No, That Is Not Modern Orthodoxy
Straw men may be useful in politics, but they are not what we seek in religious discourse.
That is why Dr. Steven Bayme’s op-ed Modern Orthodoxy is under attack from the right. It’s time to fight back is sadly off the mark, as it promotes a new organization (“PORAT“), presented as the true and authentic Modern Orthodoxy, that, it is argued, will restore Modern Orthodoxy to its rightful position, freeing Modern Orthodoxy from purported siege and suffocation at the hands of right-wing overlords.
Dr. Bayme writes:
May women enter the Orthodox rabbinate? May conversions to Judaism be left to the discretion of a local or communal rabbi, or must they be sanctioned by a centralized rabbinic authority? How do concerns for peoplehood weigh on the issue of who is a Jew? Do Jewish tradition and liberal democracy intersect in positive ways or are they mutually irreconcilable?…
The new organization is a vehicle to reclaim the mantle of modern Orthodoxy and provide a distinctive counter voice to those advocating greater isolationism and rejection of modern currents. Its founders include, among others, Victoria Lindenbaum Feder, Michael Fishbane, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Rabbi Dan Smokler, Sivya Twersky and Rabbi Avi Weiss, as well as myself…
The voices of modern Orthodoxy, often silenced in recent years by an ascendant haredi community, have much to contribute…
Gender equality, new rabbinical training programs, receptivity to modern scholarship in the study of the Bible and Talmud, renewed interest in interfaith dialogue — all have appeared on the Orthodox scene in novel ways in recent years. PORAT aims to work with the nascent institutions and voices promoting these values in the hope of creating a vibrant, exciting and inspired modern Orthodoxy.
Modern Orthodoxy forfeited its verve and independence in recent decades; bridges were torn asunder…
Despite Dr. Bayme’s catchy presentation and his nuanced appeal to restore Modern Orthodoxy to its roots, the obvious truth is that the founders of PORAT and their affiliate institutions all represent values and practices that were never part of Modern Orthodoxy – such as the ordination of female rabbis, partnership minyanim (prayer groups led jointly by men and women), and the acceptance of non-traditional approaches toward the role of Halacha and at times even toward the nature of God and the authorship of the Torah. These are all values and practices of non-Orthodox movements; they have never been part of Modern Orthodoxy, as they have crossed the red lines that define what Torah Judaism/Orthodoxy is all about. By subtly portraying these innovations and reforms as in sync with authentic Modern Orthodoxy – which has purportedly barred these innovations and reforms solely due to a recent stranglehold by the Right, and which will be redeemed and restored by PORAT – Dr. Bayme has set up a straw man to advance a movement that is as foreign to Modern Orthodoxy as Bernie Sanders is to Reagan capitalism.
Within the past week, leaders of two of the core institutions identified with PORAT issued responsa that permit women to be ordained as rabbis and that sanction minyanim in which women read from the Torah (for men) and receive aliyos. Is this the bona fide Modern Orthodoxy that has been stifled as of late and that PORAT plans to help resurface? Or is it a new movement, a new denomination, that is going down the path of the non-Orthodox groups, which marked their course by creating responsa that permitted these same exact things?
(Please see the second half of the latest Cross-Currents weekly digest for discussion of some of the fatal flaws in the two new responsa, and please see Rabbi David Brofsky’s excellent Facebook post that analyzes one of the responsa.)
As presented recently in Cross-Currents, the rabbinical schools affiliated with PORAT leadership have and continue to knowingly ordain students who reject some of the fundamentals of Torah belief and practice. In fact, the aforementioned weekly digest features a new dvar Torah by the head of one of these rabbinical schools, in which the story of Purim is radically presented as one of subjective and voluntary interpretation of God’s salvation, specifically rejecting the idea that Purim commemorates an objectively true miracle (!). I was thus dismayed to read this new award-winning essay by a prominent and prolific student at this same PORAT-affiliated rabbinical school, which appeared in a publication of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and is summarized as:
In Rabbinic thought God has more than one core moral value & when those values conflict, even God isn’t exactly sure what to do.
The moral universe is so ordered—the Rabbis believe—that God must hide from Its own values in order to forge ahead…In transmitting this narrative, the Rabbis are effectively asking, in what ways does God remain just as impotent as Its creations? Their answer is clear: It too cannot fully cope with the contradictory super-values of justice and mercy…I struggle to receive a God who offers all the answers and acts with perfect consistency. My own encounters with God are varied and uncertain—marked at times by a feeling of love, and at others by awe; at times by a zen closeness, at others by a Maimonidean distance; by a faith in the justice that must be embedded somewhere in this universe, and a hopelessness that evil still prevails. In other words, mine is a God who rules from many thrones. And when I pursue the Holy One, the question is not only how to find God, but which shall I work to discover. A God who rules from many thrones is one that I can bless to occupy the “right” one; a God who is still deciding, within the unchanging reality of cosmic contradiction, Its own nature. We, the Jewish people, can urge God to be that better God—the one that we today deserve and accept.
This theology discards the cardinal Torah principles of an omnipotent and perfect God. God becomes someone with faults and limitations, yet someone whom we accept despite – or perhaps because of – such shortcomings. The very character of the Master of the Universe becomes subject to judgment by humanity. While the above essay emerged from the values and methodologies taught at this young man’s rabbinical school, whose leadership is at the core of PORAT, we must ask ourselves: Is this Modern Orthodoxy? Is this the bona fide Modern Orthodoxy that PORAT seeks to restore and invigorate? Although Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik zt”l never used the term “Modern Orthodoxy”, Modern Orthodoxy has for over half a century looked to him for guidance. Did the Rav support the idea of female rabbis, mixed-gender prayer leadership, and denial of the traditional notions of Halacha and of God Himself? It is eminently clear from the Rav’s numerous writings and shiurim that he deemed such approaches to constitute the bright red lines which differentiate Orthodoxy from non-Orthodoxy.
Buyer beware: In contrast with the claims of PORAT and its constituency that they are salvaging the real Modern Orthodoxy, they are in fact innovating a new denomination that seeks to derail Modern Orthodoxy and turn it in the direction of the Conservative and other heterodox movements. All the rest is commentary.