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October 30, 2014 / 6 Heshvan, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘orthodoxy’

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.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

Torah & Norman Solomon

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Having just celebrated Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.

Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.

I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.

Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.

But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.

Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.

Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale”. The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.

‘You Murder the Children’: Rav Soloveitchik on Abortion

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

When one thinks of Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l soon comes to mind for his leadership thereof. In our time, however, Modern Orthodoxy has become a vague term with problematic tendencies. As Rabbi Steven Pruzansky–who has numerous shiurim on Yeshiva University’s Torah website–recently wrote, “Too often, one finds in the Modern Orthodox world grievances of one sort or another against this or that aspect of Torah, as if Jews get to sit in judgment of God and His Torah.”

No issue might better crystallize the dissonance between Rav Soloveitchik’s Modern Orthodoxy and today’s than abortion. Let us consider the great man’s views.

During a shiur on Parashat Bo in 1975, Rav Soloveitchik stated that “to me it is something vulgar, this clamor of the liberals that abortion be permitted,” adding:

“I consider the society of today as insane…I read from the press that in Eretz Yisrael they permit abortions now! Sapir [probably Pinchas Sapir] comes to the US and asks that 60,000 boys and girls should leave the US and settle in Eretz Yisrael. When a child is born, it’s also immigration to Eretz Yisrael, and yet you murder the children.”

Rav Soloveitchik then predicted:

“And if you kill the fetus, a time will come when even infants will be killed…The mother will get frightened after the baby will be born…and the doctor will say her life depends upon the murder of the baby. And you have a word, mental hygiene, whatever you want you can subsume under mental hygiene…And there is now a tendency for rabbis in the US to march along with society, otherwise they’ll be looked upon as reactionaries.”

Similar remarks appear in Reflections of the Rav:

“If the dominant principle governing the logos ["thinking capacity"] is that abortion is morally permissible because only a mother has a right to decide whether she wishes to be a mother, then infants may similarly have their lives terminated after birth. What if the child interferes with the promising brilliant career of the mother?”

These words might be jarring for those who view Rav Soloveitchik as the mild-mannered author of philosophically oriented books like The Lonely Man of Faith. Equally if not more jarring might be Rav Soloveitchik’s statements on sexual morality, which I discussed a few months ago.

Specific to abortion, one might counter that Rav Soloveitchik permitted an unborn child with Tay-Sachs disease to be aborted through the sixth month, but this proves just the opposite, namely: 1) What does this narrow, tragic case indicate about Rav Soloveitchik’s general view of abortion? 2) What does it indicate about Rav Soloveitchik’s view of abortion after the sixth month even in the case of Tay-Sachs? And vis-à-vis those who claim a woman’s absolute right to “terminate a pregnancy” at any point, I doubt such an attempt to (mis)represent Rav Soloveitchik as a “moderate” on abortion would be received agreeably. In this regard, one of Rav Soloveitchik’s sons-in-law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlita, has observed in the context of abortion:

“Even if we were to accept that indeed it is the woman’s own body, we totally reject the conception that she then can do with it as she pleases. This is a completely anti-halakhic perception [emphasis added]. It rests on a secular assumption that, as it were, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself’ (Yechezkel 29:3), as if we are the source of our own existence and therefore the masters of our own being. This is assuredly not the case.”

Rav Lichtenstein summarizes the worldview of that anti-halakhic perception as follows:

“The essence of modern secular culture is the notion of human sovereignty; individual man is master over himself, and collective man is master over his collective… From a religious point of view, of course, eilu va-eilu divrei avoda zara—both approaches are idolatrous. Here one establishes individual man as an idol, and the one idolizes, in humanistic terms, humanity as a whole. The basis of any religious perception of human existence is the sense that man is not a master: neither a master over the world around him, nor a master over himself.”

Yes, Rav Soloveitchik earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin (as likewise Rav Lichtenstein earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard). Yes, Rav Soloveitchik enjoyed classical music (especially Bach). And first and foremost, Rav Soloveitchik was a Torah Jew for whom Halachah was not some intellectual game or cultural style, rather an all-encompassing conviction with profound social implications. Thus his denunciations of abortion, which derived from the same worldview as these remarks in 1953:

The Conundrum of Dealing with Sexual Abuse

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

One of the reasons that the sex abuse issue is so difficult to overcome is that abusers are often great people in every other way. I know that is a contradiction in terms. You can’t be a sex abuser and a great person. But bear with me.

The case of Rabbi Motti Elon is one such case, currently on trial for sexually harassing two 17 year old students when he was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Elon is a Religious Zionist Rabbi who was respected even beyond his own religious Zionist community. I recall the reaction of one young Charedi Rav in Israel who practically worshiped the ground he walked on. When he first heard about the accusations, he was incredulous. This was a man who mentored him. A man he confided in. A wise and gentle man who truly cared about his students. A man you could turn to in times of crisis. The idea that such a man could be accused of such a heinous crime was simply unthinkable… impossible!

This was not only the view of this Charedi individual; it was the view of just about everyone who came in contact with him. With the exception of course of the two people who have accused him of sexual molestation.

Although Rabbi Elon still maintained his innocence (which he still does), the young Charedi Rav believed it, and felt betrayed.It has been 2 years since this story broke. The evidence of sexual harassment was so strong that he was removed from his position at the Yeshiva and from having any contact with young people. Takana, the organization that investigated this case, determined the veracity of the accusations, and made the decision to remove him from his position consisted of some of the biggest rabbinic names in Israel – including Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

Here is what Rav Lichtenstein said at the time:

In an emotional lecture to his students, often breaking into tears, R’ Aharon Lichtenstein announced that he has received death threats by a student of R’ Motti Elon in retaliation for his participating in the Takana forum which labeled R’ Motti as a “dangerous person.” For his courage in making this condemnation, Rav Lichtenstein was threatened with violence!

Which brings me to the current article in the Times of Israel. It appears that one of the two students who were sexually harassed is not going to testify. According to the subheadline of this article, he was pressured not to do it. Which means that prosecutors will have to drop half their charges.

I suspect that’s probably what happened. If Rav Lichtenstein can be threatened with violence, it should be no surprise that a victim can be threatened into not testifying in the same way.

I suspect that the reason Rabbi Elon gets this kind of support from his ‘fans’ is the same reason that someone like Weberman gets support from his fans; and Charedi magazines like Ami. They know these people by their reputations. Reputations they earned by actaully doing good deeds and being good people in every other way. They work hard at building their name. They do a lot kindnesses for many people. I’m sure that’s true for both Weberman and Elon.

But their abnormal desires are kept hidden from their public. They may even try and fight those desires. But as Woody Alan once said about his adopted daughter that he later married, “The heart wants what it wants.”

When your sex drive is normal the heart can be satisfied in socially acceptable ways. But when those desires are abnormal one must do so clandestinely. The libido is a very strong force that is very hard to overcome. Certainly on a constant basis. Eventually such an individual will find a way to satisfy those abnormal urges.

They might actually believe that they are doing nothing more than expressing love to their victims – so self deluded are they. They will merely say that society does not really understand. This is what they tell their victims while they sexually abuse them. They tell their victims not to tell anyone of the great “love” they are showing to them because people will not understand. Sometimes I think that these people actually believe that. At least at first.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/haemtza/the-conundrum-of-dealing-with-sexual-abuse/2013/02/28/

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