22 Iyar 5777 B’SD
The Demise of (Modern) Orthodoxy
If it weren’t so serious, it would be comical. Two of the great rabbis (and I use the word great with trepidation) had a major philosophical argument. A serious question was raised by a group of concerned parents: they queried whether their three-year-old sons may be taught by a female teacher in Nursery School. They were concerned about the long-term damage their precious children may sustain if they were to be taught by a woman who was not their mother. Rabbi Auerbach, one of the leading rabbinic authorities in Bnei Brak ruled that under no terms may the children be taught by a female. However, when the question was posed to Rabbi Shtainman he ruled that a woman has a greater sensitivity to the needs of toddlers and thus is permitted to teach three-year-old boys. (After much internal debate, I am still undecided on the subject.)
Are you shocked, horrified, or disillusioned? Over the past few days I attended a rabbinic retreat with ‘modern’ orthodox rabbis from the southeast region of the United States. It was organized by the Orthodox Union to support the clergy and enhance synagogues that fall into the ‘modern Orthodox’ spectrum. They had psychologists and leading rabbinic authorities addressing the concerns and stresses of the rabbinate. The setting was idyllic and for the most part the sessions were engaging and stimulating.
Kudos for the moderators for hosting discussions that were open and forthright. The topics included: rabbinic indiscretions, clergy social issues and challenges relating with members. The presenters offered candid advice and highlighted that many of the issues affecting our collective membership also impact our clergy. They addressed the prevalence of clergy dealing with alcohol, sex, and drug addictions, as well as dysfunctional families and rebellious children. It was quite refreshing to hear rabbis openly acknowledging that they are not omniscient or perfect and have similar flaws to the rest of society.
It was an atmosphere that allowed the rabbis to let their beards down and say what was on their mind. The leadership of the OU is relatively broad minded, however, some of the pulpit rabbis in attendance have moved so far to the right that I felt like I was attending a retreat of ‘50 shades of black’. Some rabbis seemed so out of touch with my reality and openly promoted a disdain for science and a push back against modernity. Although sessions were presented on how to benefit from technology, there were moderators that posited a disdain for technology and were more comfortable reverting back to a European shtetl mentality.
At times, I felt like an outsider, swimming against the tide of fanaticism. I even began to have self-doubts, imagining that perhaps my ideals and values are misguided. (Don’t worry it didn’t last very long.) One psychologist intimated a potential benefit of the disproven theory of conversion therapy as a means of altering the sexual orientation of gay people and turning them into heterosexuals. Others felt the plight of the Agunah (a chained woman) whose recalcitrant husband refuses to grant a get (Jewish divorce) was overstated and not really a problem. Generally, I was embarrassed by the lack of sensitivity to women’s issues and the audacity of maintaining the long-held bias that women should be cognizant of men’s desires. Their position is that women should refrain from dressing in attire that may entice a male into behaving inappropriately, instead of placing responsibility upon the culprit by demanding he control his base animal desires. They found it more palatable to place the onus of responsibility upon the victim by asking her to refrain from wearing clothes that men may find attractive.
Although I am not planning on retiring anytime soon, I can’t imagine being comfortable attending any synagogue where the worldview of the rabbi is totally out of sync and incompatible with mine. Individually, they were all pleasant people, but collectively “there is not a lenient bone in their bodies”. Many posited that it is their mandate to shift the religious needle of their congregation ninety degrees to the right. Others felt that their members ought to embrace their rabbi’s philosophies and be like sheep blindly following their leader. I was perceived as a contrarian and a liberal heretic for promoting values of inclusiveness and maintaining that the goal of the rabbi is primarily to be sensitive and support the diversity in his community. Personally, I believe the rabbi must treat all people with dignity and respect and hopefully he can influence his members to a deeper commitment to Judaism. I find it morally reprehensible for a rabbi to demand or expect subservience from his members.
I would have wanted to hear how best to confront human suffering in the wider world or the refugee crisis. There were many talks about spirituality, but little to nothing about implementing that spirituality in day to day life. There was plenty of talk about God being the creator, but no discussion on how it should impact the Jew in their internal debate of global matters. I found that meaningful intellectual debate was replaced by generic ethical and spiritual ideals that placated the right, but did very little to satisfy my yearning for grappling with ideas. I am less interested in being patted on the back for what I did well, and more interested in correcting what I am doing wrong. In as much as I feel generally successful in my career, it would be naive and disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that I have failed many a time.
My intention is not to be critical of the OU as the retreat was interesting, informative and built camaraderie. They also organized Starbucks coffee throughout the day so I would feel at home. Perhaps I am only speaking to myself, as I fear for the future of orthodoxy due to the approach of many of its leaders. It’s not too late to rectify the wrongs but it is imperative that I as a rabbi am able to present my inner turmoil without fear of retribution or the political correct police censoring my opinions. Then again, all is not so bad. All the rabbis at the conference would permit a female teacher for their three-year-old boys. Four-year-old boys you ask? Don’t push your luck.
Rabbi Jack Engel