The Orthodox Union: Reaffirming The Standards

The Orthodox Union: Reaffirming The Standards

By R' Yehuda L. Oppenheimer

This was a great week for the Orthodox Union (OU). Despite enormous pressures that were brought to bear on the organization and its officers, they took the time, deliberated, and came up with a wise and compassionate decision, and re-affirmed my confidence in them. I write this week to celebrate this great moment – but first, a bit of background.

From my earliest youth, the OU has been a major part of my life. Long before most had heard of virtually any other kashrus organization, we were trained: “If you want to know that a product was kosher, look for the OU symbol.” I assumed that the OU was a kashrus organization, and that was the extent of it. I did not know how wrong I was.

As a young adult, I encountered the OU in a whole new light, when I had the good fortune of becoming an NCSY adviser on an Israel program. The care and concern for all of klal Yisrael, the innovative, spirited, and deeply spiritual way in which they demonstrated the importance of outreach and how to do it effectively, was a major influence on my life and that of thousands of others. Around the same time, I witnessed the opening of the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem, and found a second home there attending many programs and basking in the inviting and uplifting environment. But I later found that I still had little clue of what the OU really represented.

When I became a rabbi in Portland, Oregon, I began to more fully appreciate the raison d’être of the OU – what it meant to be a Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, a large national framework that provided support and help for synagogues and shuls, with resources and assistance to help a broad range of shuls – a big tent – accomplish their objective of bringing the light of Torah to communities large and small. I realized that kashrus, NCSY, Yachad, the wonderful magazine Jewish Action, and so many other “departments” of the OU were really just parts of helping further that one overarching objective. I gratefully attended special “Mikdash M’at” conferences tailored to help small communities, and benefitted greatly from the wise counsel of many great OU leaders in making my rabbanus and our shul more effective. In particular, I remember a talk given at a conference by Rav Nota Greenblatt shlita, who explained that he had to be there because “If the OU asks you to come, it is the Torah world itself that is inviting you.”

I became intimately involved in kosher supervision, visiting many factories on behalf of several organizations, and saw that no matter whether the product carried a Kaf K, Star K, Heart K, or many other symbols, it could do so only because a very large percentage of the ingredients were supervised by the OU – which is larger than all of them combined. Later, at the Young Israel of Forest Hills, I also was the beneficiary of OU help on many occasions. In particular, I was proud to be part of the OU mission to Washington and Israel during the 2014 Gaza War, where I witnessed how much the OU does to stand up for Israel’s rights and provide support for her soldiers and citizens.

But most of all, the OU has been important as a standard-bearer. Much like the trusted symbol on food items, it was a standard on the wall of a shul. When a visitor walked into a shul and saw the OU symbol on the wall, they knew that there was no question but that the shul is Orthodox. Period. By its membership in the OU, a shul was saying that they adhered to standards and bylaws of the OU, and followed the recommendations of the rabbinic leadership of the OU in regard to various issues of the day. In Portland there is a shul that once was a member of the OU, but refused to install a proper m’chitzah and had various other deviations from normative Orthodox practice. When that shul left the OU and our shul remained, people knew which shul was the Orthodox one, and which was only “Traditional.” We were able to set certain policies and avoid arguments over them, by stating that we were acting as an OU member shul where certain things were acceptable, and others were not.

Over the past few years, however, I have had begun to have my doubts.

I have written several times in the past about the plague caused by the so-called “Open Orthodox” (OO) movement, which has sought to introduce many negative changes in ignoring our mesorah and introducing many radical innovations into the synagogues. These changes included hiring female rabbis (whether calling them Maharat, Rabbah, or Rabanit), having “partnership minyanim,” lowering standards for conversions, announcing mazal tovs for same-gender marriages of members, publicly attacking the Chief Rabbinate, engaging in extreme leftist anti-Israel advocacy, and publicly denigrating many positions taken by g’dolei Torah, including the roshei yeshivah of Yeshiva University and poskim of the Orthodox Union. In general, they flout established rabbinic authority, producing their “own poskim” and teachers who feel themselves qualified to make changes against the stated positions of all recognized Torah authorities. There is no need for me to discuss this unfortunate phenomenon at length; readers of this column and newspaper are well aware of the problem.

And therein lies the rub. Unfortunately, several of the leading OO congregations, first and foremost the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – whose rabbi emeritus, Avi Weiss, is OO’s founder – are longstanding members in good standing of the Orthodox Union.

As a two-term member of the Executive Committee of the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America), which has many unofficial ties to the OU, I have participated in countless difficult discussions over the past decade regarding the problem of how to deal with colleagues who support OO ideology. There were discussions of whether to expel certain members who had publicly taken positions against those held by the RCA; most of the more vocal ones thankfully left on their own accord. But the festering problem that persisted was that several well-established OO congregations remained as recognized members of the OU, and continuing to proclaim themselves as normative Orthodox congregations. Mounting pressure was brought to bear on the RCA and on the OU to define their standards, and to decide whether or not OO innovations could be accepted within the “big tent,” or whether, by their actions, they had defined themselves out of Orthodoxy.

Much of the pressure was brought not only by rabbis and members of those congregations, but also by their many friends and supporters in the Modern Orthodox world, who had been convinced that the innovations sought by OO were relatively harmless and not worth causing a rupture amongst Jews. No one, after all, wants dissent or machlokes, and personal relationships especially make things difficult. I saw this personally at the Young Israel of Forest Hills: The very week that an article I wrote decrying OO was published in this paper, a leading member thought it appropriate to publicly send his best wishes to Rabbi Weiss from the pulpit in response. This dilemma has been the source of much angst and concern for the OU leadership, as they sought to balance the values of emes and shalom (truth and peace).

This was a difficult decision for the OU, given the great pressures
that were put on them to not issue this policy,
and they are to be applauded for it and supported

One year ago, after many months of consultation and deliberation, the Orthodox Union published a simultaneous official statement and halachic ruling against hiring women clergy, by whatever name they might be called, while at the same time calling for increased involvement of women in whatever leadership and Torah teaching roles that were within halachic parameters. There was hope in many quarters that this would put the issue to rest, and that the more “liberal” wings of Modern Orthodoxy would recognize that these statements, signed by a blue ribbon panel of rabbanim and lay leadership, made it clear that the OO agenda was out of the bounds of Orthodoxy.

But for some, this was not enough. Some statements coming out of the left included: “The OU should stick to tuna fish”; “The OU will only divide the community if it starts to strip some of its member shuls that have female clergy of OU affiliation”; “Just as a Zionist would not ask the Satmar Rav for a p’sak regarding Zionism, the Modern Orthodox community should not look to [YU roshei yeshivah] for opinions on the role of women in our communities,” and even more intemperate comments. More congregations announced that they were considering hiring female clergy, and those congregations that already had done so made it clear that they had no intention of complying with OU policy. The statement of last year more and more seemed unserious – the OU was allowing member congregations to ignore its stated policy, implicitly saying that the policy would not be enforced.

As a result, more pressure built, both pro and con, for the OU leadership to draw a line in the sand, and to decide whether it would or would not act to defend the sterling reputation that it had built up in over 100 years of representing the finest of what Orthodox Torah Judaism stood for. Baruch Hashem, after much difficult deliberation and thought, the OU issued a statement this week clearly stating that it will not allow any member congregations to hire woman clergy, while at the same time encouraging learning and positive roles for women. As to the four congregations that now employ female clergy, a sunset clause was provided to allow for a three-year time limit to allow those congregations to come into compliance with OU policy. This was a difficult decision for the OU, given the great pressures that were put on them to not issue this policy, and they are to be applauded for it and supported.

We hope for a future in which these types of issues will no longer pull apart members of the Torah community, and we can focus on all of the laudable goals that the OU has pursued for these many years.

Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is a rabbi, attorney, and writer living presently in Forest Hills, and hoping to go on aliyah.  He has served as rabbi in several congregations, and helps individuals with wills, trusts, and mediation.


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