Community Orthodoxy and Chovevei Torah

My yeshiva, Chovevei Torah, is about to install Rabbi Asher Lopatin as its new President. The ceremony will feature a panel on rabbinic training which will include some very insightful and experienced non-Orthodox educators, including Arnold Eisen of the JTS and David Ellenson of the HUC. This is certainly an unusual element to find as part of an Orthodox rabbinic installation. It shows the new President is not afraid of controversy if he feels it is in a good cause. He wants to begin his term by modeling what it means to learn from whoever has good ideas on matters, like pedagogy, which are not in dispute, even if we disagree on some very fundamental questions of theology or practice.

This aspect of Rabbi Lopatin’s installation has been condemned by the Agudath Israel of America. Their statement of protest tells us:

‘Torah giants of decades past warned us to not allow any blurring of lines between the world of Jews who maintain fealty to the Jewish past and “new Judaisms” espousing theologies incompatible with our mesorah. They accordingly forbade “multidenominational” religious ventures of any sort.’

I respect the right of the Agudah to object to cross-denominational activity. There are good arguments for their position. Sitting, talking, teaching with non-Orthodox rabbis gives them a certain credence and might imply that their religious beliefs are legitimate, and that sort of pluralism would be a breach of Orthodox principles. As Lord Sacks has written, pluralism and Orthodoxy are mutually exclusive.

However, I do take issue with the Agudah’s implication that they represent the universal Orthodox position on cross-denominational co-operation. If we look to the history of Orthodoxy we find this is far from the case. In Germany, Orthodox Jewry divided on the question of relations with the non-Orthodox. As is well known, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch vigorously opposed any relations with non-Orthodox Jewish movements. He left the mainstream Jewish community (grossgemeinde) of Frankfurt because it accommodated both Orthodox and non-Orthodox elements.

Under Prussian law, every Jew in a given city paid into a central fund which supported all rabbis, synagogues, schools and other facilities, irrespective of denomination. Hirsch was fundamentally opposed to this arrangement, even when the religious freedom of the Orthodox was protected. He created his own congregation (the Israelitische Religions-Gesellschaft, known as the IRG) and lobbied for the Law of Secession so that all remaining legal and financial ties could be broken forever. This was the essence of Hirsch’s ideology of Austritt. Hirsch died in 1888 and was succeeded by his son-in-law, R. Solomon Breuer. Austritt came close to becoming a principle of faith for the Breuer community. In 1912 Breuer and the IRG were instrumental in founding Agudath Israel.

Agudath Israel, whether in its original European incarnation or now in America, is the proud standard-bearer of the Hirschian ideal of Austritt. Their statement about the YCT installation is a natural expression of this historic position. But we should not think that this is the only Orthodox perspective. It is no secret that R. Seligman Baer Bamberger, the Wurzberger Rav and the greatest halachic authority in Germany of his day, disagreed with Hirsch. He believed that if Orthodox interests were protected there was no need to secede from the general community. That inevitably meant recognising the status of non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions, perhaps even paying for their upkeep and sitting on boards and committees that included all denominations. In Bamberger’s opinion this did not necessarily involve endorsement or approval.

Rabbi Anton Nobel

Frankfurt itself became home to a succession of distinguished rabbis who led the Orthodox section of the mainstream community. Rabbis Marcus Horowitz, Anton Nobel (pictured) and Jacob Hoffman. Nobel taught at Franz Rosensweig’s Frankfurt Lehrhaus, which hosted a range of teachers with many different theologies and practices. In Konigsberg and Berlin, the spiritual leader of grossgemeinde Orthodoxy was Rabbi Julius Jakobovits, father of Chief Rabbi Jakobovits. The Orthodox seminary in Berlin, led by Rabbis Esriel Hildeshiemer, David Tzvi Hoffman and Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg trained rabbis for grossgemeinde as well as Austritt communities, and visited their graduates in both types of congregation. More recently, Lord Jakobovits himself sat on panels with non-Orthodox rabbis and spoke at non-Orthodox synagogues and seminaries. These men were tzaddikim and talmidei chachamim, they certainly count as ‘Torah giants’, and they disagreed with the position taken by Hirsch, Breuer, and most recently by the Agudath Israel of America.

Of course, it was necessary to make clear where the theological disagreements lay, and how important they were. It is essential that non-Orthodox ideas should not be legitimised, even while discussion remains civilised and respectful. The grossgemeinde rabbis achieved this balance; it requires thought but it is perfectly possible. Co-operation and dialogue need not become an expression of pluralism. Grossgemeinde rabbis placed a huge value on the idea of Klal Yisrael. I would not suggest that the Agudath Israel does not care about Klal Yisrael, and I hope they will recognize that that YCT, and other inheritors of the Orthodox grossgemeinde vision, care very much about Torah and mesorah.

About the Author
Ben Elton is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and Rabbinic Intern at the Lincoln Square Synagogue.