Present at the Creation

           I was enjoying the beauty of St. Moritz several weeks ago when informed that another breach of the Mesorah had occurred under ostensibly Orthodox auspices: a woman as prayer leader in the synagogue. G-d’s world is pristine and picturesque; man’s world is convoluted and clouded. My first reaction was that I do not receive the amud as often as I wish I did, and now I have to compete with women ? My second reaction was the eerie sensation that I had seen this movie once before. More on that shortly.

     A fine young man of my acquaintance learning in Israel asked me my thoughts on the matter. I asked his, as well, and especially whether it was a topic of conversation among his classmates in yeshiva. He answered, tellingly, “no. No one here considers him (the innovating Rabbi) Orthodox, so what is there to talk about ?” Well, such weighty matters are certainly not decided by impetuous youth, but what of it ? How far can a person or a group journey over the borders of traditional Orthodoxy until it becomes clear that they have left the Torah world entirely ?

     My eerie response was generated by recollections of the origins of the Conservative movement, which is quite instructive here. (For lack of a better term – the new group can’t be called Neo-Conservatives, with all due respect to Norman Podhoretz and the late Irving Kristol – so perhaps they should be called “Neo-ModOs” or just “Nehardaleans.”) What was most striking – even uncanny – is that this new movement is in one sense the Conservatives in reverse, and on steroids. In the 1970’s, the Conservative movement first permitted women to be counted in the minyan, then allowed women to serve as chazzanot, and only after that began to ordain female clergy. The whole process took ten years. The Nehardaleans began with ordaining women as clergy, now have allowed cantorettes, and will soon undoubtedly find some mechanism by which women can be counted in the minyan (perhaps, in line with the doctrines of the so-called “Partnership minyanim,” that will pray only in the presence of ten men and ten women, or something of the sort). The first two deviations – or mimicries – took just a few months. Strange – same trajectory, only in reverse. It is hard to maintain that the only difference between the deviations of the Conservatives and of the Neo-ModOs is that the latter are more … what, clever in their uses of tradition, better fence-straddlers or nit-pickers, better politicians and PR men ?

      The nascent Conservative Jewish movement also claimed fidelity to halacha (they still do so, with declining, perhaps even vanished, credibility). They were crafty in marshaling sources, or partial sources, to defend their deviations – embracing minority opinions as authoritative, employing creative interpretations theretofore unknown of ancient texts – some of which, according to them, meant the exact opposite of what several millennia of Jewish scholars understood them to mean. In some cases, they arrogated to themselves the right just to abrogate a biblical prohibition deemed irrelevant by modernity. And they also wrote “Responsa” detailing their assertions, much of it sophistry that could easily impress an abysmally ignorant laity.

      The early Conservatives also claimed the presence in their midst of distinguished Rabbis, some of whom were educated in the venerated yeshivot of pre-holocaust Europe. They claimed the existence of “authorities on whom they could rely” as they adjusted the Torah and Jewish law to modern times and mores, and commenced the process of winnowing down the essentials of Jewish practice, so that, today, most Conservative Jews are indistinguishable in their Jewish commitment – Shabbat, Kashrut, Taharat Hamishpacha, Talmud Torah, etc. – from our Reform Jewish brethren. (That is to say, their observance is quite shaky, and the recent intermarriage of a self-described “proud Conservative Jew,” adorned in talit and kippa – on Shabbat – to Chelsea Clinton, speaks for itself. The difference in intermarriage rates between Reform and Conservative Jews is negligible.)

      Just as fascinating, the early Conservative movement boasted a number of cross-over figures. Bear in mind that, around 1900, Orthodoxy was moribund in America, and so the Conservative movement began as a reaction not against tradition but against the anti-Torah excesses of the Reformers (especially the infamous treif banquet celebrating the ordination of the first batch of American Reform rabbis). Rabbis Sabato Morais and Henry Pereira Mendes were among the founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886, and both were Orthodox Rabbis, pulpit rabbis at that. Rabbi Mendes, in fact, served as the first president of the newly formed Orthodox Union (OU) in 1897 – at the same time he served as president of JTS. Talk about wearing two hats ! Clearly, then, we are talking about different people in a different time. The differences were not at all personal, but rather that the early Conservatives fit neatly within an Orthodox framework. When they soon deviated, the schism erupted, and the OU soon severed ties with the Conservatives over their non-Torah, scientific methodology of study and psak. Rabbi Mendes left JTS and himself later taught at RIETS.

      Are we witnessing the same naissance today ? The early Conservatives always insisted they adhered to tradition, which required modernization so as not to become stagnant and unresponsive to their constituents.

      Well, there are neo-ModOs today who also write erudite (but often sophistic) responsa in the same style (and with many of the same conclusions) as the Conservatives. They are also adept at finding ways to permit long-established prohibitions, sometimes with the caveat that “this is l’halacha but not l’maaseh,” for polemical but not practical purposes. Other times they will dangle the leniency before their public that – like Western man generally – is occasionally dismissive, if not outright contemptuous, of authority with which it disagrees, and so will be all-too-willing to adopt the proffered leniency as its own. The neo-ModOs also refer to their “authorities,” however obscure some of them are, and even if some of them dwell in an ivory tower far from the practicalities of Rabbinic life today and are therefore oblivious to the long-term effects of their “innovations.” Like the Conservatives, the neo-ModOs disregard notions of majority rule, faithfulness to minhag Yisrael, or a Mesorah recognizable to the overwhelming majority of Torah Jews. They, like the Conservatives, have corrupted the methodology of psak, reaching their conclusion and then seeking whatever sources they can muster by way of rationalization – in effect, shooting an arrow at a blank target and then drawing a bull’s-eye around it. Neat trick, if anyone is still fooled by it.

     Add these distortions to a Torah teacher here in Israel who is now urging – for the sake of “saving” Judaism – that people be given the right to adopt any opinion recorded in the Gemara if it will make their lives easier (in effect, attempting to undo 2000 years of scholarship and development), and we have the real danger that Torah itself will become a balagan, a free-for-all that means something to everyone but nothing that is really eternal or timeless, or divine in origin.

     The excesses of the Conservative movement in the 1980’s led to the founding of the Union for Traditional Judaism, a group that has fallen on hard times as positions have become even more polarized. UTJ defied an easy description; if the Conservatives believe that halacha evolves to accommodate the realities of modern life, UTJ must believe that halacha evolves, but …not that much ? Well, then, how much is too much, or too little, and who decides – and what do the Nehardaleans believe – that halacha always evolves to accommodate the realities of modern life – but, then again, how much ?

    Case in point: which movement stated the following ? “Even if we have the position of but one against the mainstream, if that position is preserved is that not a part of the halakhic process? Can we not lean on it for support if necessary? The necessity to go against the mainstream and depend on a minority view is perhaps created today because of the changing role of women in our society… The right to institute takanot is vested in the authorities of each age when they see the need to correct an injustice or to improve the religious and ethical life of the community. It was felt that since we have given a greater role to women in synagogue life and education, and since we wish women to attend synagogue services, that it was appropriate now to recognize the equality of men and women in regard to minyan.”

      Indeed, it was the Conservatives in a 2002 “responsum” discussing women counting in a minyan – but the problem is that one would not have been surprised to see such language used in a UTJ or Neo-ModO “responsum” either.

       Far be it for me to state unequivocally that the Neo-Modos are outside the pale of Orthodoxy, although they are certainly headed in that direction. The similarities in methodology and temperament of the Nehardaleans and the early Conservatives are uncanny. At a certain point, what walks, talks and quacks like a duck is a duck, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. But, like Rabbis Morais and Mendes, there is always room to return, to clarify, to distinguish, and to disassociate from policies and practices that most of Torah Judaism rejects unequivocally. Clearly, there are some – like the fine young man and his colleagues referenced above – who believe the line has already been crossed and the road back unmarked. It is unlikely that the mainstream Orthodox organizations will sit by idly and let this pass, and they should not.

       In line with Rav Kook’s dictum that one should seek to praise even one’s ideological adversaries, it is important to reiterate that the reluctance in many circles to absolutely renounce the Nehardaleans is the residual respect many (myself included) feel for their leader, a paragon of Ahavat Yisrael. Certainly, on some level, he deserves credit for keeping the issue of discontented women on the public agenda, even if the methods he uses to assuage them are problematic and border on the heretical. Perhaps, he, in his sensitivity, was well-positioned to tell them, pleasantly, even tearfully, “no,” when “no” was the appropriate answer. But he did not.

       Are we present at the creation of another heterodox movement ? Will another branch of Jews detach itself from the Tree of Life, and go the way of those other groups ? Or will someone within the movement gain the perspective of the observer, and perceive these acts in aggregate and in part as defiance of the Mesorah – and halt the wagon as it speeds to the precipice ? The great poskim, Rabbis and leaders of our generation will surely weigh in, and the collective wisdom of Klal Yisrael, will, as always, determine intuitively what is inside or outside the Mesorah.

       That will be the guidance that preserves the Mesorah for another generation against another modern onslaught, one that was both tragic and unnecessary.

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5 responses to “Present at the Creation

  1. Whether it is a mosque at Gound Zero, gay marriage, or the disgruntled “customers” at a local congregation, thank you for the reminder that we sometimes need to say “no”.

  2. The surest example of the distorted thinking the NeoMods work with must be the recent article by one of their distinguished members lauding the intermarriage of Chelsea Clinton to us as a kiddush haShem.
    I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over these developments. Other than continuing to use a mechitzah, the NeoMods crossed over into right-wing Conservative (UTJ) territory a while ago. The chidush in this case is their dishonesty, continuing to call themselves Orthodox when they no longer are. It’s that which MO should be fighting again.

  3. barrygoodlife

    “Rabbi Mendes, in fact, served as the first president of the newly formed Orthodox Union (OU) in 1897 – at the same time he served as president of JTS. Talk about wearing two hats !”

    Just for the record, I seem to recall a lecture at YUs Revel School (from Dr Grinstein, a”H, perhaps) which noted that not only did JTS start off as an Orthodox institution, but that its original name included the word Orthodox in its title.
    It was a only after a number of years –perhaps in the same era when Rabbi Morais left for RIETS ?–that the presence of Orthodox rabbis became less tenable, and the Seminary formally changed its name to reflect a newer (and, to our view, sadder) reality.

  4. Tell us more about that “fine young man.”
    He seems like a great guy!