Sherwin Pomerantz

The door that only swings out: the failure of Orthodox leadership


Late last week Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, head of the rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of UK issued a statement condemning the practice of the Golders Green United (Orthodox) Synagogue of passing the Torah into the women’s section at Sabbath services. The congregation began this practice, already in vogue in many Orthodox synagogues in the US, of having the male leader of the services pass the Torah to a woman so it can be carried through the women’s section and then returned to the man so it can be read for the congregation. Rabbi Padwa said this “breach of nature is Reform-influenced.”

This comes on the heels of a letter written recently by Dayan Chanoch Ehrentrau, former head of the religious court of the United Synagogue in the UK, as well as some other leading British dayanim and rabbis, calling on fellow Jews not to participate in the Limmud conference later this month because spokesmen of the Reform and conservative movements will also be present. The letter was in response to the decision of Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the new Chief Rabbi of the UK, to attend the conference which is a break in tradition from that of his predecessor.

But of course, there are examples other places as well. In the US earlier this fall Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a Rhodes Scholar, whose rabbinic ordination is from Rabbi Isaac Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University was installed as the new head of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah in New York.  As part of his investiture ceremony he created a panel discussion on the future of the American Rabbinate and invited the rabbinic heads of the non-Orthodox movements to participate.  One would think this would make eminent good sense but this is 2013 where everyone is looking over their shoulders to see who may be judging them.

There was an immediate uproar from Orthodox circles in the US castigating the good Rabbi for agreeing to sit at the same table as these “others.” At the event, to Rabbi Lopatin’s dismay many of his former classmates from Yeshiva University did not attend. Incredibly so many of them seemed to be otherwise engaged that day. In an op-ed penned a week later by Rabbi Avi Shafran, the Director of Public Affairs for Agudat Israel in the US, Shafran blasted the Open Orthodoxy concept espoused by Chovevei Torah saying “Having adulterated orthodoxy’s essence, Open Orthodoxy should append itself to the Conservative movement that shares its ideals, rather than misrepresenting itself as Orthodox.”

Not to be outdone Pinchas Lipschutz wrote in Yated Ne’eman that Rabbi Lopatin’s roundtable was “a spit in the face of Orthodox conduct and practice” and that Open Orthodoxy itself was “a threat to Judaism.”

One must ask, what is it that these learned men (all men, of course) fear? Are they so insecure about their own beliefs that they cannot listen to other voices? Remember, the other voices representing the overwhelming majority of Jews of the world. Perhaps by engaging them and listening to them both sides can benefit? And wouldn’t that be revolutionary?

From this writer’s perspective institutional orthodoxy, both here in Israel and the diaspora has adjusted the hinges on the door of the movement so that the door only opens out. People can leave but no one can come in without the imprimatur of a select group of self-appointed guardians of the gate.  So great is the fear of the “other.”

My father, of blessed memory, was a manufacturers’ representative for many years of his professional life. A lesson that I learned from listening to him and watching him is that you don’t sell your product by knocking the competition. I have tried to practice that axiom in my professional life as well. 

If Orthodoxy is so good it needs to stand on its own merits and not try to gain (or retain) adherents by denigrating the competition. Leadership that chooses to closet itself in the raiment of a bygone time while simultaneously accusing those who don’t agree of heresy, is simply woefully ill-equipped to provide the direction and guidance so sorely needed by our people.

Once, the great Hassidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear. “Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”

“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'”

His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”

“And I have learned,” Zusia sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”

“They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?'”

This is the question Orthodox leadership needs to answer. The right answer will let the door swing both ways and we deserve no less.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 32 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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