January 5, 2006
Orthodox But Not Monolithic
The last place most people probably wanted to be on the morning of Dec. 25 was at a convention in a Beverly Hills hotel.
But for Orthodox Jews the time and the place, the Crowne Plaza, worked fine for wrapping up the Orthodox Union's 15th Annual West Coast Torah Convention, called "The Polarization of Orthodox Judaism: Finding Harmony Within Diversity."
The four-day conference highlighted the diversity -- and at times the tension -- in what might appear to be, from the outside, a monolithic community.
The most observant of the four main denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy in the last decade and a half has shifted further to the right. The basis of Orthodoxy is an adherence to halacha -- Jewish law as interpreted by Orthodox authorities -- but Orthodoxy still encompasses a wide swath of opinions.
While Orthodox tensions might seem like insider baseball to non-Orthodox Jews, there is often a trickle-down effect on all Jewish denominations, especially on issues such as teaching creationism in schools and forbidding exposure to certain books. Another ongoing issue is how much dialogue should there be withnon-Orthodox Jews and how much engagement is the right amount with the world outside Judaism.
An ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox representative faced off in the first night's "Fireside Chat" featuring two perceived "factions" of Orthodoxy. Representing the more "modern" faction was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the national executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU); representing the more haredi, or "Ultra-Orthodox," faction was Rabbi Avrohom Teichman Mora D'asra (head rabbi) of Agudas Yisroel of Los Angeles. The two erudite, bearded men expressed opposing positions on issue after issue.
For one thing, while Modern Orthodox Jews support Israel as the Jewish State and hold as a goal aliyah, or moving to Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not put as much focus on aliyah as a mitzvah; nor are they necessarily proponents of Zionism. Also, Modern Orthodox Jews support secular education, and unequivocally send their children to university while the ultra-Orthodox often view a secular education as presenting a danger to the religiosity of their children.
The discussion between Weinreb and Teichman remained calm and civil, but the discourse grew more impassioned at a panel the following night, after Friday night Shabbat dinner at B'nai David Judea.
"How Flexible is Orthodoxy?" featured four rabbis, but it was the two local ones who ended up most at odds, when moderator Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, of Kehillat Yavneh and the OU, asked, "How is Orthodoxy meeting the needs of the modern Jewish woman?
A woman's role in the synagogue should not change, said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Young Israel of Century City. Period.
But Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B'nai David reiterated his position that there are troubling issues regarding women that must be reconsidered. Kanefsky has drawn fire here for a number of his liberal practices, such as holding a woman's-only prayer group. The interchange between the rabbis prompted a barrage of questions from the audience, blowing the lid off a volatile issue. The views of Kanefsky, who is currently serving as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, represent the far left of West Coast Orthodox rabbis, and even cause controversy within the modern faction of Orthodoxy.
Another perspective on women's issues was offered in a Sunday lecture by David Luchins, OU national vice president and chairman of the Political Science Department at Touro College for Women. He placed the matter in the context of Orthodox Jews' broader view of engagement in the secular world, citing the example of secular education. Some Orthodox regard a college and professional education as an ideal; others accept this outside education as "necessary" for a professional life; and some reject it entirely. Rejection has long been popular among many Orthodox in Israel, and has become so among some American students who study at Yeshivas there.
On the matter of secular education, he said, the battle is now being fought. Not so, in his view, when it comes to support for Israel and women's issues.
On the matter of Israel's centrality, Luchins said, the Modern Orthodox have won. The ultra-Orthodox - who decades ago viewed Israel dismissively as a "Zionist entity" -- now are as supportive as the Modern Orthodox.
But on the matter of women, he said, the ultra-Orthodox have prevailed. In 1976, he said, there were three women on the OU board. There are none today. The OU conference featured no women panelists, save for one all-women panel ("The Orthodox Women's Influence on Her Community") that was closed to men at the request of the women on the panel.
"Why have we relegated our women to third-class citizens?" Luchins asked. "We've done it for the tradeoff," he posited.
The ultra-Orthodox accepted Israel as a central ideal, and in return, the Israeli community's conservative attitude toward women has prevailed overall in most of the Orthodox world, he said.
"We're so busy fighting over the form of where women sit in shul that I think we've lost the substance. There was a time that women were the pillars of the Orthodox community," Luchins said. "We've lost on that issue, big."
Off the record, one rabbi expressed concern about schisms within Orthodoxy. "Sometimes," he said, "I think the movement is going to have to break into two."
But OU President Steven Savitsky talked about such divides as challenges to be managed, rather than as a looming crisis.
"How do we find cohesiveness and harmony?" Savitsky asked, when he addressed the opening night dinner of 150 at Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills.
The short answer, Savitsky later told The Journal, is tolerance.
"We need to see the bigger picture: There are very few of us in this world, and we better find ways of working together," he said.