Monday, December 04, 2017

Reaching Out to the Modern Jew

Rabbi Eytan Feiner
I am sympathetic to the goals of liberal rabbis (formerly known as Open Orthodox). What do they want except to be fair and welcoming to the widest variety of Jews? What rabbi worthy of the title would not want that?!

It is the near fanatical pursuit of that goal that has gotten them into trouble. In their zeal to accommodate the sincere modern Jew that has been influenced by the humanistic culture of our time they have thrown tradition to the wind. 

I can understand why they balk at all the criticism of this approach. They see it as an attack on their sense of fairness and justice which they do not see as a contradiction to observance. Which undermines the guidance they give to modern Jews seeking it. In short they view what they do as Kiruv and see criticism as undermining it. Which they believe will end up pushing these sincere modern Jews away from authentic Judaism.

It’s hard to not to be sympathetic to that kind of thinking. Most of these rabbis are sincere and believe in what they are doing. In light of all the attrition of Jews away from Judaism that is taking place among American Jews, one would think that liberal rabbis should be supported rather than criticized. Which is why they get so upset.

This is one of the reasons why I am so sad about the direction they have taken. I believe in their mission. But the path they have taken is a ‘bridge too far’. They have lost their way and are unfortunately on a path to destruction. It hurts me to say it, but I think the demise of this new more open approach to Orthodoxy will fail much the same way an earlier movement who tried a similar approach is now failing. It took about 100 years. But it is happening.

Yes there are important differences between Conservative Judaism and the new liberal approach of the left. But when external factors influence your religious behavior in ways that have been traditionally rejected in the past and are rejected entirely by the leaders of the very movement you are supposed to be a part of - then you have in essence started a new movement. One whose goals are eerily similar to the original goals of the Conservative movement. Which was to conserve Judaism. 

They wanted to accommodate the spirit of their time and started nibbling at the corners of Halacha in ways similar to what liberal Orthodoxy is doing now. 

Orthodoxy rejected Conservative Judaism from the very start. Even when the differences were relatively minor Halachic breaks. Like removing the Mechitza from their Shuls and allowing mixed pews for their prayer services. That was the spirit of their time. The spirit of our time is egalitarianism and humanism. Liberal rabbis are nibbling at the corners of those Halachos.

Whether they have embarked on a path towards tolerating heretical views is a matter of debate. But the ambiguity about that is at least a matter of concern.

The Agudah Moetzes has already spoken. Like their predecessors of 100 years ago who completely rejected the legitimacy of Conservative Judaism, they have completely rejected the legitimacy of this new liberalism. So too has the Young Israel Movement. As has the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Their rabbinic leadership does not recognize the new crop of liberal rabbis ordained by their flagship school, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT). And have rejected many of liberal Orthodoxy's new innovations and practices.

The OU has recently done the same. They now require their member Shuls to adhere to traditional Orthodox values and reject any of the new liberal innovations. And yet there are Shuls that are still members in good standing of the OU that have violated some of those requirements.

Matzav reports that Rabbi Eitan Feiner has called on the OU to completely break from those Shuls. He has threatened to break his affiliation to the OU if they don’t. I understand how he feels. I even agree that Shuls that do not comply with the OU standards should be removed as members. But what will happen to the modern liberal members of those Shuls?

I never met Rabbi Feiner.  But I know a little bit about his background. He attended KBY, a Hesder Yeshiva (the American program) with my son back in the late 80s. He was even invited to my son’s wedding. His brother is one of the finer (no pun intended) products of the Lakewood Kollel (CCK) here. I attended his Daf Yomi Shiur for a while. (He has since become a very successful real estate developer.) And his sister is a Yoetzet.

It is with this background in mind that I have to ask, will Rabbi Feiner step up and tackle the need to reach out to the same constituency that liberal rabbis have? If their liberalism has been so discredited, what will happen to that constituency? Who will reach out to them? Who will guide them? 

It doesn’t  not take much to condemn a group that is already condemned by virtually all of Orthodoxy. I am saddened by the direction taken by liberal rabbis. But being sad is not enough.  If these new  liberal rabbis have gone too far, who is going to pick up their slack?

I believe that Rabbi Feiner’s background makes him a candidate for doing that. The question is does he feel the same way? We have enough people leaving Yiddishkeit. We can ill afford to give up on sincere Jews of the left that seek rabbinic guidance. We may not be able to reach them all. Especially if the new liberal rabbis keep insisting they are Orthodox despite being rejected by the entire Orthodox Jewish establishment.  

Every sincere Jew seeking guidance should have a place to find it. Including modern liberal Jews. They should  not be left to the misguided approach of these new liberal rabbis. Nor can they be abandoned either. There is enough attrition from Judaism going on. We have to do what we can to stop it. Orthodox rabbis with a more modern background need to step up. How they do that is a good question. But it is imperative to at least try.