Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Left Wing Orthodoxy's Divisive Choices

Image from the Forward
To the surprise of absolutely no one (least of all me) the Forward reports that the Orthodox Union (OU) is about to expel synagogues that have hired female clergy.  There are currently 4 or 5 member Shuls that have ignored the rule issued by the OU to member synagogues forbidding them from doing that.

There is some controversy about taking this measure among OU board members who feel that it should be left up to individual Shuls. But I don’t see the OU changing their position about women as rabbis. They are clearly opposed and have put that opposition into their rule-book.

The situation is not comparable to that of the Traditional Movement which took hold in the late 50s and early 60s. Orthodox rabbis took pulpits at Shuls that insisted on removing Mechitzos and installing microphones for use on Shabbos. These rabbis were encouraged to take those pulpits by a Posek who believed there were existential reasons for doing so. And since those Shuls were otherwise fully Orthodox, they were granted membership in the OU. Once massive opposition to them became clear - the OU finally ruled that Shuls without a Mechitza were no longer permitted to be members. (Those that were already members were however allowed to remain.)

Today these Shuls have chosen a path that is outside the mainstream of Orthodoxy. They believe that a woman’s leadership role in a Shul is compatible with Halacha and tradition be damned - at least in this case – since times have changed. Using past changes in tradition to support their argument they say that women should be able to break any glass ceiling they choose. 

That these changes were not done for existential reasons does not matter to them. They believe that the spirit of the times is a valid enough reason to do so. So much do they cherish this cultural value that they could not care less if the rest of Orthodoxy rejects them - considering it a matter of principle! 

Since these Shuls believe that their principles force them to violate the rules, I’m even surprised they haven’t resigned from the OU the moment those rules were established. And I don’t really know why those rabbis within the OU should object to it. 

And yet, I’m not sure what the reaction of those Shuls will be to an expulsion. My guess is that even though they feel they are on the right side of the issue and the right side of Jewish history, it can’t be pleasant to be rejected by virtually the entire Orthodox mainstream establishment.

One may recall that the Conservative Movement had gone through a similar process. Their flagship institution, JTS,  was founded to create modern English speaking rabbis that could better relate to – and guide Jews acculturated to  the American experience. While there was nothing wrong with their motives, it was in the execution of those motives that led them astray and caused the entire Orthodox mainstream to reject them.

Now I’m not equating the two. The situation between Orthodox Shuls that have adopted a more liberal and open posture is not the same as the Conservative Movement. Aside from allowing women to assume the duties of a rabbi (in areas they believe Halacha permits it) they are observant of Halacha and promote full observance of it to their members. The Conservative movement on the other hand, paid lip service to Halachic observance, while wholesale violation of Halacha by their members was tolerated – and in some cases even given their blessing (e.g. their  ‘permit’ to drive to Shul on Shabbos).

These more liberal and open Shuls haven’t done anything like that. I don’t think they will. At least not yet. But it’s hard not to see the parallels. Once you open up the doors to controversial change, it doesn’t necessarily stop at Halachic lines. 

There are 2 examples of this kind of permissiveness among  the more open and liberal Orthodox rabbis that tend to side with those renegade Shuls.

One  is Avrom Mlotek, a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). He argued for acceptance - and even a warm embrace - of intermarried couples. Will this lead to his officiating at such a marriage? When he was asked about that, his answer was not all that clear about what the future holds for him. And yet he still wants to be identified as Orthodox.

Another is the embrace of gay marriage. While acknowledging the forbidden nature of homosexual sex (anal sex between 2 men), YCT head, Rabbi Asher Lopatin nevertheless publicly supports gay marriage claiming that the Torah itself promotes it when it says  it is not good for a man to live alone. Although the classic interpretation of that refers to marriage between a man and a woman, he stretches it to include 2 men living together.  

That completely ignores the fact that blessing gay marriage implicitly blesses the natural intimacy that any marriage entails. Which in the case of a male homosexual relationship usually means anal sex. An activity that the Torah considers a capital offense. Saying that endorsing gay marriage does not mean blessing the capital offense that will likely be part of their intimacy - is a remarkable dodge based on an unlikely intepretation. Although I’m sure he actually believes that he isn’t blessing it.

While I’m not saying that these Shuls have gone or will go that far – there is really nothing stopping them. Not any more than did a rule against hiring a female rabbi stopped them.  How much is the OU supposed to tolerate before everyone agrees they should be expelled? Since much of their agenda is driven by the spirit of the times, it isn’t too hard to see more serious changes coming.

The OU says that it that expulsion will not be discussed at an upcoming meeting. Perhaps. But the handwriting is clearly on the wall – as liberal Orthodoxy chooses  a path that will surely lead to yet further divisions in Klal Yisroel.

The facts presented in an earlier version of this post were inaccurate, It has been revised accordingly.