The Modern Orthodox Straw Man

By Avrohom Gordimer

There are times when one must take a firm stand and stake out a principled position, or deal with what may be the nightmarish consequences of not standing strong. And there are watershed moments in Jewish history, when new events and trends that portend substantial challenge to the stability of Jewish practice must be addressed. We have just witnessed both of the above transpire.

Leadership of mainstream Orthodox organs which largely represent Modern Orthodoxy has drawn a line and publicly declared that partnership minyanim (prayer groups that identify as Orthodox, in which men and women both lead parts of the service) are not within the parameters of acceptable Orthodox practice. Responding to a proliferation of partnership minyanim, including their occurrence in liberal Orthodox synagogues and the serious challenges to traditional Orthodox tefillah that the partnership minyan phenomenon has engendered, the Orthodox establishment has taken decisive action – action that hearkens back to the historically-defining actions by the same Orthodox establishment regarding the issue of mechitza over half a century ago.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) began the process with the publication of piskei halacha to this effect by R. Hershel Schachter, R. Gedalia Dov Schwartz and R. Nachum Rabinovitch, along with a lengthy research article by Rabbis Drs. Aryeh and Dov Frimer which concludes that partnership minyanim are beyond the halachic pale. Then, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological seminary (RIETS) threatened to withhold semicha from one of its students over the matter and subsequently issued a statement affirming the necessity of commitment to normative halachic process and the essential role of preeminent rabbinic authority therein, which are the larger backdrop to the partnership minyanim discussion; the RIETS statement also specified that RIETS does not consider partnership minyanim acceptable. Subsequently, R. Jeremy Wieder of RIETS penned a compelling halachic essay in conformity with the position that partnership minyanim are not acceptable to Orthodoxy, while at the same time, Orthodox Union leadership affirmed the same position to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reporter, who wrote:

The consensus of the rabbis to whom the Orthodox Union turns for halachic guidance is unequivocal, that partnership minyanim are improper,” said the statement, signed by rabbis Steven Weil and Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. ”It is our goal to assert this position in a way that strives to maintain the unity of the Jewish people.

The only Orthodox institution in the country that seems open to the minyans is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Riverdale. The founder of that school, Rabbi Avi Weiss, long has stirred controversy for his positions on women’s issues: He ordained the first Orthodox clergywoman several years ago and has established a yeshiva for ordaining women as clergy. His synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, has allowed partnership minyans to take place in the building.

As was to be expected, proponents of partnership minyanim and of a vision of Orthodoxy that does not defer to preeminent rabbinic authority on many issues pushed back. While such pushback to policies that reflect the controlling input of preeminent rabbinic authority is typical to some far-left Orthodox detractors of mainstream Orthodoxy, defenders of partnership minyanim have now come up with a new label to apply negatively to Orthodox leadership that does not accept partnership minyanim and other controversial religious innovations, in yet another attempt to discredit such leadership and set it up as a straw man to conveniently knock over.

In the latest of many recent efforts to undermine the legitimacy of mainstream Modern Orthodox leadership’s insistence on deference to preeminent rabbinic authority on issues such as partnership minyanim and other matters that touch upon the halachic and meta-halachic realms, Dr. Steven Bayme negatively labels the stance of this leadership as one of a “Da’as Torah” mentality, akin to the Haredi approach that Dr. Bayme dismisses with strident criticism. Dr. Bayme confuses the Da’as Torah concept of seeking rabbinic input on issues that are not inherently in the sphere of Halacha (such as choice of profession, choice of spouse, and the question of for whom to vote in elections – something that has greatly sullied the image of the Da’as Torah approach among much of the Israeli electorate in the past few decades) with the notion of Emunas Chachamim, which requires one to consult and heed the counsel of preeminent Torah experts on major religious issues, including but not limited to halachic innovations such as partnership minyanim. By throwing out the Da’as Torah card and conflating it with the real matter at hand, Dr. Bayme assigns a stereotype label to mainstream Modern Orthodox leadership in a confused effort to discredit it and its positions.
Dr. Bayme seeks precedent for his stance by invoking the legacy of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, grossly mistaking Rav Hirsch’s positive stance toward secular learning and culture (the aspects thereof which do not conflict with Torah values) as precedent for Dr. Bayme’s own viewpoint that is dismissive of seeking counsel from preeminent rabbinic authority. Dr. Bayme presents a vision of Orthodoxy that curtails rabbinic authority and leaves halachic and meta-halachic decision-making to those not expertly versed in these fields, even when pertaining to matters of immense halachic significance:

Modern Orthodoxy treads a far more difficult path of seeking both to preserve rabbinic authority yet constrain that authority so as to allow for intellectual freedom and expression of diverse viewpoints. Modern Orthodox leaders today may choose to engage modern culture and thereby exercise leadership on the critical questions of gender equality, conversion to Judaism, Jewish education, intra-Jewish relations, and the challenges of contemporary biblical scholarship to traditional faith, to say nothing of Israel’s future as a Jewish state.

Yes, Dr. Bayme envisions an Orthodoxy in which conversion standards, gender roles within religious practice, the propriety of Biblical Criticism and its relationship with issues of faith, and other very significant religious issues may be decided without or in contradiction to the input of preeminent rabbinic authority. Such an Orthodoxy substantially violates precedent and is antithetical to the serious halachic character of the issues under discussion.

Taking a step back, Dr. Bayme’s position reveals a vision of Orthodoxy which is in effect crafted to one’s liking, where Torah authority takes a back seat to one’s personal religious path and practice and whomever he or she selects as the local rabbi, beyond whose desk issues may not pass for consultation with those more expert.

Divorcing Orthodoxy from the counsel of preeminent Torah authorities may be empowering and creative, but Orthodox it is not.

Rabbi Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, as well as the New York Bar. The opinions in the above article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of any other individuals or entities.

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15 comments to The Modern Orthodox Straw Man

  • Mike S.

    Rabbi Gordimer is, of course, correct that Jews need to submit to the halachic authority of the leading Torah scholars. But may I suggest that that guidance is, practically speaking, more likely to be heeded if the scholars are offering positive suggestions for how to live according to the Torah in modern society, rather than merely rejecting ideas that arise from the larger public. Indeed, it is the failure of the Torah scholars to offer positive responses to communal issues that leads others to offer them.

  • Bob Miller

    Emanations of the new Modern Not-So-Orthodoxy have set a new standard for PC buzzword density. Their audience may groove on this, but it borders on obfuscation.

  • Yair Daar

    “Taking a step back, Dr. Bayme’s position reveals a vision of Orthodoxy which is in effect crafted to one’s liking, where Torah authority takes a back seat to one’s personal religious path and practice and whomever he or she selects as the local rabbi, beyond whose desk issues may not pass for consultation with those more expert.”

    This statement is equally as straw-mannish as the equation to classic Da’as Torah with which you rightfully disagree. From a bystander’s perspective, it is very frustrating to constantly see those opposed to Open Orthodoxy refusing to attribute any truth to OO’s hashkafos. Painting them as those secretly (or not so secretly) trying to replace Orthodox Judaism with some hybrid version of Orthopraxy and Humanism is unfair and misleading. It would be nice to see the common ground acknowledged instead of conveniently ignored.

  • dr. bill

    your article does not reflect the nuanced position of the late Jacob Katz of how rabbis and their communities addressed traditional, but non-halakhic matters. His position would lower the temperature of the dialogue. to be sure rabbis have a crucial role, as do communities.

  • Sholom

    With all due respect, Rabbi Gordimer, Judaism is not a top down religion. We don’t have a pope or a central committee, and we don’t want one. There’s room, even in Orthodoxy, for multiple viewpoints.

  • Daniel

    @Sholom

    Certainly there is room for multiple viewpoints, but those viewpoints should emanate from people worthy to establish them; not from every yokel and yokeless for themselves.

    We may not be Catholic, but the alternative isn’t to be Protestant.

  • CNS

    @ Sholom
    As a misnaged, I’ve always thought myself to be a protestant

  • Ari Rieser

    “There are times when one must take a firm stand and stake out a principled position, or deal with what may be the nightmarish consequences of not standing strong.” Nightmarish consequences?!? Perhaps we should tone down the rhetoric a bissel? The RCA has always banned YCT musmachim from joining their ranks; what else needs to be said or done here? It seems to me that the more the RCA, OU and RIETS push against OO and YCT, the harder and stronger they contimue to push back. “Mah tovu ohalecha Yakov” – Why not leave them alone and worry about finding constructive ways to enable frum women in your own communities greater opportunities to contribute their talents for the good of Klal Yisrael?

  • Baruch

    Yair Daar – “Painting them as those secretly (or not so secretly) trying to replace Orthodox Judaism with some hybrid version of Orthopraxy and Humanism is unfair and misleading”

    I don’t recall Rabbi Gordimer implying that OO is “trying to replace Orthodox Judaism with some hybrid version of Orthopraxy and Humanism.” All he’s saying is that they are breaking from tradition and still trying to call themselves Orthodox. And the evidence is too overwhelming to deny.

  • Ari Heitner

    Sholom,

    With all due respect right back, no one’s stopping anyone from doing anything – Reform and Conservative aren’t interested and listening to Rav Schachter, or the Chofetz Chaim, or the Shulchan Aruch. The OO movement will choose which sources of halacha they consider relevant. And the rest of the Torah world will have the freedom to form their opinions of OO. They can even describe themselves as “Orthodox” if they want (so could the Conservative movement, if it wanted…).

    That said, I think the Torah’s idea of Judaism is very much monolithic; the facets may be represented in lomdus, but in practice there is supposed to be a Sanhedrin which votes with binding results.

  • Steve Brizel

    R Gordimer , implicitly following R Adlerstein’s comments re Avodas HaShem and Yiras Shamayim being hardly discussed in certain quarters of MO, hits the proverbial nail on the head. Brandishing RHS and R Weider with a Daas Torah label shows substantial, if not complete ignorance as to their views on Mesorah, TSBP and Halacha.

    Dr. Bayme wrote in part, as quoted by R Gordimer:

    “Modern Orthodoxy treads a far more difficult path of seeking both to preserve rabbinic authority yet constrain that authority so as to allow for intellectual freedom and expression of diverse viewpoints. Modern Orthodox leaders today may choose to engage modern culture and thereby exercise leadership on the critical questions of gender equality, conversion to Judaism, Jewish education, intra-Jewish relations, and the challenges of contemporary biblical scholarship to traditional faith, to say nothing of Israel’s future as a Jewish state”

    One wonders what, if any role, traditional gender roles, Yiras Shamayim, Emunas Chachamim, Avodas HaShem, Torah Min HaShamayim, and adhering to the Razton HaTorah have in the above often voiced vision of MO.

  • Yair Daar

    Baruch – Please read the quote from R’ Gordimer that I was reacting to. Open Orthodoxy is clearly breaking with tradition (at least how tradition has been understood by most in contemporary times). They do not hide this fact, as they would describe their innovations as reflecting growth. But allowing personal values to play a bigger role in halacha is different than replacing Orthodoxy with a choose your own adventure story. The latter is how Open Orthodoxy has been commonly described. It is this mischaracterization that bothers me.

  • YM Goldstein

    The last time I looked, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, is still a member shul of the OU.

  • Steve Brizel

    Yair Daar-please define with some specifics what you mean by “allowing personal values to play a bigger role in halacha “. I have seen nothing written by any advocate of OO that can be defined other than “replacing Orthodoxy with a choose your own adventure story.”

  • Yair Daar

    Steve –

    In my experience, Torah Sheba’al Peh sources that have a place in our Mesorah are almost always consulted and used as basis for halachic decisions from those who identify as Open Orthodox. The interpretations are often compelling (some more so than others – as with all halachic discussions), and are usually internally consistent and fit the sources.

    Yes, they often pasken using interpretations that are focused on satisfying certain values (this is the part that sounds like they are playing “choose your own adventure.”) However, there are valid arguments to be made that such a method of pesak has always been around, as there are examples of Chazal doing the same. They consider it to be part of the Mesorah to pasken this way. Therefore, generally don’t distort sources as they are trying to keep with (their version of) the Mesorah.

    I understand the arguments regarding their lack of authority, whether certain values are truly Torah values, and the appropriateness of updating the values of Chazal. I personally see both sides of the story. But to disparage OO as using (an) agenda(s) to distort true Torah values is, in my mind, inappropriate and to a large degree untrue. This is a serious hashkafic debate, one that mainstream Orthodoxy can choose to enter or ignore (and not give credence to Open Orthodoxy’s arguments at all). But the name-calling and judging needs to stop.