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September 3, 2014 / 8 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘orthodox’

Rivka Haut, Women of the Wall Co-Founder and Agunot Advocate, Dies

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Rivka Haut, a foremost advocate for agunot, Orthodox women who have been refused a religious divorce and also a founder of the Women of the Wall founder was buried this week after she succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 71.

At the Women of the Wall prayer service on Tuesday, the worshipers recited Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, in memory of Haut.

She led a group of women in a prayer service with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall 26 years ago and later helped found Women of the Wall, which continues to hold a monthly morning prayer service at the Kotel.

Haut also was a founder of the Women’s Tefillah Network.

She was the co-author of four books, “Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue,” with Rabbi Susan Grossman; “Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site,” with Phyllis Chesler; “Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy,” with Adena Berkowitz; and a forthcoming book about agunot with Susan Aranoff.

Berkowitz in a Facebook post wrote of an encounter she had leaving Haut’s funeral, “I was stopped by an older woman with a sheitel. … With an ache in her voice and soul she said to me, ‘Who will now be there for all the agunot? Rivka is irreplaceable.’”

Haut had master’s degrees in English literature from Brooklyn College and in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Saying Yes (And No) to Limmud

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Limmud NY, a large gathering of a wide variety of Jews for studying Torah and Jewish topics, will take place next weekend and while there must be an Orthodox presence, there also needs to be an Orthodox refusal to attend.

Recently, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis made news by attending a Limmud conference in England late last year. While it is widely understood (although unconfirmed) that attendance was an unofficial precondition for the office of chief rabbi, thereby guaranteeing that whoever was appointed would attend, the appearance of so important an Orthodox figure at Limmud generated controversy. Rightly so; his appearance was important and so was the controversy.

I see three main issues with attending Limmud. The first is the legitimacy given to the non-Orthodox teachers. Personally, I would be honored to speak at an event where the chief rabbi is speaking. My name appearing on the same list as his would mean – to me and to the world – that I had made it to the big leagues; that while I may not have his title, his scholarship or his talents, I am still at least within shouting distance of one of the most important rabbis in the world.

In reality, I am not in that league and have not appeared with him. But, speaking personally, doing so would give me great honor.

I do not believe the chief rabbi, or any important Orthodox figure, should be granting that honor to someone who does not share our core beliefs about Torah, regardless of denominational affiliation (affiliation is much less important than beliefs and practice). A non-believer, or for that matter an unrepentant sinner, should not be raised on an Orthodox pedestal (see Aruch Ha-Shulchan, Yoreh De’ah 243:4). The chief rabbi represents the Torah. His honor is the Torah’s and the people whom he honors are the people whom the Torah honors.

(I recognize I am unfairly picking on the chief rabbi. Please keep reading to see a fuller picture.)

Additionally, if Orthodox rabbis widely embrace Limmud, the Orthodox laity will follow in large numbers. Of course, some will come regardless. But when the Orthodox leadership encourages attendance – whether explicitly or implicitly – many more will come.

The nature of Limmud is that teachers (speakers, presenters, I’m not sure what term they use) represent a broad spectrum of Judaism. Many, currently most, base their teachings on beliefs that Orthodox Jews consider heresy. They will speak about the human authors of the Torah, the bias of the Sages, the immorality of halacha and choosing whether to follow even basic biblical laws. Some will do this directly and some only in passing. Even the most sensitive and sincere teachers will often incorporate their non-Orthodox attitudes within their teachings. The most innocuous subject may include subversive theological ideas, often unintentionally (see Rema, Yoreh De’ah 153:1Chelkas Mechokek, Even Ha-Ezer 22:6).

If the Orthodox leadership permits attendance at Limmud, it will effectively be permitting Orthodox Jews to study Judaism under non-Orthodox teachers. It will be encouraging the spread of heresy among the faithful. Of course, many Orthodox Jews will be able to intellectually deflect these foreign assumptions and beliefs, perhaps even growing stronger from the challenge. But ideas have wings; they excite and inspire. This is especially true when the intellectual match is uneven, when the non-Orthodox best and brightest are teaching the Orthodox not-so-best and not-so-brightest. There is a risk, a very real risk, that some Orthodox Jews will become enchanted by the passionate spokespeople of non-Orthodox Judaism.

I am not saying that non-Orthodox scholars have nothing to teach us. Quite the opposite. They offer a fresh perspective that will take us out of our comfort zones and force us to look anew at well-worn texts. It is precisely because they have much to teach us that we have to be very careful about the unconscious and insidious de-sanctification of sacred texts.

Pew Survey Indicates Orthodox Growth, Non-Orthodox Decline

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

The rate at which America’s Orthodox Jewish population is growing — and the non-Orthodox population is shrinking — is more dramatic than previously thought, according to Pew Research Center survey data.

In a finding first reported Tuesday in the Forward, Steven M. Cohen, a Jewish sociologist, parsed the data from the center’s recent survey of American Jews to show that 27 percent of Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox households, a sizable increase from Jews aged 18-29, where only 11 percent are Orthodox.

Previously published Pew data did not indicate the proportion of Jewish children in Orthodox homes, the Forward reported, and instead suggested that growth among the Orthodox was tempered by high dropout rates.

For every 100 Orthodox Jewish 50-year-olds, there are 230 Orthodox 10-year-olds, Cohen told JTA. Meanwhile, for every 100 non-Orthodox 50-year-olds, there are 70 non-Orthodox 10-year-olds.

“The Orthodox are moving in one direction and the non-Orthodox in the other direction,” he said, adding that the shift is “equally a function of birth rate and intermarriage.”

Orthodox Jews have far more children on average and intermarry at much lower rates than non-Orthodox Jews.

“We knew from [New York’s Jewish community study in 2012] that the Orthodox were increasing, and I’d been predicting a population decline for the non-Orthodox, but we just had never seen direct evidence of it,” Cohen said. “This is powerful.”

I’m a Feminist and the Women of the Wall Don’t Represent Me

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Ha’aretz reported that a group of activists from the Women of the Wall organization are opposed to an Israeli governmental proposal to permit Reform Jewish congregants to have their own area to pray, independent from where both Orthodox Jewish men and women pray. In other words, these activists rejected a compromise proposal that designates an area of the Kotel where they are permitted to pray as they desire, in order to insist that Orthodox Jewish men and women be forced to conduct their prayers surrounded by individuals who don’t respect their religious customs.

As a modern orthodox Jewish feminist, I am outraged by the behavior of these activists, who dirt the name of feminism by their actions. Just as Reform Jews feel that they should have the right to pray as they are used to at one of the holiest sites in the Jewish religion, Orthodox Jews feel the exact same way. Furthermore, while Reform Jews are religiously permitted to pray in accordance with the Orthodox tradition, Orthodox Jews aren’t permitted to pray in a Reform manner, since their prayer services must follow a certain format according to Jewish law.

Even though nothing bars a Reform Jew from praying at the Kotel in an Orthodox manner, the Israeli government was respectful enough to offer Reform Jews their own location at one of the holiest sites in Judaism in order to pray as they please, without disturbing others. But instead of jumping on the opportunity and saying thank you to the Israeli government, activists from the Women of the Wall organization aren’t content. Why? Because the compromise proposal permits Orthodox Jews to continue praying as they have for thousands of years and this bothers them. While they demand religious toleration from others, they refuse to give others the same favor in return.

While Women of the Wall claims that it is not egalitarian to pray in an Orthodox manner, I would like to remind them that Jews have been praying for thousands of years a certain way and changing the religion is not in the hands of men. We cannot decide in the place of G-d what is Jewish law, based upon modern trends. Even if we don’t understand everything in Judaism, G-d always makes things a certain way for a reason and humans should never question G-d.

Nevertheless, Judaism remains to be one of the most egalitarian religions today, as women are believed to be at a spiritually higher level than men and countless Jewish women have held prominent positions both in the Tanakh and throughout Jewish history. Moses granted Jewish women the right to inherit at a time when women having such rights were unheard of. Even if one doesn’t desire to obey Jewish law due to ones own Reform belief system, the bare minimum that one should be able to do is to respect others that wish to and to do as one likes in a location that won’t disturb others.

I also would like to point out to these individuals that there are many more pressing issues facing feminists today than whether or not Jewish women will be able to wear a Tallit like the men and host a so-called “egalitarian” prayer service at the Kotel. I call upon any one who believes that having “egalitarian” prayer services at the Kotel is the most pressing issue facing women today to take a look at the world that we live in.

Women are getting raped en masse in Syria, either by government forces or by Islamist rebels as part of their sexual jihad. Around 50 percent of Yemen’s brides are under the age of 18. The UN stated that over 5,000 women are murdered each year in honor crimes. 2,500 brides in India are burnt to death each year, primarily due to dissatisfaction over the dowry. One young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, was almost murdered by the Pakistani Taliban for insisting on young girls in her country having the right to have an education. Around 125,000,000 girls in Africa and the Middle East are victims of female genital mutilation.

Closer to home, hundreds of young underage Jewish girls are seduced by Arab men each year. Many of these cases evolve into abduction, rape, and abusive marriages. This problem is especially acute in Southern Israel, where sexual harassment by Bedouin men is a major issue. Furthermore, according to the OECD statistics, the Israeli police recorded 17.5 cases of rape within the country per 100,000 people within the Israeli population in 2012. There were only 9 OECD members who had worst statistics than these in regards to rape, one of them naturally being the United States. Recently, Jerusalem Online News reported that only two female mayors were elected to serve in the 2013 municipal elections. This means that out of all of the Israeli municipalities, there are only 4 female mayors in the entire country.

Pushing the Boundaries of Outreach

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

One of the most difficult challenges of the 21st century was made very clear by the recent Pew study on American Jews. The fact is that except for Orthodoxy – Jewry is shrinking. I need not go into the statistics. They have been discussed ad infinitum by just about everyone. The shrinkage is due to a combination of factors mostly having to do with the lack of any significant meaning attributed to Judaism by those devoid of a religious education. Young Jews even with the highest of ethical values see no value in the religion of their forefathers. They see themselves as ethical human beings – same as anyone else with ethical values. They see all religious ritual adding nothing to their sense of ethics.

The question arises – what do we do about that? As Orthodox Jews who understand the value of the Torah and the importance of following Halacha – how can we change this new secular Jewish paradigm?

There are those who would answer: Nothing! There is nothing we can do to significantly change the attrition away from Judaism the masses are undergoing… that there has been attrition one way or another in every generation. Although they might wish things were different, they say it is virtually impossible to influence the minds of the vast majority of Jews whose secular – even ethical values were formed by a society devoid of Torah.

They will therefore say that we Orthodox should instead turn inward and work on ourselves and that the future of Judaism rests with us. While I understand that mentality and would certainly agree that we all need to work on our ourselves – I strongly disagree that we ought to ignore the rest of Jewry. We are not talking about a few Jewish souls here. We are talking about the vast majority of them. Fully 90% of all American Jewry is not Orthodox. Are we simply to just write them off? I don’t think so.

Thankfully neither do all the outreach organizations. They have had much success in reaching out to our secular brethren. But it is still a drop in the bucket. We Orthodox remain only 10% of the total. We may be growing, but a lot of that is internal because of our higher birth rate. The amount of successful outreach is still relatively small.

One way to reach more people is by interdenominational interaction. The problem with that is that some of the greatest religious leaders of the 20th century – including Rav Soloveitchik – have forbidden doing that. They forbade religious interaction of any kind because it would grant them tacit recognition. We cannot be seen to recognize movements that legitimize heretical thought. I understand and appreciate that.

Which is why the actions of the well intentioned Yeshiva Chovevei Torah are so problematic. Outreach is what motivated them to host leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism at a round table discussion during the installation of their new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. That certainly does seem to legitimize them. Both in the eyes of the leaders themselves and in the eyes of those who attended the session. While I support YCT’s intentions, I believe they have crossed a line here. As much as I would love to see cooperation between the denominations towards the goal of outreach that we all share – it cannot be at the expense of undermining our theology.

I know that YCT argues that such interactions do not validate heterodox movements. But it is impossible for those who attend to not see it that way – watching them all discuss their religious views as equals at the same table.So even though I agree with their motives, I disagree with what they did. That leaves the problem unsolved.

But there are other ways that we can participate with them and at the same time not be seen to recognize them. One way was when Yosef Reinman, a right wing Orthodox Rabbi from Lakewood, co-wrote a book with Amiel Hirsch, a Reform rabbi he had befriended… and then went on a book tour with him.

He was immediately – roundly criticized by the Agudah Moetzes for violating the ban on interacting with heterodox rabbis. They asked him to stop the tour and withdraw his book. He acceded to their requests but lamented the fact that he was now impeded from making the inroads he had started making with Reform Jews he would have otherwise never met.

The State of the Jew According to Pew

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Pew conducted a study of Jews in America and has released a comprehensive report based on its findings. Nearly 2800 religious Jewish people were interviewed and the results of those interviews make up the model for the results of the study. It’s difficult conduct a study like this and achieve meaningful results. I am not a statistician nor can I compare the sample sizes used in this study with others. To my untrained eye, it seems small.

There are many very interesting findings to discuss. I have three things I want to say about the study.

First, people will point to the staggering number of orthodox Jews who are no longer orthodox. That number is 52%. It seems impossible to believe. That means that over half of people raised orthodox are no longer orthodox. Think about the orthodox Jewish friends and family you know. Does it make sense to say that over half of them are no longer orthodox? I don’t think so.

If you drill down a bit you notice a couple of things. For starters, I know many people who say they were raised orthodox because they went to a yeshiva or modern orthodox school even if they weren’t frum at home. I went to school with several people like that. Those people certainly skew the numbers. After all, the study relied on self identification. There was no process to classify people into categories other than to ask them.

But the real key here what the numbers are for young people being raised in contemporary orthodoxy. Those numbers are impressive. 83% of people raised as orthodox Jews under the age of 30 stay. This is a huge success. It’s also a number that correlates with anecdotal evidence. So the people who were raised orthodox and no longer are orthodox are mostly older people. What does this mean?

It means one of two things or perhaps a hybrid of two. [It doesn't mean that orthodox Jews leave the fold in their 30's and 40's at alarmingly high rates.] It could either mean that orthodoxy is much stronger today than it was 20 and 30 years ago. People get a better Jewish education, there is more insularity, and the shift to ultra orthodoxy which outnumbers modern orthodoxy by nearly 10:1 in this demographic is working to keep more orthodox Jews orthodox. Alternatively, it signifies a shift in who attends orthodox schools. In other words, 20-30 years ago it was far more likely for a family to send a child to an orthodox school and identify as orthodox even if they were not totally observant of halacha. There was more cross-pollination and there were fewer non-orthodox options. So you wind up with more people from previous generations identifying as being raised orthodox even though they weren’t truly orthodox through and through. This is rarer today because we are more insular and non-orthodox or unaffiliated Jews feel less comfortable in orthodox institutions. The truth is likely a combination of the two but the latter does concern me.

Also, very few middle aged and older people consider themselves ultra-orthodox. It’s a youth movement. Sure, some mellow out and switch affiliation. But it’s also a recent phenomena that is sweeping orthodoxy. It’s pretty compelling evidence that what is happening now for the under 40 orthodox Jew is different from what their parents and grandparents experienced. It’s a different kind of Judaism. The numbers bear it out.

Next, the non-orthodox denominations are falling apart. The numbers support the rumblings and rumors regarding the demise of Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism is dwindling as well. Some orthodox Jews like to cheer while these two denominations begin to disappear. Others view it as a sign that those Jews must be saved and brought into orthodox Judaism.

I think that it is important for Judaism that non-orthodox denominations are strong and vibrant. I think that orthodox Jews should be concerned and make efforts to help revive non-orthodox Judaism. This sounds controversial and heretical but it’s really not. Orthodox Judaism is not going to magically become the Judaism for the 89% of non-orthodox Jews. We can either wish them well and watch them disappear or we can try to keep them connected to their Jewish heritage. I think the latter choice is preferable. Now we can either keep them connected by “making them orthodox” as if that is even possible, or we can rely on strong non-orthodox denominations to keep them in the fold. I think the latter choice is preferable here too. It’s certainly the more likely option to achieve widespread success. While resources are precious in the orthodox community, I think strengthening the non-orthodox denominations is a worthy endeavor. They are also our brothers and sisters. If we value what we have, we should do whatever we can to help them stay somewhat connected to their Judaism. A little bit of a good thing is a whole lot better than nothing.

YCT, Heterodoxy, and Agudah

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Agudath Israel has come out with a new statement about Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). They are ‘deeply troubled’ that YCT is hosting a group of 4 non-Orthodox rabbis at the installation of their new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. They will be involved in a roundtable discussion entitled “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation”.

I have mixed emotions about this. But I am in fact pleased that Agudah has responded to it – even if in a negative way. This shows that they must recognize YCT as an Orthodox institution. Which it is, in my view. I don’t for example believe they would be criticizing the Conservative Movement if they invited Reform rabbis to a roundtable of their own.

My feelings about this issue are mixed for the following reasons.

On the one hand – there is the rather well known decision by the Gedolei HaDor of the previous generation to forbid any interaction with non Orthodox movements. The fear was that by doing so, it would tacitly imply recognizing their legitimacy. Orthodoxy rejects heterodox movements and considers them illegitimate.

It is also rather well known that Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik made a distinction between interacting with them on any theological matters – which he also forbade; and interacting with them on non theological matters that impacted on the welfare of all of Jewry – which he permitted.

I agree with Rav Soloveitchik’s perspective. The question is whether this round table falls into the category of theological discussion or not. I’m not sure – but if I had to peg it, I would lean toward putting such a roundtable on the theological side of the argument and thus forbid it.

That said, I wonder if that would be true if matters of actual theology were expressly left out of the discussion. And the round table was limited to a discussion of practical non-theological rabbinics. Like psychological counseling or how to go about giving advice to congregants. The truth is that heterodox rabbis probably have a lot to offer in the realm of practical non theological rabbinics. As would say a mental health professional or even a priest or minister for that matter.

On the other hand, since this is a Yeshiva hosting heterodox rabbis I would be hard pressed to say that there would be no theological aspect to it. It is a virtual impossibility to completely leave out theology in such a discussion. Which is why I would be opposed to it.

There is, however, another thing to consider. What is extant today was not extant when the Gedolei HaDor forbade such interactions. Times have changed in ways which make me wonder if we should re-examine our positions. Let me hasten to add that I do not advocate the policies of Open Orthodoxy that YCT represents. They have rejected the prohibition of interacting with non-Orthodox rabbis and now freely advocate full engagement with them at all levels – including theological ones.

But I think it is fair to evaluate the reasons they have done it. Times have indeed changed. When the prohibition was made, it was a time that Reform and Conservative movements were on the ascendancy. They were a real threat to Orthodox Judaism. Orthodoxy in America was in relative infancy then. To wit – Rav Aharon Kotler who was the driving force behind the prohibition headed a Yeshiva of about 300 students when he died. Today there are over 6000 students there and they are growing exponentially. There are also now many smaller Yeshivos like Lakewood that are now thriving. They did not exist at that time.

There is no question that the small group of Orthodox Jews at the time were seen by most non Orthodox observers as a dying relic of an ancient past. While Heterodox movements were flourishing and growing by leaps and bounds. It is very understandable that the Gedolei HaDor did not want to give any semblance of recognition to them. Their ‘David’ was fighting a very large Goliath.

But today – the tables have turned. We are the ones growing. They are either shrinking (Conservative) or redefining Jewishness to include non Halachic Jews (Reform).

It is therefore a fact that heterodoxy is no longer the threat to Orthodoxy it once was – if at all. It is now apathy and indifference that is the enemy. Jews are leaving Judaism in droves. They do not see any denomination as relevant to their lives. They see themselves as secular human beings in the brotherhood of man – without the slightest connection to Judaism. One might even say that Conservative and even Reform Judaism today is at least trying to get them to retain their Jewish identity if nothing else.

In the light of all this, perhaps this is a Hora’as Shah – time to act and change the paradigm. Maybe YCT is not so terribly wrong headed in partnering up with these movements. I do not see legitimizing them as a danger anymore. The danger is in the growing numbers of unaffiliated Jews who have no problem with intermarriage and tend to buy into the ‘Apartheid’ narrative about Israel found in the secular liberal/leftist environment in which they live.

This is not to say that I agree with YCT. I don’t. I am not qualified to make judgments about Hora’as Shah. I am just thinking out loud. For example one might argue that giving them legitimacy in any setting, no less a Yeshiva, is forbidden in principal – having nothing to do with whether doing so is some sort of existential danger to Orthodoxy. I can just as easily see this argument as I can YCT’s argument.

Perhaps the fact that there is another aspect to this now that did not exist before is why Agudah has not thrown YCT out of Orthodoxy – as publications like the Yated have advocated. They must realize that they are Orthodox in that they follow Halacha… and that their intentions with respect to heterodoxy are good – even if badly mistaken for the reasons stated. And for that, I applaud them.

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