Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Food for Thought

I have often been challenged on the notion that there can be unity in Orthodoxy. A recent post of mine came close to conceding the point. The far right and the far left seem to be making this dream more elusive than ever.

But I have not given up on it. I still maintain that not only is it possible – it’s already happening in America at least on a social level if not an ideological level. The new ‘Centrist’ (as I call what was originally described by Rabbi Berel Wein) is alive and well. He is in fact thriving. As more Charedim are becoming professionals and more modern Orthodox (that I refer to as RWMO) become more serious about observance and Torah knowledge the two worlds are meshing quite nicely – thank you.

Just to be clear, I never thought it was possible to include all extremes. There are some so-called observant Jews that are so outside the mainstream that they have virtually written themselves out of any possibility of Achdus. The Neturei Karta fanatics who support the destruction of the Jewish State are an example of that. There are others. No need to belabor the point.

But there is a disillusionment about Charedim among many in modern Orthdodx that has despaired them of any rapprochement between the two segments.

I believe that the cause of the disillusionment is traceable to the kind of decisions the Agudah Moetzes and other Charedi rabbinic leaders have made in recent year. Their approach to dealing with the internet, or reporting sex abuse; or their relative reticence to criticize those who are guilty of financial crimes; and the virtual obsession they have with matters of Tznius are just some of the examples that I believe has caused this problem.

First let me re-state the fact even though I am not Charedi, I do respect the members of the Moetzes. I do not ever want to be interpreted any other way. As I always say- I respect them for their tremendous knowledge of Torah; and both the time and effort they give to matters affecting Klal Yisroel - even when I disagree with them. But as a non Charedi who looks elsewhere for rabbinic leadership, I believe that I can be more objective about some of their decisions.

I have in the past asked the question as to whether there should even be an Agudah Moetzes… or any council of sages that represents all of Orthodoxy. In my view there should not be. There is no one rabbi much less a group of rabbis that can claim to speak for every single Hashkafa… noble a goal as that might be.

Is there any Charedi that thinks the Agudah Moetzes agrees with this?

It turns out there is. Although he does not say so in so many words, he strongly implies it. Rabbi Dovid Landesman is one of those people that actually makes a believer out of me with respect to Achdus. He is someone who has commented often on this blog and has even written a few guest posts. He has also not been reticent to disagree with me – even strongly.

Rabbi Dovid Landesman has hit another home run with his recently published book: Food for Thought – No Hachsher Required. I haven’t completed it yet but after reading a few of his essays I am convinced that we are pretty much on the same page on many issues.
Rabbi Landesman wrote a brief but very enlightening essay on the historical purpose of the Agudah Moetzes and how it operates. One of the reasons it was created was to be have an authoritative spokesman for all of Orthodoxy. By including representatives of all Orthodox segments speaking in a unified voice it was felt that any pronouncements would reflect the actual Daas of the Torah.

This was done to counter Zionism which they viewed as relegating to itself as spokesman for all of Jewry. The early Zionists did this in an attempt to once and for all deal with anti-Semitism in a unified manner. The Agudah mounted a serious challenge to that by creating a group of rabbis that would speak for Orthtodoxy

But as Rabbi Landesman notes that lofty goal never saw any real fruition since many great rabbinic figures were not included – either because they did not want to give up autonomy over their own Orthtodox Kehilos or because they weren’t even invited to join. Among those not included for those reasons at its earliest stages were the likes of R’ Chaim Soloveitchik, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R’ Meir Simcha HaKohen, and the Rogotchover Gaon, Rav Meir Hildesheimer, the Netziv and many Chasidic Rebbes. How can any group that does not consider the views of some of the greatest minds of the era of even their own Hashkafos - be considered binding Daas Torah?

Charedi rabbinic leaders of the time had built up their own turf with their own set of rules each responding to its own set of conditions. There is no way for example that a Chasidic community would agree with the Yeshivishe one. And a Hirschean Hashkafa disagreed with them both on the need to study worldly matters. How did the founding fathers of the Agudah Moetzes ever think they would have a meeting of the minds that they could call Daas Torah on the issues that defined their Kehilos?

This is no less true today when the self selecting body of the Agudah Moetzes does not include people like Rav Hershel Shachter or Rav Ahron Lichtenstein. They have never been invited to join and never will be. And yet they make pronouncements they consider binding Daas Torah. Add to that that not all members of the Agudah Moetzes are considered equal where a dominant personality will hold sway over other members who defer to him even as they disagree.

And even among the actual members who see each other as equals - is it really Daas Torah when dissent is stifled in the name of unity? It certainly is not! And yet they fully admit to speaking with one voice even when there is dissent.

Then there is the fact that membership to the Agudah Moetzes is self selected. That means that some people will be selected and some won’t for reasons other than how great they are. There are great people who are not on the Moetzes, and not so great people that are. To the best of my knowledge there is no guide on how members are chosen.

I believe that this is Rabbi Landesman’s position. I hope that I am not misstating it.

It is true that Rabbi Landesman is not your typical Charedi. But it is also true that he strongly identifies with and considers himself to be one. I also believe that in their hearts, the vast majority of moderate Charedim agree with him. I do not believe that the vast majority of Charedim really grant the Agudah’s ‘Daas Torah’ as binding. Even though the Agudah Moetzes clearly would like it to be considered such.

If they do not have the support of the majority of their own constituents, what purpose is there then for their existence? Would it not be better for each member of the Moetzes to voice his own views instead of keeping dissent quiet? Wouldn’t that be closer to Emes than what they have now?

I think that Rabbi Landesman might just agree with me. But even if he doesn’t - with Charedim like this, how can there not be Achdus?