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On Constructively Harnessing Tensions Between Laity and Clergy
Marc D. Stern

On Constructively Harnessing Tensions Between Laity and Clergy

Marc D. Stern

Marc Stern is assistant executive director of the Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress and one of the nation's foremost experts on the law of church and state. This paper was presented by Mr. Stern to The Orthodox Forum, a project of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University, at its annual conference this past March 2003, and is slated for publication in the next of The Orthodox Forum's continuing series of books.

In Memory of Rabbi Walter Wurzburger
She-yarbu kamohu rabbanim b’yisroel

Tension between the laity and the rabbinate is not a new phenomenon. It existed in Talmudic times—as for example in Rabbi Akiva’s reminisces about his feelings towards scholars when he was not yet one and, in the same discussion, of the reciprocal hostile feelings of scholars towards non-scholars.

The rabbis insisted that any talmid chacham who has no enemies cannot be a true talmid chacham—presumably because he is not fulfilling his function of rebuking those whose religious observance falls short. Before the rabbis, the prophets were not universally loved figures. No end of sources can be adduced to demonstrate that conflicts between the rich and the rabbinate are endemic to Jewish life—and rabbis did not always emerge victorious.

What is not inevitable is whether that tension will be creative or destructive. Left unchanneled, lay-clerical tension threatens to undo much of the impressive gains of American Orthodoxy. Channeled, it can invigorate it still further. A rabbinate that sees itself at loggerheads with an indifferent laity which must be tamed and forced into a single model for Jewish living will find itself increasingly isolated from large segments of American Orthodoxy (and literally idolized by yet other elements).

A rabbinate which the laity believes is abusing its authority or living in another religious and intellectual universe, unresponsive to the intellectual, spiritual, or economic needs of the average Jew—the latter, the very failing for which Rabbi Yehosua memorably rebuked Rabban Gamliel—is destined to failure. This is not hyperbole; it was just such a reaction that characterized the broad rejection of the early American Orthodox rabbinate and its European predecessors.


Although I speak of the rabbinate as a whole, it is a commonplace that the rabbinate itself is increasingly divided between pulpit rabbis and rashei yeshivot. Once, of course, the privilege of maintaining a yeshiva was a privilege of the town rabbi. In my time at Yeshiva in the early ‘70’s, many, perhaps most, of the rashei Yeshiva either were, or had served as, Community rabbis—a phenomenon less common today. That dual role anchored the rosh ha-yeshiva in the here and now world of the average Jew. Absent that anchor, it is not surprising that the gap between rosh-yeshiva and laypersons is turning into a dangerous chasm.

Today, the pulpit rabbi stands in danger of being eclipsed by the rosh yeshiva, a phenomenon due not only to the supposed greater knowledge of the rosh ha-yeshiva, but by the fact that exposure to the rosh ha-yeshiva is now all but universal in some measure for all males during their formative years—as it not so long ago was not. (While women do not enjoy the same exposure, the tendency to spend a year or two or more after marriage learning means that the central rabbinic authority during the early marital years will again be the rosh ha-yeshiva, not the pulpit rabbi, for women as well as men.)

A laity alienated from a rabbinate it sees—not by any means wholly irrationally—as obscurantist, ignorant of the world and lost in irrelevant and abstract Talmudic dialectic1--will not have the resources to respond to new challenges in an authentically Jewish way, will not have the involvement in Talmud Torah which is, or ought to be, one of the most important hallmarks of an Orthodox Jew. Such a Jew, denied the benefits of shimush talmidei chachim that is indispensable—and a mitzvah derived from the obligation of cleaving to God

At best, an Orthodoxy estranged from the rabbinate and rashei yeshiva will either have only a tenuous contact with halacha or will have to turn for halachic rulings to rabbis who themselves are hostile to, and have (nevertheless) little direct experience with, modern life. And with certain happy exceptions—Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach are the most notable—the results are not encouraging.

Nowhere is the tension greater than with regard to the status and role of women within the Orthodox community. Nowhere has the dialogue—if it can be called that— between laity and rabbinate been less enlightening. There has been lots of heat and noise, many charges and counter charges, much name-calling and too little light. Rabbis and their wives have by and large found satisfaction in current Orthodox practice. They appear to have no understanding that many women are not spiritually satisfied with these arrangements. Not all of the yearnings of these dissatisfied women may be satisfied. The problem is that many in the rabbinate do not appreciate the dissatisfaction. The result is a festering sore that will only get uglier if not attended to forthrightly.

But women are not the only group for whom any dialogue is currently a dialogue of the deaf. Singles, and young people not successful in yeshivot are increasingly without a rabbinic audience. The large number of youth at risk is evidence enough of this breakdown. Other categories, too, seem outside a lay-rabbinic dialogue. Intellectuals and the poor are two categories that come quickly to mind.

* * *

In the absence of empirical data, the danger in commenting on clergy-laity relations’ difficulties is two-fold. One can use a platform such as this to settle scores with rabbis or laypeople with whom the observer disagrees or one can assume that his or her own religious position is ideal and that those to the right or left are religious fanatics or religiously indifferent.2 I want to assure my readers that I am aware of the dangers. I am just as confident I have not entirely succeeded.

I attempt to describe my impressions of broad social phenomenon. Such a survey necessarily involves stereotypes, and certainly depends on personal experience and subjective impressions. There is no formal sociological data to support my descriptions. I can only hope that they are not completely wide off the mark. It goes without saying that my remarks are designed to describe broad trends, not any specific institution or person.

I. Some General Observations

My central theses are several. Left to its own devices, the stimuli moving the contemporary rabbinate are strongly parochial and conservative, a healthy tendency which can readily deteriorate into an unhealthy petrifaction and fanaticism (and, in some cases, already has).

The modern Orthodox laity, by contrast, is today motivated by stimuli that come from the outside. It is often too interested in the status quo and avoiding—horrors—what it believes to be religious fanaticism. Too many Orthodox Jews worry about children who wear black hats or long dresses, spend time learning, and who are generally more observant and less well secularly educated than their parents. Paradoxically, for a substantial segment of this community, secure for itself in its current level of observance, there is a nagging sense that authenticity lies somewhere to the right. Unfortunately, this tendency is even stronger in the rabbinate, such that laypeople reasonably sense that their own leaders are uncertain of the ground on which they stand.

These tendencies are not immutable. In American Orthodox history, there have been times in which the rabbinate was more liberal and modernizing and the laity more conservative. At other times, crucial and indispensable changes—today taken for granted—were forced on unwilling and reluctant rabbinate; one thinks of the English sermon. (I confess to wishing that lay leaders had demanded a complete end to sermons, but that would be violating my strictures against personalizing the argument.)

There are important areas where laypeople have insisted—often over strong rabbinic objection—on cures for social ills such as spousal abuse (Sholom Task Force), child abuse (one still has to deal with rabbinic objections to reporting abuse, though by and large less in modern Orthodox circles), genetic diseases, and, for that matter, shatnez.

In some cases, as in ideological institutions like Drisha, Edah and Chovivei Torah, rabbis have taken the lead (notably, though, in close cooperation with laypeople) in challenging the regnant religious parochialism. The popularity of those organizations with an important segment of the Orthodox community suggests that they have struck a chord and are meeting a need that the traditional rabbinate—to say nothing of the rashei yeshiva—are not filling.

The tendency to see "authenticity" in movements to the right suggests that other, more parochial, spiritual needs are also not being met. The gap between the right and left branches of modern Orthodoxy is still bridgeable, but it threatens to become a yawing chasm if not addressed in ways that are mutually acceptable. Demands for one side’s unconditional surrender will not work.

A second equally important thesis is that there are a variety of tasks that are indispensable for Jewish life. No single model of religious observance fits all or is the only, or even the best, way to serve the ribono shel olam. This is a principle which, at both the communal and individual levels, is in urgent need of affirmation by the left and by the right. Refusal of both to acknowledge this bedrock principle, is both notorious and intolerable. This is not to say that anything goes, that all religious choices are wholly subjective and equally valid, that there can be debate about which the most urgent needs are, or which forms of observance are preferable. It is to say that at the end of the day there remains a wide range of acceptable choices—and they are all legitimate and to be respected.

All are obligated to study Torah. We properly and necessarily give pride of place to Torah scholars and scholarship. Whatever else ails us, whatever costs the focus on first-rate Torah scholarship, we cannot tolerate an erosion of this commitment. Not all, however, are obligated, or destined, to be Torah scholars. Torah scholarship itself does not exhaust itself in mastery of Gemara explicated Brisker style; it includes Tanach, Halacha and Jewish philosophy; even dikduk. A person, the Gemara observes in upholding the validity of a vow to learn a specific tractate (despite the fact that it is apparently a redundant vow to fulfill an already binding obligation to study Torah), does not learn except what his heart desires.

Not only are there various styles and subjects of Talmud Torah. There are many mitzvot and all need to be observed. We need talmidei Chachamim—who need much time of focused study to develop—but we also need those who care for the synagogue, are devoted to bikkur cholim or test for shatnez. We need Jews who religiously attend daf yomi classes, but we also need those who literally hang out with at risk youth, raise funds for mikvao’t or check the eruv. We need those who recite tehillim (psalms) and those who prowl the halls of Congress on behalf of Israel. And we must treat with dignity those for whom just holding on to the major mitzvot and supporting a family exhausts their capacities. Too much of the Orthodox educational system does not recognize these multiple ways of serving the ribbono shel olam. It is geared primarily to the budding Talmudist. And much of the rest does not provide an adequate grounding in Talmud and other primary texts.

A third thesis is that while halacha is mostly not a democratic system, it is also not an abstract and closed legal system with only G-d and academic scholars as competent and authorized expositors, legislators and adjudicators. There is room for popular input at least with regard to rabbinical law and to customary observances. The Halacha countenances, even demands, a dialogue between scholars and believer, with each obligated to give due weight to the views, actions and capabilities of the other. This dialogue has been abandoned at the practical level and, worse, repudiated at the theoretical level.

Not long ago—I cannot remember where—I read a diatribe against those who say that the chumra of Rav Zeira in Nidda was an innovation of Jewish women as the text plainly suggests. The author suggested that those who hold this view are not affording ample respect to the rabbinate that is master of Halacha. Too bad the author did not bother to check the rishonim—who are explicit in saying that this chumra around which much of contemporary hilchot niddah revolves was generated by b’not yisroel, noting that the rabbis did not uniformly accept it all at once. And what would that author do with gemara that reports that the "nation is accustomed to acting" according with the views of three minority rabbinic opinions, even though by ordinary rules of p’sak these rulings should be disregarded, or of the quantity of drawn water which invalidate a mikva, in which the halacha is not in accordance with the views of Shammai or Hillel, but the view reported by two weavers who overheard a discussion of the views of Sh’mya v’Avtalyon. The diatribe I read was an anachronistic effort to read the current trend toward a rabbinic centered Judaism back to Chazal.

This development is all the more surprising given that today many lay people are well educated. Many are talmidei chachimim in their own right. Some have substantial insights into the relevant matrices to which Halacha is applied; not just concerning technology or science, but sociology, economics and politics. I believe, for example, that lay people are more attuned to chillul ha-shem than are rabbis, but that they are too quick to invoke chillul ha-shem to circumvent unpopular halachut. Some lay people are more learned in specific areas of halacha or machshava than the average rav or rosh ha-yeshiva. A dialogue with these people and the rabbinate would be healthy, and not just because it would enhance the milchamta shel torah. It would provide a reality check to what is an increasingly self-contained and self-regarding rabbinate.

Fourth, the insight of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends3 to corrupt absolutely is as applicable to Jewish life as any other human endeavor.

In theory, yirat shamayim ought to serve as a check on human avarice. Given human frailty, it does not. The community needs to devise appropriate checks and balances to check both the authority of the rabbinate and the laity. It is not easy to devise such checks which will not choke the independence of either side. The task is complicated because the community is merely a voluntary association without sovereign authority and independent adjudicators with binding authority. Exit is easy and cost free.

The gap between rabbinic perception of its responsible exercise of authority and lay perception of that authority is wide. For the past few years, a committee of the Orthodox Caucus has been working to revise the prenuptial agreement. The sticking point is essentially the scope of discretion to be afforded the Beit Din to decide cases outside the prescriptions of the agreement, according to the equities of the individual case. The rabbinical members of the committee favor a large measure of discretion: the lay people (myself included) do not. The issue is not purely, or even mostly, halakhic: it is both about the treatment of women in the Beit Din process and the lay trust, or lack of it, in the discretion of the betei din. (To put matters in perspective, I hasten to add that secular judges are just as insistent on preserving their discretion, and secular legislators just as insistent on limiting it.)

Orthodox Judaism without rabbinical authority would be unrecognizable. Orthodox Judaism without religious authorities of unquestioned personal integrity and courage is unbearable. If rabbis lack either, or abuse their authority---and given recent painful revelations, who can deny they sometimes do?---the laity needs protection from the rabbinate. It is not getting it. On the contrary, the rabbinate acts as if any check on its authority, or any criticism of its actions, is an intolerable assault on "kavod ha-Torah." The most obvious cases involve sexual abuse of children or misuse of the counseling function. The failures of the rabbinate in this regard are well known, and all but the rabbinate know it.

The official organs of the rabbinate reacted with uniform horror to a lawsuit challenging publication of a sensitive and intimate confidence confided to a rabbi. Much of the laity was equally appalled at the rabbis’ behavior, particularly since there were any numbers of alternatives available of which the rabbis involved did not avail themselves. They seem to have consulted with no one before acting. (At least one of the rabbis had in his shul a lawyer specializing in religious liberty law---not me---and did not think to check with that lawyer.) The rabbinate also seems to have assumed that the breach of confidence would not discourage persons from confiding in them.

This may be right---but how it could be assumed is uncertain. I, and other lawyers I know, now carefully advise clients that what they confide to a rabbi may not remain secret if the rabbi unilaterally decides it should be made public. When I was critical of the depressingly uniform rabbinical reaction in a supplementary rabbinics course at RIETS, a student asked me why the woman had sued in civil court instead of beit din. I answered that this criticism would have force if one could conceive of a beit din that might rule against a rabbi. I found it impossible to conceive of such a beit din. None of the students could suggest one either.

Some years go, when one of the other synagogue movements was embroiled in a case of clergyman having an affair with a member he was counseling, a JTA reporter asked an official of the RCA whether it had taken special steps to punish rabbis involved in such affairs The response? Adultery is not just forbidden to rabbis. True enough, but quite irrelevant. The abuse of trust and chillul ha’shem makes the cases different. The absence of lay confidence in the rabbinate is exacerbated by a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the problem’s existence.

The state of batei din---rabbinic institutions all---is a festering sore. One leading beis din has been sued for accepting bribes to issue a heter meah rabbanim. A judge has found at least enough evidence supporting the charge to require a trial. Too much kashrut enforcement is either motivated by pure greed or religious one-upmanship, oblivious to costs imposed on companies and consumers alike.

Checks and balances are likely to minimize recurrences of these abuses. The countervailing threat is that such checks may too closely confine genuine rabbinical objections to current practice.

II. The Laity

In considering the current situation, I want to focus on several phenomena that characterize modern Orthodoxy, broadly defined. It is democratic. It is suspicious (and yet in awe of) authority. It is (too) comfortably upper middle class or better and determined not to risk its economic status. It is quite pious in comparison to the rest of American Jewry, yet it is afraid of retreating to the ghettoes it sees in places like Lakewood and Brooklyn. (Paradoxically, at least some segments of the modern Orthodox community---and all too many of its rabbis---seem to regard these places, and the Orthodoxy they represent---as genuine authentic Judaism.) It is well educated secularly as well as religiously, although on the whole better in the former than the latter. It is comfortable with religious humanism. Like other Americans, it is guilty of Sheilaism---selective observance of religion as defined by what is acceptable to the believer, not the dictates of the authorized expositors of the faith. On many of these points, it is in conflict with the rabbinate.

    1. Comparative Piety
    2. A Jew who keeps kosher, observes the Shabbat and observes taharat ha-mishpacha is practically a saint compared to the rest of American Jewry. The Rav in al-ah-Teshuva has scathing things to say about the fact that calling someone a shomer shabbat is the lay equivalent of calling a rav ha-rav Ha-gaon as a title of honor, but such it surely is. If a person can read so much as a posuk of chumash without aid of a translation---to say nothing of meforshim (commentators)---he or she is nothing short of a gaon.

      Under these circumstances, the religious complacency that characterizes much of modern Orthodoxy is easy to understand. One does not have much of an imperative to grow when one is already at such an ‘elevated’ spiritual level. It is a fair question whether it was not always so. R. Shimon b. Yohai long ago observed that b’nai aliyah—persons always searching for spiritual advancement---were few.

      Our memories of our ancestors are distorted by the great dislocations of the last century---the migration to America and the Holocaust. Our lasting (written) recollections of Jewish life in Europe are those of the intellectual and spiritual elites, the great rashei yeshiva and their students. But these were undoubtedly not typical and it would be---it is---a mistake to expect the mass of American Orthodoxy to duplicate the religious aspirations, achievements and standards of that elite.

      What makes it seem natural for the rabbinate to harbor expectations of persistent spiritual growth is the fact that it is the direct heir to that earlier elite intellectual tradition of the European yeshivot---distorted as the tradition is by the prism of nostalgia and historic dislocation---and the fact that American Orthodoxy is the spiritual elite of American Jewry. (Making that claim runs the risk of arrogance.) Under those circumstances it is not surprising that Orthodoxy’s spiritual leaders expect much from it, more indeed, than may be reasonable. It is likewise not surprising that so much of the laity resent the imposition.


    3. Democratic Orthodoxy
    4. Modern American Orthodoxy has assimilated the American democratic tradition. This includes the right---I use the word advisedly---to criticize the leadership of the polity without penalty or restraint. That notion is in turn difficult to fully reconcile with the kavod due a talmid chacham. Indeed, many in the laity see the rabbi as an employee at will, who, like all such employees, has to confine himself to carrying out his employers’ wishes or be discharged. The laity is likely to see democratic criticism as calculated to bringing about improvement in communal life and a vehicle to force the hand of an unresponsive rabbinical establishment.4 The rabbinate (which, by and large, is not enamored of democracy) sees an insult to the dignity of the talmid chacham and, often, to the honor of the Torah itself. The rabbinate is over-reacting and far too think-skinned, but it is not responding to ghosts.

      This democratic tradition is skeptical at best of imposed authority. That tradition is reinforced by developments in moral philosophy emphasizing the importance of a self-generated and self-accepted ethic, not ethics imposed by outside authority. No doubt this democratic impulse is the origin of the synagogue ritual committee, an organ unknown to earlier Jewry. Its existence suggests that questions of liturgy need lay approval, not merely rabbinical endorsement. Able rabbis manage most of the time to live with such committees and have them ratify their own important halachic decisions; but not always and not everywhere. More than one rabbi has lost a position for losing such battles---or even for provoking them in the first place. The very existence of such committees suggests a formal check on rabbinical authority in a place where one would have thought it at its apex---the form of the avodah in the synagogue. (Such committees might also be an acknowledgement of a communal role in liturgical matters, but I don’t have the sense that they are so perceived.)

      The fact that rabbis need such lay approval is one source of lay-clerical tension. In some communities, there are also lay boards that share with the rabbinate responsibility for kashruth enforcement. These (as well as their synagogue counterparts) can either check rabbinic excess, enhance legitimate rabbinical authority by lending community support to it, or thwart legitimate enforcement efforts as rabbis are forced to negotiate halacha with lay people.

      The American democratic impulse also encompasses an unspoken egalitarianism that questions the idea that specialists are wiser than the common man in setting communal policy. Evidence both secular and religious supports this view. Unlike Europeans, for example, Americans do not train legislators and bureaucrats from early adulthood for leadership roles. The crisis of authority in the contemporary American Catholic Church is not just a product of the hierarchy’s failure to confront sexual abuse (a failing the rabbinate has not escaped); it is of far longer duration and predates, and will endure past, the current scandal. It is rather a challenge to all clerical authority. It is a quintessentially American development in a church founded on undemocratic hierarchical authority.

      American Protestants at the time of the American Revolution were fearful that the British might introduce a hierarchical episcopate to the United States. Some historians think this fear fueled the American Revolution. The skepticism about hierarchies probably has its roots in the Protestant belief that any person can read scriptures and reach theologically acceptable conclusions. But it also resonates with political populism and the ideal of the citizen legislator. (Term limits are the latest manifestation of this idea in American politics; so is the anti-politician candidate.)

      Of course, Orthodox Jews must accept some rabbinic authority. Sola scriptura is a doctrine alien to us. Absent the acceptance of rabbinic authority there can be no concept of Torah, halacha, and mesorah. But it can not be said that Modern Orthodox Jews reflexively accept every rabbinical pronouncement on any subject, particularly if it insists on departures from established custom or imposes serious inconvenience. A fortiori, they will not accept rabbinic pronouncements outside of halacha---so-called da’as torah. Dr. David Berger has suggested that this rejection is not limited to the modern Orthodox community; that it extends to communities that in theory accept da’as Torah. He argues that those who shape da’as Torah are aware of this (silent and unacknowledged) check on their authority and moderate its invocation accordingly. I hope he is right.

      For some segments of the modern Orthodox community disdain for rabbinical authority goes still further than a silent check on authority. A recent article in the New York Jewish Week discussing proposals in some Orthodox circles to allow women to be called to the Torah is illustrative. It quoted one young woman as saying that she does not see the need for the approval of some 60-year-old rabbi before she will engage in a practice that is spiritually meaningful for her and for which halachic authorization has been proposed.

      This sentiment, which I believe is not idiosyncratic or unique to this one woman, reflects a basic challenge to Orthodoxy, more threatening than aliyot for women. It resonates of Yanai ha-melech’s beguiling but false claim---torah munachat be’keren zavit-kol mi-sh’rotze yavo ve’yital: The Torah is lying in the corner; who ever wishes let him come and take it up; or what the Rav famously referred to as the common sense rebellion against Torah authority.

      There is little alternative but to combat the most extreme versions of the democratic impulse. Although there is urgent need for open and meaningful---not rote---dialogue between rabbonim and ba’al batim on many halachic issues, especially those involving women, and more globally on what spiritual direction the community will take, the extreme populist view of halacha5 needs to be rejected. It is extremes that need to be rejected, not (as is happening now) the idea of any popular voice in shaping halakha.

      Merely condemning extreme forms of halackhic populism by invoking rabbinic authority will not work in the very places repudiation is most needed. Persuasion works in a democratic society where coercion fails. The cherem, and cruz are not effective weapons for modern Orthodox Jews. They should be used, if at all, only in the most egregious cases. Their promiscuous use is counterproductive.

      It will also not do to equate criticism with a lack of kavod ha-Torah. The late and much-missed Rabbi Walter Worzburger told me that when he agreed to publish a critique of the Rav’s philosophy in Tradition, he was bombarded with criticism from rabbinic colleagues on the grounds that the article was an attack on the Rav’s honor. The Rav, however, brushed aside the objection, saying (I paraphrase) that he learned more from critics than sycophants. As always, the Rav should serve as a model.

      On the other hand, anyone who has studied the second chapter of Hilchot Mamrim knows that both before and after certain kinds of religious decision-making, rabbis must consider if what they demand is bearable by the community. In cases where rabbis misjudge, klal yisroel has the last word. Horayot teaches that individuals have some level of moral culpability even where they rely on rabbinic pronouncements. There is, in short, no general rule of rabbinic infallibility. The rabbinate should not act as if there were.


      3. Education

      Probably never before in history have a class of Jews been so universally educated for so long in Jewish texts as contemporary American Orthodoxy. A Jewish high school education is now the almost invariable norm in the Orthodox community. (There was shocked horror at a recent op-ed piece in the New York Jewish Week in which an Orthodox mother proudly explained why she had sent her son to Bronx High School of Science---a horror that would not have been heard when I graduated yeshiva day school in the dark ages.)

      It is probably true that the generally available studies are not as intense as elite Mesivta level studies were in Europe in the generations preceding European Jewry’s violent destruction---but they are surely more universal, and not, as in Europe, reserved for the most gifted. And of course that level of education now extends to women and is not limited to young men, a change which began in earnest only 80 years ago and whose revolutionary impact is still being worked out.

      The salutary development of advanced universal Jewish education is the product of several independent phenomena. First, is the entry of Orthodox into the upper middle class and beyond. No longer are 12- and 13-year-olds not destined for rabbinical greatness forced to work to help families fend off the grinding poverty of the Pale or the Great Depression. More generally, the middle class prizes education for its own sake and not just as a means of getting a good job.

      Second, is the universality of secular education to the high school level and beyond. As Jewish children were exposed to higher secular education as a matter of course, and to colleges where their peers were not Jewish, let alone Orthodox, the need for a firm grounding in Jewish sources became ever more pressing. What has not happened is that the education has adapted itself to the broader population it serves.

      Third, the contributions of earlier generations of day schools, and the example set by "right wing" yeshivot, have both had a positive effect on the modern Orthodox community.

      The depth and breadth of religious studies had surely improved over time. My sons and their friends know far more than my peers and I did at a comparable age. The overwhelming majority of today’s students spend at least a year in Israel devoted exclusively to Torah studies---a phenomenon that is now two generations old. (Of course, for many, formal Torah education does not stop even there.) The broad dispersion of knowledge means that no longer is the rabbi the only person in town with a serious and sustained exposure to Talmudic text and codes. Some of the lay people will themselves have rabbinic ordination. People so educated cannot be dictated to and will not be swayed by a bare assertion of authority. It is inevitable---and a good thing---that lay people so educated will from time to time challenge their rabbi’s judgement or his interpretation of a text or application of a code or decision. Often, lay people will be wrong. But not always. And it is always a mistake to infantalize educated people.

      Presentations of position x as haskafat ha-torah will not be blindly accepted because Rabbi said so. (I am amazed at how often I hear "because rabbi said so" from non-Orthodox Jews about something their rabbi said. The rabbi is regarded as an authority of unrivaled competence---because he is in fact unrivaled. Orthodox rabbis, thankfully, have to share the pedestal.) It may well be that the objecting ba’al ha’bayis is not the equal of the rabbi---but he is playing the same game in the same league, with the same rules.

      Such challenges need to be taken seriously. I have had the experience of being told that something had to be done in way "x," but when I questioned that assertion, asking about source "y," it turns out that there is far less halakhic support for position "x" than first seemed. What was meant is that I prefer to do it this way, not that it must be done this way. The result, in my case, is lay resentment at being misled.

      It is also the case that, because there is nowhere to turn with such challenges, baalei batim simply grumble that the rabbi is wrong, spread dissatisfaction with the rabbi (he is either a fanatic, ignorant or both) creating tensions which are entirely unproductive, possibly constitute loshon ha-ra, and certainly do not generate respect for Torah.

      It cannot, however, be pretended that our educational system does not contribute in other ways to lay-clerical tensions. The problem of different values between rabbis and lay people in large part can be traced to the educational choices for modern Orthodox parents---especially for boys. These opportunities divide broadly into two types of schools. One camp provides a somewhat diluted version of the traditional rabbinical curriculum, focussing on the traditional misichtot of Nashim and Nezikin and the type of exposition favored in the great yeshivot of Lita. Much of that curriculum does not appeal to the average student who will be a baal ha-bayit and not a Rav. It does not answer his spiritual needs (or obscures them), it does not prepare him to be an educated ba’al ha-bayis. Worse, for many it is a turn-off to Talmud, if not Talmud Torah.

      On the other hand, for those for whom this curriculum appeals, it has the potential to produce talmidei chachaimim and certainly baalei batim who are capable of wrestling with texts---the devar ha-shem---on their own. This Talmudically based education is the meat and potatoes for the rabbinate---and so the part of education at which rabbis excel is not a part that proves attractive to many of their baale batim.

      The other group of schools provides a broader based education, emphasizing Talmud far less and considering a far broader range of texts and subjects, often in innovative ways. Unfortunately, students who emerge from these schools generally lack the knowledge and skills necessary for a lifelong wrestling with the devar ha-shem as a primary spiritual activity.

      Along with this universal Jewish education comes a wide exposure to secular learning and modern western values. The exposure is not only intellectual and limited to the classroom; it is attitudinal. Modern Orthodox Jews not only study Shakespeare, Kant, Darwin, Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, but they appreciate these writers and thinkers. They have adopted many of the mores and values of the society around them. Those who go on to secular colleges or graduate schools are fully at home in that universe of ideas, a universe the rabbinate does not share and, worse yet, increasingly does not value. Here there is a values gap between the rabbinate and the laity that does not lend itself to easy solution. It goes to the core of how one defines avodat ha-shem.

      A few years after having left his shiur, I met the Rav and asked him how his shiur was. He responded that the level of learning was higher than ever. Nevertheless, he complained, the shiur was "boring." If he wanted to discuss the morning’s news, there was no one who had any idea what he was talking about. If the Rav was troubled by this situation, it was not because he did not value Talmud Torah. Notwithstanding the Rav’s concern, those "boring" students are today’s rabbanim. To whom can a modern Orthodox Jew interested in the day’s news, the latest philosophical debate, political dispute or scientific discovery turn for an informed discussion of its implication for their Jewish selves if their rabbanim have not got a clue?

    5. Wealth
    6. The Orthodox community that is the subject of this forum is solidly middle class---indeed, upper middle class or better. It is extraordinarily comfortable in America and has no desire to recreate the economic conditions of the shtetl, the Pale, the Lower East Side or Brownsville, or, for that matter, the Grant Concourse, even if there were clear spiritual advantage in doing so. It is fully modern, seeing the creature comforts of life as valuable in their own right. Most important, Orthodox Jews live comfortably and do not see wealth and physical comfort as a distraction from spiritual pursuits.6 Pas b’melech to’chal is not a comprehensible slogan for modern Orthodoxy. If proof is needed, look at the physical facilities built in Israeli Yeshivot catering to American students, or to kollel students who demand to know how much they will be subsidized by their in-laws---and they don’t expect subsistence subsides either. Wealth is increasingly conflated with virtue and wisdom. Its pursuit becomes all consuming. This is without question a challenge to rabbis who know better and pursue (at least so one hopes) a different agenda.

    7. The Fear of Retreat into the Ghetto

Given the increased parochialism of much of American Orthodoxy and its retreat into fewer and fewer neighborhoods more and more isolated from the surrounding society in dress, attitudes, reading matter and life style, it is not surprising that for substantial segments of modern Orthodoxy the fear of becoming "black," or raising children who reject modern society, and who disavow a secular education, has become all consuming.

To the extent that this fear is fueled by the exaggerated claims of our more right-wing confreres to have an exclusive on Torah truth or to represent "authentic Torah Judaism" to the exclusion of all other modes of Torah observance, who can blame parents for this fear? It would help if the modern Orthodox rabbinate challenged these claims---but it by and large does not. To the extent, however, that the fear is opposition to greater devotion to Torah study, to more modest dress, and most importantly, to a greater and admirable willingness to forgo those portions of modernity that are a threat to continued existence of torah u’mitzvot, the fears are not only not justified, but impossible to accept.

A particularly difficult problem to deal with in this regard is relations with non-Orthodox communities. Without question, the rabbinate as a whole has rejected such ties, such that Orthodox rabbis who maintain them in one fashion or another are regarded as iconoclasts and suspect. (Some rabbis even make a fuss about using the title Rabbi in addressing non-Orthodox rabbis, a piece of pettiness I fail to understand.) Substantial segments of lay modern Orthodoxy have a very different approach. They have a religious belief in the importance of communal peace and good relations with all segments of American Judaism. They find particularly galling the resistance of the rabbinate to cooperation with Federations or non-Orthodox rabbis. The argument that such cooperation lends credence to Reform theology or lends legitimacy to that movement is hard to take seriously across the range of public issues we confront and the pressing need to maximize Jewish influence in opposing anti-Semitism, supporting Israel or, for that matter, opposing militant secularism.


III. The Rabbinate


Speaking of the laity has the advantage of speaking of an undifferentiated mass. The reader cannot easily identify any individual or community as the subject of criticism. This is unfortunately not true of the rabbinate. I hope nevertheless to avoid direct criticism of individuals, particularly since they are not able to defend themselves from my strictures.

I suffer from another disability in carrying out my task. Some of my opinions are shaped by contacts with rabbis or congregants in which an attorney client relationship was formed. The lawyer’s duty to protect client confidences inhibits me in these cases from spelling out the facts supporting my conclusions. The reader will, for better or for worse, simply have to trust (or reject) my conclusions without supporting facts.

At the outset, I note the real sacrifices we ask of rabbis. We expect them to be on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. We expect them to learn and visit the sick and the dying, do marriage counseling, answer shailot ranging from the serious to the trivial---all be’sever panim yafot---and referee synagogue and community disputes with at least the wisdom of Solomon. We expect their wives to be perfect in dress, deportment and hospitality (and, given the way too many rabbis are paid, have a career besides) and their children to be models of decorum.

Chaverim who have left the rabbinate often remark on how much more relaxed life is without all the tension ---a tension heightened by the fact that keeping baalei baatim who are also neighbors and classmates of children happy is indispensable to keeping one’s job and feeding one’s family. Addressing those tensions, letting rabbis and their families have a private life, would go along way to improving relations between clergy and the laity.

Much of a rabbi’s work is non-controversial. Life cycle events involve a substantial part of the modern rabbi’s work-even in communities to the right. Rabbis either do this gracefully and well or not. On the whole, pastoral work generates a large reservoir of good will for the rabbinate in general and individual rabbis in particular.7 I am often struck by the depth of people’s feelings about having a "family rabbi" present at a simcha even years after the rabbi has left town or retired.

The centrality of life cycle events in the work of the rabbi has one unfortunate side effect. Those who are not at a stage of their lives to be engaged in such events have minimal connections with rabbis. The problem is acute with regard to adolescents, particularly girls, singles and the non-critically ill seniors. The point is neither a new nor original, but it is one that, given the number of times it has been noticed, all the more urgently cries out for a resolution.

There is also the risk that the rabbi will be seen to exhaust his responsibility with life cycle events, becoming a sort of sacred MC or DJ, and being seen as "going off task" when addressing larger ethical or religious issues. And, of course, attendance at all these events---and other pastoral functions---is a drain on a rabbi’s ability to excel in limud ha-Torah and other necessary intellectual disciplines.

There is no turning back the clock to what is depicted as the European ideal (myth?) of the Rav as a person devoted exclusively to limud ha-Torah, relieved of most pastoral responsibilities. It will not work today both because Jews won’t stand for it, and because it did not work. The gap between the rabbinate and the baal ha-bayit appears from this remove to have contributed to the religious decay that ate at European Jewry in the decades before its final destruction. Neither, though, is the rabbi as master of ceremonies an attractive model.

1. The Problem of Tochacha

We expect the synagogue rabbi---even in a voluntary democratic society suffering from Sheilaism---to improve the religious observance of his congregants. Almost of necessity this involves some sort of criticism of existing practice. The criticism can be overt or indirect, gentle or abrasive, expressed in words or demonstrated by example, shouted in a sermon or calmly recited in a shiur. None of these is always right and none always wrong. Each has its time and place. Any runs the risk of creating hostility. The technique has to appeal to a congregation whose varied members will react differently, making the choice of technique all the more complicated.

We ought to be grateful for those who reprove us and who seek to bring us to a more complete sh’mirat ha-mitzvot. Human nature being what it is, graceful acceptance of rebuke is certainly not a universal norm. No one, or at least no one who is not a masochist or a devotee of Navardok mussar, likes being told they are wrong. The rabbinical role requires repeated reproach and hence generates repeated resentment.

This tension is inevitable. The gemara’s discussion of the mitzva of tochacha centers around the conundrum of rebuke as an act of respect generating dislike. What we lay people need to do is acknowledge that the rabbi’s charge includes upsetting the status quo, challenging comfortable patterns of living, calling (occasionally) for (radical) changes in personal and communal life. Even if the rabbi were always right, tension and conflict would be inevitable.

Rabbinic infallibility is not a tenet of our religion---otherwise Mesichta Horayot would not exist. A rabbi may well be wrong about some halacha or other. More likely, he may misjudge the community’s ability to comply. He may be insisting on a chumra that is popular with the rabbinate or other circles but unnecessarily burdensome or on a kula that is undesirable or an unnecessary concession to the community. He may urge a position on Eretz Yisroel or some other "political" issue that is plausible, or morally primitive or politically naïve.

Unless rabbanim are confident that they can speak their minds---even if wrong--- without losing their jobs, we will have a rabbinate unworthy of the name. The Reform movement demands the freedom of the pulpit for its rabbis---and they are right to insist on it. What is the point of hiring a Rav to be an authority on Torah if the only viewpoints which will be tolerated are those acceptable to the Kahal, or, more accurately, those in the community with the power to hire and fire?

There is a well-known dispute among the achronim whether a rabbi presumptively serves for life or serves at the pleasure of the community. I am not fit to express an opinion on the halachic question, but as a sociological inquiry it turns out to be a harder than appears. Without some guarantee of employment, no rabbi can be expected to open his mouth. If the rabbi is free of any restraint, it is entirely possible he will not meet the needs of the community.8

One comment germane to our topic is in order. The GRA in his commentary to Mishlei repeatedly warns against spiritual "jumps"("k’fitzot"), urging instead slow and steady progress. (This may be a anti-Hasidic remark as some Hassidim in the GRA’s time engaged in "jumping" as prelude to t’filla). What may appear to a rabbi as a small and necessary step towards shmirat ha-mitzvot may appear as a great leap of faith for the average. Following the GRA’s advice would, I think, produce both better results and far less tension.

I have had calls from people over the years asking for help in leaving work early enough on Friday to satisfy the view of the rishonim that the prohibition on work begins at mincha gedola. In the abstract, there is a legal claim to be made for this view. As a practical matter of the workplace, it is impossible to satisfy. And yet rabbis continue to urge it on congregants.

A women came to me once with a letter to her employer from a prominent Orthodox rabbi supporting her claim to have Fridays off so she could fulfill the view that women should bake challah on erev shabbat. After I pointed out that she could either bake challahs Thursday night or purchase them, I told her to find another lawyer. What she really needed was another rabbi. One wonders about a rabbi with decades of experience in the rabbinate not having the good sense not to find some reason not to put the women in a position where she would inevitably lose her job over a custom of secondary halachic importance.

Of course, we need Jews who observe erev shabbat. But in finding ways to do that, rabbonim have to be mindful of the requirements of the workplace and, by extension, the world in which their members function.

Another anecdote from a year I lived out of town. The community and the rabbi were in permanent discord about the speed of the weekday minyan, the rabbi always complaining that the davening was too fast. In this town, the workday started at 8:30. Most people had to commute some distance to work. If they wanted to eat breakfast or say hello to their children they also had to run home after davening. This dispute dragged on until we found out the rabbi regularly took a nap after minyon. He was entitled to a nap, and he was entitled to insist on a minyon that was not rushed, but he was not entitled to complain that people were rushing off to work when he was going to sleep.

Many rabbis have never held a secular job. They do not know the pressures of the workplace firsthand. Only half in jest, I have suggested that rabbis ought to have to hold a private sector job before being allowed to hold a pulpit. If this is true of community rabbis, it is a fortiori true of the academic Rosh ha-yeshiva who---like their law school counterparts---all too often have no sense of the workaday world. It should not be necessary to actually experience the workplace to have some sense of empathy and understanding for those who find themselves there. Perhaps, though, it is.


2. The Value of Secular Activity

There is another explanation of this lack of empathy---the fundamental failure to value any activity, but Torah and avodah. It in effect denies the validity of any form of Judaism but the chalukah. This is, I think, a real and growing problem. It need not be, and not only because the underlying view is simply wrong. It is not necessary to denigrate other human activities to value Torah.

As a high school senior, I was assigned to the beis medrash shiur of Rav Tzvi Dov Kanatopsky, z’l. When college finals arrived, many of the college students stopped attending shiur to study for finals. Rav Kanatopsky stopped going further in the Gemara and instead gave review shiurim. I and my high school classmates-being high school seniors with not a care or responsibility in the world -complained that our classmates were demonstrating a lack of commitment to Talmud Torah. If we thought this expression of "frumkeit" would gain us favor in our rebbe’s eyes, we were quickly and sharply set straight. How dare we, he said, criticize our classmates who were working hard and had other responsibilities?

That response would not have been possible if Rav Kanotopsky had not thought that college studies were intrinsically valuable. Surely, no one who was privileged to know him could think that Rav Kanotopsky thought Talmud Torah was a second class subject, one that required only a passing effort, or that any other obligation always trumped Talmud Torah. It is simply that he was not prepared to dismiss all other human endeavors as worthless. It is an attitude that has fallen into disrepute. Until it is restored, the tensions we are talking about will grow more intense and perhaps reach the breaking point.9


3. Courage

This devaluation of the secular as a source of lay-rabbinic tension at least has an ideological basis. Other sources of tension are less admirable. The rabbinic world, as I see it, insists on a high degree of conformity. Breaking the mold, fresh thinking, new approaches, appear to be anathema in and of themselves regardless of their intrinsic merit---with one exception. New chumrot, no matter how burdensome or unjustified, seem always acceptable. Any criticism of this trend is dangerous to a rabbi’s reputation and career. The endless pursuit of "higher standards" of kashrut is a case in point. Privately, rabbonim decry this or that application of the trend, but far too few have had the courage to say so publicly.

The fear that someone will call into question a rabbi’s frumkeit seems to paralyze all concerned. That people lose their livelihoods, that major investments are wiped out, that there is chillul ha-shem as a result, that people have to strain to meet the expense of complying with these "higher standards," that some of the food is inferior in quality, are trivial concerns in comparison.

Those rabbis who shy away from controversy on the theory that it is not welcome by the rabbinate are not misjudging the situation. Dr. David Berger has been left alone to combat dangerous trends in the Lubavitch movement. Which rabbi has gotten up publicly to endorse his warnings? For that matter, who has stood up to say he was wrong?

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin might have been or right or wrong about supporting the Oslo accords against the consensus of the Orthodox rabbinate. But one thing was clear from the reaction of a majority of his colleagues. An Orthodox rabbi who defies the rabbinic consensus---even on a matter not subject to a p’sak halacha and on which rabbis have no claim to expertise---risks ostracism and worse. If rabbis are not prepared to acknowledge that elu v’elu divrei elokim chayim, than why should more be expected of lay people?

Rabbi Saul Berman may be right or wrong about this or that item on the Edah agenda---or perhaps even the entire agenda of his organization---but the ostracism he suffers from much of the Orthodox rabbinate is inexcusable. Debating the merits of ideas is fine. It would in fact be enlightening and bring respect to the rabbinate. Shunning them creates the impression of an Orthodox rabbinate reluctant or incapable of responding to issues that disturb the American Jewish public.10

Leaders are not afraid to break eggs when necessary, nor do they shy away from controversy.11 They have the courage to do something different, something likely to create discomfort and upset settled expectations. By this standard, there are today few leaders in the rabbinate. Lay people have learned not to expect courage from their rabbis. Unfortunately, on the rare occasions when rabbis muster the courage to challenge the status quo, the reaction from lay people is as unwelcoming as that of rabbinic colleagues.


4. Rabbinic Omniscience

The general practitioner no longer exists in the practice of law. The family doctor is largely a thing of the past. Academics no longer teach all of history or philosophy, but specialize in some period or form of philosophy. In each case, the specialist has replaced the generalist. There have always been specialists in halacha as well. Some rabbonim are known for gittin, mikva’ot, nidda, or stam. The explosion of human knowledge all but makes this development inevitable.

Why, then, when it comes to matters in the secular world is it so common for rabbis to act as if no specialized knowledge is needed? Presumably rabbis do not decide matters of medicine without consulting a competent doctor. Assuredly, though, too many decide legal, political, social and other questions without consulting relevant experts. I assume I am not alone in having sat through sermons about a matter in my field of competence, wondering how a person so knowledgeable in Torah could be so ignorant in milei d’alma.

The phenomenon is all the more puzzling because there now exists a large corps of Jewish professionals in all fields who are ready and willing to educate their rabbis. Many of these people are sufficiently adept at Halacha that they could bring important insights to the decision-making process. It is characteristic of the Rav that when I would ask him a question of public policy, he would instinctively ask "What do you think?" Others had the same experience.Too often, lay people today are not asked by rabbonim until it is time to pick up the pieces.

The Tenafly eruv committee was turned town by the town council for permission to erect an eruv. They asked the rabbi they were consulting about the eruv---I have no idea who it was---whether they could seek the permission of the county in which the town was situated. They were told yes. Having bypassed the town with rabbinic blessing, they managed to infuriate local officials and residents who were incensed at being ignored, and who became immovable opponents of the eruv.

Had any professional familiar with New Jersey politics been consulted, they would have told the eruv committee that what was a halakhically acceptable technique would not work and that it would be the better part of wisdom to continue to negotiate with the town. But none were consulted. A lawsuit was the inevitable result. Win or lose, the suit has made the construction of eruvin more difficult everywhere---only a poorly drafted ordinance and outright anti-Semitic bigotry by some members of the town council avoided a disaster.

Some years ago, David Zwiebel, Nathan Lewin and I were independently asked about a synagogue zoning lawsuit. We each advised delaying a suit until certain events occurred. The next thing we knew, and before those events had taken place, suit was filed by a large and expensive law firm. Several months later, David Zweibel and I were invited by the plaintiffs to take over the case, which had cost them a fortune with no results. I asked them how it was that they ignored our advice and gone ahead prematurely with the suit.The Plaintiffs told us they had asked a well known Rav for his advice (psak?; da’as torah?) and he encouraged them to go ahead. I am confident I had a firmer grip on constitutional law than that rav, but wonder what the rav was thinking when he told the plaintiffs to go ahead despite all the contrary legal advice the plaintiffs had been given. It would be a chutzpa for me to pasken a shaila of aguna. Why isn’t it an equal chutzpa for a rav to decide a question of constitutional law?12


The major thrust of the forum on communal governance is rabbinic/lay relations. It would be tragic, however, if that subject were to obscure another question of communal governance that urgently needs discussion: whether, as I think, the Jewish community is rapidly regressing into a plutocracy.

The problem is not unique to the Orthodox community. Class divisions are an increasingly important political question for the nation and the world as a whole. At least in the United States, there are regularly scheduled elections with a universal franchise to check the power of the wealthy. The Jewish community has no such check.

The word "leadership" is now synonymous in Jewish communal life with those wealthy and willing enough to support financially an organization. The Forward recently reported on a study showing that the average income of Jewish organization board members is $200,000 a year. In many organizations, the fundraisers are the highest paid employees. I would guess that almost no regular participant in these forums is a member of the Board of the OU, Young Israel or Yeshiva University, to say nothing of a local federation or AIPAC. Yet our regular participants---most definitely excluding this writer---are the intellectual pride and joy of our community.

As several secular observers of the not-for-profit scene have observed, it is not only that money is now the sine qua non of leadership; it is that donors now demand the right to select the agenda of the agencies on whose boards they sit and micro-manage their operations. Much of the shift to the political right observed in Jewish organizations of all stripes is not a function of them being born-again Republican by political conviction, a fundamentally changed world view or changed circumstances. Rather, the new leadership is advancing its own financial interests---sometimes at the expense of Jews less well off.

To take a secular example, the softening of Jewish opposition to affirmative action is in large part due to the fact that the people who set policy are not affected. Their children continue to be admitted into elite schools. Children of less well off Jews are not so immune.

Jewish civil servants have been adversely affected by such programs---it is almost impossible for a Jew to be an assistant principal in New York City’s public schools---but our leadership does not come from, or even know, those groups. And while there seems to be plenty of money available for Jewish leaders to visit political leaders around the world largely in pursuit of their own ego gratification, there is no money available to fund litigation on behalf of lower- or middle-class Jews who suffer discrimination. I could multiply examples.

Closer to home, there are now several Orthodox Jewish high schools whose raison d’être seems to be serving children of the wealthy. These charge impossibly high tuition, cherry-pick the best teachers away from other schools with higher salaries (so much for the Gemara’s concern with care for the children of the poor who will guarantee the perpetuation of Torah), whose uniforms come from upper-end stores such as the Gap, and make no bones about their claim to superiority. In short, these schools aspire to be the Jewish equivalent of Groton.

My wife---who has spent a professional lifetime foolishly thinking that it was her job to teach all Jewish children---was appalled when, at the open house of one such school, the principal announced that the school was seeking to serve only children from the finest (read richest) families. My wife is far better mannered than I. She just sat and grimaced. I would have walked out then and there and announced that we are not such a family. Need I recount all the stories about special treatment accorded the children of the wealthy? In one of our local schools, teachers knew to check the craft projects to ascertain that the children of wealthy families received perfect supplies. Apparently, the less well-off children could do with damaged goods. Or, at least, if their parents complained, nobody would care.

To their credit, rabbanim associated with Agudat Israel tried to cap the utter crassness and conspicuous consumption associated with bar mitzvahs and weddings. In the end, they too had to water down their proposal in the face of opposition from the wealthy and the businesses which cater to them---thus confirming Professor Berger’s view of the limits of da’as Torah. The original sanction of non-attendance at events held in violation of those sumptuary rules is now diluted to something along the lines of "we will not attend unless circumstances (i.e., not offending those who support our institutions) require attendance." But I do not mean to be too critical. Unlike the modern Orthodox rabbinate, the Agudah rabbanim at least had the courage to speak out.

Who dares say a word about the obscenely palatial homes that some people---only two or three generations removed from the tenements of the Lower East Side, where hot water was a to-be-savored luxury---and the grinding poverty of the Pale---seem to think necessary? Who protests the koshering of exclusive resorts for Pesach? Which kashruth organization has said, "no, we will not countenance such wasteful conspicuous consumption?" Where is the Amos of our generation denouncing the "parot ha-bashan" of our age? Which institution has refused to conduct a Chinese auction offering frivolous luxury goods? Is it really necessary to build schools with marble entranceways?

It is a fact that the network of Jewish institutions, upon which we all depend, in turn depends on voluntary contributions. Yeshiva University and other institutions cannot survive on donations to pushka’s. Nothing forces the wealthy to give their money to useful ends. There are many charities in the world, not all of them Jewish, that will accept money even from Orthodox Jews, if Orthodox institutions resist donor demands. And, as noted, donor control is now endemic to all philanthropy. Plutocracy is not a new phenomenon in Jewish life. We have survived it before, and we will survive it again. Still. . . .


Questions about the distribution of power, whether economic, political or religious, are inevitably contested. All but the most self-effacing human being wants the power to control his own life and community. Even when people yield power, they prefer to do so voluntarily. I have no solution to the problems I have identified. Perhaps, if others agree with my diagnosis, we can at least work together to soften conflict and perhaps shape sound responses.



  1. [BACK] The criticism of certain methods of Talmud Torah as irrelevant is not the exclusive province of the heterodox or the skeptic. There are more than ample precedents for such criticism from giants of Halacha—including the Rambam and Maharal—and many others. These critics, however, were fully versed in Talmudic law—unlike most of today’s critics.

  2. [BACK] I do not deny the existence of these phenomenon both of which plainly exist within contemporary Orthodoxy, just that not everyone who disagrees with me automatically falls into these categories.

  3. [BACK] Lord Action did not say that power corrupts, only that it tends to do so. Surely gedolei yisreol avoid the corrupting tendency of power. Nowhere that I know of is greater command of a subject combined with greater modesty than in the person of R’Akiva Eiger—whose modesty is awe inspiring. He surely could have abused his mastery of Halacha for his own aggrandizement---and who could have resisted him had he done so? And yet it is completely unthinkable that he would have done so. Unfortunately not every musmach is as immune to the blandishments of power. The large majority of rabbonim act le-shem shamayim; a not negligible minority does not, or at least do not do so in undiluted fashion. And, of course, as Rav Hunter once observed, much rishus can only be done le-shem shamayim.

    What is true of rabbis is equally true of others who occupy positions of trust in the Jewish community. In the secular Jewish community, the abuse of trust for personal advantage is unfortunately not uncommon. There is no reason to think the Orthodox community is immune from this phenomenon

  4. [BACK] Part of the democratic tradition includes a free press. It is not tenable in this society to pretend the press does not exist and refuse to speak to it. Neither will it do for rabbis not to know how to respond to a press inquiry, or for lay people to use the press to press vendettas against rabbis. On the other hand, a rabbinic refusal to reply to a pertinent inquiry suggests something to hide, arrogance, or both.

  5. [BACK] I do not mean that every manifestation of the populist approach needs to be combated. Sometimes the principle "mutav sh’yihi’yu shoggim . . ." (better that they act in ignorance) will apply; sometimes the practice may be acceptable be’di’avad; other halachic principles may caution silence. It is the idea that needs to be challenged, not each of its manifestations.

  6. [BACK] This is by no means a shortcoming limited to the modern Orthodox community. If anything, much of so-called right-wing Orthodoxy is even more infatuated with the trappings of material success.

  7. [BACK] The growing trend to have rashei yeshiva officiate at weddings threatens this reservoir of good feeling. The trend represents a welcome public demonstration of appreciation for the value of limud ha-Torah in its most intensive form, but its costs are probably higher that its benefits---although et chatai ani mazkir ha-yom-my mesader kiddushin was a rebbe, not a shul rabbi.

  8. [BACK] That rabbis should have discretion to rebuke without consequences---except in cases of extreme abuse---does not yet answer the question of when a rabbi ought to exercise this right. When, where and how rebuke is appropriate is a question explored in prior forums and could exhaust several additional forums. It is a subject well beyond the scope of this paper.

  9. [BACK] A Rosh Yeshiva at YU in my hearing once said that the Rav engaged in secular studies only because he knew it was the only way to appeal to modern youth. This distortion of the Rav is more revealing for what it said about the speaker- who himself had a college degree-than what it said about the Rav. But what of talmidim who never knew the Rav and who think that this sort of silliness from a distinguished Rosh Yeshiva represents a "Torah true" viewpoint?

  10. [BACK] Although not involving the modern Orthodox camp, the controversy over Rabbi Yosef Reinman’s book, and the subsequent efforts to suppress on the grounds that Rabbi Reinman---who had obtained haskamot (approbations) from leading rabbis---made a mistake in publishing it is illustrative. Aside from the fact that the reasons for now condemning the book are utterly unpersuasive, it is revealing---but not surprising---that it is Rabbi Reinman who has had to confess error, not those who approved of the idea of the book in the first place.

  11. [BACK] There are those who think that controversy is good for its own sake, that proof of one’s virtue depends on challenging the status quo. I do not have this in mind.

  12. [BACK] In a similar vein, one must ask how is it that American rabbis are confident enough to question the military judgments of Israeli generals with decades of experience. Perhaps they have been following laypeople in the frontline towns of Monsey, Flatbush, Teaneck and Lawrence, who are well-schooled military experts.

[Paper originally presented in March 2003 at the Annual Conference of The Orthodox Forum, a project of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University]
Posted to July 30, 2003

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