Thursday, March 03, 2011

Will There Ever Be Unity in Orthodoxy?

One of the themes of this blog is Achdus in Orthodoxy. It is a particular dream of mine for all those of us who observe the Mitzvos of the Torah – both written and oral - to be united under one flag. That there be no divisions as a group. That all Hashkafos be respected even while we differ. That instead of looking at the differences as defining us – we look at the similarities. Those similarities – Mitzvah observance -outnumber the differences many times over.

Agudah, Mizrachi, Chasidim, Lubavitch, Modern Orthodox, Charedim, Torah U’Mada, Torah Im Derech Eretz, Torah Only, Ashkenazi, Sephardi… and any other identifiable and distinct group or classification would be united under one banner – respecting each other’s differences while embracing each other as brothers and sisters in one big happy family.

Alas, it is just a dream. And as things currently stand, there seems to be a lot more division and enmity among us than there is anything resembling unity.

As it pertains to modern Orthodoxy and Charedim I do think things are sort of self correcting socially in that a large segment of Orthodox Jewry that are from different ideological camps – what I call right wing modern Orthodox and moderate Charedim are integrating as a social unit. Yeshiva University continues to turn out many fine young Ehrliche Talmidei Chachamim who largely become professionals and adhere to virtually the same standards of Yiddishkeit as do many Charedim. And Charedim are increasing opting to go to places like Touro College and professional schools. The result is that the two communities end up in the same religious and socioeconomic group and seek similar communities in which to live. The two communities are thus becoming increasingly integrated.

I realize that this new unit does not include all of Orthodoxy. Much as it saddens me there are fringes at both ends of the Orthodox spectrum that may be impossible to unite. But I do think it includes the vast majority of mainstream Orthodox Jewry and as I have said in the past I think it is the wave of the future.

But the divisive walls of Hashkafa between these two groups refuse to die. That’s why we have an Orthodox Union and an Agudah. Even if one factors out the OU’s primary function as a Kashrus agency, it still stands hugely as one of the prime socio-religious institutions of right wing modern Orthodoxy. Agudah is the organization that represents the Charedi perspective and includes many Chasidim in its ranks. It too is a socio-relgious institution.

Why is there a need for two separate socio-religious organizations? Is there not overlap in many areas? There is. You will often see the two organizations signed on to the same cause. And yet in my view the very fact that these organizations exist as independent entities keeps us divided.

I blame Agudah for this. They are the ones who refuse to unite. Not that there aren’t people in the OU that would want to unite with Agudah, I’m sure there are. And there may even be some legitimate reasons for them to exist as separate entities. But if there would ever be a thought of combining forces under one flag the hard core rejectionists would be in the Agudah camp. I say this because of the obvious anecdotal evidence that comes up time and again to prove my point. Just to cite one example. The modern Orthodox community of Teaneck, New Jersey, invited Agudah Moetzes Gedolim like Rav Aharon Schechter to address their world. But Agudah has not and never would invite OU Gedolim like Rav Hershel Shachter to address theirs.

In some cases there is so much disdain for modern Orthodox Jewry one wonders why they even consider them Orthodox at all!

Clearly it is a one way street.

That said, I don’t believe that most Agudah Moetzes members would in theory oppose it. I think it is because there are Kanoim – zealots among the ranks of Agudah that will walk out if this is done. It is a threat like that - and the desire to present a unified front on all issues that keeps any dissent from coming out.

What Agudah needs is for its rabbinic leaders to have the courage of the previous generation of Gedolim – to do the right thing in spite of the Kanoim who work so hard to prevent Achdus. I am fully convicned that there are good people in Agudah – including members of the Moetzes that would unite with at least right wing Modern Orthodoxy if not for these Kanoim. But they will never do what it takes to achieve it. They simply do not want to break away from the Chabura. They want to maintain a sense of Achdus among themselves and speak with one voice as the voice of Torah.

The problem is that when there is real dissent and is suppressed for the sake of unity – it is not Torah speaking. It is Kannaus speaking. The veto power of any one prominent member threatening to walk is seen as divisive and counterproductive. That is not Torah unity. It is Charedi unity. By leaving out Gedolim such as Rav Hershel Shachter and other YU Roshei yeshiva, and the vast numbers of Ehriche Bnei Torah they have produced over their illustrious careers as Marbitzei Torah – the Agudah leaves out a huge and significant portion of Klal Yisroel.

This is not leadership. True leadership would be to invite someone you disagree with but respect and reject the rejectionists who threaten to walk.

What does true leadership look like? The Jewish Star’s Alan Jay Gerber reviews a book by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin that describes it beautifully. Back in the mid seventies Torah U’Mesorah saw fit to present an award to Rabbi Riskin for opening Ohr Torah - a Yeshiva in Riverdale that pioneered teaching Torah to women.

What? Give an award to a Yeshiva that teaches Torah to women? Are you kidding? Which Gadol on the Moetzes thinks that is a good idea? Probably none.

Well, that’s probably true today. But it wasn’t always true. And that’s where Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky comes in. He is from a generation where Gedolim led and did not allow themselves to be intimidated. He did not listen to Kanoim. He listened to his conscience and spurned the Kanoim. The following excerpt demonstrates what is so sorely lacking in today’s leadership:

Despite the unseemly protestations Rav Kamenetzky insisted that the award be given at their annual dinner, and, as if to underline his support even further, he elected to present the plaque himself to Rabbi Riskin. This gracious, and in my opinion brave action, served to silence all open opposition.

Rabbi Riskin leaves us with was what Rav Kamenetzky said to him at the conclusion of this meeting. “This is my message to you, my young friend,” Rav Kamenetzky concluded. “Zei muzzen shrayen un ihr must tuhn. They have to shout and you have to continue to do.”

There is no one like that today. Reading this story almost made me weep.