Thursday, November 04, 2010

What’s Right – and Wrong with Agudah

The results of the election in Chicago did not go as I had hoped. But it did go as I expected. Joel Pollak lost. It was in fact a blowout for his opponent, incumbent Jan Schakowsky. Sadly it’s going to be politics as usual for the 9th congressional district. The one bright spot for Chicago is the election to the Senate of Republican Mark Kirk, he is a moderate with very strong pro Israel credentials.

Nationally I was glad to see a Republican takeover in the House. There was too much power in the hands of one party. That said I don’t see much good coming out of that. There are unbridgeable philosophical gaps it seems to me… including within the Republican party itself. On the other hand the resulting gridlock should help slow down the growth of government. And that’s a good thing. We have had enough of that over the last 2 years. So much for Chicago.

Not being a New Yorker, I nonetheless read with interest an analysis of Tuesday night’s election results on YWN from a New Yorker’s perspective. As an American I have no dog in that hunt - other than an over-all interest in how it affects the rest of the country. As a Jew I am as concerned for the welfare of New York Jews as I am for Jews everywhere.

With that in mind I’m always glad to see Jewish advocacy in action. This has always been one of Agudah’s strengths. They have a long history of getting involved in government affairs when it affects the Jewish people.

Agudah has a pretty good lobbying record. They have in the past cultivated friendships in the upper echelons of power- Senators, Congressmen, Cabinet members, and even the White House. In fact I believe that in recent years they have outdone some of the more traditional Jewish organizations in that respect.

Some of their successes have been in the form of politics. Not that they have specifically endorsed any candidate, that would violate their status as a tax exempt charitable organization. But there are legal ways for them to be successful politcally.

Agudah has does a good job in getting out the vote without endorsing anyone. But they knew which candidates would be voted for by their constituents. And so did the politicians. They knew it and appreciated it. That’s why 2 Agudah officials - Rabbis Avi Shafran and Yehiel Kalish - were invited to the White House Chanukah Party over the last few years – while many of the more traditional Jewish leadership were not.

The point is that political leaders have in the past not been shy about cozying up to the Agudah. But that might be changing. As YWN points out:

Agudath Israel can bring all the State’s politicians into a room the Sunday before Election Day, but politicians are increasingly realizing that Agudath Israel can’t bring actual voters to the polls on Election Day itself. In fact, Agudath Israel had to back-track on its lay leaders’ initial endorsement of Senator Eric Schneiderman when they realized that most Jewish groups who actually move votes were supporting Donovan.

Bottom Line: Individual Jewish communities are deciding on their own who to support and don’t look to Agudath Israel for guidance any more.

YWN has therefore put Agudah in its category of losers in the last election. This has prompted some people I know to predict the demise of this once powerful organization. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Agudah’s death are greatly exaggerated. Yes, they took a blow, but don’t count them out yet. They have been around too long to just roll over and die.

There are many people who are angry at Agudah for various reasons. Some of them are legitimate -others less so. In my view it would be a great loss for Orthodoxy in America if they folded.

It’s true that there are other lobbying groups that are effective and do some of the same things Agudah has done. The OU, the Conference of Presidents, Chabad, AIPAC (for issues dealing with Israel)… have all done some great things. Nevertheless (and I could be wrong about this) I do not believe any of them have the long track record Agudah does.

The fact is I don't want them dead. And neither should anyone else. I have had my issues with them, as many good people have - and still do. But disagreement in some areas doesn’t mean that they should be shunned. A little tweaking and they could still be a fine advocacy group for all Orthodox Jewish interests. Perhaps better than ever if they tweak things just right.

Among those things that need tweaking the most is their attitude about their Gedolim. Please do not misunderstand and take this as any measure of disrespect. They do deserve respect. I for one do not question the motives of their Gedolim or their dedication and hard work. Despite opinion of many, I believe they work as hard as they can towards the goal of helping Klal Yisroel.

It is how Agudah operates that is the problem for me. Their lay leadership sees their Moetzes as the only people they listen to – and must listen to - in all matters. That is their motto in fact. No matter how they feel about an issue when their Gedolim render an opinion, they are bound by it. In my view Agudah would be better served if they either disbanded the Moetzes completely or made it more inclusive.

By disbandning the Moetzes I do not mean abandoning the views of great Torah figures, including those that are on the Moetzes now. I mean not having a closed self selected group as the only and final arbiters on any issue. I would rather see them consult with any and all great religious figures – even those not currently on the Moetzes.

They should not necessarily seek unanimity by their Gedolim - but rather hear all opinions regardless of whether there are individual differences between them or not. That would leave room for for some discretionary decision making by the lay leadership rather than abiding by a combined consensus that may or may not be the view of all of them. By coming out with a unified view, the lay leadership has no choice but to follow ‘Daas Torah’. Because that is how a unified decision is presented.

As I understand it, the decision making process of the Agudah Moetzes on any given issue is to hash things out in private and come out with a unified opinion. How that opinion is derived and whether there were dissenting views is never discussed. I think that is in the end a disservice to their constituency.

That is one weak spot in my view. Another is the current criteria for membership in their Moetzes. Only Moetzes members have the right to invite membership. And they have effectively ostracized anyone that has even the taint of modern Orthodoxy attached to them -no matter how Frum.

Some like Rav Hershel Shachter or Rav Aahron Lichetnstien would never even be considered (not that they would necessarily accept – but that is bedsides the point.) If I understand correctly they do try to seek balance - but it is not a balance of all of Orthodxy. It is a balance of right wing Orthodoxy. Their Moetzes is comprised of right wing Roshei Yeshiva or Poskim, and Chasidic Rebbes. That is hardly a diverse group and does not represent all of Orthtodxy.

I have been told by one Lakewood type Rosh Kollel that if they were to even dare to include someone even remotely connected with Yeshiva University - for example Rav Hershel Shachter - many of their members would walk!

This is where most of my criticism lies. Not in my disagreement with them on certain specific issues.

In my view Agudah would be best served by either disbanding the Moetzes or making it more inclusive. Either option would serve Klal Yisroel better and make it a broader based Orthodox service organization.

Agudah should do a Cheshbon HaNefesh and evaluate where they stand. They need to look around and see that many of those they criticize (like the type of YU graduates who I describe as Centrists or right wing modern Orthodox) are in many ways the wave of the future – along with their own moderate Charedim.

If some of their members and supporters don’t like it and want to leave, let them. My guess is that they have leaders outside of Agudah they trust more than the Agudah Moetzes anyway – especially if they are Chasidim of various Rebbes.

Of course any of this happening has about 2 chances: slim and none. But one hopes.