A short while back, a friend of mine who is a passionate supporter of the egalitarian space at the Kotel admitted to me that when he visited the Kotel, he chose to experience the Orthodox controlled section saying that it was more inspiring to him then it might have been at the egalitarian space.
This did not lessen his strong support for that space. But it does tell me that Orthodoxy has a lot to offer even those of us who are on the left of Judaism.
Which is why reaching out to fellow Jews of all (or even no) denomination is so important. I would go even further and say that it is critical that we increase such outreach. There has never been a more important time to do that in recent history than right now.
There is no longer any doubt about the rapid decline of Conservative Judaism. To put it the way Emma Green did in The Atlantic:
Of all the American Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism appears to be shrinking the fastest: As of 2013, only 11 percent of Jews under 30 identified as Conservative, compared to 24 percent of Jews over 65, according to Pew.
This is old news. What is not so old is what they are trying to do about it. And how Orthodoxy should react.
The Conservative movement was founded in response to a melting pot America where the challenges of assimilation were overwhelming. One might say that they saw themselves as an outreach movement (known in Orthodox circles as Kiruv). Their goals were noble, but their methods were wrong on at least two levels.
First, they ignored the importance of Halacha even while claiming fealty to it. Conservative Rabbi Daniel Gordis noted that this claim stopped being valid when the movement started allowing Jews to drive on Shabbos in the 50s . He calls such claims intellectually dishonest .
The second problem is that it is counterproductive to what you are trying to promote. Judaism is about our obligations to God which are spelled out in the Torah and interpreted by our sages and rabbis throughout the generations. It is not about abrogating those laws which you no longer think are relevant. It would be like telling a baseball player he can join your team and allow him to violate the rules of the game. Except that our rules were established by Someone a bit more important that Abner Doubleday.
The Conservative Movement is grappling with exactly an issue like this. Intermarriage has long been taboo even according to them. And there are still strong arguments being made against it. Which sound almost like the Orthodox arguments against it:
To bless an intermarried union is … to in some way betray the very thing that I’ve given my life to, which is to try to maintain the Jewish tradition,” said David Wolpe, the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “It may be beautiful, it may be loving, it may be worth celebrating on a human level. But on a Jewish level, it’s not fine, and it can’t be made fine.”
But as Rabbi Gordis notes, that train (i.e. that Halachic argument) has ‘left the station’. Intermarriage is now the hottest topic on the Conservative table. In a misguided attempt to revitalize their movement many of their more liberal rabbis are either performing them already or are advocating doing so to save the movement.
I guess they haven’t learned from their past mistakes. You can’t take the Judaism out of your movement and expect people to stay Jewish. There has to be core standards. If you keep moving the needle, you don’t really have any.
Nonetheless there is a need to reach out to the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. How do you reach out to a group of people who – because of our culture – consider it racist to forbid intermarriage? I have no good answer for that. But I do know there are many fine Orthodox outreach organizations that are able to appeal to these very same Jews. (Just to name a few, Chabad, NCSY, and the Chicago Torah Network.)
But that still leaves a lot of Jews that cannot accept the standards of mainstream Orthodoxy. And yet have a desire to have a more spiritually fulfilling life. They are people with liberal values, some of which seem to contradict the traditional values of Orthodoxy. Such as egalitarianism.
This is why we need a left wing in Orthdoxy. One that used to be able to appeal to those values while remaining loyal to Halacha and tradition – even while pushing some of the traditional boundaries. For example. Rabbi Avi Weiss had some innovative ideas about how to accommodate egalitarian views by creating a Shul environment that had an egalitarian spirit without compromising Halacha. Although it broke with the traditional design of an Orthodox Shul, it did not cross lines that put it outside of Orthodoxy. He was able to reach out to that kind of Jew. Even though I would be very uncomfortable davening in a Shul like that, I strongly supported it since there are a lot of modern Jews that it did appeal to.
Which is why I am so disappointed by what has happened to the left. Rabbi Weiss, has crossed so many lines that he is no longer accepted or even tolerated by mainstream Orthodoxy. I am not going to go into in detail here. I have done that more times than I can count. I am just expressing my dismay over what has happened to the left by the creation of an Open Orthodoxy (OO) that has gone too far.
It would otherwise be ideal for many modern day unaffiliated Jews seeking genuine spirituality without sacrificing their modern ideals. If only OO would have stayed within acceptable bounds, I would be their biggest supporter. The rabbis of the Conservative movement want to reach out by changing the rules. That would not be acceptable to an intellectually honest person seeking spirituality any more than a good baseball player would be attracted to the game of baseball that changes the rules to accommodate his particular preferences. Because that would make baseball seem inauthentic. And it would be.
This is why I had hope that my friend, YCT president Rabbi Asher Lopatin would have stayed within acceptable bounds of tradition. He is as sincere as they come and it shows. If anyone is a magnet for the unaffiliated, it is him. He proved that when he was in Chicago. He took a dying shul and made it more successful than at any time in its history… appealling to the modern educated Jew without seriously crossing any lines.
This is also why an intelligent and knowledgeable man like YCT Talmud Chair, Rabbi Y’soscher Katz could be so valuable to this cause. He has basically admitted that Open Orthodoxy is a form of Kiruv aimed at the modern educated, Jew that has been acculturated to spirit of the times. The same kind of people that the Conservative Movement wants to reach out to.
I strongly support their goals. But as is the case with the Conservative movement, I do not support their methods.
We need a left wing more than ever now. The Conservative movement is failing – and grasping at the wrong straws to stay relevant – and even stay alive. Performing intermarriages is clearly not the way to retain Jews. History has shown that to keep going in the direction of lessening the standards will not retain Judaism for these Jews. It will instead grease their path out of it.
It is therefore up to Orthodoxy to do it in ways that do not compromise Halacha and do not cross the important lines of tradition. That is how the left wing of Orthodoxy used to be. Open Orthodoxy could have been that left wing. If only they hadn’t gone too far. And it seems like they may go even further down a path well trodden by the Conservative movement using the same rationale they did. Which got them where they are today. And which may signal where Open Orthodoxy will end up.