Lawrence Kaplan felt he had to be here. The Judaic studies professor traveled from Montreal to the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan on Sunday because he was feeling religiously isolated. He wanted to show support for a fledgling enterprise: a two-day conference on Modern Orthodoxy designed to show that the embattled liberal wing of Orthodox tradition is not an anachronism in an increasingly fundamentalist world.
"I didn’t want it to be a failure," Kaplan confided.
He was not disappointed.
The first international conference of Edah, a national group that means "community" in Hebrew, initially hoped to draw about 500 people. But Kaplan was among some 1,500 attendees who came to reaffirm the lifestyle of Modern Orthodoxy, which seeks to fully integrate the teachings and religious observance of traditional Judaism with the best of modern culture.
That view has come under strong attack from the fundamentalist Orthodox community, which sees Western culture as a threat to the Torah lifestyle and Modern Orthodoxy as too willing to compromise.
"A lot of people in the Modern Orthodox world have been lamenting that it’s dying," Kaplan observed, standing in a crowded hallway as hundreds of attendees shuffled between sessions. "I’ve always said I think there are many more out there who have stayed silent."
But silence was not the order of the day, as dozens of speakers at more than 50 workshops and forums proclaimed the integral value of Modern Orthodox theology in today’s world.
Scholars and rabbis wrestled with the most contentious issues facing Orthodoxy today: the role of women in ritual life; democracy in Israel; the problem of agunot (wives whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce); the accuracy of the biblical text; stricter ritualistic observance; and the value of open debate and multiple truths in Jewish tradition.
There were college-age men and older businessmen, mostly clean-shaven, wearing either suits or more casual sweaters and slacks. Some women wore hats or sheitels (wigs); others did not. But there was an overall sense of satisfaction about being with so many like-minded co-religionists.
"This shows there is a real grassroots movement out there yearning for a new direction for Modern Orthodoxy," said Steven Bayme, director of community affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a member of Edah’s advisory board.
The vision of Edah was articulated by its director, Rabbi Saul Berman, who delivered an impassioned 75-minute speech asserting that Modern Orthodoxy need not feel defensive about its outlook. He argued against the ultra-Orthodox view of maximum withdrawal from modern society, and called for the maximum integration of society with a passionate, total commitment to halacha, or Jewish law.
Rabbi Berman said Jews should be enriched by the surrounding culture and, in turn, enrich that culture with Torah.
Modern Orthodoxy, he said, has chosen a more difficult path than other segments of Orthodoxy.
"We should not for a moment yield to anyone a claim of greater integrity than ours in our commitment to halacha. We may not give for a moment any credence to a claim that our common beliefs in the revealed character of Torah and its binding authority is any less powerful in our lives than that of any other Orthodox Jew anywhere in the world," the rabbi said.
A prime example of Modern Orthodox achievement, Rabbi Berman said, has been the dramatic increase in women’s involvement in Torah study. It demonstrates the capacity "to draw beneficially from the surrounding culture and thereby enrich the Torah world," he said, calling such study "one of the most lasting contributions of Modern Orthodoxy to the whole of the history of Judaism."
(At the same time he acknowledged that "the haredi side of our community has done better than us in regard to study by men.")
Rabbi Berman called for empowerment of all practitioners of Modern Orthodoxy through study of text, which he said yields knowledge and values, diversity and intellectual integrity.
He also called for rabbis in America and Israel to exchange coercion for persuasion in trying to bring others closer to Judaism. The comment was particularly timely in that even as the rabbi was speaking, some 250,000 haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, were rallying in Jerusalem against liberal rulings of the Supreme Court on religious matters.
In advocating respect and tolerance, even for those with whom we disagree, Rabbi Berman defended the honor of noted Modern Orthodox scholar Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, 88, who has been rebuked for his liberal solution to the problem of agunot. Rabbi Berman said he, too, has not been persuaded by those arguments but that Rabbi Rackman still is "a great hero of Orthodoxy in the second half of the 20th century (see accompanying story).
Despite the large attendance at the conference, some centrist Orthodox leaders stayed away.
Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, the nominal center of centrist Orthodoxy, declined to attend, explaining that he believed Orthodoxy doesn’t need another group to splinter an already relatively small movement (about 7 percent of America’s 5.8 million Jews.) However, Rabbi Lamm did ask that some of his past speeches be included in the Edah packets.
Other Modern Orthodox rabbis who did not attend cited their disagreement with Edah’s willingness to work with other denominations, or the fact that Edah board member Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg advocates interdenominational and interfaith relations.
Nevertheless, many attendees said they found the sessions of high quality and the environment exciting.
Shira Lipshitz compared the event favorably to the recent annual conference of the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox group in the nation, which some say has shifted toward to the right in recent years. She praised the Edah meeting for its tolerance.
Ann Fisher from Boston, a secular Jew who has been studying with "black hats," said she heard about the conference and it piqued her interest.
"I don’t want to live in a Jewish shtetl," she said. "They seem to be very tolerant here. This is the only kind of Orthodoxy I can see being part of."
And Wendy Lefko, a graduate student at Columbia University, said she was excited about finally being able to share her religious concerns with experts, out in the open.
"This is where it’s at," she said "A lot of people have been having these discussions around their Shabbos table for a long time."