The Agudah Dinner – The More Important Issue

Great attention has been paid to the recent Agudah Dinner, an unusual circumstance arising from the publicity given to the speech of the Novominsker Rebbe and the failure – if that is an appropriate term – of Mayor de Blasio to respond to the Rebbe’s criticism of Open Orthodoxy and the non-Orthodox movements.  We have been treated to a barrage of anti-charedi bigotry, beginning with The Forward and continuing more importantly to Michael Powell of the New York Times who with regularity utilizes his column as a vehicle to attack religious Jews.

There are good reasons to protest Powell’s bigotry, starting with his frequent use of the term “ultra-Orthodox,” a term that I believe is both sociologically inaccurate and fraught with hostility.  It is of note that in writing about other ethnic and religious groups, a number of which have front and center adherents whose extremism dwarfs by a great deal anything that can be found among the Orthodox, the term “ultra” is never applied.  We are once more the chosen people in the New York Times and elsewhere, chosen for contempt and even worse.

But for all of the understandable discussion of what happened or did not happen at the Agudah Dinner, it strikes me that there is a collateral issue that has gotten zero attention.  That issue is the invitation to the Mayor to participate, whether to speak or just to grace the dais.  I was active in Agudath Israel for about a quarter of a century, attending its conventions, dinners and being involved in much else.  The dais at dinners always consisted of Gedolei Torah and other outstanding community leaders.  I do not recall a single instance where political figures, including those with important governmental positions, were seated on the dais.

At some point, things changed.  In truth, that wasn’t the only change.  Whereas Agudah events used to be rough and tumble affairs and even at the Annual Dinner, controversial words could be spoken, things became sanitized.  Everything was to be clockwork, the apparent purpose being to present Agudah as an all-encompassing organization.  There is more to write about this development, but not here.  What I wish to focus on is the decision to invite leading governmental and public officials and for them to be accorded honor.  Again, that did not happen previously in the Agudah, not at conventions, not at dinners and even not at the Knessiah Gedolahs that were more universal affairs.

We are living through the social earthquake that is gay marriage.  Certainly in New York, every top official is an ardent supporter of gay marriage and the Mayor surely is.  Mr. de Blasio stands for a heck of a lot of things that are anathema for the Agudah and for the Orthodox community.  Why the invitation?  Why the desire to be popular?  Is the Agudah Dinner to become an Orthodox Jewish counterpart to the Catholic Church’s annual Al Smith Dinner where major public figures are invited to participate and even to speak, irrespective of how much their views and actions depart from the belief system of the sponsoring organization?

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16 comments to The Agudah Dinner – The More Important Issue

  • Toby Katz

    1. Why invite the mayor? For the same reason so many Orthodox New York Jews vote for the Democrats in local elections (despite the Dems’ support for everything the Torah considers an abomination). It’s all about the money. There is no principle involved.

    2. Years ago my father, R’ Nachman Bulman, zt’l, was very active in the Agudah and spoke almost every year at their annual conventions. His picture can still be seen on the walls at Agudah headquarters in NY. His speeches, emotional and intellectual at the same time, fiery and eloquent, were usually the highlight of the convention. But one year — I am sorry I don’t remember which year — they asked to vet his speech in advance and gave him directions on what he was and was not allowed to say. I don’t know what he talked about that year but as always, he was his own man. By his own choice, he never spoke at another Agudah convention.

  • Baruch

    Memo to Mr. Shick: The gay marriage battle is lost. It’s time to move on. Do you really think it’s wrong for Agudah (or other Orthodox institutions, for that matter) to seek to establish warm ties with influential political figures just because of their support of gay marriage? Are there no other issues that are of grave importance to us? I’m pretty sure you are aware of this problem commonly known as “the tuition crisis,” to take just one example.

    We are opposed to gay marriage, and we will always be opposed to gay marriage, but that train has left the station quite a while ago, leaving us behind with a host of other important issues that need to be addressed. If Agudah’s invitation to the mayor reflects its recognition that it’s time to get passed this issue, then I commend them.

  • lacosta

    i think rbn toby meant to say money IS the principle , and maybe the principal principle …… in re abominations and liberal theology [ to a liberal , his theology is usually his politics] the gmara already concluded ‘kesef metaheir mamzeirim’…..

  • Bob Miller

    When more members of a community depend on government (that is, taxpayer-funded) assistance, the government’s role in that community’s affairs inevitably grows. As Toby Katz wrote above, it’s about the money. A community can become less beholden to politicians and political appointees, including those like Mayor de Blasio who oppose us on key moral/social issues, by becoming more self-sufficient.

    One might argue that, in this down economy, we are much less able to support ourselves. OK, then, let’s get to the root of the down economy, namely, the implementation of a ruinous liberal economic and social agenda at all levels of government. We have a problem in that connection: the more we demand from politicians, the more they will demand our votes, votes that will perpetuate their misrule.

  • DavidF

    Mr. Schick has a point but he’s not perfectly accurate on the facts.
    The Agudah Convention in 1949 opened with a greeting by President Truman:

    Agudath Israel of America Opens Annual Convention; Greeted by President Truman
    May 19, 1949
    HURLETYVILLE, N.Y (May. 18)
    The eighth annual convention of Adudath Israel of. America was opened here tonight with the reading of a message of greetings from President Truman, recalling his recent meeting with Chief Rabbi Herzog of Israel.
    The convention, attended by 500 delegates, will deliberate on the religious problem facing Jews in the United States, Israel, and Europe. Principal speakers will include Dr. Jacob Rosenheim, president of the Agudath Israel World Organization and Rabbi Menahem Porush, of Israel. The full text of President Truman’s message, which was addressed to Michael G. Tress, president of Agudath Israel of America, reads:
    “Please extend my cordial greetings to all those who are attending the eighth annual convention of Agudath Israel of America. I was recently visited by Dr. Isaac Halevi Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Israel, and had the pleasure of exchanging with him passages from the Bible. Rabbi Herzog read Psalm 126 to me and I read to him from the Book of Isaiah: And He shall Judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning-books; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ This passage expresses a feeling which I have stated publicly many times: I would rather have lasting peace than be President.”

  • Micah Segelman

    Another issue that I think was overlooked was the Novominsker Rebbe’s embrace of the MO world – calling them “friends” – while forthrightly acknowledging their lack of identification with Aguda, and asking them to stand up and protect the mesora.

  • Dan

    Toby and R’ Marvin,

    There are 2 ways that the orthodox community can increase kevod Shamaym and bring about nachas ruach to H’:

    1) Try to improve itself, so that it becomes a model community of which others will be interested in emulating. In order for that to be true, there’s a need for resources, such as schools, yeshivos, study/work programs, etc, that can help us educate our children and accomplish our goal in being ovdei H’.

    2) Try to influence the outside world, by speaking out our opinions forcefully, and making it clear what the Torah considers as right and what it considers as wrong.

    Obviously, there are many levels in between and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but some people are firmly placed in the second camp, thereby finding it unacceptable that frum organizations can engage, honor and interact individuals that hold different beliefs, if these relationships can benefit the community.

    I think it pays to understand that there’s a reason why most individuals and organizations choose to place themselves in the realist camp (option 1).

    If by engaging with the mayor the community can benefit, then who are we to withhold that, if by shunning him will do nothing, given the current state of affairs?

    Doesn’t chazal say “keshem shemitzva lomar davar shenishma, kach mitzva lo lomar davar shelo nishma” (the same way it’s a mitzva to say (rebuke someone) if it’ll be heard, so too it’s a mitzva not to rebuke him if he’ll not accept it).

  • Chaskel Bennett

    I do not wish to enter into a debate as to the propriety or otherwise of
    inviting secular elected officials to the Agudath Israel dinner, though it is
    well known that historically, policy decisions of this nature have been guided
    by Daas Torah.

    One of the mandates Gedolei Yisroel placed upon Agudas Yisroel was, and
    continues to be, to serve as shtadlonim for the general community’s needs.
    Developing relationships with government officials, exposing them to our tzibbur
    when we can show strength in numbers, advocating for our special needs, giving
    them an opportunity to make public statements on issues of importance to our
    community (as Mayor de Blasio did at this year’s dinner) — are some of the
    tools we use to advance our shtadlonus mandate. Gedolei Yisroel have always
    participated in these events and supported them – and provide Agudah Askonim
    with guidelines about how to deal with key politicians who support causes that
    we know to be morally antithetical to our Mesorah. While I personally share much of Dr.
    Schick’s world view and deep concerns about the deteriorating societal moral
    climate, it is exactly for this reason, why Agudas Yisroel needs to continue
    and strengthen its long time efforts at political outreach to elected officials
    and policy makers.

    Dr. Schick writes, “I do not recall a single instance where political figures
    including those with important governmental positions were seated on the dais.”
    I’ve done a modicum of research and discovered that his charge is completely off
    base.I learned that dignitaries from across the broad political
    spectrum have spoken from the AIA dinner podium including:: US Education Secretaries Bill Bennett, Richard Riley:
    US Attorneys General Bill Barr, Richard Thornburgh; US Housing Secretary Sam Pierce;
    US Senators Kennedy, Packwood, Coats; Governors Cuomo (Mario), Kean; Mayor Michael
    Bloomberg, NYS Education Commissioners Ambach, Sobol and most notably, Vice
    President Al Gore etc. Lest I forget, NY’s senior Senator, Charles Schumer has
    spoke at almost every dinner I’ve personally attended over the past decade.
    Clearly, secular political guest speakers are not an aberration but a long
    standing custom at Agudah dinners.

    A few years ago I served as a co-Chairman of an Agudah dinner that featured
    Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as the evenings guest speaker. Not only
    were the guests excited by the renowned jursits presence,his eloquent address
    (on freedom of religion) was featured, the following morning, on the front cover
    of the now shuttered, NY Sun.

    When I asked Agudah executive Vice President, Rabbi David Zwiebel for his
    recollection as to Agudah policy he replied, “To the best of my memory, we have
    had a political/governmental/secular public figure on the dais and speaking at
    every single dinner since I joined Agudah Israel 30 years ago; and I’m quite
    certain for quite a few years before that.

    This publicly available information was easily accessible to Dr. Schick had he
    simply asked a knowledgeable insider or researched it online. To be sure,
    criticizing Agudath Israel and the numerous sensitive decisions it makes has
    always been a popular pasttime. While criticisms (legitimate or nitpicking) are
    par for the course for a large and active communal organization, in this
    particular case, Dr. Schick’s recollections are simply incorrect.

    Chaskel Bennett

  • Y. Ben-David

    Baruch-
    It seems to me that you don’t seem to understand the implications of the statement that you made that “the train has left the station” regarding homosexual “marriage” and there are now other issues to deal with. A study of world history and societies that have tolerated or even encouraged homosexualtiy in addition to the Jewish sources on the matter show that this is not simply “another issue” but a defining one in showing what sort of moral climate exists in that society and how toleration of sexual immorality has a pernicious effect on the society as a whole. I am well aware of how politically incorrect it is today to point this out, but Judaism has always held a light up to the moral deficiencies of the world, even if it is not popular.
    You are correct in your statement that there is no turning back on this issue in the United States in a political and values sense, at least half the American people and a higher percentage of young people accept this and many other forms of sexual immorality as being normative and it seems all the major religions are throwing in the towel on the matter.
    But what does this mean for the religious Jewish community in the US? Does the religous community think it will not be affected by the prevailing moral degenaration, which also, and unsuprisingly, accompanies an economic and social degeneration with the growth of a large white underclass of people alienated from society in addition to the already very large black underclass? Almost 50% of children born in the US are born to single mothers so they will grow up without the stable father-mother family unit to guide them. This is the America the American Jewish community lives in and it will INEVITABLY be affected in a negative way, no matter how much the religious parents and communities will try to isolate them. It can’t be done. Already 2000 years ago, the prevalent non-Jewish Hellenistic culture and value system affected large parts of the Jewish community which lead to the civil war lead by the Hashmonaim. Today, with the electronic media and cyberworld, it is much easier to propagate these ideas. No one is immune.
    It is time the American religious community take a hard look at what is going on around them and realize that the “golden years” of the post-War era have come to an end. Difficult decisions lie ahead.

  • c-l,c

    Baruch et al,

    Judaism, believe it or not, has decisive red lines

    This is one.

    In two years or so hence when murder will be legalized ,you will say the same ,won’t you?

    Are you so deluged by the zeitgeist?!
    Then you could join countless others over our peoples long story

  • c-l,c

    “[History] is a voice forever sounding across the centuries the laws of right and wrong,” writes J.A. Froude. “Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but moral law is written on the tablets of eternity. For every false word or unrighteous deed, for cruelty and oppression, for lust or vanity, the price has to be paid at last: not always by the chief offenders, but paid by someone. Justice and truth alone endure and live. Injustice and falsehood may be long-lived, but doomsday comes at last to them, in .. revolutions and other terrible ways.” (James Anthony Froude, Short Studies in Great Subjects)

    (If as Baruch claims challilah “it has left the gate” who is largely at fault?

    The non-jews, in their guts sense , as Joe Biden proclaimed, it is primarily the jews who are responsible for the seismic social quake.

    Oh,the modox paens when Kegan was nominated to the Court)

    Remember a short five years ago only (astonishing really) States that held referenda on marriage had the record in favor of retaining traditional marriage 31-0!

    For those authentic Orthodox Jews who have stood firm but maintain still a certain smugness
    cf. Seforno Genesis 6:8.

  • Bob Miller

    Chaskel Bennett wrote, above: “While criticisms (legitimate or nitpicking) are
    par for the course for a large and active communal organization, in this
    particular case, Dr. Schick’s recollections are simply incorrect.”

    Which criticisms have been acknowledged as legitimate by this organization? What was done in response?

  • Ephraim

    Chaskel Bennett

    Many members of the Agudath Israel Board have helped elect people who were the critical in causing the “deteriorating societal moral climate”.

    In fact if not for people locked into the Agudath Israel world same sex “marriage” may not have passed, many of the areas in NY State that Agudath Israel has as strong role, also have politicians who voted for same sex “marriage”.

    In fact I can say with out a shadow of a doubt, if the ENTIRE Orthodox Jewish Community would have voted against all politicians who supported the LGBT agenda then same sex “marriage” would not have had the votes to pass.

    Agudath Israel’s publicly supporting Cuomo (even though he would have been elected anyways, allows people (even from other camps) to support local politicians (ex. Weisenberg, Jafee, Weinstein etc) who vote against our community’s true values).

    In fact one of the biggest Chilul Hashems’s in modern times (and one that possibly helped pass same sex “marriage”) was that Mayor Bloomberg publicly left a same sex “marriage” rally early to go to the Agudath Israel’s dinner. To see how just how evil that act was lets say I’m young (18 year old) Modern Orthodox Jew who knows that same sex “marriage” is wrong and I read in the paper that Bloomberg had to leave the GAY “MARRIAGE rally early to go to the “Ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel’s dinner, how can I now be against it (vote against the politicians that support it and later caused it to pass).

    A few years ago a non Jewish candidate (who was familiar with many “askonim” including Agudath Israel’s Shmuel Lefkowitz) who was running against a long time assemblywoman with a very strong Agudath Israel presence told me that she will not campaign against same sex “marriage” “because our community only cares about getting a bigger share of the pie”

    A few questions also bothered me with what you wrote
    1. would you also have had Quinn speak at the Agudath Israel dinner
    2. How come I don’t recall anti-morality politicians next To Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov, etc.?

  • Ephraim

    Baruch

    yes same sex “marriage passed, but that is only a part of larger fight

    Right now in New York State they are pushing for GENDA (a bill that could force a kosher pizza store to have a man in a dress behind the counter), a bill that would ban conversion therapy which many Rabbanim from all stripes have supported (from R Tendler, to R Shmuel Kamenetsky).

    Even further on the horizons is Euthanasia and actually trying to force Yeshiva to teach about homosexuality in a “positive” light.

  • c-l,c

    “[History] is a voice forever sounding across the centuries the laws of right and wrong,” writes J.A. Froude. “Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but moral law is written on the tablets of eternity. For every false word or unrighteous deed, for cruelty and oppression, for lust or vanity, the price has to be paid at last: not always by the chief offenders, but paid by someone. Justice and truth alone endure and live. Injustice and falsehood may be long-lived, but doomsday comes at last to them, in .. revolutions and other terrible ways.” (James Anthony Froude, Short Studies in Great Subjects)

    (If as Baruch claims challilah “it has left the gate” who is largely at fault?

    The non-jews, in their guts sense , as Joe Biden proclaimed, it is primarily the jews who are responsible for the seismic social quake.

    Oh,the modox paens when Kegan was nominated to the Court)

    Remember a short five years ago only (astonishing really) States that held referenda on marriage had the record in favor of retaining traditional marriage 31-0!

    For those authentic Orthodox Jews who have stood firm but maintain still a certain smugness
    cf. Seforno Genesis 6:8.

  • Marvin Schick

    There are several comments to my post regarding the Agudah dinner that merit a response. Before turning to that chore, there is an additional point to be made about the same-sex marriage issue. Apart from same-sex marriage being anathema to our entire belief system, it has two distinguishing characteristics that should be worrisome to us. The first is that it has been embraced with a rapidity that is unprecedented, at least in my lifetime of any other important social issue. The reason for this is that the cultural elites, particularly in the media, are strongly embedded in this camp and they are powerful. Secondly and connected to the first point, attitude toward same-sex marriage is now regarded as a litmus test of whether there is sufficient adherence to core American values. That is, opponents are not merely regarded as wrong on this single issue, they are regarded as bigots and worse and deserving of condemnation.

    Now to the several points:

    1. I greatly appreciate what Toby Katz has written about her father, R’ Nachman Bulman, zt’l. I believe that she has made a minor error. I was at the Agudah Convention when Rabbi Bulman first spoke. There were murmurs of protest that the organization had given a prime speaking spot, Friday night, to a “Modern Orthodox” Rabbi from Danville, Virginia. His speech was eloquent and there was an extraordinary reaction from the audience including the Gedolei Torah who were present. I do not think there were protests down the road or that he was asked to share his text with the Agudah before the speech.

    2. As for the commentators who suggest that we take our losses and move to other issues, the problem is that, as I write above, this issue is being used as a club against us.

    3. David F challenges my statement that government officials were not invited to Agudah events in the earlier years. The fact that a message of greetings from President Truman was read does not at all challenge the accuracy of what I wrote.

    4. More serious is Chaskel Bennett’s challenge. My post refers specifically to the years, more than twenty-five, when I was active in the Agudah and attended conventions and dinners. All of the examples he gives of public officials being seated at Agudah podiums occurred later on when the Agudah changed and I regard this as unfortunate.

    Marvin Schick