When Jewish groups with divergent agendas call upon Orthodoxy to become more inclusive, it raises the hackles of traditionalists who fear the adulteration of Orthodox philosophy and practice.
Agreed, inclusiveness, a now popular idea in business and political leadership, presupposes change, but change need not mean adulteration. Can you push the boundaries of inclusiveness while still retaining the essential components of a culture carefully crafted over decades or more?
Consider the United States, a nation built on principles of inclusiveness, whose culture is perceptibly drifting from its original design to something different. Last November’s American election showed that America could be further than ever from the Judeo-Christian homogeneity upon which it was founded nearly 250 years ago. America is changing. It needs to. Its ability to do so is its strength. Orthodox Judaism needs to change too; its inability to do so would be its weakness. But can you expand inclusiveness without adulterating the authentic values that define you? I believe you can, as I discovered working with South African business and political leaders in the 1990’s and leaders around the world since then.
South Africa was quickly transforming from apartheid, the most exclusive of modern political philosophies, to a vibrantly inclusive democracy. At this time I began helping leaders to overcome their fear of change and reconcile increased inclusiveness with the maintenance of indigenously authentic values. This paradigm of thought required that inclusiveness be thought of not as the extension of a linear spectrum but as the expansion of the circumference of a circle.
One could increase the inclusiveness of a linear spectrum by extending the reach of one end of the spectrum without extending the other. However, by extending only one of the poles of a spectrum you shift its center – a thought that ideologically-minded people often fear. In the case of Orthodox Judaism, for example, including women in more synagogue practice and accepting patrilineal descent for inclusion into exclusively Jewish educational programs could achieve greater linear inclusiveness. This would however affect and shift orthodoxy’s center and might be rejected by those on the right of its spectrum. The outcome of such initiatives would be movement rather than expansion. The spectrum would be as short as it was before, but would simply have moved leftwards, including more liberally minded Jews but excluding some traditional, or Haredi ones on the right.
The circular model, on the other hand, does not allow for one-sided inclusiveness. The only way you can expand a circle is by extending its radius, leaving the center of the circle unchanged. Again, in the case of orthodoxy, this would require more inclusion of all groups, both on the left and on the right of center. Increased inclusiveness would require more accommodation of Haredi and Chassidic groups as well as the acceptance of more liberal groups too.
Of course, to retain the authenticity of orthodoxy, the expanded circle would need to agree on some overarching principles that define it. For example, the acceptance of both the written and oral Torah from Sinai, acceptance of the classical Halachik process in determining matters of Jewish law, the acceptance of Poskim (Halachik adjudicators) whose Torah scholarship, Halachik credentials and piety are embraced by the full spectrum of Orthodox communities. Within these overarching principles there is space for much diversity. A liberal group, for example, may follow a posek that the Haredi group does not follow but whose scholarship, halachik credentials and piety they respect; and vice-versa.
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the recently announced successor to Lord Sacks as England’s Chief Rabbi, demonstrated his mastery of circular inclusiveness. A recent Jewish Chronicle article comments on Rabbi Mirvis’s appointment of a female halachik advisor in his Synagogue just before his selection as Chief Rabbi. This, at least for the UK’s United Synagogue, is a courageous, bold step of inclusiveness. But he didn’t only extend inclusiveness to the more liberal components of his community calling for more leadership inclusivity for women. A Jerusalem Post op-ed wrote about how Rabbi Mirvis’s congregation is the first in the United Synagogue fold to open a Kollel (a Fellowship to fund – in this case six – full-time Torah scholars to learn and teach in the community). With this initiative Rabbi Mirvis has increased his Shul’s, and with it the United Synagogue’s, alignment with the more Haredi elements in the community.
By expanding inclusiveness to both the left and the right, Rabbi Mirvis has skillfully kept the center-point of his brand of orthodoxy unchanged. The circle has a larger radius, but its center is as orthodox as it ever was. Rabbi Mirvis’s leadership in these two historic initiatives portends well for his leadership of the British Jewish Community.