Is there indeed a "silent majority" in the Modern Orthodox community that is unhappy with the increasingly fundamentalist turn within the movement? One indication will be the number of attendees and level of enthusiasm at the upcoming first international conference of Edah, a 2-year-old organization whose slogan is "the courage to be modern and Orthodox."
The slogan is apt because the group, which seeks to synthesize modernity and traditional Jewish law, has faced skepticism and outright criticism from within Orthodoxy since it was launched. That criticism has come not only from the haredi, or more stringent, community but from the seeming bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, some of whose leaders see the formation of Edah as an implicit attack on its own move to the right in recent years.
But Rabbi Saul Berman, a founder and director of Edah, is himself a longtime professor at Stern College, the women’s branch of Yeshiva University, as well as a former spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side. His group’s goal, according to its mission statement, is "to educate and empower the community to address its concerns," and its first major event will be the conference Feb. 14-15 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan.
Organizers say more than 400 people have registered for an ambitious program that is set to explore the hot-button issues that confront and divide Orthodoxy, including the role of feminism, intermarriage and pluralism. Even within Modern Orthodoxy there are varying views on increasing the role of women in education and ritual, and engaging more openly with the secular world and other Jewish streams.
Titled "Orthodoxy Encounters a Changing World," the conference will feature 50 presenters to discuss such topics as day school education, agunot or chained wives, and how to relate to non-Orthodox and intermarried family members.
Some panel titles include: "Where Do Chumrahs [strict interpretations of Jewish law]Come From?"; "Women Mourners Saying Kaddish: Halacha, Habit or Both?"; "An Orthodox View on Biblical Criticism"; and "Multiple Truths in Halacha."
A special forum is being held for college students focusing on campus issues.
Among the speakers, coming from the U.S., Canada and Israel, are Rabbis Marc Angel and Walter Wurzburger, past presidents of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, spiritual leader of Efrat, Israel; Rabbi Michael Broyde, former director of RCA’s Bet Din of America; leading Modern Orthodox feminists Bat Sheva Marcus and Blu Greenberg; and Leah Shakdiel, the first woman elected to a religious council in Israel.
Rabbi Berman says the mission of the conference is to promote growth "of the sense of pride in what Modern Orthodoxy is, and the way it is rooted in the tradition. Unfortunately, for many Modern Orthodox Jews there is a sense that haredi Orthodoxy is the truth and the real Judaism, and what we do is fundamentally compromised. We want people to recognize that what we do is deeply grounded in the tradition."
Edah’s executive director, Judy Adler Sheer, said: "We want this conference to light a fire under the community, make people realize that if they become well informed and united, they can successfully shape the kind of community that Orthodoxy mandates."
But if unity is the message, it is being ignored.
A large group of Modern Orthodox rabbis are staying away from the conference. Some fear a backlash from their more right-wing peers who are denouncing the event and have called for a boycott.
The sharpest jabs come from Rabbi Berman’s own backyard, Yeshiva University, which has distanced itself from Edah, in part because the group received funding from an organization headed by Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, who is considered by critics to be beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.
Hardly any of the top rabbinical leaders of the institution, including Dr. Norman Lamm, its president, appear on the list of participants or plan to attend. Lamm could not be reached for comment.
But YU rosh yeshiva Rabbi Moshe Tendler attacked Edah for trucking with non-Orthodox rabbis, particularly gay and lesbian Jewish clergy.
"They lack integrity, they are outside the pale of Judaism, they are ignorant of halacha and most of their leadership lack scholarship," Rabbi Tendler said of Edah, which means "community" in Hebrew.
He also denounced Edah for "latching onto pluralism as a saleable item, when we look at pluralism as the death kiss of Judaism."
Rabbi Tendler made it clear that any Modern Orthodox rabbi who attends is committing an averah or transgression: unless they get dispensation to attend by a rabbinical court.
"The faculty of Yeshiva University, who are not haredim, have gone on record that they cannot be associated with Edah," he said.
While several colleagues expressed discomfort with Rabbi Tendler’s rhetoric, they acknowledged that some rabbis have indeed been intimidated into staying away.
"It is a major tragedy that Orthodoxy today has become so polarized that the feeling is if you are not squarely in our camp, you are our enemy," said Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, who is considered a potential future president of YU. "The intense level of extremism is tragic and counterproductive to a healthy sense of community."
He noted that Modern Orthodox rabbis are in a Catch-22 position.
"If you go, you’re branded and if you don’t go, you’re branded," said the rabbi, who is not planning to attend the conference.
However, Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, the Georgetown Synagogue in Washington, said he refused to be cowed by right-wing critics.
"I think Edah specifically and Modern Orthodoxy in general is at a point in time where it needs to define itself and be proud of itself," said the Brooklyn native. "I can’t be worried about what other people and their concerns are."
When informed of Rabbi Tendler’s criticism, Rabbi Berman said he believes in showing respect to other rabbis, whether or not he agrees with their theology.
"We need to be willing to engage in a respectful discourse. It’s our hope that the number of rabbis and lay leaders who will participate will demonstrate it is the will of the community to retain openness in these matters, and that people who try to close down these areas of discussion and lock the community into a steel cage need to be rejected."
One group that says it does share ideals with Edah and its goals has not been invited to the conference. United Torah Judaism, based in Teaneck, N.J., has been spurned, apparently because of its origins as a breakaway group from the Conservative movement.
"I think Edah is making a mistake in not working directly with UTJ," said its executive director, Rabbi Ronald Price.
But one observer noted that Edah would lose whatever credibility it has in the Orthodox community if it joined forces with UTJ.
"It’s illogical but a fact," he said, "that these Orthodox groups are always looking over their right shoulders when the vast majority of American Jewry is on their left."