Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Other Siyum – Revisiting the Issue

I was all set to retract my support of the upcoming Modern Orthodox Siyum that will follow the massive one taking place at MetLife Stadium on August 1st sponsored by Agudah. As I originally stated, I found it laudable – even exiting - that 2 leading Charedi leaning Orthodox rabbis would be part of the program, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Weinreb and Rabbi Nosson Scherman.  

As it turns out, neither of those two rabbis will be there. Rabbi Weinreb discovered that he had a previous commitment for that date and will be in Israel. He apologized and backed out. Rabbi Scherman backed out as well, without any public comment that I am aware of. I was disappointed by that.

Sources I trust that are close to Rabbi Scherman have told me that there was deception involved in the invitation. I have no details.  But from what I have gleaned between the lines, this event was apparently presented to him as a more mainstream modern Orthodox event. As it turns out it is a very left wing event with an emphasis on diversity of the type that is apparently objectionable to him.

I don’t know how true that is. But I can certainly understand why a mainstream Charedi figure like Rabbi Scherman would be uncomfortable speaking at such a program. If he was not fully informed of it then he was well within his rights to back out.

Based on conversations with various sources I wondered if I should retract my qualified support of it. But... looking at the program as it stands now I see no reason to retract. I had been led to believe that they would be promoting the YCT agenda of “Open Orthodoxy”. 

That is a philosophy that seeks involvement with non Orthodox rabbis in an effort to find common ground in all areas including those of theology and religious practice. While I understand why they are doing this, and can even respect their goals of Achdus and Kiruv, I cannot support it. This practice was expressly forbidden by YCT founder, Rabbi Weiss’s own Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik. While the Rav permitted cooperation with non Orthodox rabbis for non religious purposes having to do with the public welfare of the Jewish people, he absolutely forbade the kind of thing YCT stands for. Rabbi Weiss  openly admitted departing from his Rebbe’s teachings in this regard.

But I saw none of that at the Siyum website. The program is entirely Orthodox. There are no Conservative rabbis on the program. And the subject matter does not seem to deal at all with Open Orthodoxy.  The program seems to include a variety of subjects which have great interest to me – and should to any Orthodox Jew interested in the Talmud. I do not see any problem at all with any of the speakers or their topics.

There are in fact 3 speakers I would go out of my way to see and hear: Rabbi Michael Broyde, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot; and Siyum organizer and YCT Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer (pictured). I do not really know the others at all but it seems that they are all very solidly in the Orthodox camp.

The only problem the right wing might have with this Siyum per se - is with the female speakers. For various Hashkafic reasons  mostly having to do with a  heightened sensitivity to Tznius -  they are averse to having a woman address a mixed crowd. One will never even see a woman on any right wing dais. Not even if she is just sitting there quietly next to her husband - without addressing the crowd. 

When a right wing institution honors a married couple the husband always speaks and accepts the award on behalf of both of them – while the wife sits behind a Mechitza unseen and gets a bouquet of flowers at that moment.  In fact at one Beis Yaakov banquet I attended that honored a female member of the faculty - it was her husband who accepted the award and spoke on her behalf! She did not even come forward to accept it. 

I found that to be ridiculous. But I digress. The point is that one can easily understand why a right wing religious figure would be averse to addressing a crowd along with female speakers on the program.

However, although I understand it I completely disagree with it. One of the most inspiring people I have ever heard speak was Professor Shani  Bechhofer at a farewell dinner sponsored by members of her husband’s Daf Yomi Shiur before leaving Chicago.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with men attending a lecture on Torah subjects by women as did Professor Bechhofer.

As it pertains to this Siyum - as long as a left wing religious agenda is not pushed I do not have any problem at all with the any of speakers  - male or female. As I said from what I can tell from the subject matter and their brief descriptions on their website - there will be no such agenda.  And there should therefore be no objection at all to this Siyum.

That said, I would have preferred to have one united Siyum that had a mix of speakers that included members of both the right and the left. I would have preferred the topics to be on a variety of subjects that speaks to all constituencies. It would have been great to have a Siyum and hear inspirational speeches right alongside some instructional and intellectual ones.

Agudah will not have such variety. Nor will it allow any diversity of speakers. They won’t even agree to have even the most right wing Rosh Yeshiva from YU address their crowd. And they would sooner have a Palestinian Arab address the crowd than they would a woman. No matter how Tzanua.

Just to be absolutely clear, I do not support the philosophy of YCT’s Open Orthodoxy that among other things co-mingles publicly with heterodox rabbis on religious matters. I strongly object to what some of their graduates have done along these lines. In some cases even crossing the lines of Halacha.

I object to what their founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss  has done in ordaining a woman. And then setting up a seminary, Yeshivat Maharat,  for just that purpose. I object to his permit for a woman to be a Chazanit at the Kabbalat Shabbat portion of the Friday night service in his Shul.

Open Orthodoxy is not what Modern Orthodoxy is about.  Modern Orthodoxy is about embracing modernity while being absolutely loyal to Halacha. Open Orthodoxy  is about trying to reshape Orthodoxy into something unrecognizable. I’m not sure where this will lead. But it may very well lead them out of Orthodoxy altogether. Time will tell.

The Conservative movement started out the same way. They were Halachic at first making only a few concessions to modernity in the hopes of keeping the flock connected. They saw the elimination of the Mechitza as a non Halachic issue since it is not mentioned anywhere in the Shulchan Aruch. Look at them now. Is that where Open Orthodoxy is headed?

But their Siyum will not be promoting the agenda of Open Orthodoxy. At least not on paper. So my qualified support for it stands. It’s just too bad there will be no speaker from the right to counter balance the left.