Friday, September 23, 2011

Is the Modern Orthodox Left the New Reform?

I find myself once again in the uncomfortable position of both agreeing and disagreeing with the Yated Ne’aman. There is an article there by Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum that tries to make the case that various institutions of left wing modern Orthodoxy and their rabbis can be more correctly labeled Reform rather than Orthodox. Strangely enough I can see his point. But at the same time I strongly protest it.

The truth of the matter is that some of the things the left tries to do are indeed pretty radical by mainstream standards. He lists them and we all know what they are. They include: ordaining women, doing away with those parts of Tefflilah that upsets their modern sensibilities, interfaith prayer services, and then there is the following:

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, a clergyman who claims to be Orthodox, wrote on the Morethodoxy website that “the engagement of a couple involved in toeivah should be celebrated at the Kiddush in shul with a cake that says mazal tov.”

He thinks a same sex engagement is something to throw a Kiddush in Shul for. I have not seen that one yet and I must admit that it is a shocker!

Rabbi Birnbaum’s points are well taken. I have made some of the very same points he has. And I completely understand his comparison with the early Reform movement. They started out by writing Teshuvos for their innovations. One of the more famous ones was the use of organ music in a Shul on Shabbos. A Heter was actually written for them by a huge Talmid Chacham.

Their motivations and intentions were similar to those of the modern Orthodox left. They wanted to appeal to the modern mind of their day and thereby keep them in the fold. They believed that making concessions to the spirit of their times would do that. I am convinced that the rabbis of the left who have innovated these things are similarly motivated. They are sincere and committed Jews looking for Heterim to do radical things in order to appeal to the current modern mind.

One could certainly understand their point and their passion. I can definitely see many people with limited backgrounds who are unhappy with the state of Orthodoxy leaving the fold for the greener pastures of Conservative and Reform. It is those movements after all who are the most accommodating to the Zeitgeist.

The left wing in a noble attempt to both understand and sympathize with them while keeping them within Halachic Judaism - has embraced innovations which they feel are still within Halachic parameters – albeit perhaps pushing that envelope. I believe that they have actually been successful at it. The question is whether they have gone too far in doing so. What is the price to be paid? Is this just regurgitated Reform Judaism repackaged in an Orthodox wrapper? I would note that the early reformers were originally Orthodox.

Not that they were called Orthodox. The term had not applied yet since there were no other movements. We were all simply Jews - some more observant and some less. The early reformers just sought to keep Judaism relevant to the masses allowing them to be a ‘man in the street and a Jew in the house’. They thus founded a movement to do just that. And we all know what Reform Judaism morphed into. It is a non Halachic movement that is now backpedaling fiercely - reintroducing and encouraging formerly rejected ritual into their lives.

It is truly a slippery slope the left is on despite their noble goals. I agree that we should protest some of what they are doing and I have done so. Although I would not agree in total with what Rabbi Birnbaum considers outside the parameters of Orthodoxy. But I do agree that what the extreme left wing of Orthodoxy is doing is in many ways… well… unorthodox.

At the same time I strongly object to his calling them Reform and refusing to give them the title they earned. They are rabbis and to the best of my knowledge their Semicha has not been revoked. To the best of my knowledge they have not violated any Halacha and seek Halachic justification for everything they do – misguided though they may be.

They seem to reject the importance of tradition that has been established for centuries and consider it antiquated and irrelevant. They seem attribute either nefarious or ignorant motives (by today’s standards) to Chazal – having been guided by the inferior moral sensibilities of their time. I personally find even that idea reprehensible. But does that make them Reform rabbis if they try to correct what they see as inequities via Halachic methods?

Reform rabbis - these people are not. They may be misguided by modern issues like social feminism - an issue which about which they feel very strongly. But they should be seen as rabbis sympathetic to their congregants who are like-minded – but wrong in the way they seek ways accommodate them.

The bottom line is that I too protest what they are doing, but I do not throw them out of Orthodoxy. Instead of criticizing the way Rabbi Birnbaum does organizational Orthodoxy – including the OU, RCA and even the Agudah - for remaining silent, I actually applaud them for it. We don’t need to add to the divisions in Klal Yisroel anymore than we already have. We can – and should criticize ideas with which we strongly disagree. But I protest in the extreme – calling these rabbis Reform. It is insulting. It is divisive. And it is wrong!

What we ought to do instead is make the case for tradition – which I and many others have tried to do. We should try and show them where we feel they are wrong – and why. We should do so strongly and with full conviction.

If we don’t succeed in convincing them we will have to agree to disagree. But as long as they remain Halachic Jews and do not preach heresy - we can ill afford to create another division in Klal Yisroel now… even if they are doing their level best by their actions to alienate the right and make it happen.