Monday, May 16, 2016

The Launch of PORAT

Guest Contribution by Commentator*

PORAT panelist, Blu Greenberg, co-founder and 1st President of JOFA
The following report was written by a prominent educator who attended the launch of a new organization called PORAT. 

PORAT describes themselves as Modern Orthodox. In my view however the only part of that description that may fit is the first word. I completely reject PORAT as having anything to do with Orthodoxy since they invite dialogue about whether God actually authored the Torah as per the bible critics. In my view there is nothing Orthodox about that.  Other issues that are in the forefront of this organization are also problematic for me and most other mainstream Orthodox institutions… even Modern Orthodox ones like the OU and the RCA and YU.

So why bother with this report? Because PORAT along with it’s ‘parent’ ideology of Open Orthodoxy is trying to lay claim to the very term Modern Orthodox and has many prominent left wing modern Orthodox leaders endorsing it. Furthermore - rabbis ordained by institutions with this philosophy (e.g. YCT and Yeshivat Maharat) are increasingly taking pulpits in Orthodox synagogues all over the country. 

This makes it a serious challenge to how Modern Orthodoxy will be defined in the future. A challenge that cannot be ignored. It must in my view be addressed by mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. With that in mind, I present the following essay by ‘Commentator’ in its entirety. (I may have more to say about this later.)

Whether you are in sympathy with the aims and ideals of the movement or not, the launch of PORAT (“People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah”) is a significant event. 

An estimated 600 people turned out on Sunday evening for the launch of this organization which “aims to put the ‘Modern’ back into “Modern Orthodoxy”.  Chairing the event was Steven Bayme; an opening, short video of greetings from Rabbi Riskin of Efrat was screened; and the closing (rousing!) address was given by Rabbi Avi Weiss.  The bulk of the evening were four panel speakers:  the new senior rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, Chaim Steinmetz; Blu Greenberg; Rabbi Benny Lau, from Jerusalem; and Anne Baldack Pava, a lay leader who has been prominent in national Federation leadership.  Victoria Lindenbaum Feder opened the proceedings and greeted the participants.

Some notes:

 The fact that the event took place in the newly-renovated/reconstructed sanctuary of Kehilath Jeshurun – the home of the Lookstein dynasty, until now identified with Y U ‘Centrism’ - and prominently featured its new rabbi, must be taken as a huge statement.   Does the shul officially now identify with ‘Open Orthodoxy’?

Unfortunately, overall, for this attendee, the evening was a disappointment.  Steve Bayme asked good questions.  The panelists generally ignored them, and in response to the first question (“What is most important and valuable quality of M O?  Is there something you would change?”), all the panelists seemed to read pre-prepared speeches on their definitions of M O, all of which overran their time allocation, all of which sounded like sermons, and none of which said anything that 99% of the audience didn’t know already.  The rest of the panel part of the program was broadly similar; there were series of somewhat platitudinal monologues, and no actual interaction or dialogue between the panelists.

The audience was predominantly middle-aged, and looked like a very – well, sensible – crowd!  There was also a heavy sprinkling of younger people in their 20’s.

The buzz-words which repeated as the qualities of the Orthodoxy being sought included: “Inclusion .. tolerance ..…community…open tent… open discussion.. unifying force…grassroots voices…listening community …Orthodox…spiritual…non-judgmental…civil discourse...independent…self-confident”.

The single issue which seemed to most exercise the panel, and the audience, was “inclusivity”, especially as applied to the LBGTQ community (collectively and individually).  The panelists (and, judging from the applause, the audience) all agreed without hesitation about ‘acceptance’ of individuals.  Without being specific, Rabbi Steinmetz and Blu Greenberg seemed to hint at long-term willingness to consider a broader accommodation.

However, it was left to Rabbi Avi Weiss to close the evening with the most impassioned, and inspirational address.  He spoke of the different groups ‘knocking at the door’ of the Orthodox Jewish community (‘Kol dodi dofek” – an allusion that would not have gone unnoticed by many) – including “Women, Orthodox seeking a mesorah [to which they can relate], converts, the mentally and physically challenged, LGBT community, seekers of discussion about faith…  But the knocks go unheeded and the doors stay firmly closed”.

The message of the whole event was unclear.  Avi Weiss declared that PORAT was to be a lay-led, grassroots movement, vaguely hinting that it was to complement YCT and Yeshivat Maharat.  But he said this right at the end of the evening.  No indications of lay leadership were seen or heard. 

What was going to happen next?  “Next week (!) we will be putting up a sign-up opportunity on our website where you can declare support for PORAT… we’ll look for 10,000 signatures.  And in 
September we’ll have another meeting “ (indicated it would be outside New York). 

Well, all of that adds up to a lot less than a revolution, or, indeed, a movement.  Will PORAT start shuls?  Day Schools?  Is it going to start blogs, Twitter, Facebook, to reach thousands?  Meetings, panels and lectures are the communications of yesteryear, not of today.  I feel nothing negative towards the organizers or participants of the event, or the movement.  But it was disappointing.

*For personal and professional reasons, ‘Commentator’ prefers to stay anonymous.