Edah’s founding in 1997, its ideology, and its activities in the ensuing nine years belong to and continue a history of rabbinic ideological debates that began more than two hundred years ago when modernity challenged rabbinic leadership and the Jewish community’s spiritual leaders in Europe believed the Torah way of life was under dire threat.
Edah was founded as a think tank to promote the vision of a Modern Orthodoxy passionately committed to Torah and mitzvot; in love with the entire Klal Yisrael; open to the richness of secular knowledge; dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in Torah, tefillah and community leadership; honoring the tzelem Elokim we share with all humanity; appreciating limits to halachic authority and seeking shared responsibility for governance in non-halachic decision-making; acknowledging the State of Israel as God’s hand manifest in history; and devoted to a halachic process where the goal is neither chumrah nor kulah but an understanding of the will of God in bringing kedusha into our daily lives.

Edah has had a threefold mission: First, clarify and disseminate these ideological positions as a way to celebrate diversity in Orthodoxy and to show how that diversity strengthens rather than weakens the Orthodox community. Second, model respectful debate on halachic and ideological matters within Orthodoxy, without name calling and without casting adversaries as illegitimate. Third, make the Torah of Orthodoxy more accessible to Jews of all stripes, everywhere.

Two Approaches in Europe

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Two broad divergent patterns of a rabbinic response to modernity emerged in the 19th century in Europe. The haredi path, led by the Chasam Sofer, saw Torah and modern culture as incompatible. To preserve Torah, according to this view, required maximum separation of the Torah community from the outside world – from the non-Jewish world as well as from the world of Jews who had rejected or were weakening halacha.

The Modern Orthodox path, under the leadership of chachamim such as Rabbis Jacob Ettlinger, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Seligman Baer Bamberger and Azriel Hildesheimer, saw Torah as able and needing to inform modern culture. To preserve Torah, they maintained, it was best to shape a limited integration between the wisdom of Torah and the genius of secular and scientific knowledge, between the Orthodox community and the rest of Am Yisrael, and between halacha and the cultural conditions and spiritual challenges of modernity.

Two Experiments in America

The churban of European Jewish life in World War II moved what had theretofore been a debate largely within the European rabbinic world over to Israel and America. By the mid-1950’s, the two sides of this broad controversy differed precisely around the same seven issues that had been controversial a century earlier: the relationship of Orthodoxy to non-Orthodox movements; Orthodoxy’s attitude toward secular education; the questions of whether women should study Talmud and what women’s religious and public roles ought to be; the relationship of Torah Jews to non-Jews; Orthodoxy’s attitude toward democratic values (the Da’at Torah issue); the attitude toward religious political Zionism as embodied in the State of Israel; and the question of legal stringency (chumrah) as an ideal.

From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1970’s, both approaches, haredi and Modern Orthodox, succeeded beyond expectations. Eventually, however, the debasement of the low secular culture in America and in Israel drove many Modern Orthodox Jews toward the separatist, haredi position. Modern Orthodoxy seemed unable to cope with what at the time appeared to be overwhelming challenges modernity presented to Modern Orthodox Jews who were actively living and raising families within the secular culture.

By 1995, Modern Orthodoxy was in crisis. The lead American institutions of Modern Orthodoxy had been reoriented toward the separatist, haredi ideology. For many who resisted the separatist shift, being Modern Orthodox had come simply to mean not being as frum. Modern Orthodox Jews were feeling isolated and besieged. Modern Orthodoxy seemed to have lost both its identity and its way.

Emergence of Edah

We founded Edah in 1997 as a think tank to restore the essential elements of Modern Orthodox ideology. Edah was not formed as a critique of haredi Orthodoxy but as a critique of the Modern Orthodox neglect of its own distinctive ideological positions.

We recognized from the outset that a strong haredi community contributed to the strength of Modern Orthodoxy as well as to the well being of the entire Jewish people. We believed, however, with equal conviction, that a strong Modern Orthodox community, committed to tolerance and diversity, would contribute to the well being of both the haredi community and to the entire Jewish people.

Simply put, we believed that strengthening the Torah way of life required the most honest expression of Modern Orthodox ideology.

We began with a website and publications to provide a clear picture of Modern Orthodox ideology. We arranged for a small conference to explore Torah life as it applied to the reality of secular America and Israel. We hoped open discourse between rabbis, scholars and lay people was the best way to help the Modern Orthodox community reconstitute itself and address its problems.

Our plan in February 1999 for a gathering of 300 people snowballed into a two-day conference of 1,500 men and women, at which more than 75 study and discussion sessions were overwhelmed by the number of people clamoring for attendance, and by the intensity and openness of the debate they brought to the sessions.

Samuel G. Freedman later described that conference in his book Jew Vs. Jew as the moment “the Modern Orthodox movement climbed back up from its knees. at was the beginning.

Ideological Explorations

As Edah’s work proceeded we began to excavate the halachic and hashkafic antecedents of the seven ideological positions of Modern Orthodoxy to reveal the affirmative values on which they are based:

(1) When Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer and others favored Orthodoxy working alongside Reform in common community organizations, they saw the divine command of ahavat Yisrael as applying to all Jews – even “sinners” – and understood ahavat Yisrael not as pious preachment but as legal principle on which to base communal decision-making.

(2) To study natural and social phenomena is to penetrate to the truth of God’s creation – to fulfill the Torah duty of “knowing God.” At stake regarding general, secular study is not whether it constitutes bittul Torah but to recognize that so many great talmidei chachamim studied medicine, science, literature and history because they wished to “know God.”

(3) Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg required the halachic principle of kevod habriyot to factor into religious decisions related to women in modern times. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, enthusiastically encouraged women’s study of Torah and Talmud because they maintained women’s Torah study fulfilled the mitzvot deoraita of loving and fearing God.

(4) With rare exception, chachamim affirmed that all human beings share the same tzelem Elokim since all descend from the same couple fashioned in the divine image. Regarding the bias Torah permits against idolaters, Meiri demonstrated (and was upheld by many sages) that those biases pertained only to ancient pagans, not to persons under the civilizing impress of Noachite commandments. Torah demands for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, etc., the same humane treatment it accords to fellow Jews.

(5) Modern Orthodoxy resists rabbinic authority’s spread into arenas of public policy beyond the parameters of halacha. Those who govern Jewish communities in Torah’s light must leave to the governed as much as possible their own, autonomous decision making. Obeying authority alone would quash the necessary quality of free, personal choice when Jews serve God.

(6) Rabbi Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook taught that the building of the purely material strength of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel was a religious act. He believed the Jewish people residing in their land are authorized to appoint a government, which has halachic powers of a king of Israel. Agree or disagree with the details, but to feel in this moment God partnering with the Jewish people in building (perhaps slowly) a fully perfected Jewish state is an essential element of Modern Orthodox consciousness.

(7) Stringency (chumrah) in halacha may enforce uniform practice, lower the risk of disobedience and reduce sensual temptation – all sensible concerns. Modern Orthodoxy wants poskim to focus on neither chumrah nor kulah, but on the use of mitzvot to achieve spiritual transformation – to bring kedushah into our daily lives through consciousness of God and His values.

Edah’s Achievements

Nine years later, what has Edah accomplished? As to our first goal, to clarify and disseminate the integrationist ideology, we believe Edah has changed the conversation in the Modern Orthodox community. Through conferences – four international, four in Israel, eight regional – five years of courses at the Manhattan JCC, and regular publication of the Edah Journal, Edah has created a new arena of thought on issues of Modern Orthodoxy, validated the legitimacy of Modern Orthodox positions within the mesoret, and presented them with a persuasive power previously lacking.

Educated Jews don’t speak of the halachic attitude toward non-Jews, for example, without reference to Dr. Moshe Halbertal’s Edah Journal article on the Meiri’s position on idolatry. Nor could someone speak intelligently about women’s role in the synagogue without reference to the debate in the Edah Journal among Rabbis Mendel Shapiro, Yehuda Henkin and Daniel Sperber. Dr. Samuel Heilman’s keynote address at the 2005 Edah Conference opened discussion, long before his book became available, on how American low culture effects the Modern Orthodox community. We could go on.

Each side of the haredi/Modern Orthodox divide believes its approach bespeaks the divine will, and each side believes its approach is a better strategy to keep Jews alive to Torah and mitzvot. At Edah we believe both sides express the divine will, but that each speaks more effectively to a different, important segment of the Jewish people. We believe this application of elu v’elu diversity is an asset for the Torah world and for the Jewish people.

Our second goal, to model respectful intellectual disagreement, has been, we are proud to say, quite well achieved. In our conferences and publications, we repeatedly said our purpose was not to criticize other Jews but to make the best affirmative, persuasive case for Modern Orthodoxy.

We wanted not to weaken others with whom we disagreed but to strengthen all serious Jews as we build a persuasive case for what we hold is right. Jews of all stripes have participated in our programs and experienced a sense of being welcome as Jews irrespective of their differences with us.

As for our third goal, to provide access to Torah to all Jews, the Edah website, www.Edah.org, continues to receive in excess of 300,000 clicks per month from people all over the world. The website is visited for its weekly Parsha video; video lectures of all sorts; the Modern Orthodox Library, a large and growing bibliography on Orthodox ideas; op-ed articles and divrei Torah; guidance on how to shape community institutions according to Modern Orthodox values; the Edah electronic Journal; and a variety of other resources.

Edah to Close

Now that the Edah think tank has achieved many of its original objectives, and the Modern Orthodox community has matured and stabilized, Edah is electing to wind down. We founded Edah when Modern Orthodoxy’s identity had become thin and its energy weak. The current reality is different.

The central organizations of Modern Orthodoxy – Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Orthodox Union, and the Rabbinical Council of America – are now in the hands of leaders with a clear, personal Modern Orthodox identity. We need not agree with every policy they and their organizations promote but they, collectively, bring firm identity and strong energy to promulgating Modern Orthodoxy’s vision.

The next phase of the Modern Orthodox program is less about clarifying ideas and more about building and fortifying institutions. We see our advocacy as having been heard by adherents and opponents alike; we see our initiatives as becoming widely emulated and our vision as deeply planted. We have substantially achieved our initial purpose. We don’t see the need for the Jewish community to bear the burdens of yet another Jewish institution, because we believe the instruments we created for the promotion of Modern Orthodoxy will now be furthered by incumbent organizations and their leaders without our having any longer to make the case.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah will absorb and develop three major Edah projects – the Journal, the website and the audio-visual library. Edah’s adult education program at the Manhattan JCC will continue for this coming year. We are in conversation with other Modern Orthodox institutions here and in Israel about the remaining projects.

Personally, I will, with God’s help, continue teaching at Stern College for Women and at Columbia University Law School. I have also accepted directorship of Continuing Rabbinic Education at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah where I will work to sustain the intellectual and spiritual growth of its musmachim – 26 thus far in rabbinic positions in Orthodox synagogues, Hillel Foundations and yeshiva high schools across North America. These men represent much of the next generation’s leadership of Modern Orthodoxy, and it will be my honor to guide them.

As for the haredi/Modern Orthodox divide, we leave it in better shape, we believe, than we found it. Orthodox Jews have stopped shouting as much. We have a clearer example of what it looks like to consider opposing ideologies.

We take pride in knowing that Edah has served its purpose well – and that its message and outlook will continue to be pursued energetically by those whom Edah inspired. The organization will close; the vision will continue to grow.

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