Toward a Kinder, Gentler, More Tolerant and Flexible Orthodoxy, by Aryeh Rubin

Since the end of
World War II, both in America and Israel, Jews
have been at odds with one another for political, ethnic, ideological,
religious and/or denominational reasons.
That different groups have divergent worldviews has been the case since
Biblical times. But the competing
factions today appear more hostile than ever before. The Orthodox -- particularly the
ultra-Orthodox with their high birth rates, expanding schools systems, and
increased political clout, coupled with a sense of triumphalism -- are often perceived as the most vociferous
and intolerant participants in these internecine squabbles of our people.

I believe that
the Orthodox, who have contributed their fair share of the hostility that
prevails among the different groups, could and should lead a healing process,
and lead all of kelal yisrael (the
people of Israel) to a
shared vision. Because of our adherence
to halakha (Jewish Law), our connection
to traditional learning, our historical authenticity, and our success, modern
Orthodoxy should be providing guidance, leadership, and direction -- not only
to its own enclave but to a much wider berth of Jewry. Regrettably, modern Orthodoxy has shrunk from
this task.

However, I
believe that in order for this essential healing and unity to occur, the modern
Orthodox may need to distance themselves from the ultra-Orthodox. Orthodoxy
must shift back to the center, a center that addresses the pluralistic needs
of, and provides the leadership for, all of Jewry. To accomplish this, we have to reconsider our
historic allegiances to the halakhic hegemony of the Lithuanian roshei yeshiva, (revered terms for heads
of yeshivot) and the Hassidic leaders. In
most instances, they view the modern Orthodox as Hellenizers. We are really not part of their world, yet
they seek to dictate our philosophy and political thought. Hence there is a need to create a distance
between us, to enable us to act independently of their authority, yet be able
to work together when called for.

Before I
continue, let me state that I do not refer to myself as Orthodox. Nevertheless, an Orthodox synagogue is the
locus of my spiritual aspirations, the hub of my communal activities, it’s
where I go to prayer services and where I go to say kaddish (mourner’s prayer), and to celebrate my family semahot (life cycle events). Though my lifestyle falls within the
parameters of the modern Orthodox gestalt,
I believe that the term “orthodox” is misunderstood, and limits one’s ability
to interact positively with the rest of the Jewish world. Hence, like a good number of us who came of
age in observant homes during the decades after the war, I consider myself a
post-denominational Jew. However, for
purposes of this article, I include myself when using “we” to refer to the
modern Orthodox.

While I respect
and admire certain individual leaders for their scholarship and attributes, I
do not consider myself at all under the guidance of the ultra-Orthodox. By freeing myself from the dictates of the “gedolei hador” (giants of the
generation), I am at liberty to interact with Jews of all denominations. My tsedaka
(charity) is targeted to organizations and projects based on their merit and
not their affiliations. I can praise and
accept the teachings of those in all movements and can ignore what I see as the
arbitrariness and narrowness of the ultra-Orthodox or others when warranted.

What I also see is a Jewish educational
system that is lacking, day schools and congregational schools that are short
in funding and teachers, assimilation at an all time high, and enemies who pose
true threats -- and yet we obsess over minutiae. With
all of these issues engulfing us, the Orthodox most often do not have dialogue
or interaction with over 80% of our fellow Jews to find common ground.

At one level, our
problems are the reverse of the rest of modern Jewry. Outside of the Orthodox,
most leaders are plutocrats; that is, the moneyed class that contributes the
largest donations has most of the seats at the ruling tables. In the Haredi
world, in contrast, it is only the roshei yeshiva who call the shots. Very few businessmen, almost no women, and no
independent thinkers play a role. There is
very little challenge to the Torah scholars who believe, and have convinced
many of us, that they are infallible and that their interpretation of halakhic
decisions overrides all other considerations.

Menachem Kellner,
in the November 2006 issue of Covenant,
notes the fallacy of the prevailing concept of Maimonides’ influence on modern
Judaism. Maimonides, the rationalist,
the physician, envisioned a “remarkably naturalist religion of radical
responsibility.” It was Judaism that was
“deeply elitist and profoundly universalist.”
Kellner points out, as many of us have already observed, that Orthodox
Judaism of today does not adhere to a Maimonidean rationality, but rather to a
Kabbalistic worldview in which, Kellner says, “spiritual guides provide indispensible
intercession.” In such a mystical world
the “gedolei hador” relying on daat Torah
(knowledge of Torah) are deemed infallible, and their word is binding. This belief is held by the Orthodox masses
despite the fact that they advised the pre-war Jewish populations of Europe not to
escape to Palestine or
other parts. Most offensive to the
sensibilities of modern Orthodox constituency are the outrageous comments made
by certain haredi leaders. The former
chief rabbi of Israel and
spiritual leader of the Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has said on various
occasions that the Holocaust victims are the reincarnated souls of sinners and
that Hurricane Katrina was retribution for President Bush’s support of
disengagement from Gaza.

The influence of
the haredi world has penetrated and continues to affect an ever larger swath of
traditional Jewry, primarily through teaching in modern Jewish day
schools. For the most part, the
haredim’s children do not get a higher education, or go to trade school. They learn in the kollel (advanced study institute) until it’s time to make a
living. One profession that is open and
welcoming to them is teaching in the modern Jewish day school, which suffers a
shortage of teachers because our own children are encouraged to seek more
lucrative careers. So our students have,
for two generations, been subject to the influence of these teachers and their
haredi visions. As the haredi community
has shifted to the right, they have dragged the modern Orthodox along. Very few leaders speak out against the newest
“humra (restriction) of the week,”
for fear that they, or their children, will be ostracized. The children, for
their own part, have bought into the haredi thinking because of the influence
of their teachers and peer pressure.
Such ostracization is not trivial, and can be harmful to their prospects
for jobs and marriage.


I suggest that a
new leadership of enlightened rabbinical and lay leaders be formed and assert
their leadership. If the modern Orthodox
are to provide guidance and direction to the entire House of Israel, we must
find common ground and work with the Conservative, Reform, and the
unaffiliated. While Orthodoxy has veered
to the right over the last half century under the spell of the haredim, the
Conservative shifted even further on the scale to the left (widening a gap that
was extremely narrow from the 1930s to the early 1960s) and the Reform movement
has dropped off the halakhic charts. We
need to formulate a weltanschauung to
Jewry that acknowledges that the majority of the Jews in the United
States, or the world for that matter,
are not, and for the foreseeable future, will not be traditionally observant.
Once that fact is accepted by the Orthodox, policies can be implemented that
will allow the modern Orthodox to influence, provide leadership for, and
participate in the governing of all of Jewry.

A possible
strategy, in part, is to follow the example of Habad. Some of their emissaries sit on councils,
Federation Continuity Commissions, and the like under the guise of recognizing
non-Orthodox clergy not as clergy, but as leaders of the Jewish Community -- a
thin veil, that gives them some sort of halakhic cover. For those who look for precedents, the Ibn
Ezra admired a commentator on the Humash (Pentateuch), R. Jeshua b. Judah – a prolific 11th
century writer, religious teacher and philosopher who also happened to be a
Karaite – a sect that recognized only the Scriptures as the sole and direct
source of the law, and that excluded the Oral tradition of the Rabbis. Despite the fundamental theological
differences, Maimonides was of the “belief that the Karaites should be treated
with respect, honor and kindness… as long as they do not slander the Talmud
(that they did not believe in). They may
be associated with and one may enter their homes, teach their children, bury
their dead and comfort their mourners.”
This suggests that the Orthodox attitude for the past century to our
fellow Jews may have been a bit overdone.

A more recent
example is Marc Shapiro’s book “Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox”. He cites numerous
examples of prominent halakhic authorities quoting, corresponding and
socializing with Rabbis Saul Lieberman and Louis Ginsburg, the stalwarts of the
Conservative movement and exalted professors and directors at the Jewish
Theological Seminary. It is of interest
to note that in instances where the scholarship of Lieberman and Ginsburg was
indispensable, some haredi authorities quoted only their initials, others cited
their work anonymously, or plagiarized it in their own name.

If ahavat yisrael (love of the fellow Jew)
is not enough of an incentive to be creative in reaching out across
denominational lines (and to date it hasn’t been), and if kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, (all of Jewry is responsible one to
another) does not motivate Orthodox Jews to aspire to leadership of more than
just their 20 % of the house of Israel, then perhaps one should consider simple
survival. The fate of all Jews is one,
in many respects. If the numbers of Jews continue to decline over time
(assimilation and low birth rate) as the general population increases, the
influence of all Jews is bound to wane.
Within the United States, the American political process pays close
attention to the Jewish community partly because of the swing vote that Jews
may carry in key states and localities and because of the funding provided by
the wealthy and primarily non-Orthodox Democratic and Republican donors. (It is ironic that while the ultra-Orthodox
are the most vociferous opponents of pluralism, in some rapidly growing and
financially impoverished communities it is government assistance programs that
help to support the haredi lifestyle.)

However, it would
be naïve to believe that the ultra-Orthodox will amend their predispositions
for any practical purpose that would violate what they believe to be the halakhic
norm. Any creative solutions for
leadership and the future must come from the modern Orthodox world.

The cohabitation
of ultra-Orthodoxy with its modern cousin has endured for half a century. While there have been benefits for the
modernists, (more learning, more schools, more books, and more kosher
facilities) the disadvantages are significant.
The haredim are enclavist, the modernists are universalists, the former
are inward looking, the latter are outward looking. The modernists have had little influence on
the ultras, but the latter have shaped the former. As a result, many in the formerly modern
community have become less Zionistic, less tolerant, and less likely to get
involved outside their community. They
focus more on the minutiae heeding the latest humrot and less on the majesty of
our heritage. They shy away from the
national umbrella organizations and as a result get less in funding for Jewish
education. Finally, were it not for the
influence of the ultra-Orthodox, women’s issues regarding prayer and learning
would have advanced at a far more rapid pace.

We shall remain
respectful of our brethren on the right and continue to regard them as
standard-bearers of the thinking that emerged in late 19th century
yeshivas of Lithuania and
among the Hassidic leaders of Central and Eastern
Europe. We
learn from their Torah insights, pray at their shtibelich (houses of prayer) at times, eat from their shehita (kosher dietary products) if we
so desire, and, if one is so inclined, solicit a blessing from their holy
men. We may admire certain positive
traits. But if we continue to follow their leadership, we will continue to be
dragged into a microcosm where the modern Orthodox do not want to go.


Because of some
the charity work in which I engage, I interact with Jews and their
organizations across all spectrums. And
while there is some innovation in the modern Orthodox world, much of the
creativity is coming from outside it.
Prayer groups, technology innovators, and incubators for new ideas
operate primarily within the realm of the other denominations and the
unaffiliated; all the while the Orthodox are missing the boat. Unprecedented amounts of financial resources
are available now -- probably more than in any period in our history -- with
which to do good, and the modern Orthodox are not getting a substantial piece
of that pie. There is talent outside our
community that we are not tapping. Much
of the gene pool of yesterday’s towering Torah giants do not opt for the
cloistered world of a religious order, and are today’s hedge fund managers,
Goldman Sachs partners, chairmen of philosophy departments, and directors of
medical centers. If we are to thrive, we
must tap into their talents, not only their resources. For that to happen, we need a kinder,
gentler, more tolerant and flexible Orthodoxy.

With so much from
our rich heritage to offer, and with the knowledge and facility to promote an
authentic Judaism on an intellectual and emotional level, it is a travesty that
we have not been doing so at a more optimal level. We need to promote our message, one that is non-coercive,
to a much wider audience, without proselytizing. We should learn from the models that seem to
work. Habad, whose success has been
staggering in reaching out to thousands of previously unaffiliated Jews, has
catered very successfully to a particular segment of Jewish society, and aspects
of their work should be emulated. Yet a
much wider audience of young Jews would not find Habad appealing. Hence, we must go outside the comfort zone of
the Orthodox, and create a halakhic version of the West
Side’s B’nai Jeshurun. Whatever issues one may have with their
approach, about 2,500 young people are observing a form of Shabbat on 87th
Street on Friday nights who otherwise
would be partying at a club. If we
believe that our Judaic tradition is for the Jewish people, and that its
doctrine, morals and ethics are for all of humanity, then we need to muster the
will and creativity to overcome the halakhic obstacles to move forward in
reaching out to our Jewish brethren and all of humankind.

While I doubt
that the divisions of patrilineal descent and gay clergy will ever be resolved,
there have been overtures and positive steps taken to reverse the trend of
hostility and move forward toward recognizing a commonality among all
Jews. The Reform have been leaning
towards tradition, and in Israel the
Kinneret Declaration stated a core agreement on Israel’s
democratic values as a home to secular, traditional and religious Jews. Flashes
of creative leadership have begun to move a process along that many thought

Those streams of
Judaism that differ with the modern Orthodox tradition, even those that ignore
fundamental aspects of traditional theology, do share a common language, an
affinity to a more majestic vision, and may share a common fate, if not
destiny, with the Jewish people. If we,
as modern Orthodox, could maintain a degree of flexibility and tolerance, we
could lead klal yisrael toward a
Jewish unity with bonds much stronger, deeper, and far more meaningful than
today’s vague notion of a tribal connection.

Let us move
forward. Let us rely on those leaders whose vision is shared by a large part of
the modern Orthodox world. Let the haredim
continue in their historical role, while we uphold our tradition looking
forward, relating to and tapping into the talents of all of Jewry, embracing
what is good in world culture, and accepting universalism within the bounds of
tradition. We have an immense amount to
offer world Jewry. If we succeed in
reducing the tensions among our people and help to reestablish a Judaism of all
Jews, we will have achieved a major accomplishment. If our destiny is to be a light unto the
nations, then getting our house in order is a good first step on the road
toward doing our share in saving the world.