Thursday, November 30, 2017

Agudah's Narrow Achdus

One of the speakers at the convention featured on an Agudah website
Agudah Israel’s annual convention was held last week in New York. Professor Yitzchok Levine, a respected and frequent contributor to a closed e-mail list of which I am a member made reference to a letter that appears on page 6 of this week's Flatbush Jewish Journal: 
In last week's FJJ Publisher's Message Mordy Mehlman writes that he will be attending the Agudah Convention.  He wrote, " the achdus of the Convention,  the unity of Jews of all stripes - Litvish, Chasidish, Sephardic - serves  as a living example of how all of Klal Yisroel could and should unite as one." 
As I have mentioned many times, I am a fan of the great work Agudath Israel does for the American Jewish community. Their effort as an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group in Washington is worthy of the support of all Orthodox Jews, regardless of whether you agree with their Hashkafos or not.

This doesn’t mean that one has to agree with everything they have said or done. But it does mean that as religious Jews we need to recognize and appreciate that the vast majority of what they do in Washington benefits us all.

But as I have also mentioned, I do have difficulty with a Hashkafa that promotes the idea that their rabbinic leaders have defacto infallibility. Of course they constantly deny that. They will always say that as human beings they can - and even do make mistakes. But in practice this is a distinction without a difference.

They call it Daas Torah. Which means that since their rabbinic leaders are so knowledgeable in Torah they posses its wisdom better than any other human being. Thus they are the best – even the only people to guide Jews in all matters including matters of public policy.

I understand the logic. And I even agree that there is a concept of Daas Torah in the sense of the actual translation of those words: ‘the wisdom of the Torah’. Of course there is wisdom in the Torah. I will even concede that in many matters the rabbinic leaders of Agudah do in fact represent the wisdom of the Torah.

What is troubling to me (and I have said this before) is that they are a self selecting group of leaders that tend to choose membership in that group from a limited pool of rabbis. This leaves out many great rabbinic thinkers that are as knowledgeable in Torah as they are – but have a different world view. They certainly have the right to chose members from whichever pool of rabbis they wish.  But they do not have the right to claim sole possession of Daas Torah.  And yet time after time, year after year, by speaker after speaker at their conventions… all one hears is that claim.

The rules they set up for public policy statements are troubling as well. They require speaking with one voice even when there is dissent among them. Majority rules. So that even if there is dissent, public policy statements are made as though there wasn’t any.  For me that is not Daas Torah. It is the Daas of some Torah scholars and not of others. Which in theory should allow an adherent of Daas Torah to choose the views of the dissenters whose knowledge of Torah led them to a different decision.

In my view the lack of admitting any dissent by peers short changes the truth. I understand why they do that. It is because dissent brings doubt. The leadership wants avoid doubt When they speak in the name of Torah they want to do it without any ambiguity. They want clarity.

And this doesn’t even take into account rabbinic leaders that are not part of Agudah who might dissent. And yet Agudah promotes the concept of Daas Torah as though they are the sole possessors of it. To the exclusion of all others.

Expanding their influence is the claim that they represent Orthodox Jews. Which implies that those that are deliberately excluded are not really Orthodox. And yet they make that claim citing a variety of groups among their members and supporters including certain groups (e.g.  the above-mentioned Litvish, Chasidic, and Sephardic Jews).

But I reject that claim completely. As does Professor Levine. He ended his message with the following observation which I paraphrased - and with which I completely agree. 

Litvish, Chasidic, Sephardic do not at all encompass Jews of all stripes. Because not included were any speakers affiliated with Yeshiva University, Young Israel or the OU.  How many of the attendees were Modern Orthodox?  Were there any Religious Zionists represented there?  And what about secular Jews?

I was not there so I can’t answer the question. But my guess is that the answers to these question are obvious.

I therefore submit that the Agudah Convention did not represent the unity of Jews of all stripes. Because a lot of stripes were probably missing. If I am wrong and this year was any different I will be thrilled to stand corrected.

On a separate note, for a major organization that claims to not have an official website - they have a pretty amazing website!