Last week’s announcement by two prominent Modern Orthodox yeshivas that they will permit female students to put on tefillin is just the latest indication of a widening schism among Modern Orthodox Jews. For a concise overview of recent developments, see Uriel Heilman’s article, Tefillin Controversy Latest Sign of Emerging Orthodox Schism.
And while debate over halachic permissibility has been the focus of this newest controversy, the issue itself has brought to the fore a crisis facing the Modern Orthodox movement. Briefly, there seem to be few universally accepted standards as to precisely what constitutes Modern Orthodoxy and, perhaps more significantly, a crisis of leadership has become apparent.
The movement’s outliers, apparently intent on defying consensus and going where none have gone before, are rarely confronted, at least publicly, by mainstream Modern Orthodox leaders. Thus the new becomes the norm and the movement changes by accretion. Clearly, the Modern Orthodoxy envisioned and informed by the teachings of the great Torah leader Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, has been gradually disappearing before our eyes.
We are not unmindful of the many social pressures – particularly those emanating from Orthodox feminist circles – that drive the outliers. But for the community of the Ribbono Shel Olam, which believes in the centrality and transcendence of halacha, the questions of who decides for us and by what process are on a par with what is decided.
Halachic decisions affecting the community are not properly made by self-appointed agents of a popular movement. That is a function of those with the greatest erudition in the Talmud and halachic sources, and even within that august grouping consensus building is central.
And so, in the face of this latest assault on the Modern Orthodoxy envisioned by the Rav, we find disheartening the relative silence of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Only these institutions and individuals, as the flagships of Modern Orthodoxy, have the standing and influence to stanch the movement’s creeping leftward drift.
As the old maxim has it, shtikah kehoda’ah – silence is assent.