Friday, August 06, 2010

Yes, Orthodox Judaism Changes Too

With all the talk of the changing narrative in the intermarriage conversation, the increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in synagogues, and the virtually across-the-board practice of egalitarian prayer in Conservative and Reform congregations, many Orthodox Jews claim that they are the only ones practicing "Torah true" Judaism and refusing to change course on any of these social issues. Of course, even saying Orthodox Judaism is misleading because it encompasses so many different practices and beliefs -- from modern, liberal Orthodoxy to the Haredi (ultra-religious sect).

Judaism, like most religions is fluid. It evolves throughout time; the question is how quickly the changes materialize and when. In response to changes in society, the most progressive denominations evolve the quickest because, well, they are the most progressive. Take the issue of women rabbis for instance. The Reform Movement, Judaism's most liberal branch, minted the first female rabbi in 1972 with the Reconstructionist movement following suit in 1974. The more traditional Conservative movement spent many years debating the change before finally ruling to allow women rabbis in the mid-1980s with my colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg becoming the first Conservative rabbi to be ordained in 1985.

A quarter century after the Conservatives opened its seminary to women, the more progressive Orthodox Jews in Centrist Orthodoxy are now debating the leadership roles of women in the synagogue. It was only a matter of time.

A few Orthodox women have already been ordained in some seminaries with the most well-known case being Rabba Sara Hurwitz, ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss (pictured) of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (New York). While her title was debated, there's no question that she functions like a rabbi in Weiss's congregation. And I have no doubt that Weiss will ordain more women in the future.

And Orthodoxy has begun to evolve on the case of gay and lesbian acceptance. Again, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements acted quickly with the Conservative movement taking years to study and debate the issue before opening its seminaries and allowing the movement's rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies in December 2006.

Recently, 150 Orthodox rabbis issued a statement calling for the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community. The statement said in part that "Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism... Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community." At the Orthodox movement's Yeshiva University in New York, there have been several conferences on GLBT issues. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an out-of-the-closet gay Orthodox rabbi has helped move Orthodoxy to a place of increased acceptance for gays and lesbians following the success of 2001's film "Trembling Before G-d," which explored the struggle of Orthodox Jewish homosexuals.

Many Orthodox Jews will say that the one place there cannot be any leeway is when it comes to davening (prayer). The dignity of the service is compromised when a woman leads, they'll say. And yet, this seems to be the next big change in Orthodoxy -- women prayer leaders. Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem and Darchei Noam prayer group in New York have allowed women to lead certain parts of the service and be called to the Torah for an aliyah honor for years now, but the major news was last Friday evening. Rabbi Avi Weiss allowed a woman at his Orthodox shul in Riverdale to lead the congregation in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. The New York Jewish week reported, "In Rabbi Weiss’ latest effort to push the boundaries of women’s roles in an Orthodox shul, he had a woman, Lamelle Ryman, lead a Friday-night service with both men and women in the pews. Rabba Hurwitz, who heads a seminary for Orthodox women created by Rabbi Weiss, made a few brief remarks, not even touching on the fact that no other Orthodox synagogue in the U.S. had apparently ever before had a woman lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service. But it was Ryman’s show, and according to those in attendance, the davening was beautiful."

Some in the Orthodox movement are in favor of Weiss pushing the envelope and moving Orthodoxy into the future. Others feel that he's making changes without any process or input from others. It's possible that a censure from the Rabbinical Council of America is forthcoming, but Weiss is doing precisely what rabbis have done for generations -- moving Judaism forward.

The Judaism of 2010, in any of the denominations, looks different than the Judaism of past centuries. That's because the times change and the Jewish religion changes too, whether people like it or not.

Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on "Torah true Judaism." If Judaism is truly going to be true to the Torah, then we must all embrace the Torah's dictum that says the Torah does not reside in the heavens. It belongs to humanity and it is up to us to see that it remains vibrant and evolves.


Anonymous said...

Rabbi Jason - If you took a poll of all Jews who identified as "Orthodox" It would be my opinion that over 80% would disapprove of the "changes" as outlined in your blog. Conversely, I believe that 80% of "Conservative Jews" would approve of the various changes - women rabbis, various forms of egalitarianism, etc.

Could it be that those Jews that want these changes will end up davening in egalitarian minyanim, and those that don't won't? I think that is the probable outcome of any "changes" that you outlined.

As somebody that davens in both conservative (egalitarian) and orthodox minyanim I certainly don't see any sea changes on the horizon in the orthodox camp outside of a rabbi or two in Jerusalem or New York.

Do you disagree?

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

In response to David A.M. Willensky's post on JewSchool referencing this blog post, I write:

"Thanks for referencing my blogpost David. I've had this recurring dream since I was about 20 years old that I could get Orthodox Jews to read the section in Rabbi Elliot Dorff's book "Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to our Descendants" in which he explains the flow/evolution of Jewish Law (THE Halakhah). He explains it through the lens of each of the movements, but basically explains that the way Halakhah evolves in Conservative Judaism is not different from how it has evolved for centuries.

Remember, my Orthodox friends, evolution can mean more strict and more lenient. Saying that it's Halakhah to wear a sheytel or a black fedora on Shabbos demonstrates change from previous generations. So too with using timers in your home for electricity on Shabbat, the notion of Glatt meat, and Brussel Sprouts being deemed to hard to check for bugs to be kosher.

In my blog I wasn't prophesizing a time in the near future when all Orthodox Jews blindly follow the lead of Avi Weiss. I acknowledge that there are a 100 flavors of Orthodoxy in Judaism, but the most liberal flavor is certainly moving more progressively on certain social issues (gays, women, etc.) and that doesn't mean they're just going to mesh into the Conservative movement any more than Conservative Jews liberalizing on certain issues means they will become Reform."

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


I think if you took that poll it would be much MORE than 80% who disagree with those changes.

I contend that many in the Modern Orthodox camp who agree with Avi Weiss's liberal changes are lapsed Conservative Jews (the Camp Ramah alum who drifted rightward during or after college).

As I've said (and stated explicitly in the post), there are 100's of flavors of Orthodox Jew (from Satmar to Shira Chadasha). It might take decades for some of these changes (women leading kabbalat shabbat, etc.) to fan out around the country, but the roots have no doubt begun to sprout. Regardless of what Orthodox Jews on the right may say, Avi Weiss is a charismatic leader with a strong following. Change happens -- it's just a matter of how quickly...

Anonymous said...

your post doesn't prove what you want it to prove. that is because rabbi weiss already agrees with your view of changes in halacha. in order to prove that some entity you are calling "orthodoxy" changes, you need to point to changes by less iconoclastic rabbis who aren't about to get themselves thrown out of orthodoxy.

Jonathan said...

Rabbi Jason- Next time you get to hang with Rabbi Weiss do me a favor and ask him who his living Rabbi is. Perhaps he will tell you like he told me when I heard him speak here in Pittsburgh a bit over a year ago that he has no living rabbi. In his speech, given at a Reform temple here, he basically said that if his teachers Rabbi JB Soloveitchik and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits were still alive they would see things the way he does and agree with his current mode of operations (which a bit over a year ago was to have ordained woman get a title of maharat.) So after the speech I caught up with him and said, of course R. Soloveitchik and R. Berkovits were gedolim for sure. But they are now in olam haba. Couldn't anyone interpret a speech or a writing of a dead rabbi had to say about any issue and then proclaim, "if such and such gadol was alive today he would see things my way? Too bad no one living of importance sees things like I want them to be so I don't need a living rabbi."
Rabbi Weiss responded at first that his students were his teachers and then after some more prodding by me he said, no one is willing to take up the issues he raises and he has to go it alone.
Rabbi Jason - As much as I may wish for some of the changes of Rabbi Weiss to win the day. His personal model of having no living rabbi would be chaos if everyone lived like that. And of course we know that lots of people do live like that. So be careful what you wish for Rabbi Jason because his model of doing things makes Rabbis such as yourself obsolete - unless you are a yes man before the questions are even honestly debated.

Anonymous said...

Rabbinic decrees and the Torah are the basis of Orthodoxy. Weiss is sadly not leading an Orthodox congregation.

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