End of heterodoxy, deja vu.

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.

J. Charna:

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.

J. Chanes:

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.
Beth Tfiloh Mechitzah

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.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via www.cross-currents.com.

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7 Responses

  1. sarah elias says:

    Wow, Beth Tfiloh is an Orthodox congregation?! Knock me down with a feather! Live and learn.

    BTW, Rabbi Feldman describes how he got a mechitza into his shul in his book, “Tales out of Shul”.

  2. DMZ says:

    A good Conservative friend of mine went toe to toe with the entire movement a few years ago over the issue of driving. He’s shomer Shabbos, keeps kosher, and so forth. Anyways, he sent a letter to a particular Conservative journal about the matter – very well-researched, it was quite good to read. He didn’t succeed in convincing many new people of his position, but you know what? At least he got a lot of respectful responses, and responses from the very leadership of that movement (eg, Schorsch, Joel, etc.).

    That’s one of the few things that I think the Conservative movement gets “right” – you’re allowed to have a debate on the issues, and people treat you seriously if you’ve got a reasonable argument. The yeshiva world (and the MO world, to be honest) seem to get stuck in this rut of “well, that’s how it’s done, and we’re not going to talk about it, let alone revisit it”, despite some serious unresolved problems with said issue. A good example of this kind of issue would be tznius, where there’s two conflicting mindsets applied at once – if I were to make a serious argument that we apply one or the other, but not both, that’s just not going to get any serious response anymore.


  3. Ori Pomerantz says:


    What are the two conflicting mindsets about tzniut?


  4. DMZ says:

    “What are the two conflicting mindsets about tzniut?”

    Good question. Consider this:
    1. Nose rings are considered non-tznius anymore, yet our matriarchs apparently thought they were. Why are they forbidden? Because the culture has changed.
    2. Pants are considered non-tznius, yet the culture around us thinks they are modest and fine. Why are they forbidden? Because we don’t change just because the culture around us has changed – pants weren’t modest back in Europe, so they aren’t now. (And to head off the argument, I’m not referring to tight, hip-hugging jeans.)

    I think the contradiction is rather self-evident. I don’t really care so much which mindset prevails so much as that _ONE_ of them does.


  5. Ori Pomerantz says:


    It seems to me less a contradiction than a Chumra, defining something as non Tzniut when either:

    A. It is not Tzniut according to the prevailing culture.
    B. It had not been Tzniut according to the prevailing culture for the last x centuries.

    It seems similar to the way Yom Kippur is observed for 26 hours – in theory it is supposed to be 24. But we don’t know EXACTLY when it is supposed to start, so we don’t eat as soon as twilight starts, and we don’t drink drink until it is full night on the following day.

  6. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    Pants for women are permitted in some Orthodox environments. Here are two:

    [link to Jewish Outdoors Club currently listed unsafe by Google…]


  7. DMZ says:

    “It seems to me less a contradiction than a Chumra, defining something as non Tzniut when either:

    A. It is not Tzniut according to the prevailing culture.
    B. It had not been Tzniut according to the prevailing culture for the last x centuries.”

    That’s a nice theory, but could you show me where it’s been codified? From what I’ve seen, no such codification exists.


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