Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Principles - Not Accommodations

Orthodox turned Conservative Rabbi Harry Epstein
There’s a fascinating article by Rabbi Gil Student in Torah Musings. (Sent to me by a friend, it was originally posted back in April of 2016.) It is about Rabbi Harry H. Epstein, a Chicago rabbi whose Orthodox credentials were impeccable.

This story was of particular interest to me because his father is one of the founding fathers of my alma mater, HTC (Skokie). It is a case study in good intentions gone wrong. Much as is the case with the far left of Orthodoxy (formerly known as Open Orthodoxy).

From Gil’s post, His impressive Orthodox credentials included the following: 
Skokie Yeshiva (was) where the young Harry studied. Harry went on to RIETS in New York, which at the time did not have its associated Yeshiva College. He then traveled to Europe to study in Slobodka under his uncle, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein. After two years there, he moved to the land of Israel as one of the original ten students in the Chevron yeshiva. He returned to America, attended Chicago University, and became a rabbi, first in Tulsa and then in Atlanta. Before leaving Israel, he obtained rabbinic ordination from his uncle, Rav Yaakov Charlap, Rav Avraham Kook and others. He subsequently obtained numerous graduate degrees. R. Epstein was a young Orthodox scholar with a solid yeshiva background and a college education. 
For me Rabbi Epstein’s track of studies is ideal. His grounding in Torah and his high level of secular education is what Torah U’Mada is all about. And yet, Rabbi Epstein’s Hashkafos evolved to the point where he felt he could no longer be Orthodox. He eventually joined the Conservative movement. 

He did so for what he believed were altruistic reasons. His trek towards the Conservative movement was unintentional at first but inevitable. It was due to his belief that the American Jewish youth of his day needed a Jewish environment that would make them comfortable as Americans. He started by innovating western style practises into his Modern Orthodox Shul in Atlanta.  He also accommodated younger congregants that were less religiously committed. 

At the same time he addressed his older congregants with the skill he developed in his traditional Yeshiva background. For example he taught advanced classes in Gemarah. And was an eloquent speaker. Outside of the duties to his Shul he became a spokesman for Judaism to the outside world, particularly with interfaith leaders.

In short he was kind of a super-star American rabbi who had it all - and rose to high positions in both the RCA and the OU. One might even say he was a role model of modern Orthodoxy. But then it all went wrong.

After the Holocaust brought about an immigrant population that included right wing European Rabbis and an Orthodox culture filled with stringency, Rabbi Epstein feared that the move to the right would endanger an American Jewry that could never go along with it… and would end up abandoning their Judaism entirely. What happened next is shocking considering his background. In 1954, he joined the Conservative movement to the great dismay of his wife and father. What pushed him over the edge? From Torah Musings: 
R. Epstein’s biographer, Mark Bauman, in his Harry H. Epstein and the Rabbinate as Conduit for Change(published in 1994), attempted to understand what drove R. Epstein to join the Conservative movement. R. Epstein was a proponent of progress within tradition. Concerned that Orthodoxy was increasingly uncompromising, “liv[ing] in the past and ignor[ing] American conditions.” He felt that Judaism needed to continue evolving as a dynamic religion. 
He started choosing which traditions to abandon (e.g the Mechitza) and creating new innovations  (like Friday night services) – all for purposes of accommodating members that were not observant. He was also a champion of women’s rights – believing strongly that Judaism must accommodate the times if it was to be relevant. 

He was successful in keeping old members while attracting new ones. At least in the short term. This was very much in line with the goals of the Conservative Movement. But the key phrase there is ‘short term’. Because once you start accommodating the lack of observance and cater to the spirit of the times you end up with a formula for assimilation. Which as we all too well now know has accelerated the huge exodus of Jews from Judaism in our day. The collateral damage of which will be the ultimate extinction of heterodox movements as we know them today.

Rabbi Epstein later regretted that decision. Quoting his biographer: 
(I)n the 1980s, the rabbi bemoaned the decision to join the Conservative ranks. Conservatism had become too nebulous. It lacked substance and was too willing to compromise fundamentals. 
Ah... the slippery slope of accommodation. This is a case study in how not to allow the accommodation and the spirit of the times to govern one’s thinking. Even if it is for the most altruistic of reasons. While I agree that we must live in the 21st century and apply the Torah to its circumstances, we can never  adapt Halacha to suit the circumstances. As Gil puts it: 
There are many points on the spectrum of Orthodoxy, many different ways of combining tradition and modernity. However, they all seek to operate within the mainstream traditions of Jewish law and thought.  
I think that’s right. Those that don’t and instead try to accommodate the times need only look at this case study. Which was tried and later regretted by a well intended brilliant thinker after he saw where it led. This ought to be a lesson to the far left of Orthodoxy who – with the best of intentions - are going in a similar direction. It can only result in the same thing. History teaches us exactly where the best of intentions can lead.

Which is why I believe it is important for the OU to take a principled stand on member Shuls that violate the rulings of its Poskim with respect to a host of issues. They too should learn the lessons of history. Allowing Shuls that ignore those rulings to remain members would be a huge mistake which will. surely be regretted.