Photo Credit: Zev Eleff
Zev Eleff

Some people live many decades before writing their first book. Rabbi Zev Eleff achieved this milestone in college. Currently the chief academic officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Ill., Eleff is the author and editor of six books, including, most recently, “Who Rules the Synagogue” and “Modern Orthodox Judaism.” He is also one of the founders of Lehrhaus, an online forum designed to “generate thoughtful and dynamic discourse among individuals within the Orthodox community and beyond who enjoy exploring the depth and diversity of Jewish ideas.”

Eleff holds a doctorate degree in American Jewish History from Brandeis University and was recently featured in “Double Chai in the Chi: Chicago’s Jewish 36 Under 36″ list.

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The Jewish Press: What’s your background?

Eleff: I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home in Baltimore and later Chicago when my family moved. I attended flagship Modern Orthodox day schools; studied at Netiv Aryeh in Israel; went to Yeshiva College and graduated from its honors program; completed semicha at RIETS; got a Masters from Columbia Teacher’s College; married my wonderful wife, Melissa; and then trekked up to Boston where I was a doctoral student at Brandeis studying with Jonathan Sarna.

You are currently the chief academic officer of Hebrew Theological College. What exactly does that mean?

It means I oversee and develop all the undergraduate programs. There are two campuses, one for men and one for women. My charge is to raise the academic profile of this venerable 90-plus year institution that in 2015 merged with the Touro College and University System. I was the first appointment after that merger.

How many students currently study at the college? Are they Modern Orthodox? Yeshivish?

There are about 45 men on the men’s campus and 80 women on the other campus. There’s a myriad of backgrounds. I would say the common denominator, particularly on the men’s campus, is that they are looking for a more intimate college environment, something that is “out of town” and that can be nurturing but also challenging.

You are one of nine editors of Lehrhaus, an online forum you helped start last year. How would you define Lehrhaus’s aim?

Lehrhaus emerged as the brainchild of young scholars and writers who sought to fill a void in contemporary Orthodox discourse. The aim is to challenge basic narratives and offer sophisticated analysis of scholarly and present issues. Times are different from when Rabbi Norman Lamm [was writing in] Tradition in the 1950s or Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter launched the Torah U-Madda journal in 1989. There are new dilemmas, new challenges, new encounters, and we decided that the best forum to do that is online. And so far so good. To date we’ve published about 150 peer-reviewed articles, mostly by young women and men, some of which have received tens of thousands of readers.

The word “Lehrhaus,” for some, immediately calls to mind the Lehrhaus – or adult Jewish education center – started in 1920 by the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig in Frankfurt, Germany. Were you hesitant to adopt the name “Lehrhaus” for your own forum considering Rosenzweig’s somewhat questionable Orthodox credentials?

Lehrhaus can be translated as beit midrash, which is in a sense what we’re doing. Did Rosensweig have a complicated legacy? Sure. But we seized the name because it had a certain level of intellectual currency to it, and, even more than that, it confirmed our commitment to Torah scholarship. At least from my point of view, it was meant to signify the Torah, the beit midrash, that is the center of our initiative.

Your Ph.D. thesis was published last year by Oxford University Press as Who Rules the Synagogue?: Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism. What’s the book’s main argument?

I argue that rabbis became the dominant religious leaders of the American synagogue and many of its important religious institutions in the 19th century. Previously the mighty parnass, or shul president, controlled the synagogue.

The synagogue in those days was at the center of religious life. The congregation controlled burial arrangements, access to kosher food, and Sabbath and Sunday schools. So much was governed under the auspices of the local congregation – and so was the rabbinic functionary, who received nothing longer than a one- or two-year contract. Supply and demand had it that there were enough men in Europe that this functionary was expendable – as many rabbis quickly found out. It was a culture of a lay dominance in which the rabbi didn’t have much chance to thrive until the 1850s.

In time, though, a talented class of rabbis who were not easily replaceable assumed greater control. A flurry of new synagogues and prayer books, and the crisis of authority wrought by the Civil War, all played into the hands of the rabbinic leaders.

In 2008 you edited Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. People have widely divergent views of Rav Soloveitchik. Some regard him as basically a modern thinker who happened to be a rosh yeshiva. Others take the opposite view – that he was essentially a rosh yeshiva who just happened to know a lot of philosophy. Who, in your view, was the real Rav Soloveitchik?

I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and I return time and again to my editor’s introduction to that book where I compare Rabbi Soloveitchik to some of history’s great intellectuals. Take Socrates, for example. We only know Socrates through his student Plato. He’s not refracted through any other author or piece of literature. But we presume that Plato was able to capture his mentor’s wisdom and ability.

In our time, there are so many students and family members who had a relationship with Rabbi Soloveitchik that he is refracted through many different lenses. And Rabbi Soloveitchik was such a towering personality that it seems to me that no single vantage point was able to capture all that he was. Also, Rabbi Soloveitchik himself never wrote a manifesto [outlining] what he believed.

By the way, the current debates about Rav Soloveitchik are not too dissimilar from what occurred after the passing of, say, the Vilna Gaon or Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. After their passing as well there was a boom in publishing their works and their disciples vociferously debated their legacies.

What’s interesting to me is that I’ve yet to see a writer or a scholar attempt to blend the different parts of Rav Soloveitchik’s intellectual legacy. Too often we see, for example, scholars in Israel focusing on some of his theological or philosophical writings and students in the United States focusing on his chiddushim. Both are incredibly important. But what I haven’t seen too much of is trying to blend all these parts together, like Rav Soloveitchik did.

In your work Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History, you write that Modern Orthodoxy essentially began in the late 1960s under the leadership of Rabbi Norman Lamm. Nearly 60 percent of the 150 documents in this work, though, predate the late ‘60s. Why?

I divided the book into three different sections. The third one is called “A Modern Orthodox Movement.” But “Modern Orthodox” means an engagement, a panoramic view of Judaism’s place in the modern American context, so it would be impossible to understand this sub-community within the Orthodox Jewish world without understanding all the different interactions between American Orthodoxy and their modern American climes. So my book isn’t just about the movement. It’s about this amorphous category and interaction.

Your book features several documents related to women’s prayer groups, which was a hot topic in the 1980s. Back then, some people argued that Modern Orthodoxy must “get with the times” or else risk losing its adherents. Today, too, people argue that unless Modern Orthodoxy ordains female clergy – another topic featured in your book – it will risk becoming irrelevant in the 21st century. Yet, rather than Modern Orthodoxy dying because it did not embrace women’s prayer groups, it was the Orthodox women’s prayer group movement that essentially died. Will the Orthodox female rabbi movement go the same way?

My sense is that these movements are different. Women’s prayer emerged at a very interesting moment. Rabbi Soloveitchik had disappeared from the public scene, feminism in America was at a nadir, and the Jewish Theological Seminary had just decided to ordain women as rabbis. So it was a very inauspicious moment for Modern Orthodox Jews looking to creating a space for women prayer.

But these women came out of the mainstream. They were educated in Modern Orthodox day schools. They weren’t part of the so-called Left, Center, or Right. They were from all three. The [female rabbi] movement today is sprouting from the so-called Left, so its leadership is very different. Also, women prayer groups weren’t based in egalitarianism. They wanted to offer women a separate space. So I think it’s a mistake to equate the two programs.

If women’s prayer groups, which were less radical, failed to take off, what are the prospects of Orthodox female rabbis becoming acceptable?

I don’t know. Historians make for poor prophets. But you have to take into consideration that Orthodox Judaism doesn’t exist in isolation. Its development is relative to other movements in American Judaism and the general American religious ethos. And where we are today is very different from the 1980s. The social scaffoldings and intellectual underpinnings are different. So I wouldn’t say that because one was kiboshed, the other one will be too.

What I do see as a common denominator is that since the 1980s, the Modern Orthodox community has demonstrated laser-like focus on the role of women. That’s not a bad thing, but my concern is that it has come at a cost to other issues like religious Zionism and the role of the liberal arts in our homes and schools.

Your book closes with some documents relating to Open Orthodoxy. Considering some of its radical theological and halachic views, can it properly be included in Modern Orthodoxy?

In the book, I write of the need to separate halachic Judaism from religious movements. What constitutes Orthodoxy from a sociological point of view isn’t necessarily what the Rambam codified in his principles of faith. It’s how women and men who consider themselves Orthodox self-identify and who they include and exclude in their community. It’s not for the historian to decide who’s in and who’s out. It’s the historical actors themselves.

Isn’t that a dangerous definition of Orthodoxy – whatever those who identify as Orthodox say it is?

If a Zoroastrian were to write a blog post for Times of Israel claiming to be Modern Orthodox, obviously that wouldn’t count. Is it dangerous? Certainly, but history has a way of working itself out. Is it possible that we are watching a parting of the ways of a new movement? It’s possible, but these things take a long time and are hardly linear. They move back and forth.

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Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff writer, a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies, and the author, most recently, of “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 2.”