Ten years ago, when Edah, an organization devoted to the ideology and values of Modern Orthodoxy, closed its doors, founding director Rabbi Saul Berman said it had largely achieved its goal of reversing “the separatist trend within Modern Orthodoxy, which was isolating” that community “from the rest of the Jewish people.” He added that after a nine-year tenure it was “time to pass the challenge on to others to do the work.”
Since then, Modern Orthodoxy has in many ways moved further to the religious right, in part driven by young people who return from a post-high school gap year or two of yeshiva/seminary study in Israel with a more rigorous commitment to ritual observance and to strict separation of the sexes, influenced by the religious teachings of their rebbes in Israel.
A Pew report on American Orthodox Jews in 2015 indicates the growth of the religious right. It found that while about 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox, 60 percent of that segment now is charedi (ultra-Orthodox) and about 30 percent is Modern Orthodox, with each group defined in part by its resistance to, or acceptance of, secular society.
Now comes a new grassroots group seeking to revive and advance many of the principles and ideals of Edah, whose motto was “the courage to be modern and Orthodox.”
The formation of PORAT (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah), first being announced on these pages, comes at a key moment, marking a renewed effort to bridge the widening gap between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the American Jewish community.
The group will hold the first of several planned public events for the year on May 15, at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on the Upper East Side. A panel discussion on the future of Modern Orthodoxy will feature Chaim Steinmetz, the recently appointed senior rabbi of KJ; Blu Greenberg, a writer, activist and founder of JOFA; and Binyamin Lau, rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem as well as professor, writer, lecturer and activist on issues of halacha and social justice.
A board of directors for PORAT (Hebrew for “fruitful”) is in formation and there are plans to raise funds for a staff to sponsor public forums and educational programs, create a website that will serve as a network and forum for the exchange of ideas relevant to Jewish life, and support organizations and projects already in place that foster Modern Orthodox ideals.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, who recently stepped down as full-time senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, is the force behind PORAT. Having long led the campaign for a more inclusive form of halachic life, which he calls Open Orthodoxy, and founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for men, Yeshivat Maharat for women, and co-founded the International Rabbinic Fellowship, he may be seen by some as creating this new lay group to bolster his institutions. But he insists that his goal is to create a “safe space” for what he believes to be “the silent majority” of Orthodox Jews — variously referred to as liberal, modern or open — “in the tens of thousands around the country” who would welcome and support efforts to broaden the conversation on issues like rabbinic authority, conversion, ethics, social justice, gender equality, relations with other denominations and faith groups, and the place of gays and lesbians in the community.
“This is an effort that goes well beyond any individual,” the rabbi said in an interview this week, “and the goal is very specific: to demonstrate that a critical mass of Orthodox Jews support the values of an inclusive Modern Orthodoxy.” He added that “it’s time to stop looking over our shoulders” at those on the religious right to verify one’s authenticity as Orthodox. Commitment to “the mesorah (tradition) doesn’t mean being cemented to the past,” he said.
What has changed in the last decade, according to Rabbi Weiss, “are the daily attacks on blogs and in other writings that seek to marginalize the left” within Orthodoxy, asserting that it has crossed the line and is no longer part of the halachic community. Such statements come not only from groups like Agudath Israel on the right but from rosh yeshivas at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy.
“We want to create a safe space for reflection and conversation,” the rabbi said.
Key Role For Modern Orthodox
Though relatively small in number, Orthodox Jews play an outsize role in Jewish life, not only because their numbers are increasing — to a remarkable degree — but because of their dynamism and commitment to the faith, to Jewish education and to the Zionist ideals of Israel. That makes the notion of the Modern Orthodox serving as a link between the liberal denominations on the left, and the centrist and charedi groups on the right, appealing. The reality, though, is that Modern Orthodox views on issues from abortion to Zionism, and from President Obama to the settlements, differ sharply with the large majority of American Jews. The move to the right finds some Modern Orthodox adapting to the fundamentalists around them and others feeling marginalized and overwhelmed.
That’s what prompted the founding group of about 20 men and women of a wide range of ages in the New York area to launch PORAT.
Steven Bayme, a member of the founding group and an executive at the American Jewish Committee, said that many Modern Orthodox Jews are frustrated that their values of inclusion are de-emphasized or marginalized by those on the right.
He noted that over the last four decades the influence of pulpit rabbis in their communities has diminished and authority has become more centralized, in the hands of Talmudic scholars and rebbes cloistered in yeshivas. But Bayme senses “a swing of the pendulum” amid signs that the cultural atmosphere is changing. He cited more open inquiry into Jewish texts, renewed efforts to free agunot (or, chained wives) and training rabbis to be sensitive to and more accepting of their congregants.
For Laura Shaw Frank, a Jewish educator who is part of the founding group, a key issue is the role of women in synagogue. She spoke of her frustration when, in 2003, the new rabbi of the Baltimore congregation she belonged to decided that women should no longer dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, as had been the custom. She noted that “there was a great deal of anger and resentment among the women about this decision, but no one really stood up to the rabbi” to question his more stringent interpretation of Jewish law on the matter.
Recognizing the women’s discontent, the rabbi asked Shaw Frank, an attorney learned in Jewish law, to give a shiur (class) for the women of the congregation on Simchat Torah morning while the men danced with the Torah. She agreed out of respect for the rabbi, though she felt it was being done “to keep the women busy and placate them.”
Shaw Frank chose to discuss issues of women and halacha (Jewish law). Feeling “empowered” by the experience, she began offering a weekly shiur in her home for women willing to probe sources but with “enormous respect for halacha and the halachic process.” She later helped found a congregation more inclusive to women.
“There are many people outside of the New York area who feel frustrated and disenfranchised, as if Orthodoxy has left them,” said Shaw Frank, who is now an administrator of Yeshivat Maharat, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy. “I think PORAT can offer them a lifeline.”
Victoria Lindenbaum Feder, a co-founder of JCP (Jewish Community Project) in Tribeca, says she felt a responsibility to join the PORAT founding group because “I’m living the benefits” of those who advocated for “inclusivity and tolerance within the framework of halacha.” She said she constantly struggles with “being told what is and isn’t Orthodoxy,” and dealing with “lines drawn” rather than feeling free to discuss and debate complex religious issues. “We need a voice of moderation,” she said, “and we need to make it louder.”
Anat Barber, another member of the founding group of PORAT who works professionally in the Jewish community, said she and her fellow millennials “are less interested in labels and institutional hierarchies” than their elders. What’s more meaningful to younger people, she said, are open and honest conversations on complex issues. Barber describes herself as “a sucker for Jewish unity,” and hopes PORAT can foster “civil discourse among people who don’t agree with each other, but who can show deep and profound respect for choices that others make Jewishly.”
Much To Offer Charedim
Rabbi Berman, the Edah founder and a professor at both Stern College and Columbia Law School, observed with irony this week that the harsh charedi critics of Modern Orthodoxy may well have the most to gain from engaging with that community. He said that with more charedim seeking professional degrees in fields like law, accounting and business after years in the yeshiva, a group like PORAT could have “much to offer them in making the cultural adjustment,” maintaining strict adherence to halachic life while engaging with the outside world.
For now, the prospects of that happening seem highly unlikely. Indeed, even Modern Orthodoxy’s central institutions and rabbinic leaders set themselves apart from Rabbi Weiss’ brand of Open Orthodoxy. YU, through its Center for the Jewish Future, has exposed students to the wider world through volunteer programs for social justice and tikkun olam, including projects in Third World countries. And Stern College now has an established program in Talmud study for women. But leading YU rosh yeshivas have spoken out against the dangers of Open Orthodoxy, described as outside the boundaries of halacha. The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Orthodox rabbis, will not accept rabbis ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, few of whom have been hired to lead mainstream Orthodox congregations. Partly in response, Rabbi Weiss co-founded the International Rabbinic Fellowship as an alternative to the RCA, from which he resigned. His decision to ordain women as rabbinic clergy through Yeshivat Maharat has deepened the split within Modern Orthodoxy.
In truth, there has always been a struggle between liberals and traditionalists within the movement. What has changed in recent years, reflecting the increasing polarization and lack of discourse in American society in general, is the angry tone and effort to delegitimize rather than just dispute those seen as challenging tradition. Whether PORAT succeeds in bolstering those who seek a more inclusive approach or flames out in the face of fundamentalism remains to be seen. Hopefully its call for deep dialogue and engagement with the realities of a rapidly changing culture will be discussed rather than dismissed — an opportunity to build bridges rather than walls in our community.