29 b Heshvan
On November 27 Ori Pomerantz posed a question under the heading, The end of heterodoxy?
Imagine that tonight there was a miracle, and tomorrow morning all the rabbis and chazzanim of the heterodox movements were to wake up orthodox.
The question is not so fanciful. I suggest that the newly Orthodoxy rabbis should remain in their heterodox shuls on the condition that they try to move the congregants towards Orthodox observance. Something similar took place in the middle of the previous century when it was common for rabbis who had graduated from Orthodox rabbinical schools to take pulpits of Conservative synagogues, or in nominally Orthodox shuls where (a) the mehitza had been removed, (b)most people drove on Shabbat, and (c)few kept kosher. Such rabbis would often stipulate that they assumed the pulpit on the condition that they would move the congregants in the direction of Orthodoxy, e.g. installing a mehitza or balcony, prohibiting cars from using the parking lot on Shabbat, etc. The steps by which this was accomplished and the implications for Ori’s question above, are told by many rabbis in Baruch Litwin’s book Sanctity of the Synagogue (out of print but available on amazon.com.) The chapters by Rabbis Riskin, Soloveitchik, and Dolgin are particularly moving.
I just spoke with the daughter of the late Rabbi Dolgin who succeeded with patience spanning many years, in installing a mehitza in his Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills. His daughter told me details of the story and she remembers sitting with her mother and a few elderly ladies in the balcony while the rest of the congregation was downstairs in mixed pews. Slowly, persistently, wisely her father moved the congregants to accept a mehitza in the entire shul. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman tells about his successes and setbacks until he finally succeeded in turning the tide in his now-thriving Orthodox Atlanta synagogue in his book Tales Out of Shul.
For a fascinating debate over which of the two issues, mehitza or parking lots, was the defining moment in the Conservative-Orthodox divide, see the letters in the current issue of Azure, in the sharp exchange between J Sarna and J Chanes.
In the case of the Orthodox-Conservative divide, for example, it certainly is not a “fact” that the 1950 enactment permitting driving to the synagogue on the Sabbath was the “defining issue” separating the two movements. I discuss that enactment on pp. 284-285–not in a sentence, as Chanes claims, but in a whole paragraph. I continue to believe, however, that the issue of mixed seating was more significant. The latter visibly distinguished Conservative from Orthodox synagogues. Parking lots, by contrast, could be found in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues alike in the 1950s. Moreover, in much of the country, suburban Orthodox parking lots were only slightly less likely to fill up on Saturday mornings than Conservative ones.
Who filled the parking lots in the 1950s is not the issue; everyone–Conservative and Orthodox–was driving to synagogue in the suburbs. The issue was joined in 1950–a time when Orthodoxy in America was weak, insecure, defensive; and when Conservative was regnant–when the rabbinic leadership of each movement placed the item on its respective agenda. The Conservative movement (to its regret to this day) gave halachic sanction to driving on the Sabbath, and the Orthodox–whatever the practice “on the ground”–said, “We will not sanction a halachically impermissible act, even if we know that everyone is doing it.” The way in which the issue was approached was not about cars in parking lots; it was about how each movement viewed praxis, how each movement viewed the halachic process, how each movement viewed its own present and future. Driving to synagogue had implications far beyond the instant event, and far beyond the mehitza issue at the time. It is very much a “fact” that it was a defining moment.
I think both issues were critical.
The mehitza was a watershed because it was an internal architectural reminder of the fact (yes, fact!) that men are differently wired from women. The parking lot was crucial to the external architecture of the Jewish community because in forbidding driving on Shabbat the concept of a synagogue in walking distance and a kehilla on a human scale was enshrined.
For an example of a formerly mechitza-less synagogue that recently installed a beautiful, artistic and senstive halachically kosher mechitza see Beth Tfiloh in Maryland. In pictures and words they describe how this change is being wrought.