Get The Jewish Week Newsletter

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


I would argue that submitting my opinions to those wiser and greater in knowledge than myself is liberating, not confining in the slightest. The straw man, as it has been correctly termed, is that there is less intellectual freedom when consulting with the Gedolim. In the academic world, why is there a necessity for phD's, professors, and other such titles? It's because they learned for years and became experts in their field. In a slightly similar way, our Gedolim, which date back many many centuries all the way to Moshe, not just in the past 75 years, for heaven's sakes, are imbued with this knowledge, insight, and instinct by dint of their own committment to their studies and the character refinement necessary to attain that wisdom. It's also because of who they learned from. Communicating this tradition to the masses, is precisely what many Americans are craving- clarity, direction, and sensitivity, all of which our rich Torah tradition speaks to as is evidenced by how many are returning to traditional Orthodoxy over the past many decades. Sorry, Mr. Bayme, I can bring just as many examples of who embrace our Gedolim and are in awe of their refinement and wisdom and are not running the other way. The committment to tradition, halachic and otherwise is what the masses are thirsting for.

To give over one's decisions to others may be "liberating," but for many *modern* orthodox they accept -- and welcome -- making their decisions within a system that accepts multiple points of view. This is pluralism. It is evident throughout the Talmud too. The idea that a centralized authority should make decisions for others, is not wrong by any means, it is just not how modern orthodoxy has developed in the past -- where decisions have been community based and decentralized. Surely, what might work in a large community, might not work in a much smaller one. Some elements of discretion are therefore needed --- of course, within a halachik framework.

Your point about the Ph.d, seems to go wide of the mark. A person with an advanced research degree has demonstrated a capacity to do original research. And there are multiple -- and frequently conflicting conclusions -- that those with this terminal degree reach. There is no grand Ph.D. who is so enlightened that all defer to his wisdom. The academic world is a model of pluralism -- not hierarchical authority.

It is noteworthy that so many have missed the forest for the trees in this essay. It is, as I read it, a defense of pluralism within *modern* orthodoxy. Indeed, the subtext might be *modern* orthodoxy circa 1970s versus today. Any older reader 45+ will surely recognize the changes that distinguish that period from the present. Indeed, the great challenges -- seen at the educational and organizational levels -- will not be cured by simply watching orthodoxy grow and preferring inaction. Centrist institutions will fail, or be significantly harmed; drop-out rates will rise; and orthopraxy will mask questions of basic belief in the pursuit of just wanting to fit in -- but will weaken the transmission from generation to generation. So these issues should be discussed, and considered, and not summarily dismissed -- in my opinion.

I think Rabbi Avraham Gordimer's response is spot-on:

"Taking a step back, Dr. Bayme’s position reveals a vision of Orthodoxy which is in effect crafted to one’s liking, where Torah authority takes a back seat to one’s personal religious path and practice and whomever he or she selects as the local rabbi, beyond whose desk issues may not pass for consultation with those more expert. * * * Divorcing Orthodoxy from the counsel of preeminent Torah authorities may be empowering and creative, but Orthodox it is not."

Yes, but what happens if "Rov Hatzibur" is so alienated from the Orthodoxy that is counseled by the "preeminent Torah authorities" as evidenced by the Pew study that the Halachic admonition of "Ein Gozrim Gezara Aleah Im Ken Rov Hatzibur Yachol Lamod Boah" that a Bet Din or Torah authority does not promulgate a regulation that will in reality be kept by the majority of the "Congregation". What happens when one Torah Authority after another acts with reckless disregard for that Halachic admonition? Does the Halacha envision a small central core of the "faithful" or a broad based coalition where the lowest acceptable common denominator rules the day. Don't be so quick to dismiss Dr. Bayme's comments - right or wrong they are significant and worthy of a broader debate, even within the context of Halacha.

Actually the habit of referring an issue to the Gedolah HaTorah is even a recent development in the Charedi World, somewhere between the Hofetz Haim and Rabbi Shach the Litvaks adopted the Hasidic way of asking the "Rebbe" approval on every matter. In the non Charedi world it's unheard , and it's just another sign of the Charedization of the whole Orthodox world.

Another example why the AJC is largely irrelevant to American Jewish life.

To characterize the Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy, of Rabbi Hirsch as having opposed Daas Torah, is so far off the mark-that it is ludicrous. Any reasonable examination of his strongly held opinion, esp. in regard to "austriit" shows how Rabbi Hirsch believed that his community SHOULD follow his "daas torah" to use the phrase. I don't even know if the term as we use it today was even in vogue at that time. Mr. Bayme has created a straw man that doesn't stand on its own 2 feet.

Orthodox does not have to change. The definition of orthodox is to maintain a certain way of existence. There's no need for change. They will plant themselves seeds to fill their own ranks.

So if I don't go in for the latest boundary-pushing fad, I am opting "to shelter (myself) in the cloister of an Orthodoxy far removed from the social and intellectual currents of modernity" - ?? This author seems to assume Orthodoxy is somehow negative, and needs "fixing"; as an Ivy-league educated, professional Orthodox woman, I disagree.

My husband and I went to Ivy league schools, we have good careers, and our kids are getting a great education -within their Orthodox school. Just because we're not trying to redefine Orthodoxy and push the limits of what's deemed acceptable, in no way means we're atavistic, stupid, unenlightened and harmful relics - as this author seems to imply!

As unimpressed as I was with the article, I am extremely impressed with the comments of the readers here. They covered just about all of my issues with the article. I would just add that the left wing of the modern Orthodox movement appears to be headed toward repeating two of the most devastating mistakes of the Conservative Movement: (1) Elevating feminist and egalitarian concerns over the integrity of halakhah; and (2) Treating every person who passed an ordination exam as equally competent to decide major halakhic issues independent of the opinions of the majority of experts.

I always have felt that one of the main problems with modern Orthodoxy is a tendency of its constituents to see halakhot as burdens restricting the things they really would prefer to do. For example, Shabbat prevents us from watching TV, texting, and going to the movies. Laws of kashrut and tzniut restrict our vacation choices. And the laws under attack now stop our women from performing for a mass audience in the synagogue.

What the left wing wants is "Rabbis" who have the "courage" to limit these restrictions on our western liberal values and freedoms, the "courage" to use their Rabbinical degrees to effect meaningful change without regard to either precedent or the opinions of those far more qualified.

Sadly, the modern Orthodox world already seems to be headed toward the type of lack of observance so prevalent in Conservative Judaism. How many of our teenagers must place texting over Shabbat or completely go off the derekh before we acknowledge that greater immersion in the secular world and secular culture and secular values is not the path to a more vibrant Judaism, but is the path to the death of halakhic observance altogether.

Steven bayme wrote: "Leaders of partnership minyanim found sanction for their practice among halachic authorities — not the ones referenced in Rabbi Penner’s letter but others of impeccable scholarly credentials. They merit communal support rather than condemnation for their efforts to synthesize tradition with modern culture."

The problem with this statement is that it is not accurate. The sources for those who operate "partenership minyanim" are academic papers written by R. Mendel Shapiro and R. Daniel Sperber, neither of whom are congregational Rabbis. And the papers were never designated as "piskei halacha" decisions of Jewish law by the authors. One relying on them is doing the very thing that Mr. Bayme complains of, relying on the Rosh Yeshiva (or the academic scholar). It comes down to a choice between the two, and the halachic authority wins out, even in the modern orthodox halachic system.

In reality, R. Sperber does have a congregation. I don't know about R. Shapiro. I have heard R. Sperber speak. It seems to me that he wasn't speaking 'just theoretically,' but meant his opinion to be used.

Please do not sully the sterling reputation if Rav Hirsh ZT"L see In 1876, Edward Lasker (a Jewish parliamentarian in the Prussian Landtag) introduced the "Secession Bill" (Austrittsgesetz), which would enable Jews to secede from a religious congregation without having to relinquish their religious status. The law was passed on July 28, 1876. Despite the new legislation, a conflict arose whether "Austritt" (secession) was required by Jewish law. Hirsch held this was mandatory, even though it involved a court appearance and visible disapproval of the Reform-dominated "Main Community" (Grossgemeinde). Please also see his response in Shemesh Marpeh vis a vis the halakhic stance on the issue- His foresight was prophetic .

"By contrast, Orthodox rabbis who segregate themselves from such currents may well find themselves alone in a “purist” Orthodoxy acceptable to their roshei yeshiva, but not to the broader Jewish community."

Steve Bayme is way off base on this. The vast majority of modern orthodox Jews strongly oppose these "currents".

I think the very statement of the author that "an Orthodoxy governed so narrowly will only prove alienating to so many who stand to learn from it." could well show that his concern is more about what people think than what actual law is - which should strike a warning toll with anyone who has fear of G-d. You don't change Torah to make it more palatable; you don't water it down to get more constituents...

Mr. Bayme sounds like someone who hasn't spent much time studying the writings or Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He didn't believe that personal conscience should prevail in "neutral" areas, he believed that these areas can and should be used as means of serving G-d! There is a huge difference.

1. The reductio ad absurdum argument falls flat. No one, not even Penner, is suggesting that a pulpit rabbi can't make a move without consulting gedolim. At the same time, even Bayme would have to admit that weighty issues have to be tackled by the legal experts. One's primary doctor can handle routine medical problems, but complicated issues are often referred to experts at major university centers.

2. The author admits that Orthodoxy is growing, but at the same time, states that reliance on gedolim instead of local rabbis, which he admits has also been growing for the same period of time, threatens the growth? It sounds like it's rather enhancing the growth!

3. The author knows full well that Judaism isn't an empty concept whose implementation is molded to ensure the maximum number of adherents. It's a reality that we are continually striving to understand. If the gadol is right and the pulpit rabbi is wrong, then so be it, even if that means that some potential adherents might be turned off by the unfortunate authenticity.

4. "the wisdom of the gedolim on the major questions of Zionism, immigration to the U.S., and secular education had been proven wrong by history"
Really? Does he know how many Jews lost their lives because of the wars of the State of Israel? How many Jews abandoned Torah because of America's freedoms? How many Orthodox Jews enter college and come out something else?

5. The author implies that mainstream halachic authorities have approved of partnership minyanim. In fact, none has done so, not even the leaders of Open Orthodoxy.

Bayme is completely out of his league on this issue. These are halachic matters that need to be left to the halachic authorities. I look forward to his next article on Jewish history which is his field of expertise.

As to your claim that Modern Orthodoxy in America in General, and specifically at YU, traces itself back to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, please see these articles:

Between Bennett and Amsterdam avenues: the complex American legacy of Samson Raphael Hirsch

American Orthodoxy's Lukeworm Embrace of the Hirschian Legacy

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.