Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Orthodox Union: Reaffirming the Standards

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 didn’t know how wrong I was.

As a young adult, I encountered the OU in a whole new light when I became an NCSY advisor on an Israel program.   The care and concern for all of Klal Yisrael, the innovative, spirited, the 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 Congregations.  I discovered 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 – bring the light of Torah to communities large and small.   I realized that Kashrus, NCSY, Yachad, OU Torah, the wonderful magazine Jewish Action, and so many other “departments” of the OU were just parts of one overarching objective: Klal Yisrael.  I gratefully attended special “Mikdash Me’At” conferences tailored to help small communities, and benefitted greatly from the wise counsel of many great OU leaders in making my Rabbonus and our shul more effective.  In particular, I remember a talk given by Rav Nota Greenblatt שליט"א, who explained that he had to be at a conference, 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 Kof K, or Star K, or 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 the others combined.  Later, at the Young Israel of Forest Hills, I also was the beneficiary of OU help on many occasions – I was particularly proud to be part of the OU mission to 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.


By virtue of 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

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 were assured 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 mechitza 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, 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  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 and radical innovations into 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 gay marriage members, publicly attacking the Chief Rabbinate, engaging in extreme leftist anti-Israel advocacy, and publicly denigrating many positions taken by Gedolei Torah, including the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshiva University and poskim of the Orthodox Union.  In general, they flout established Rabbinic Authority, producing their “own poskim” and teachers who feel 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 blog 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 the founder of Open Orthodoxy, 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 established RCA policies; 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 from both sides to define their standards and to decide whether or not OO innovations could be accepted within the “big tent”, or whether, by their actions, the OO supporters had defined themselves out of Orthodoxy. 

Much of the pressure was brought not only by Rabbis and members of those Congregations, but by their many friends and supporters in the Modern Orthodox world, who had been convinced that the innovations sought by OO were just efforts to provide more of a voice for women – an objective that all sides consider important – and therefore 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 that I wrote decrying OO was published in the Queens Jewish Link, a leading member thought it appropriate to publicly send their 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 אמת ושלום (Truth and Peace).

One year ago, after many months of consultation and deliberation, the Orthodox Union published an simultaneous official statement and Halachic Ruling against hiring woman 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 proper 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 Rabbonim 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 which have female clergy of OU affiliation” . . . “Just as a Zionist would not ask the Satmar Rav for a psak regarding Zionism, the Modern Orthodox community should not look to [YU Rosh Yeshiva] for opinions on the role of women in our communities”, and even more intemperate comments.   More congregations announced 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 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 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 OU congregations that now employ female clergy, a sunset clause was provided 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 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 which the OU has pursued for these many years.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In Appreciation of Rav Berel Wein, upon the passing of his wife Rebbetzin Mira Cohen Wein A"H

 I recently heard the devastating news of the passing of Rebbetzin Mira Cohen Wein, and I felt moved to write some words of chizuk to my esteemed Rav and teacher, who is going through this tragedy now for the second time.   It is self-evident to me that the wonderful teacher and mother-lode of inspiration who has greatly benefitted us all with much needed chizuk over the years, should surely be the beneficiary of whatever Chizuk we can offer to him in his time of need.

Although I met the Rebbetzin (and her predecessor Rebbetzin Jackie Wein) only very briefly, I was deeply impressed.  All the more so given the difficulty of being a zivug sheni (Second marriage spouse).  I hope that Rav Wein will take solace in knowing how much he means not only to his family, his direct talmidim and congregants, regular readers of his columns, books and essays, listeners to his shiurim, tapes, and lectures, but to many thousands of others who see him as a unique and special voice that represents -- more than anything else -- "common sense" (in Hebrew -- sechel hayashar) in the Torah world.  This quality is one that to this writer seems to have grown increasingly rare, in inverse proportion to the sheer vast amount of knowledge that is growing ever more prevalent.

This may seem counter-intuitive.  After all, clearly, the quantity, and even quantity, of learning and knowledge available in our world is unprecedented and growing at exponential levels.  In the secular world, the openness of society and tools such as the internet have made incredible amounts of knowledge available and useful to untold millions the world over, knowledge previously available -- if at all -- only to academics and experts.  Young children are knowledgeable about matters that seasoned adults could not fathom a generation ago; students have unbelievable resources with which to challenge their mentors.

In the Torah world, as well, although in many quarters the use of modern information technology is frowned upon, the amount and quality of learning is at levels not heard of for millennia.  While in our parent's generation there were less than two thousand yeshiva students in the entire world, there are now several Yeshivas that alone boast more than twice that amount; the total number of full time learners is closing in on 100,000.  The tens of thousands making a Siyum on Shas, the explosion of seforim being published, the unbelievable assortment of thousands of shiurim available for and by men and women of the highest levels of learning and scholarship, simply boggles the mind.


The primary reason that a person can attain great vast amounts of knowledge -- even Torah knowledge -- and yet not exhibit wisdom is that they lack one crucial ingredient -- common sense.

  And yet -- something is missing.  Without going into any specifics here, I am not alone in bemoaning that with all of this incredible knowledge, we are still too often confronted by far too many instances of statements of questionable wisdom, even as expounded by very informed individuals.   Although this is certainly not true of most of Jewish leadership, on some extreme occasions I am reminded of the Even Ezra quote I heard from Rav Wein regarding the  phenomenon of a chamor noseh seforim  (a donkey carrying books) -- a reference to someone with a great deal of knowledge, who remains -- a donkey.  I would venture that the primary reason that a person can attain great vast amounts of knowledge -- even Torah knowledge -- and yet not exhibit wisdom is that they lack one crucial ingredient -- common sense.

Although this sounds harsh, Victor Hugo said that in fact all too often, "common sense is in spite of, not as the result of education".  All of this knowledge may, in fact, be a mixed blessing.  Keeping one's moorings in the face of lightning speed shattering changes, in which values and "facts" unchallenged for millennia are being overturned, denied and uprooted, while the sheer volume data constantly streaming into our consciousness, is daunting.   Add to this the incredible pressures in the Orthodox world to conform to certain views and norms, which sometimes are the result of rulings by great Sages, but all too often are based on dubious reports regarding "Daas Torah" circulated by various self-appointed activists, or by people resistant to any type of change of views or practice, no matter how innocuous or necessary, simply because "that is the way we do things".  A great deal of wisdom is required to sort through all of this and to hold up the light of Truth and of the real call of our Mesorah, wisdom that is needed and all too rare.

Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls Wisdom

It is said that "Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls Wisdom" (Samuel T. Coleridge).   There is certainly more to it than that, but there is no question that this quality is at the core of what we celebrate as chochmah.   It is an exceptional quality, in addition to saintliness, erudition, diligence, and incredible concern for others,  that a special few of our greatest Gedolim had in abundance.   Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, Rav Mordechai Eliahu and the Pnei Menachem of Ger, were examples par excellence of this quality.  I daresay that the outpouring of grief and sadness at the very recent passing of Rav Shteinman zt"l was not so much because of the tragedy of his passing -- we did have the incredible gift of having him fully with us with all of his faculties intact until the age of 104, what more could one ask? -- but rather due to the fact that he possessed this quality of common sense wisdom, which is so often lacking.   It is this wisdom, which as Emerson put it: "Common sense in genius dressed in its working clothes", that we need so much, and which Rav Wein has been a grand source of for all these years.

As a Rav and Rosh Yeshiva and lehavdil  as an attorney, historian and astute observer of world events, Rav Wein has accumulated a great deal of yedios and bekius  in Torah and much knowledge regarding the world and the highs and lows of human foibles. But it his "common sense" wisdom that comes through in all of his amazing teaching and accomplishments, inspiring us to look beyond the often foolish and small minded statements and issues that so many get caught up with, to focus on the ultimate issues that matter, and to strive to make a positive difference in the world.  To enjoy and celebrate the beauty that Hashem has so bountifully placed in this world; to know and appreciate the timely lessons and wisdom that we should draw from knowing our history and the lives of great people; to recognize the good in ALL sections of the Jewish world -- these are some lessons that Rav Wein has taught me and so many others, and which has given us the chizuk to continue striving for sanity in this often crazy world.

May Rav Wein find comfort among the mourners of Zion, mourners who were so often inspired  by him to appreciate what mourning for Zion truly means.