Ideological purity or unity: Parameters of preventing a schism

We find ourselves in an intense time of reflection during the Three Weeks. We reflect upon the sins leading to the destruction of the First Temple, idolatry, immorality and murder – and our failure to observe critical Torah principles. We reflect upon the sins leading to the destruction of the Second Temple, baseless hatred. And we resolve during this time period to try to rectify these sins, at least in our own personal lives. We try to commit ourselves to fix the mistakes of our communal past. We commit to the integrity of Torah, the absence of which led to the destruction of the First Temple. And we redouble our efforts to promote unity among all Jews, as failure in this area is what led to the destruction of the Second Temple. But what if these two values are in conflict? What if the value of maintaining the integrity of Torah conflicts with the value of maintaining unity within our community?

Let me share with you my very practical struggle in this regard. As many of us know, there is an open Orthodox movement that has its own Rabbinical schools, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for men and Yeshivat Maharat for women, and they have their own Rabbinic association, the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Some features of this movement, and I am speaking very generally, include favorable disposition towards partnership minyanim, the ordination of women, an International Bet Din for Agunot which frees women who are agunot using halachic arguments which are not accepted by certain mainstream halachic authorities, a more liberal approach in dealing with the LGBTQ community, less onerous standards for conversion, and a more liberal approach to Biblical criticism. Again, not everyone in this movement agrees to every item in the list I enumerated, but this is a general synopsis of the open Orthodox approach. With this in mind, I ask: What is the responsibility of the mainstream Orthodox community to prevent a schism, to try to keep the open Orthodox community as a left-wing branch of Orthodox Judaism rather than becoming its own movement?

Just recently, we have confronted several permutations of this important question. The Orthodox Union has made it its policy not to allow any of its synagogues to hire a female as a member of the clergy. Similarly, a few months ago the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County changed its bylaws to not allow as members Rabbis of congregations that let women hold rabbinic positions in their shuls. Without getting bogged down as to whether we agree with the substance of this position, I’d like to ask a broader question. Let’s assume that we feel that the open Orthodox approach to a particular issue is incorrect and frankly dangerous to the integrity of Torah. In that case, how do we balance the desire to uphold the integrity of Torah with the desire to maintain achdut, unity, in the community? Should one community compromise its principles in this area for the sake of unity?

In a different context, Rabbi Lamm addressed this issue and he said: “My answer is clear:  In our present situation, we dare not ask such a question, because it is prematurely forced and therefore a false dichotomy… To force us to choose between our love for Torah and our love for Israel is a cruel, inhuman demand. Granted, under extreme and dreadful conditions, we may conceivably have to decide which to choose and which to abandon. But to ponder the question and choose sides for imminent application before every single solution has been examined and tested, is an act of gargantuan responsibility. … We can and we must hold on to both [values] for dear life. No Jew may cavalierly despair of and abandon thousands upon thousands of his fellow Jews. And no Jew has the right to dispense with the integrity of Halakha, the source of our spiritual and communal existence and the only guarantee that we and generations after us will remain Jewish.”

And this is my struggle. Do I take a stand and say that if the open Orthodox movement does this, then they are not Orthodox? Or do I simply say that I disagree with them? So many of the issues that divide the modern and open Orthodox communities – women’s ordination, our treatment of gay Jews, partnership minyanim, conversion, and agunot – are sources of tremendous anguish for me. I am deeply pained by the experiences of the gay Jews who are bullied and the women who feel disenfranchised. I am distraught when I hear of prospective converts who want to be Jewish but are made to feel unworthy, and of women who want to free themselves from abusive marriages. I see the Rabbis who want to solve these problems and I believe that their motivations are sincere. I know a number of them personally, as they were fellow students at Yeshiva University. I know that they truly want what’s best for the Jewish people.  I, too, want an end to the suffering I see.

And yet – I wonder to myself, how do I clarify my sincerely held belief that a certain approach is dangerous to the future of Orthodox Judaism? And when must I do so? I want to be inclusive. I believe in the philosophy of “elu va’elu divrei Elokim chayim” – that the positions of both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are part of the Torah world, just as the practices of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Chassidim and Mitngadim all have a place in Torah Judaism. But aren’t there some things that simply fall outside the lines? Is it incumbent upon me, as an Orthodox clergy member, to speak out when I believe that certain stances my colleagues take are just beyond the pale? If I don’t stand for something, won’t I ultimately stand for nothing at all?

It seems to me that in dealing with this very delicate question, four principles should be paramount:

Number 1: Silence for the sake of peace is not necessarily always the answer. In the 1950s, at a time when the dominant view was that the family that prays together stays together, Rav Soloveitchik took a strong stance against mixed seating in synagogues. His refusal to remain silent kept so many Orthodox synagogues Orthodox and we cannot forget this.

Number 2: The issues with which the open Orthodox community is struggling are real. In fact, we are all struggling with them. Though at times we may disagree passionately with the conclusions they reach or the solutions they employ, our disagreement must not obscure our anguish for those who suffer. As Torah observant Modern Orthodox Jews, our pain should not be any less than the pain of the open Orthodox community for those who suffer.

Number 3: Just because someone has sincere motivations, it doesn’t mean that his conclusions are right.

Number 4: Just because someone isn’t right, it doesn’t mean that he has insincere motivations.

Hopefully, we will utilize the Three Weeks to struggle with the two crucial values that were sadly lacking and led to the destruction of the Two Temples at some of the lowest points in our people’s history. It is our task today to grapple with these challenges and to commit ourselves to both the integrity of Torah and the value of unity. In doing so, may we emerge from this struggle strong in our fidelity to God and our sensitivity to each other.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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