I am an active member of the Board of Directors of the Coalition for Jewish Values. In fact, I am the Vice President of the organization. The CJV, among other things, is an anathema to Open Orthodoxy. The CJV is a one-year-old rabbinical organization comprised of about 300 Orthodox rabbis dedicated to disseminating to the media what we feel is the genuine Torah response to all social and political issues ranging from abortion, the gay agenda, and Israel. Our purpose is to make it clear that being liberal/left is not synonymous with Judaism the way it is currently portrayed in the media and understood by the American public.
Open Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has as its stated purpose to show that Orthodox Judaism is consistent with just about the entire leftist social agenda from LGBT to female clergy, from Bible criticism to the questioning of halachic authority, and even the Palestinian cause.
Two more philosophically diametrically opposed missions there could not be. Yet they both result from a common issue. That issue is the failure of Modern Orthodoxy to display religious leadership. Into that vacuum stepped Open Orthodoxy and into that same vacuum stepped the Coalition for Jewish Values.
I am definitely not an outsider looking to criticize.
I am an insider looking to help
For years I have been begging, in person and in writing, the religious and political leadership of the Modern Orthodox world to rethink the way their chinuch or educational system works. To date I have not succeeded.
Let’s be clear. My s’michah is from Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l of Lakewood. I am very proud of that. Yet I was reared in a Modern Orthodox environment. I grew up in a Young Israel, I went to Yeshiva University High School, was a camper at Camp Morasha, and spent nearly three years learning at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel. I am currently a rabbi of a Young Israel and a member of the Executive of the Rabbinical Council of America. I am definitely not an outsider looking to criticize. I am an insider looking to help.
It seems to me that the facts cannot be ignored. We need to find the way to instill greater emotional drive in the educational system in the Modern Orthodox world. That is, kids in many of these yeshivos excel in the study of religion, our history, the study of Torah, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel. But there is an emotional bond that is often missing. As Rav Soloveitchik once put it, there is a lachus, a certain “moisture,” that is lacking in our students. We need as well to find a way to inculcate our young charges with a greater love and admiration for g’dolei Yisrael.
I know this is a broad and sweeping statement and surely a generalization. But for the most part it’s true. Too many of our children graduate yeshivah high school having an above-average secular education and having a mediocre religious one. Gemara, Halachah, and Tanach are subjects to study and hopefully pass. The emotional attachment to Torah is not at the level it could be. We need to introduce our kids to Rava and Abayei in order to become personalities in their lives – personalities that they will relate to. Torah subjects should be taught with a singsong cadence coming from a rebbe who feels a sense of attachment to the Torah personalities. Kids should be inspired to revere g’dolei Yisrael – not just current ones, but those in the past as well.
Forgive me for saying this, but my guess is that the average young man coming from a yeshivah today knows more about legendary Jewish figures such as Sandy Koufax than they do about the Chazon Ish. Yes, many yeshivos teach about Rav Kook, but that’s just an attempt to buttonhole the great tzadik as one who was uniquely enthusiastic about the Zionist concept. Why not teach, as well, about all the greats such as Rashi, the Rambam, the Ramban, Rav Hirsch, the Chasam Sofer, the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Soloveitchik, and yes, the Satmar Rav, who was not aligned with most day school thinking? Why are they not taught all about contemporaries such as Rav Dovid Feinstein, Rav Hershel Schachter, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky? What about female giants such as Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky or Sarah Schenirer? Reading up on these magnificent people and learning from their example should be a school requirement.
Religion cannot be crammed like just another subject. There must be excitement. Too often we do not find today’s young married couples engaged in Torah study after they leave yeshivah. So many are even disengaged from Israel. Sure, they sing Hallel in the eighth grade on Yom HaAtzmaut, but where are they years later on that day? If they’re in shul, they can’t wait to get the davening over with. Hallel is just a time-consumer. Please understand, I am fully aware of some of the outstanding programs of Torah study and shiurim taking place in many Modern Orthodox communities that are led by outstanding rabbanim. There also exists a wonderful system of chesed in the same communities. But the fact that there is also a clamoring for radical change speaks to us as well.
Ironically, the chareidi world, which does not preach Zionism, develops the most hardcore pro-Israel followers. Take a look at the headlines of Hamodia or the Yated. You would think you were reading from an Irgun publication of years ago. Their devotion to Israel and its cause is uncompromised. Yet, incredibly, in the premier Modern Orthodox institution of higher education, a Jewish History professor is allowed to teach the pro-Palestinian gospel, preach against the declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and despite some muted protests (and from the CJV), the institution’s leadership defends the right of that professor to continue to impart his drivel to its precious students. How did this come to be? What happened to standing up for our principles?
When it comes to controversial religious and political issues, the Modern Orthodox establishment is silent. I don’t get it. Most recently, the Kosel controversy in which the Reform wish to establish a foothold in Israel while falling in a downward spiral in the USA, attracted some 50 motivated mostly chareidi activists from America to voice their support for the traditional atmosphere at the Kotel Plaza. The group met with the Israeli political leadership in Israel, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, in order to display Orthodoxy’s vibrancy and commitment to the survival of Israel and the Jewish People. The Modern Orthodox lay and rabbinic organizations refused to be part of this mission or even make a statement. The same was with defending Orthodox Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely from a leftist, American-based canard. Silence. The same was with all the Oslo Agreements and with the disastrous Gush Katif Disengagement. Gornisht.
Sadly, the refrain is the same each time when asked why we do not hear from them. “Now is not the time” or “We cannot interfere with the Israeli government” or “We are doing things behind the scenes” or “The chareidim mishandled the situation.”
The bottom line is that the average adherent to Modern Orthodoxy today sees no bold leadership, sees no sense of mission, sees no sense of hashkafah. They are left wondering what it is, exactly, that Modern Orthodoxy stands for.
In short, there is no excitement in this form of Orthodoxy. To create a sense of vibrancy, of excitement, of purpose, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah was born. Of course, it has left in its wake a radically new interpretation of Torah Judaism, which leaves established Orthodoxy reeling. Thus, the Modern Orthodox establishment was left grappling with the issue of female clergy. So let’s make Orthodoxy more exciting, get the emotions going in the educational years, and we won’t have to worry about new interpretations of our tradition!
By the same token, the Coalition for Jewish Values was formed to make ourselves known where others have been silent. We let the world know that Orthodox Judaism, based on traditional Torah, has a lot to say on social, political, and ethical issues. And we have been noticed by the media in just the one year we’ve been around. We’ve also been noticed by colleagues who criticize us for issuing statements. We wish we did not have to. But silence is The Golden Calf.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.