Thursday, February 07, 2013

An Orthodox Shul without a Mechitza

Rav Chaim Dovid Regensburg (from HTC website)
One of the conundrums I have struggled with in recent years is the phenomenon of the Traditional Shul. For those unfamiliar with the term, this near obsolete type of synagogue was formed in the mid 20th century by Orthodox Rabbis.  A Traditional Shul is basically an Orthodox Shul without a Mechitza (a partition separating the men from the women).

To most Orthodox Jews this kind of Shul could hardly be classified as Orthodox. By definition any Shul without a Mechitza  cannot be Orthodox. In fact even the most left wing Orthodox Shuls today – including Partnership Minyanim which are in and of themselves very controversial to say the least – have a Mechitza.

For most of us therefore it might be easy to condemn a non Mechitza Shul.  For an Orthodox rabbi to take a position in such a Shul has long been considered forbidden by the great Poskim of the 20th century. Indeed, my own Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik forbade it. As did his brother, the Rav. But the issue is not as simple as that.

For starters, I want to make clear, that I in no way endorse or permit Traditional Shuls. Halachic opinions on this subject are way beyond my pay grade in any case. But they are not beyond the pay grade of at least one Posek of the 20th century – who differed from the above mentioned Poskim.  A man venerated by his Talmidim who was a Gaon Atzum (brilliant) European trained Talmid Chacahm by the name of Rav Chaim Dovid Regensburg. He was the Rosh HaYeshiva in my Alma Mater, Skokie Yeshiva (HTC) until his retirement in 1962. He was also the Av Beis Din at the CRC until his death in 1977. He not only permitted Orthodox Rabbis to take these new up and coming Tradtional Shuls… he encouraged it. Yes, he was a Daas Yachid (singular authority). But he was a significant Daas Yachid.

As a result many Orthodox  rabbis took non Mechitza Shuls in the newly minted Traditional Movement. In fact one of them was a YU Musmach of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, the Rav’s father. And they were all members of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).

Rav Regensberg felt that it was an Eis Laasos. The times required action in order to preserve Orthodoxy (…an argument that was completely rejected by other Poskim). Jewish education in America was in its infancy then especially outside of the East Coast. The day school movement had just begun.  Many Orthodox Jews of that era were engrossed in chasing the American dream of prosperity and assimilation.

The term melting pot was how America described itself then. America took in immigrants from many countries. They were all put into one pot and melted into a new creation called an American. An American had an identity of his own in contradistinction to his ethnic heritage. Differences were minimized to what ever extent one could minimize them even among Orthodox Jews. Multiculturalism was anathema to the American melting pot ideal of the times.

The older generation of immigrants from the early part of that century were dying out and the reins of leadership were passed on to a new generation of Jews who were all too eager to leave the ghetto mentality of their parents far behind them. Separating men and women in the synagogue seemed archaic to them. The American ‘house of prayer’ required adopting the same customs as the general public. Many Orthodox Jews wanted to attend a modern Shul where families could sit together. So when the old Orthodox Shuls were relocated to newer neighborhoods and the suburbs, the younger and more affluent Jewish lay leaders were determined to jettison the Mechitza from their beautiful new buildings.  

They sought rabbis that would accommodate that Zeitgeist. Preferring Orthodox rabbis they came to the Yeshiva first. It was clear, however,  that they would not compromise on the elimination of the Mechitza. If no Orthodox rabbi would serve, they would turn to the Conservative movement.

This is where Rabbi Regensburg came in. He strongly felt that it was important to have Orthodox rabbis in those Shuls. Even though there would be no Mechitza, everything else about the Shul would remain Orthodox including its theological perspective. Rabbi Regensburg knew that a Conservative Rabbi would forever remove the congregants from Orthodoxy and much of their observance. Like permitting congregants to drive to Shul on Shabbos.

He urged these rabbis to take these Shuls and keep the Shul and its congregants Orthodox in every way they could, Halachicly. Perhaps more importantly, an Orthodox rabbi could exert his influence on the parents of his congregation to send their children to the fledgling Jewish day schools and high schools  in Chicago.

This is in fact what they did. Although they may not have been successful in every case, many children in those Shuls ended up attending day schools and are today Bnei Torah in every segment of Judaism, from the most Charedi to the most left wing Orthodox. More than one of those children are now Roshei Yeshiva both here and in Israel. Many others are lay leaders today that are pillars of financial support to religious institutions all over the world.  Had those Shuls gone Conservative, who knows where they’d all be.

The irony is that the success of these rabbis contributed mightily to the demise of the movement. Many of these children now refuse to go into those shuls. Many of these Shuls started having Mechitza Minyanim in the basement. One of the first was started by Dr. Eliezer Berkovits in Skokie. Those Minyanim eventually outgrew the regular non Mechitza Minyinam whose original membership numbers were shrinking. Some of those Shuls have now installed Mechitzos in the main sanctuary and are now fully Orthodox. So in many ways those rabbis were unsung heroes.

Unsung to say the least. Most of them did not go away unscathed. They were shunned by much of the mainstream Orthodox community – especially by the right. That was in large part because of how the major Poskim treated them. They were considered to be violating Halacha by taking and serving in these Shuls. It didn’t matter whether their intentions were good or what good might  come of it.

Rav Regensburg was disparaged by the right for his ‘erroneous’ approach. Virtually all other Poskim felt that one cannot save Judaism by violating Halacha and it was the height of outrage to tell Frum Musmachim (ordained rabbis) to take a Shul like that.

They fought those Shuls tooth and nail - firmly believing that such Shuls would not survive in any case. They were right about that. But I don’t believe they were right about Judaism not being saved. Or better said, Jews being saved. A great number of Orthodox Jews are observant today because those rabbis took those Shuls. When one saves a life – one saves a world, the sages tells us. These rabbis saved many worlds. In doing so they almost assured the demise of the very movement they were leaders of.

Rav Ahron was in the forefront of the fight against these Shuls. When his oldest son, Rav Moshe gave the eulogy for his father he related the events that led him to Chicago. He went to the Gedolei Yisroel and asked them for advice about taking the position as the Rosh HaYeshiva of Skokie. He was told by Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky to take the position if for no other reason than to fight the Traditional Movement.

Rav Ahron did that. I truly believe that Rav Ahron accelerated the demise of that movement. All of his Musmachim – including me – had to sign a document that said we would never take a Shul that does not have a Mechitza without his permission. Which he did not give unless a Shul undertook to install one upon their being hired. This happened to a friend of mine. He was hired and a Mechitza was immediately installed.

Rav Ahron made a lot of enemies in Chicago at the time.  But as a man of uncompromising principle, it didn’t matter to him. He stood his ground and ultimately lost his health.

Forgotten in all of this is Rav Regensburg. I truly believe he was man of vision whose decisions saved worlds. The Traditional Shul is now nearly extinct. That is a good thing. We don’t need non Halachic Shuls in Orthodoxy. But I do think they served a positive purpose and are responsible for generations of Jews observant. And we ought to recognize that.