The Orthodox Congregation That Wasn’t

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The NY Jewish Week proclaimed last week: “Woman To Lead Halachic N.Y. Shul.” The NY Times says today: “An Orthodox Jewish Woman, and Soon, a Spiritual Leader.”

It sure sounds like a story — but it isn’t.

It is fine that Congregation Kehilat Orach Eliezer, in the words of the Times, “functions essentially as a modern Orthodox community, seeking to adhere closely to halakah, or Jewish law.” It’s close, it just isn’t all the way there.

The previous Rabbi of the congregation was David Weiss Halivni, who, ironically, left the Conservative movement when it decided to ordain women. He then co-founded the Union for Traditional Judaism, a splinter group (originally called the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism) intended to “support and encourage traditional Jewish practice among individuals, congregations, institutions, scholars and religious leaders across the spectrum of the Jewish community,” and says that “our goal is to bring the greatest possible number of Jews closer to an open-minded, observant Jewish life.”

Those statements, of course, closely define the sort of Judaism to which Kehilat Orach Eliezer undoubtedly aspires. This is why KOE might find itself affiliating with the UTJ, but not with the Orthodox Union (much less Young Israel or Agudath Israel).

There have been no shortage of instances of people and organizations attempting to conform to both Torah and Western priorities, or attempting to observe “Halacha Lite.” This latest is nothing new in that regard. Dina Najman may be Orthodox, and the attendees may be “largely Orthodox,” but this congregation cannot “confirm the arrival of women to places of leadership in the Orthodox community,” regardless of what Devorah Zlochower, a dean at Drisha, may say.

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, declarations from the NY Times and NY Jewish Week that it is, in fact, a goose, tell us nothing more than that journalists may be lousy taxonomists.

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28 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Reb Yid #25,
    Yes and no. Wide use of Eruvin is hardly an innovation. It may have been new to the US but it was not something radical or very controversial in the broad scope of Jewish history.

    As for bat mitzah celebrations, I really don’t know how common they are in the more modern communties but I’ll take your word for it. However, it seems to me for every modern girl that is now having a bat mitzvah celebration, there might be two chasidic girls that are doing zero textual study, so it is hard to say that bat mitvah celebrations have become more normative with the respect to the hypothetical middle of the Orthodox community.

  2. Eliyahu says:

    funny you mention marshall sklare. From what I know his main focus was on conservative judaism, which of course is very responsive to changes in Judaism driven by the changes in lives of Jews.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “The explosion of eruvim began in the late 1960s and early 1970s and grew more pronounced as time wore on. Wonder why? Young, modern observant Jewish women, increasingly well-educated in the secular and Jewish worlds, were affected by the impact of feminism on America.”

    – eruvim were a standard in many Eastern European shtetlach and towns much as they have been and are the standard in EY. The “explosion” of the last 40 years reestablished what always was. That said, it is possible that its immediate trigger was the desire by women to move around more. still not sure this can be labeled feminism, versus an overall reflection of the realities of Anerican culture.

  4. Reb Yid says:

    Yaakov:

    Two brief counters to your reply to Tzvee:

    1) The Bat Mitzvah today is fairly widely celebrated today in O circles. Certainly not everywhere, but it’s hardly an anomaly. It came from the “margins”–even though I’m sure there were plenty of O Jews who initially felt threatened or wondered why it was “necessary”.

    2) The growth of eruvim. The explosion of eruvim began in the late 1960s and early 1970s and grew more pronounced as time wore on. Wonder why? Young, modern observant Jewish women, increasingly well-educated in the secular and Jewish worlds, were affected by the impact of feminism on America. They felt it was no longer enough to “settle” for staying home with their children all day. Their role was instrumental in putting pressure on their husbands and the larger community to construct eruvim.

    Do not underestimate the “margins”. Changes in Judaism come from both above and below. As Marshall Sklare–the pioneer of American Jewish sociology–began his dissertation, changes in Judaism emanate from changes in the lives of Jews.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    Tzvee, it’s wonderful that you feel that way, but the Orthodox community’s future does not depend, and has never depended, upon what people on the margin dream up and call “Orthodoxy,” any more than Judaism’s future has depended upon what people on the margin dream up and call “Judaism.”

    All we’re asking for is a little truth in advertising.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    This phenomenon looks pretty marginal. Rather than wasting a lot of ink or electrons on it, how about somebody posting reactions to this week’s B’Sheva newspaper interview with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein?

  7. tzvee says:

    Dina Najman may be Orthodox, and the attendees may be “largely Orthodox,” but this congregation cannot “confirm the arrival of women to places of leadership in the Orthodox community,” regardless of what Devorah Zlochower, a dean at Drisha, may say.
    _______

    Sorry fella. It does – and you should be happy to wish a mazal tov to a new colleague. Our future depends on her and those who follow in her footsteps. Get over it. Stop tearing down and start building up.

  8. Reb Yid says:

    It’s interesting to see how some posters here are maligning the UTJ, KOE and/or Edah/YCT crowd in terms of their “halachic” specs. So let’s see what happens when we use “halacha” as defined by those to the right of this cohort:

    Given that the issue that brought about this thread was gender issues in the synagogue (particularly in the public sphere), I took a look at the GENESIS section of this very site (clearly not a left wing O site), and under the QUESTIONS and ANSWERS subsection, I examined the responses given to WOMEN RABBIS and WOMEN VOTING (including women being allowed to be shul Presidents).

    While the individual rabbinic responses that are posted clearly are personal opinions, it is nonetheless interesting to note that in both cases the rabbis clearly acknowledge that there is nothing “halachically” impermissible about women Presidents, although there are sociological factors that might come into play. And regarding the “popular” version of what a pulpit rabbi does (sitting on the bima, giving sermons, etc.–again, the response notes that this, too, is permissible from a “halachic” perspective)–which needs to be separated out from other issues like edut.

    This is not a matter, like it was with early Reform rabbis, of giving traditional Judaism “a decent burial” by dispensing with ritual and retaining only ethical or modern elements. It is a matter of separating out perceived “prohibitions”, which are in fact more sociologically based, from the prohibitions which are, in fact, solidly grounded in “halacha”.

  9. Rabbi Zvi says:

    Steve:

    The YI certainly DID have mixed dancing – it is almost completely gone nowadays (my understanding is that there are still some holdovers). The YI of Flatbush, once the largest YI, stopped mixed dancing under the auspices of Rabbi Auman the current Rav, I heard this from him directly. I do not recall when he became Rav, but he wasn’t there during the first war in Lebanon in the mid-80s.

    I never heard anyone claim it to be a kiruv tactic.

    Reb Yid:

    My experience has been that every group that calls itself “Halachic” is Halachic in their own eyes only. One day they will wake up like the Reform did about 10 years ago and realize that there isn’t too much substance left after you rid yourself of everything (yes, I have this in writing from Reform leaders worried about the failure of Reform to proliferate beyond the second generation).

    The real problem is that there are unsuspecting people that get drawn in by these groups, not knowing any better, and are taught that the fringe is the norm. I know Baalei T’shuva who are very confused by the “Orthodox” shul that gives honors to all the Conservative clergy that daven there.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-Mordechai Kaplan may have been present at the creation of the YI movement. Yet, his hashkafa clearly placed him beyond all hashkafic boundaries of MO. I would consider Irving Bunim ZL as having played a far more critical role. FWIW, I don’t know of any YI branches that have mixed dancing or view it as some sort of kiruv tactic.

  11. Rabbi Zvi says:

    Don’t forget that in the early 1990’s Avi Weiss (among others) formed/joined a rabbinic organization, FTOR, together with right wing Conservative (I remember the acronym but not what it stands for – sorry Bob – Oh, It’s not Elul ’til Friday, I’m safe).

    BTW (by the way, for the uninitiated), why do these groups avoid refering to themselves as Orthodox and why do they find refuge among the Conservative if not for their theological alignment.

    It is unfortunate that non-leftmost left wing Orthodox (which includes YU through the right-wingers) is too fractured to deal with these issues in a unified manner. And yes, I believe that normative YU hashkofa does not go nearly as far as Avi Weiss, KOE and their theological compatriots.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    As part of our Elul introspection, let’s try to cut down on acronyms. The casual reader who wades into this alphabet soup must be puzzled.

  13. Reb Yid says:

    A few comments on the above posts:

    In terms of the dynamics between UTCJ/UTJ and Edah/YCT, there is no question historically that the hesitancy has resided much moreso with the latter than the former. The head of UTJ has expressed much frustration with this–first, in unsuccessfully attempting to build a relationship with the C movement (UTCJ was originally a lobby within the C movement, not a breakaway) and then later with the O. It did merge with (actually, “acquired”) the Federation of Traditional Orthodox Rabbis [FTOR]–relative to the FTOR, believe it or not, the UTCJ was actually stronger.

    In terms of KOE, it’s not a “movement” and never claimed to be. It’s one shul that, as has already been stated, simply grew out of a minyan that met at former JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein’s residence. Nothing more and nothing less.

    Steve–

    I found your comment about why a MO would choose to daven at an institution with a name like KOE, given its history, a bit humorous. Mordecai Kaplan, after all, was an instrumental founder of Young Israel and definitely put the “Young” and modern in YI, instituted mixed dancing at shul events and otherwise helped to bring in young American Jews (with traditional parents) to an institution that that they had erstwhile written off as backward and outdated. Are you suggesting that MO Jews today should not frequent a YI [he asked rhetorically]?

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW,we now can see that UTJ and YCT share speakers and ideas without the need for a formal merger. This can and should be contrasted with RYBS’s views on this issue.AFAIK, C and R clergy attended RYBS’s shiurim and lectures and as RAL has said, some C clergy maintained contact with RYBS. I have one tape of a lecture from RYBS where a prominent R clergyman was identified as being present .Yet, RYBS never blurred the lines by speaking at a R or C conference.In fact, despite having a personal relationship with a prominent C clergyman in Boston, RYBS adamantly refused to attend a dinner in his honor because it would give legitimacy to CJ. This is documented in a book of letters from RYBS on various communal issues.

  15. Harry Maryles says:

    I agree that KOE does not represent Orthodoxy in any real way, although it tires mightily to presnt itself that way. It is sad that UTJ had the backing of Dr. Eliezer Berkovits. His motives were pure but the results are hardly making a blip on the radar screen of Torah Judaism and to the extent it is noticed by anyone, it is hardly a compelling movement. And the reason is in part because of the strange looking animal that Rabbi Halivni’s KOE has become.

    On a somewhat related subject, I posted an essay dealing in part with your own Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman.

  16. thanbo says:

    Reb Yid,

    Another factor preventing a merger between UTJ and Edah may be from the UTJ side – after decades of immersion in a Conservative Judaism that was decidedly Not Orthodox, even if elements within CJ kept halacha reasonably well, the rabbis of UTJ may have some aversion to becoming “Orthodox”, the Other, even if in practice they are the same (RWCJ and LWMO).

    The mechitza issue is an issue, as UTJ refuses to state a policy on it. There used to be a line in the FAQ on its website under “Mechitza”: Coming Soon. Now they don’t even have that much on the website any more. The refusal to commit on mechitza, the strange theory of revelation maintained by its founder/head, and the aversion to the term “Orthodox” all maintain a separation between UTJ and Edah, even if the separation has no real halachic substance.

    I have rather mixed thoughts about this whole thing and its significance; see my blog for more.

  17. Bob Miller says:

    I second Michoel (1:50PM).

    Reb Yid said “the KOE folks are extremely committed Jews who take pains to study and examine innovations within a halachic context before embarking upon them.”

    In English that means they have the engineer inspect the building before his demolition man sets off the charge.

  18. HILLEL says:

    I think Rav Aharon Kotler, ZT”L, said it best–“The seeds of Modern Orthodoxy” are the same as the seeds of Reform Judaism in Germany–dissatisfaction with our Jewish tradition and a desire to bring it in line with our gentile Golus environment.”

  19. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-a long time ago, Bundists were called “Zionists who were afraid to take a boat ride.” Perhaps, the same sociologically rooted fear and the issue of mechitzah that you described motivates much of the wariness that UTJ, Edah and YCT approach each other despite the fact R S Berman and R A Weiss have spoken at UTJ conclaves and that R A Weiss has employed UTJ ordained clergy as well.That doesn’t surprise me in view of their often stated and easilydocumented view that pluralism should take precedence and importance over kiruv. Based upon your comments and those eminating from YCT and UTJ as well, there appears to be some sort of tacit agreement that each group’s speakers is welcome at each other’s conferences, which may render the need for a formal agreement superfluous.

    However, your answer illustrates that YCT, which now has absorbed Edah, and UTJ will work together because they are basically in a very similar hashkafic lifeboat. YCT and the refugees from Edah are in the same lifeboat-too LW MO to feel at home within the OU/RIETS/YU/RCA structure and yet uncomfortable with certain aspects of UTJ such as mechitzah and its origins within CJ. UCT considers itself the remnants of the traditionalist element of JTS but is unwilling to insist on a mechitzah and may include members whose view of TSBP approximates R Halivni Weiss than R Lieberman ZL. Both of these groups strike me as truly “men without a country” .

  20. Michoel says:

    Reb Yid,
    “Indeed, the terms are not mutually exclusive…”
    When we cut away the semantic obfuscation, one cannot be a halacha-committed Jew and be something other than Orthodox. The two are synonymous b’tachlis hasynonymousness.

  21. Reb Yid says:

    Steve:

    Philosophically, the UTJ and Edah/YCT folks are virtually identical. In fact, if anything, the UTJ (and before it, the UTCJ) was if anything to the “right” of the Edahniks in terms of promoting halachic opportunities for women–UTJ blew a golden opportunity in terms of gaining more visibility.

    Saul Berman and Avi Weiss have headlined previous UTCJ and UTJ Conferences. Avi Weiss has employed UTJ musmachim in a rabbinic capacity as well. Their agendas are/were very, very similar.

    Ultimately, there were a couple of factors that prevented a true formal merger or alliance. One is sociological–the mere fact that the UTJ had Conservative origins was enough to scare away even the left-wing Orthodox. This even though as of probably 1990-1992 at the latest hardly anyone associated with the UTJ (which by then had formally broken away from the Conservative movement and established its own yeshiva) would have called themselves Conservative, or even right-wing Conservative. The second is probably the issue of mechitzah, as some pulpit rabbis or congregations that associated themselves with the UTJ were “Traditional”–i.e., mixed seating was found in at least part of the sanctuary.

  22. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-Can you explain why UTJ and Edah/YCT haven’t merged or reached some sort of modus viviendi over the years? Would you agree that there are some elements of LW MO and RW CJ that have much in common-especially as set forth in your post?

  23. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that it is fair to state that KOE and UTJ represent the remnants of the JTS faculty that may have been personally observant, but which had a de minimus impact on CJ as a movement as a whole in terms of adherence to halacha. IMO, that is at least one reason why KOE bears the name of a now deceased head of JTS who it is asserted davened in a minyan with separate seating as did many faculty members of JTS’s faculty until the 1970s when the movement away from halacha within CJ reached JTS itself.Like it or not, the name of a yeshiva , shul or any other communal institution carries at least some significance. Therefore,one can ask why some who view themselves as MO would associate or daven in an institution that honors the now deceased head of JTS whose impact on CJ, together with other observant members of that institution, was minimal.

    OTOH, one can claim very easily that R Halivni Weiss operates from a different set of assumptions vis a vis TSBP than anyone either in RIETS, YCT or the Charedi yeshiva world. In contrast, R Lieberman ZL, authored Tosefta Kpshuta which AFAIK is accepted in the libraries of many yeshivos and which is an academic counterpart to R Y Abramsky’s Chazon Yechezkel on Tosefta. R Lieberman ZL warned against R Halivni’s methods which he described as performing surgery on the Talmud . Since these faculty members of JTS either are in the Olam HaEmes or aligned with UTJ and other entities such as KOE, we can say in a tragic sense that these representatives of RW CJ are truely “men without an island.”

  24. Reb Yid says:

    While KOE would not want to label itself as \”Orthodox\”, it is very much a \”halachic\” community. Indeed, the terms are not mutually exclusive–the KOE folks are extremely committed Jews who take pains to study and examine innovations within a halachic context before embarking upon them.

    Moreover, there are now several Orthodox shuls which pass the Torah through the women\’s section. Separate women\’s tefila groups (where women read the Torah) are found throughout the United States–some are housed in separate spaces in Orthodox shuls while the main service is taking place, and others meet in private homes.

    While I suppose most people on this list do not desire these innovations in their shuls (or others that exist, like a female President of the shul), that by itself should not limit others to fully and seriously explore new possibilities within a halachic (and, dare I say it–even an Orthodox) framework.

  25. L.Oberstein says:

    When I was young back in the 1950’s our shul Congregation Agudath Israel in Montgomery,Alabama affiliated with the Conservative Movement because it was thought this would attract more people,especially youth.For a time, it worked, attendance was high at late Friday evening services and USY was far better than AZA and BBG. The Conservative Movement in 2006 is no longer viewed as the way to save Jewry in America. Poor Ismar Schorsch blasted his own Seminary and Movement for its shallowness and lack of committment to study or oservance in his swan song. So, now, they are trying a different approach, halacha. If it will have any more long term success in ressusitating a movement remains to be seen. Like the Chavurah Movement, it may just be a fad.
    I once wrote a letter to Schorsch and he replied that orthodoxy is “willful ignorance”. Maybe haolacha lite is willful ignorance and in the end will not pack any punch. However, this is no cause for triumphalism, it signals the loss of most of the American Jewish community to measurable observance. How sad.

  26. Rabbi Zvi says:

    I think the point here is that the synagogue is,in fact, not Orthodox and does not whish to be defined as such (this is very evident in both articles and from their website wwww.koe.org. If you read the Jewish Week article you can see more clearly that they are quite insensitive to Halachic considerations:

    “The synagogue, which runs a mechitzah down the middle of its rented space, was among the first of its kind to pass the Torah through the women’s section, to allow women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday nights, and to permit women to read from the Torah in a separate space. More recently, albeit on rare occasions, the synagogue allows “mixed kriah,” with women reading Torah in front of a coed congregation.”

  27. Jewish Observer says:

    “journalists may be lousy taxonomists”

    – no one, including Torah-true Orthodox, likes taxes

  28. Jordan Hirsch says:

    I am not sure I follow your conclusion. While traditional practice until now has not had women leading congregations, I have yet to find a definitve Halachic source forbidding them to do so in the matter which Ms. Najman is doing. R\’ Bleich in the Times article spoke about the schismatic nature of the decision, but refrained from declaring it forbidden by halacha categorically. instead of decrying he choice of KOE, why not just be grateful that those who feel the need to put a woman at the front of a synagogue are doing so with great sensitivity to real halachic constraints? Remember, Orthodoxy is not a term we conferred on ourselves, but was a label imposed on us from the outside. So if the choice of KOE does not work for you, don\’t daven there. But the Times\’ identifying KOE in some ways as Orthodox should also not be a threat or an issue for you either.