Taking a page from the Conservative movement and other ironies

Yesterday, my most recent copy of Tradition magazine arrived containing the now important and influential article by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer on the halakhic permissibility of partnership minyanim. To cut to the chase, their analysis found these prayer groups out of the bounds of halakha and their opinion has been cited most recently by many mainstream and Modern Orthodox authorities including the RCA. (See the RCA website)

While I will not debate the halakhic points of the Frimer article, there are some obvious (at least to me) ironies in this whole debate and the larger war for the heart and soul of Modern Orthodoxy. Very often, as noted by Rav Herschel Schachter’s scathing scolding of those Rabbis at SAR and Ramaz who allowed girls to wear tefillin, there is a similar refrain. If we allow these women to do x,y,z, it will amount to nothing more than Conservative Judaism. Having grown up in the Conservative movement (my father was ordained at JTS and was a congregational Rabbi for 25 years before leaving the movement to become a full time academic), and subsequently left to become part of Modern Orthodoxy, there is indeed a danger that this will lead to Conservative Judaism but not in the way that Rav Schachter and his followers understand however. It will result in the loss of committed members of the Modern Orthodox community in the same way Conservative Judaism lost its most committed.

The Conservative movement in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s developed wonderful programs for its young people namely Camp Ramah and USY. Those kids who went to Camp Ramah specifically got turned on to Judaism in a positive, serious and committed way. When they returned home to their Conservative congregations, none of the community, learning or seriousness about Torah and mitzvot was available to them. So, as is expected, they left and strengthened most Modern Orthodox communities in the US. No to be sure this exodus is somewhat over but as my father very often has said, Camp Ramah has made a huge number of Modern Orthodox Jews and Young Israel presidents.

As Prof. Aaron Koller of YU noted in his piece in the YU Commentator,  “…If the Orthodox community cannot find space for its women to take on meaningful roles of religious leadership, Jewish law and practice, then the best, brightest, and most motivated women and men will find a spiritual home elsewhere…”–As  the recent Pew Charitable Trust noted, the Conservative movement has lost the most members. Modern Orthodox leaders take note and take a page from the Conservative movement.

The other irony is the endorsement of the halakhic discourse on partnership minyanim from Rabbis Frimer. A number of years ago, the Frimers also published a lengthy and extensive halakhic argument in Tradition magazine supporting Women’s Tefillah Groups. My tefillah group for which I am a gabbait, The Skokie Women’s Tefillah Group, relies upon Rabbi Aryeh Frimer as our posek. At the time, the mainstream Orthodox authorities did not support this decision, and many Orthodox Rabbis wrote the Frimers off as nothing but chemists. (Our Rabbi actually said those similar words to a friend of mine who wanted to have a Tefillah Group Bat Mitzvah for her daughter in our  shul.) It seems as if now the chemists are now regarding as bona fide halakhic authorities! To be honest, Tefillah groups have dwindled recently, due in some part to the development of a partnership minyan in our community. I wonder if now the discussion for the legitimacy of Tefillah groups within RCA/OU/Modern Orthodox shuls needs to be addressed given the promotion of Rabbis Frimer. Another irony indeed. While I do not want to strengthen my Tefillah group on the back of those involved with partnership minyans, perhaps now is the time to revisit the issue.

Lastly, given the internal revolt within Modern Orthodoxy, I find it also ironic (or perhaps desperate or sad) that many Rabbis in these shuls are frantically having important shiurim on the nature of halakhic authority and the history of Mechitzah. In my synagogue, the shiur was entitled (I kid you not), Big Tent Judaism: The Mechitzah. (I found this title ironic — it could have been entitled Inclusive Judaism: The Beauty of Exclusion). Some of the rhetoric of the “Mechitzah Wars” has found its way into the current debate. Rav Schachter’s latest missives were pretty close to the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s) who likened taking down a mechitzah to Nazism and Communism. In another ironic twist, Rav Schachter rails against those Rabbis who had the audacity to decide the issue of women wearing tefillin without consulting him. He insists in his reply (without citing ANY sources by the way) that certain Rabbis (i.e. him) have magical powers and should be the only ones giving halakhic rulings. The irony is that this flies entirely in the face of Modern Orthodoxy and smacks of Daas Torah (the haredi idea that Rabbis have magical powers to make decisions and you should make any decision, no matter how mundane without consulting a Rabbi. You are too dumb to do it for yourself). Modern Orthodoxy believes that we as committed Jews are responsible for our halakhic behavior and should learn how to make these decisions, as adults, for ourselves. When we are stuck, then get the Rabbi, but not before doing the work ourselves.

All these ironies would be funny or a least somewhat amusing if they weren’t  in reality so sad and troubling. We are indeed in the midst of a war and unlike the Mechitzah wars of the past, the supposed opposing army is armed with knowledge and commitment. Those in positions of power in Modern Orthodoxy should be aware of the difference and see the big picture. If not they indeed may win the battle but will lose the war.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.