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.