Setting the agenda for the third International Conference of Edah, a proudly Modern Orthodox group, Rabbi Saul Berman stressed to the 1,000 or so participants that “we are integrated fundamentalists” with a vital role to play, asserting that it is possible to believe in the absolute authority of one’s religion while also embracing diversity and tolerance.
Addressing the conference theme of “Relationships in the Era of Democracy and Terror,” Rabbi Berman, Edah’s director, offered a passionate defense of Modern Orthodoxy and its values, particularly at a time when the twin specters of war and terrorism hang heavy in the air. He noted that issues facing us today, including whether or not a pre-emptive war is permissible or when a national leader can invoke war, were discussed in the Talmud, and that Judaism instructs not to demonize one’s enemy.
At the end of the first day of the two-day conference, held every other year, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s dovish deputy foreign minister, fervently entreated the participants not to permit terrorism to reduce what is a complex situation into a simplistic drama of the good guys versus the bad.
“Jewish values and democracy have to stand even in a time of war, and that is not happening here in America or in Israel,” the Orthodox rabbi said. “Debate is nearly nonexistent.”
The mentality currently overtaking Israel is “either you’re for us or against us. That’s becoming much more evident in the Torah world than in the Jewish world generally. There are religious leaders in Israel standing up and calling for an all-out war with the whole Muslim world,” he said.
There are also those “waiting for the Palestinians to become a democracy, but to think that we can sit on 4.7 million Palestinians and train them and turn them into Zionists is not going to happen,” said Rabbi Melchior, who flew from Israel to New York just to give this speech, and returned to the airport directly from the podium.
“We need today to use all of our resources and all of our devotion to fight terror and not to become ourselves the simplification,” he said. “We can create the kind of spiritual and cultural room where we have enough room for ‘the other.’ ”
Though many in the Modern Orthodox community favor the expansion of West Bank and Gaza settlements, which Rabbi Melchior decried, he was warmly applauded.
Both he and Rabbi Berman emphasized that Modern Orthodox Jews can play a vital and perhaps unique role in serving as a bridge between Torah and democracy, between Zionism and respect for members of an enemy nation.
The conference focused on Orthodox Jews’ relationships to Torah; to time; to place, particularly Israel; to people; to things and to self. Throughout the two days, the sense of standing between, and attempting to resolve, seemingly contradictory positions was evident in the dozens of workshops and programs on a variety of topics, from the problem of agunot, women whose husbands refuse to grant them religious divorces, to the conflicts between Halacha and ethics. Sessions examined the status of singles and converts, issues between adult children who become haredi and their Modern Orthodox parents, whether the presentation of images of non-Jews in Jewish education educates children toward racism, and the merits of organ donation.
In the breadth of its offerings, and in the fact that both conference co-chairs were women, Edah carved out a distinct place in the Orthodox world for its constituents’ worldview.
“I like seeing the diverse nature of people who come, from within the Orthodox community but also the larger Jewish community,” said political consultant Adena Berkowitz of Manhattan, who chaired a session.
Also emphasized, in eight different sessions, was the legacy of Modern Orthodox spiritual leader and legal decisor Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known popularly as “the Rav,” whose 10th yahrzeit falls this year as does the centennial anniversary of his birth.
In his keynote address, Rabbi Berman told several stories about personal encounters with the Rav that emphasized the distinction between religious matters, where “his authority on Halacha was binding,” and political or social matters, where he might offer a view, but welcomed others to have their own as well. In asking rabbis who came to him with religious questions to first offer their own views, Rabbi Soloveitchik “understood that he needed to raise not clones but people who knew the difference between the text and the living community,” Rabbi Berman said.
The implicit message was that Modern Orthodox Jews are not bound by Da’at Torah, the belief prevalent in the haredi world that a rabbinic authority’s views must be followed on virtually every issue and that such rabbis are imbued with Divine knowledge.
Giving Modern Orthodox Jews a place to feel comfortable and connected to fellow travelers was one of the meeting’s most important accomplishments, Rabbi Berman told The Jewish Week in an interview after the conference ended.
“The Modern Orthodox community’s challenges to its own growth derive, in part, from a lack of self-confidence and a sense of isolation,” he said, suggesting the conference gave “people a sense of confidence about their positions and what they are able to do.”
But while many participants interviewed spoke to the importance of being surrounded by hundreds of others interested in the issues discussed, some expressed frustration with the fact that many of the same problems remain. Perhaps most troubling is the subject of agunot, which was dealt with by a panel of three widely respected rabbis: Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel; Michael Broyde of Atlanta and the Beth Din of America, and Emanuel Rackman, of Bar-Ilan University, as well as a female scholar, Michelle Greenberg Kobrin. Each spoke about a different approach that can be used to free women from husbands who abuse the Orthodox legal system by refusing to grant them religious divorces.
One is the prenuptial agreement, signed by both the bride and groom, which obligates both to abide by the decisions of a religious court if they ever seek a divorce or face stiff financial penalties for as long as they refuse. Though they received the stamp of rabbinic approval several years ago, prenuptials are not widely used in even the modern Orthodox community.
Many objections come from young Orthodox women themselves – though the document is designed to protect them – who say that “it’s unromantic, that it’s feminist, which is considered a dirty word, that it’s not frum,” or properly religious, said Greenberg Kobrin, who has studied the issue.
“It’s our ethical responsibility as a community to demand the use of pre-nuptial agreements,” she said. “Our community needs to make it something that’s just done” as a matter of course.
Rabbi Riskin advocated increased use of the annulment of marriages – hafka’at kiddushin—by a religious court, something rarely employed today, a time when most of the courts say they are powerless to stop husbands from abusing the system.
Rabbi Broyde presented a concept called kiddushei ta’ut, or “error in the creation of a marriage,” which can be employed by a religious court to dissolve a marriage when one partner’s serious defect has been hidden from the other until after their wedding.
It was first applied by the early rabbinic commentators about 1,000 years ago. “It’s not unusual for kiddushei taut to play a role in the ending of many marriages, and it’s an ever-expanding doctrine,” he said.
Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who convenes a beit din every month or so in Manhattan to annul the marriages of wives whose husbands have made them agunot, has officiated at hundreds of such dissolutions since he began doing it in 1997, he said.
Though his approach has been castigated in the haredi press and disputed by most Modern Orthodox scholars as well, he was warmly welcomed with a standing ovation at the Edah conference.
“In the U.S. there is no excuse for any fear of annulling marriages,” he said. “There is enough authority in the rabbinate of every major city to establish a bet din to relieve women of the evils committed against them.”
One issue absent from Edah’s conference agenda was homosexuality in the Orthodox community, notable given the diversity of offerings on other once-taboo topics, like feminism and spousal abuse, and the recent film, “Trembling Before G-d,” which deals with the subject and has been widely screened in the Orthodox community.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay man who is also an Orthodox rabbi, raised the topic while moderating a session on another subject.
He told The Jewish Week he hopes the issue of homosexuality will be raised at the next conference.
Editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.