Last week I authored a blog post where I suggested parameters for preventing a schism within Orthodoxy in general, and between the Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox communities in particular. I received much feedback from this post, and one central question that intrigued me was why I, and for that matter other Modern Orthodox rabbis, feel compelled to call out practices we disagree with on the left (for example, partnership minyanim) and not on the right (such as the erasure of women from publications). I can’t speak for other Modern Orthodox rabbis, but I can share with you my perspective on this matter.
I believe that both the charedi and Open Orthodox leadership, like the Modern Orthodox leadership, are sincerely motivated to engage Jews to connect with God in a meaningful way. Nonetheless, as I noted last week, there are circumstances that I believe compel me as an Orthodox rabbi to speak out. Despite my greatest wishes for unity, there are issues that put the integrity of Orthodoxy at stake and it is insufficient to remain silent or even “agree to disagree.” The question is, of course, what are those issues? When must we draw a line in the sand and say, “This is not Orthodox Judaism”?
Regarding my relationship with the charedi community, much of the Torah that the charedi world produces has nothing to do with controversial hashkafic issues and I want to benefit from their Torah. The charedi or more insular world is hundreds of years old, if not more, from Ashkenazi Jews in the Middle Ages to the Eastern European communities, and there is a tremendous amount we can learn from them. Even in areas where I disagree with them, I am often able to understand the sources they rely upon for their approach. I recall reading an article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein where he pointed out that whereas he supported the hesder yeshiva movement, nevertheless, the “non-hesder/Torah-only” movement is backed by Torah leaders, also has a religious tradition, and is also legitimate. He wrote that “hesder is at least as legitimate a path as any other. It is to my mind a good deal more; but surely not less.” His disagreement with other Torah leaders about the hesder yeshiva movement essentially became a classic debate similar to the debates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. On this issue and others I have no problem expressing to my community where my approach differs from the charedi approach, while recognizing that they have gedolim who support their positions as well.
That being said, I do not identify with many hashkafic positions held widely within the charedi community. In addition to their reluctance to send their boys in Israel to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, I disagree with their approach regarding the kollel movement as well as their lack of higher Jewish education in the area of Torah She’ba’al Peh for women, just to name a few issues.
What do I do about all this? For the most part, as a rabbi in the Modern Orthodox community, I address issues facing my community and not issues facing the charedi community. Just as I would not want the charedi community to impose their view on my community, I allow them to deal with their issues to the extent that those issues generally only affect their community. However, I will speak out if I feel that their position may impact the Modern Orthodox community. And of course I espouse the Modern Orthodox approach in my shul, from advocating for high level of Torah She’ba’al Peh study for women, to celebrating Israeli soldiers in our community, to clearly stating, when necessary, that I believe in the “learner-earner” model for the vast majority of our community.
Recently, a new issue has emerged where the charedi and Modern Orthodox communities diverge: that is, the elimination of pictures of women from charedi publications, some of which are purchased by Modern Orthodox Jews. In the past I have expressed my opposition to this practice. This practice does not reflect our Jewish value of modesty, and I have noted that in Modern Orthodox publications and websites (like the OU and RCA), pictures of women are featured. Rav Hershel Schachter himself called this practice silly. However, the publications that have removed women’s pictures are charedi publications run by charedi leadership. The fact that many Modern Orthodox Jews purchase those publications perhaps suggests that our community should respond by producing our own quality weekly Torah publications where pictures of women are featured, as they always have been.
Regarding the Open Orthodox movement today, the issues at hand are often of a different nature. By definition, some are schismatic issues that are more challenging to simply “agree to disagree.” The last mishnah in the first chapter of Yevamot describes two schismatic issues: different standards of permitted food and different standards of whom one may marry. If I can’t eat at your home or I can’t marry your child, then that is considered schismatic according to the mishnah, for obvious reasons. Additionally, more recently, another schismatic issue came up: can I daven in your shul? Once Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik forbade Orthodox Jews from praying in a non-mechitza minyan, that effectively severed the Orthodox community from the Conservative community. A central component of a religious community is communal prayer, and if I can’t pray in your synagogue then I cannot be part of your community.
Some of the divergent issues between the Modern and Open Orthodox communities today relate to standards of freeing agunot, standards of conversion, and partnership minyanim. Each of these issues alone has the potential to be schismatic. If our divergent practices mean that a Modern Orthodox Jew cannot marry an Open Orthodox convert or an agunah freed according to Open Orthodox practice, or if he cannot pray in an Open Orthodox minyan, a schism will likely occur.
Other issues that divide the Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox communities may be less certain to lead to schism. Both the Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox communities are struggling with issues that relate to LGBTQ Jews in our communities, and time will tell how each community responds to this very theologically challenging issue. Any response that essentially states that a prohibition of “arayot,” a sin whose punishment is “karet” mentioned in the Torah, no longer applies may further alienate the two communities. Were our two communities to differ in our interpretation or reinterpretation of such a strong Torah verse, I do fear that the gap between us would grow significantly.
Additionally, aside from the particular issues upon which we disagree, I think there is a foundational methodological difference in the way the Open Orthodox and Modern Orthodox communities approach innovation. That is, our deference to the opinions of the prominent Torah scholars of our generation on issues of major import.
In the Modern Orthodox world, poskim who are well-versed and are clearly recognized Torah leaders of our community in all areas of halacha, not just the “hot-button topics,” are the ones who collectively provide guidance on both new and challenging issues. It doesn’t mean they are experts in medicine or politics or psychology or that they have powers of prophecy, but it means that in significant areas that affect the future of our community we look to them for guidance. And after they have adequately reviewed the critical facts in each case, often with the guidance of experts, such as doctors, politicians, or psychologists, as the case may be, we trust them to determine what the practice of our community should be. Sometimes they will tell us that we are in a position to make these determinations for ourselves. In fact, often community rabbis are told that they know the issues involved and are best suited to decide for themselves and their communities. However, our deference to our gedolim means that we consult with the acknowledged poskim for critical contemporary issues. Sometimes they will say “yes,” sometimes they will say “no,” and sometimes they will say “you decide.”
I don’t think that this approach is shared by the Open Orthodox community. Within the Open Orthodox community, it is my understanding that rabbis feel more empowered to innovate even when there is no prominent Torah scholar described in the previous paragraph who supports a new practice. In fact, I believe that many of the differences between our two communities regarding the “hot-button issues” of our day reflect this different methodological approach; where Open Orthodox leaders are more eager to respond to challenges with innovation, Modern Orthodox leaders will not accept a new practice without the approval of our greatest halachic decisors.
To be fair, within the Modern Orthodox community, the deferential approach I described is often met with resistance. Indeed, I believe that many in the Modern Orthodox community have difficulty with this approach, as they believe that some decisions by the Modern Orthodox poskim seem arbitrary and illogical. I think the reason for this is twofold. First, maybe the Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership needs to spend more time addressing challenging issues and clarifying why they opt to innovate in some circumstances and not others. This problem can be fixed with better communication and more access to the Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership. The second problem is harder to solve. That is, we live in a world today that has far less respect for institutions and experts than we did years ago. Contemporary culture tells us that we know better, and this philosophy has unfortunately crept into our Jewish communities. As such, if a religious expert has weighed many different considerations in arriving at a conclusion to a “hot-button” issue, especially if that conclusion is counter-cultural, some in our community would argue that even though they may not have the same halachic knowledge as the religious expert, they understand the issue and are in a position to offer a different ruling. This presents a challenge for Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership, as deference to authority and respect for expertise is foundational to our practice.
In sum, though there is a divide between the modern and charedi communities with respect to certain issues, those issues tend to be less foundational to our practice of halachic Judaism and less necessarily schismatic. Still, we in the Modern Orthodox world should clearly advocate our position, especially when it affects our community, such as the issue of eliminating women’s pictures in publications or service in the Israeli army.
When it comes to the possibility of schism between the Modern and Open Orthodox communities, I am more concerned. With regard to the Open Orthodox community, some of our disagreements are on issues that by definition may be schismatic. Issues that affect Jewish status and differences in communal prayer are two prime examples. Additionally, our different approaches to innovation and leadership may, in the long run, simply push our communities farther apart. I worry that in time, as each side becomes less comfortable with the other’s religious worldview, less interaction between the two communities will ultimately cause a schism that wholly separates the two. It is my hope that we do retain the goal of living amongst each other and avoiding schism whenever possible. Our community is stronger when we are unified, and I still do believe that there is much that currently unites us.
By Rabbi Jonathan Muskat/Times of Israel
Jonathan Muskat is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.