Last week, I participated in an RCA officers’ convention in Toronto. It was inspiring to sit around the table with a group of rabbis who are very much committed to vibrant Orthodox life for our Modern Orthodox communities, and are working to ensure that our members have the tools needed to succeed in their communities. That being said, there is a fundamental question that I frequently hear about this organization. That is, what is the purpose of the RCA? Is the purpose simply to be a fraternal organization, to help provide support for rabbis across the country who need help in the demanding field of the rabbinate? Or is there also a broader goal, to be the mouthpiece of centrist Orthodox issues, to share with its constituency, the broader Jewish community and the world a unique centrist Orthodox ideology to approach the issues of the day?
Some rabbis and leaders with whom I have spoken have taken the position that the RCA should simply be a fraternal organization, providing support to member rabbis. They worry that if the organization tries to assert its ideological position on contemporary issues, the downside will be far greater than the upside. These individuals believe that it is acceptable for an organization to assert that as a whole we believe in embracing the entirety of the world through the prism of Torah values, and we must balance the eternal values of the Torah with the sensitivity that every individual deserves as being a “tzelem Elokim.” However, they believe that we should stay away from asserting particular positions on controversial issues because doing so will simply cause strife.
As an example, the most recent Nishma Research study of the American Orthodox Jewish Community found that the top issues raised by those who want changes within Modern Orthodoxy are increased roles for women and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. It also found that these two issues are at the top of the list among those opposed to change and who think tradition is not being sufficiently preserved. To me, this finding suggests that proactively addressing these issues will certainly create conflict within our community because people on both sides of the spectrum feel very passionately about them.
In some sense, it is much easier for a community rabbi to deal with these issues because a relationship exists between the rabbi and his congregants. I am sure that some of my congregants think that I am too much to the “right” on some issues and some of my congregants think that I am too much to the “left” on some issues. Perhaps some congregants realize that a community is made up of diverse opinions so a synagogue may not necessarily cater to all the needs of any particular individual. That being said, I think that the dominant reason why congregants feel comfortable in synagogues where they have ideological disagreements with the leadership is the relationship they have with their community and its leaders. The relationship, the bond and the trust between rabbi and congregant often supersedes ideological differences that might otherwise be divisive.
It is this relationship that is conspicuously absent with a rabbinical organization. Some members will demand that their Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization take a stand on climate control, while others will want a stand on immigration reform, while a third will want a stand on LGBTQ issues. No personal relationship exists between member and organization, and therefore, whether an individual will support an organization may be solely determined by whether his values almost completely line up with the Rabbinic organization. The Nishma Research study found that members of the Modern Orthodox community want their leadership to define and hold the center and they don’t want their leadership looking over its left or right shoulders. But of course, each member thinks that he represents the center and any position that the organization takes that is to the left of the member reflects looking over its left shoulder and any position that is to the right reflects looking over its right shoulder. Might it simply be better, then, for an organization not deal with these issues altogether? With so much potential for disagreement, is there anything to be gained?
It is my view that we need organizational leadership, despite the fact that such leadership will be messy. Our Sages understood this. On the one hand, the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat insists that we continue rebuking others and if we have the opportunity to protest bad behavior and we don’t, then we are held accountable for their behavior. Those who have the ability to exercise leadership and do not are held accountable. On the other hand, in Masechet Arakhin, Rabbi Tarfon wonders if there is anyone in this generation who can accept rebuke properly and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah wonders if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke correctly. Leadership is messy, but it is sorely needed. How do we strive for unity while accepting diversity? How do we maintain Torah values and enhance spirituality? How do we expand the role of women while being mindful of our tradition? How do we address children’s educational issues and communal cost? How do we define and hold the center? These are all questions that the Nishma Research study addressed and these are all issues that require leadership.
I was recently speaking to a rabbinic colleague who lamented the fact that in Long Island and Queens, the centrist orthodox rabbis do not regularly meet as a group to address communal issues and to problem-solve as a rabbinic community. I was heartened, for example, when the Bergen Field Yeshiva Day Schools came together two months ago and issued a joint statement on device usage. This is an example of how local leaders can create a unified voice and exemplary leadership.
In sum, I support the RCA asserting itself as the mouthpiece of centrist Orthodox Judaism, as I do any organization asserting itself to provide leadership to its constituency. I also support the formation of a regional rabbinic organization in Long Island and Queens to tackle issues facing our local community as a whole. I am fully aware that leadership is a messy business, and mistakes are made in the process, but I believe and hope that it is a price worth paying and ultimately, a worthwhile endeavor.