How to Hold Modern Orthodoxy Together: A Detailed Prescription

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

For much of 2015, every effort was made, on both sides, to send American Modern Orthodoxy into schism and compel the formation of a separate denomination called Open Orthodoxy.  These efforts have often been disingenuous or irresponsible, and each side is accountable for its official and auxiliary spokespersons.  But it would be equally disingenuous and irresponsible to deny that there are deep substantive issues in play.

Recent weeks have seen encouraging efforts by some on both sides to rein in their rhetoric, and Rabbi Francis Nataf has wonderfully modeled the constructive critical discourse that Rabbi Gil Perl beautifully advocated for. But frank conversation and responsible leadership are still desperately needed.

I contend that schism will lead to disaster and eventual oblivion for both sides.  The “right” will lose its desire and capacity to engage seriously with modernity, and the “left” will lose its commitment to and capacity for rigorous halakhic analysis.  The “right” will come to reject any notion that halakhic decisions can be held accountable to ethics in any way, and the “left” will cease to see any value in genuine halakhic deliberation on ethical issues.

To prevent this, both left and right must take active steps to prioritize their confluent mainstreams over their dueling extremes, while at the same time seeking to keep those extremes within the same community to the extent possible.

Here is a set of concrete proposals to that end.  Each will require hard choices from some or all, and many will be unpopular.  But we are long past being able to find an easy way through.

1) The RCA must provide YCT graduates with a clear and plausible path to membership

YCT graduates need a professional organization.  If the RCA summarily rejects them, they cannot be blamed for steering a wholly autonomous course.  Moreover, they will be out of conversation with graduates of other yeshivot, and so will understandably care less and less about staying part of the same community.

This path to membership cannot require YCT graduates to renounce their teachers or their education.

At the same time, the RCA will not be compelled to accept all YCT graduates, nor will it be required to offer membership to graduates of Yeshivat Maharat.  The RCA may decide that davening in a partnership minyan generally excludes a candidate from membership regardless of the source of their semikhah.

 2) Orthodoxy must make room for theological and halakhic creativity and experimentation; it must allow people, even rabbis, to make mistakes in the effort to make things better

Both theological and halakhic creativity are desirable, and Modern Orthodoxy should celebrate noble and serious efforts to address serious issues even when they fail, even when they fail badly.  “No one finds his standing in words of Torah without first stumbling in them.”  But – theological creativity and creative halakhic practice must be kept separate.  When halakhic creativity is justified by theological creativity, it has lost all connection to the existing community Orthodox theological creativity must be compatible with obedience to existing halakhah, and Orthodox halakhic creativity must be compatible with acceptance of existing hashkafah.

3)  Communities and institutions on the left side of the Modern Orthodox spectrum must take responsibility for members and graduates who consciously and purposefully use the Orthodox mantle to legitimate positions that the RCA considers out of bounds.

They don’t have to reject or expel them, but they need to acknowledge and respect others’ refusal to admit them.  They need to acknowledge that communities have the right, and sometimes obligation, to draw boundaries, and that belonging to a community, and having the opportunity to influence it, sometimes means accepting boundaries one disagrees with.

The most challenging issue in this regard is clearly female clergy, and it will not work to have groups of men exclusively work out the solution to this issue.  But I believe that a workable solution can be found if there is trust and goodwill, albeit one that will be very uncomfortable for everyone.

It must be clearly acknowledged that the approach laid out here is fundamentally asymmetric, in that it leaves the RCA with no right-wing boundary.  For example, the RCA will not be required to exclude members who assert that it is forbidden for women to learn Talmud, or that get-withholding is a legitimate tactic in divorce negotiations.  My hope is that these positions are and will remain very, very marginal within the organization.

4)   None of us should tolerate the soft bigotry of excusing (let alone praising!) women for statements or achievements that in men would reflect theological or halakhic shallowness or error.  But-all of us must acknowledge the underlying scandal that Modern Orthodox women who want to learn Talmud deeply and thoroughly may choose institutions whose hashkafah makes them uncomfortable because the learning is better there, even though it does not approach the learning available to men in Yeshiva College, let alone RIETS.

Young women who learn at the same level as their top male counterparts are given no opportunities for growth at Stern College. GPATS at its best may equal what is available to a moderately talented Yeshiva College undergraduate, and undergraduate women are offered much less than that.  Yeshivat Maharat is no better.  I say this with great respect and appreciation for the many talented, learned, and dedicated faculty members at each of these institutions.  How can we tolerate this?

For those who rue the existence of Torah-educated women who take positions significantly to their left – the proper response is to insist that right-wing musmakhim, and the YU roshei yeshiva themselves, teach women at the highest level.  This will give them the same influence with talmidot that they have with talmidim, and eventually produce women scholars who will continue their masoret, teach at their level, and receive the kavod due them for their Torah achievements and contributions.

The approaches laid out above can reclaim the public square for constructive conversation and criticism, and enable us to approach all issues with a presumption that disagreements are leshem shomayim (for the sake of Heaven).

As dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, I know this is possible.  It happens each summer in our Summer Beit Midrash program, where young men and women from across the Modern Orthodox spectrum, and from all the relevant institutions, learn together in an atmosphere of profound halakhic commitment, uncompromising intellectual rigor, and critical moral engagement.  These future leaders deserve the opportunity to build a community together that will bring nachas to all of us.  Our current leadership must take the necessary steps to ensure they have that opportunity.

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