Thursday, February 16, 2012

The $250,000 Mechitza

A quarter of a million dollars. According to an article in the 5 Towns Jewish Times - this will be the cost of a Mechitza at the MetLife stadium. It is being constructed for the next Dafyomi Siyum HaShas (the 12th) sponsored by Agudah that will take place in August. The stadium can hold 90,000 people and they are expecting a sellout crowd!

I understand why they are doing it. Even though most of even right wing Orthodox Jewry would agree that there is no Halachic need for a Mechitza to separate the sexes at this event, Agudah says they are willing to spend the money because they want to encourage all segments of Judaism to attend. So they are willing to spend $250,000 dollars to build a custom Mechitza that will likely never be used again. At least not for another 7 and a half years – the length of time it takes to complete Shas if one learns a single Blat of Gemarah every day. And only if they decide to use the same venue.

But I have to question the sincerity of that commitment to encourage all to attend. Do they really value the participation of all Jews? Or only themselves and those to the right of them? My considered opinion is that the latter is the truer of the two alternatives although I'm sure they will deny it.

I was at the 10th Siyum HaShas at Madison Square Garden. I recall how they said with pride that Jews from every Hashkafa attended the Siyum. From the blackest of hats to the smallest of Kipot Seruga. From very Chasidic to very Modern Orthodox. This was true.

Plenty of Jews from all sectors were there. Just like they said. What they did not do is try to appeal to them all. Certainly not anyone whose Hashkafos are those of Modern Orthodoxy. Not even right wing Modern Orthodoxy. All they did do was simply not turn them away if they chose to buy a seat and show up. They did nothing else to appeal to this group. They built nothing special. Spent no money.

More importantly they did not do something that would have easily appealed to Modern Orthodox Jews and showed that they did indeed want to appeal to everyone. It would not have cost them a penny. They could have invited a Modern Orthodox rabbinic leader to address the crowd.

Instead they excluded them from both their program and their dais. No Rav or personality that had anything to do with Modern Orthodoxy was invited to sit anywhere near the dais or speak to the audience. No matter how big they were. No matter how much Torah they knew. The mere connection to a place like Yeshiva University made them persona non grata as far as the program went.

But it wasn’t only that they were not on the program. There were threats of boycotts from at least one member of the Agudah Moetzes if certain Modern Orthodox rabbis were invited to sit even at a back dais where no one would notice them! In the end they were invited to sit on that back dais but there was no acknowledgement of their presence!

Although the idea of the Daf Yomi was first proposed at an early Agudah convention in Europe by Rav Meir Shapiro, today the vast numbers of people learning Shas are not all members of Agudah. In the early days, it was mostly Agudah types who did so. But the popularity of learning Daf Yomi is now so widespread that even Rabbi Dov Linzer - the Rosh HaYeshiva of the very left wing Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) - gives a Daf Yomi Shiur. As do many Modern Orthodox rabbis in many Modern Orthodox Shuls. In short Agudah has no basis to credit themselves for all that learning - which at the very least the Siyum itself implies. I will be shocked if it is not actually mentioned by at least one of their speakers - if not all of them.

But - I don’t really blame them for taking credit since the concept was first thought of in their ‘halls’ and since they are the ones doing the Siyum. In fact I give them credit for putting on such a grand show every seven years… even though the cost of the best seats is a bit pricey at $1000 per clip. I guess they have to pay for that Mechitza somehow. (Nosebleed seats will be a very affordable $18 dollars per person.)

Aside from the fact that a quarter of a million dollars can be put to far better purpose than a one time Mechitza in a football stadium, I have no problem with their accommodating those who will only be comfortable if a Mechitza is put up – much as my strong distaste unnecessary Chumros would normally make me oppose it. They have a right to do what they want and attract whom they want. And to do whatever they think it will take to accomplish it.

I only wish they would put as much effort towards attracting the Modern Orthodox attendees – aside from allowing them to buy a seat. It would be nice if they had even one YU Rosh Yeshiva sitting at the main Dais and addressing the crowd. Even one!

I could forgive them their license of claiming responsibility for all the Torah learning by Baalei Batim if they did that. (Although the completion and wide use of the ArtScroll Shas might have a teeny little bit to do with it.) They could even claim credit for the YCT Daf Yomi. Fine with me - although I’m sure they would never want any connection made.

If they do this it will go a long way towards unity in Orthodoxy. I for one would certainly appreciate it. They could then claim with a greater degree of honesty that the reason they are willing to spend so much money on a Mechitza is to encourage all segments of Orthodoxy to attend.

We’ll see if that happens. But I doubt it.