Category: Orthodoxy


…the content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation. This was particularly true between the World Wars in New York City, where Leo Jung on the West Side and Joseph Lookstein on the East Side—self-proclaimed ‘modern Orthodox” rabbis—drew upon the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Freud, Goethe, Ibsen, William James, Macaulay, Shaw, Tennyson, and Whitman, as well as on the vast body of rabbinic literature, to craft sermons much like those of American-born Reform and Conservative colleagues. Keeping in mind the warning of a contemporary Conservative rabbi, Israel Herbert Levinthal, that his printed sermons were often delivered ‘extemporaneously” and written “out a long time after their delivery,” the historian looks for typescript sermons or sermons reprinted in synagogue bulletins and the Jewish press immediately after delivery. They are abundant, and, by the 1930s, Orthodox rabbis in various places turned a Latin phrase, digested a German book on philosophy or literature, or followed the scientific arguments of the leading writers of their time as easily as they could quote from the Talmud.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 89-90.

Rather than seeing Orthodoxy as a more or less fixed entity, with “modern” and “ultra” flavors, I suggest we look at it as a cluster of processes, enacted across a range of what I call “Modernizing Orthodoxies,” by which I mean a group of religious movements bearing a familial resemblance, based on some core features, through which each works and reworks in its engagements with modernity.

Yehudah Mirsky, “Modernizing Orthodoxies: The Case of Feminism”, in To Be a Jewish Woman: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference: Woman and Her Judaism, June 2005, ed. Tovah Cohen (Jerusalem: Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum, 2007), 37.

What has changed with Orthodox women in the last two decades in reality is astounding. Some of the initiatives started by JOFA and other forward-thinking organizations took hold. Some didn’t. Some failed miserably. But some of the vision “leaked” out to other communities and organizations, and change happened where we least expected it.

We started noticing that the haredi communities that denounce feminism had their own feminist issues: women were standing up to their leadership about domestic violence and sexual abuse and even agitating in order to get into Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps. Places that 20 years ago would not have considered celebrating a bat mitzvah or a girl’s birth were regularly holding those celebrations. Women’s tefillah (prayer groups), which had been seen as crazy and “out there,” became the more conservative bat mitzvah alternative to partnership minyanim (where women lead parts of the service).

In Israeli newspapers after Simchat Torah, observers were struck at seeing women dancing with Torahs in places you’d never think possible. And no one batted an eye. And even on the issue of agunot, or women unable to get Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands, which is seen by so many as the big failure because we have yet to develop a systemic solution, the Orthodox community has made incredible strides. It sits front and center on the communal agenda, and different rabbinic courts and organizations are using their clout to try to solve the problem case by case.

The seismic change in the community has been women’s learning. Twenty years ago there were a handful of women learning torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law). Today there are dozens of women’s programs that teach Mishnah and Talmud. No one seems to think twice about it.

Bat Sheva Marcus, “How Change Happens”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 23.

First developed in the 1990s in an attempt to protect women from becoming agunot, halachic prenuptial agreements stipulate that the couple in a dissolving marriage must come before a predetermined court of Jewish law. If the man refuses to provide the get, he must continue to support her, typically in the range of $150 per day — an agreement enforceable in civil court.

Yet while halachic prenuptial agreements have been touted as a solution to the agunah problem, they have hardly been a panacea — because many are reluctant to sign them in the first place.

“Those who are most likely to need to use it are least likely to sign it,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which says it deals with more than 150 cases of agunot per year.

The problem is unique to the Orthodox world, because non-Orthodox movements have rejected or found ways around traditional rules that give husbands practically all the leverage. And, frustratingly for advocates on behalf of agunot, most Orthodox couples hail from segments of the community that aren’t interested in halachic prenups.

“The problem is in the black-hat and haredi community, where they don’t have prenups or rabbis don’t agree to enforce the idea of having a prenup,” said Stanley Goodman, director of an organization known as GET – Getting Equal Treatment.

Talia Lavin, “‘The Prenup is Not Foolproof’”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 14.

As a rabbi, I spend most of my time reading writing, talking, discussing and arguing about Jewish things. There is a lot to argue about, a lot to talk about. From our perspective, these issues can seem not just important, but overwhelming, more important than anything else could possibly be. The divisions and politics of the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox world are important – but only to a point. The question of the differences between Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, between this group and that group, this rabbi’s statement and that rabbi’s counter statement – these are all important issues. But, for too many of us, for me, personally, they are given far more prominence than could possibly be justified.

Rabbi Shaul Robinson, “Priorities: Inside the Tent and Outside“, Lincoln Square Synagogue Blog (11 November 2013).

The charedi world, in the main, especially the “Lithuanian” branch (with whom I identify myself as belonging to), has yet to come to grips with the realities of today. It is still fighting the battle of the nineteenth century against secular Zionism, a battle long ago ended and not relevant any longer in today’s Jewish world.

Part of the problem is changing this mindset of complete disconnect with reality. We have grown so comfortable over the past centuries of Jewish life as being the persecuted victim, that we are frightened to shuck off that protective mantle. We see the world in black and white colors only – the good guys and the villains. There is no room for nuance or moderation in such a worldview.

If we are involved in rabbinic scandal, financial misdeeds, abusive physical and sexual behavior, violence against police, corrupt elections (and those elected thereby) and are caught by the authorities for so doing, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is that we are being persecuted because of our religious practices, different dress, traditional lifestyle and distinct societal mores.

Somehow we have forgotten that idleness, poverty and a persecution complex all are, in the long run, self-destructive conditions. These were the conditions that secularized much of Ashkenazic Jewry over the past three centuries. Eventually a system built on declining governmental welfare allotments and unending charity from others – a system decried by Maimonides and other great rabbinic sages and religious leaders throughout the ages – is a Ponzi scheme that inexorably will collapse of its own weight.

And we are ill served by religious political leaders and the handlers of old and revered great Torah scholars who, for purposes I have never really understood, oppose any change of the current miserable status quo. And, there is never any plan advanced to help rescue their adherents from the deepening abyss of poverty and personal despair.

Rabbi Berel Wein, “The Truth of Satire“, Rabbi Wein’s Weekly Blog (4 December 2013).

I long ago came to a personal realization that the term “Modern Orthodox” no longer defines the religious segment that I was brought up in. A world where rabbis of all denominations in a community were warm and visiting colleagues; a world where Jews of all practices were held in equal respect by the rabbi; a world where the emphasis was on the beauty of our religion, not the stringency of its practice.

I believe we need a new term to define those who fit the true center — not the one defined by the haredi masters that so many of our leaders and organizations kowtow to. What was once “Modern Orthodox” is to me neo-haredi, and it’s time to make break and return to the vision that was created for America after the Holocaust.

David Sable, “Outraged At Chief Rabbinate’s Snub Of Rabbi Avi Weiss”, The Jewish Week (1 November 2013), 28.

You could say that it’s our job in this world to make manifest what God intended because God’s not doing it, that’s our job. So, all Rabbi Weiss is doing is trying to implement in this world the ideal that he sees fit. I think that’s part of why he keeps going back to tzelem Elohim, because which narrative is that from? The narrative of creation. He’s following that more than anything else because he’s trying to recreate the world. Not just tikkun olam, mind you – although he does make references to repairing the world – there’s an act of world-creation here, along the lines of what Rav Soloveitchik has advocated. And part of that means shaping the world in the image that you think it ought to be.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, “Halakhic Process 25: Open Orthodoxy“, Yutopia Podcast #119 (27 October 2013).

While the other movements are engaged in soul-searching on how to deal with dwindling and aging membership in synagogues, the challenges to Orthodoxy are how to deal with its burgeoning numbers: how to cost-effectively educate the hordes of children the Orthodox are having, how to expand ever-growing synagogues, and where to establish new communities where housing costs—for large homes—are low. But from college campuses, to urban communities of singles and young couples, to suburban communities with families and empty nesters—the numbers all show that Orthodoxy is an attractive type of Judaism, one that is easily replacing any fall-off, and is actually expanding through a relatively high birthrate and an expanding professional outreach movement.
It would stand to reason that Orthodoxy’s greatest challenge—in America, Israel, and around the world—would be having too much self-confidence and sense of triumphalism.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, “Challenges and Opportunities for a Robust Orthodox Judaism”, Conversations Issue 17 (Autumn 2013/5774), 51.

It may be that Open Orthodoxy’s niche, and the important role of the hundreds of future ordainees of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Modern and Open Orthodox yeshiva in Riverdale, New York, will be not only to open the tents of Orthodoxy to anyone interested—and in a sense of mutuality, learning from each other—but to go beyond welcoming to actually making the journey to where our fellow Jews are. Both Hareidi and Chabad outreach welcome all Jews to come to Orthodox homes, Orthodox Shabbat tables and Orthodox places of prayer—and that is admirable connecting. A confident, self-assured Orthodox community will be able to go even further and connect with students, young adults and families where they are. This means learning together with Reform, Reconstructionist, and renewal teachers and students; it means being willing to be on panels even with other rabbis or leaders who will be saying things that are not consistent with Orthodoxy; it means being willing to have Orthodox students spend time with non-Orthodox students, and then Orthodox families find ways of going to the non-Orthodox homes for Shabbat. All without compromising the beliefs or the practices of Orthodoxy!

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, “Challenges and Opportunities for a Robust Orthodox Judaism”, Conversations, Issue 17 (Autumn 2013/5774), 57-58.