New Centrist Orthodox Group: a Splinter or a Branch?

Can established Orthodox rabbinic groups absorb or encourage the opinions of an emerging arm of “centrist” rabbis, or is a separate body needed to provide support for those rabbis who think Orthodoxy has turned too far to the right?

The more than 50 centrist Orthodox rabbis who last month attended the first conference of the Fellowship of Traditional Orthodox Rabbis (FTOR) did not seem prepared to reject either question.

On the one hand, their presence at the two day conference held at New York’s JFK Airport indicated their dissatisfaction with major Orthodox organizations like the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America or the Rabbinical Council of America. They feel their voices are not being heard in the halls of those institutions.

On the other hand, nearly all signaled a reluctance to break completely from those groups, and know both the RCA and the O.U. have come out against efforts to form what the organizations call “splinter” groups.

Yet members of the FTOR spoke of their new entity as a “support group” and a “forum for ideas” rather than a splinter organization.

“We’re embryonic,” said Rabbi Ephraim Zimand, of the Traditional Congregation in St. Louis.

“We’re not going to issue decisions but make available all of the relevant acceptable opinions. We’ll provide an open-minded platform where you can exchange ideas without feeling put down if you had a minority opinion.”

The FTOR represents the avant-garde of centrist Orthodoxy, which is attempting to combine adherence to halacha, or Jewish law, with a commitment to Zionism, a dedication to secular education and involvement, and a willingness to at least conduct dialogues with members of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

RIGHT-WING AGENDA

Although these centrists are hardly unanimous to the extent they are prepared to move to the left, they are nevertheless joined by a belief that Orthodoxy has taken a decided, and unwelcome, turn to the right.

They find solace in the words of Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, who said earlier this year that the right-wing Orthodox in the United States and Israel “have set the religious agenda” for too long.

Lamm, however, has no connection with the new group, and declined to be interviewed for this article.

The FTOR began in August 1987 under the initiative of Rabbis Stanley Wagner of Denver, and Benzion Kaganoff of Chicago.

According to Wagner, of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol, the intention was to create a group that identified with what he calls “Traditionalist rabbis.”

Wagner defined “Traditionalists” as rabbis who are liberal in their interpretation of Jewish law or who even make sacrifices in terms of halacha. A frequently cited example of the latter is the lack of a mehitza, the fence or curtain that separates men and women worshippers.

Wagner said at least 100 rabbis, most with mixed-seating synagogues, have expressed an interest in joining the organization.

Although they advocate a liberal approach in many areas, the most important issues seem to be conversion to Judaism and divorce.

Rabbis and laypersons fear that Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups may take such different legal approaches to the processes of one group that the Orthodox may not even recognize the Jewishness of a child born of a non-Orthodox, or even liberal Orthodox, conversion or remarriage.

The unity issue is at the root of the “Who is a Jew?” debate in the Israeli Knesset. Orthodox parties and their American supporters would have Israel’s Law of Return extended only to those converted under Orthodox auspices.

Wagner acknowledges that his left-wing Orthodox approach is similar in some ways to that of Conservative Judaism’s right wing, with which he retains close professional ties.

CENTRALITY OF ORTHODOXY

But whereas “Conservatism is trying to hold the line against further erosion of halachic norms,” rabbis in the FTOR are firmly committed to the centrality of Orthodoxy.

FTOR endorses co-educational Jewish high schools and tolerates mixed-seating synagogues, because “they may become valuable instrumentalities in authentic kiruv,” or outreach, according to a resolution discussed at last month’s meeting.

“If I had my way, Orthodox rabbis would fill every pulpit in the country,” said Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Conn., and the first chairman of FTOR.

Still, the new organization represents a challenge to both the O.U. and the RCA, the two rabbinical organizations to which most of the FTOR’s rabbis belong.

Last month, RCA President Rabbi Max Schreier wrote the entire membership that the RCA “would not allow splinter groups within Orthodoxy to set the agenda of the Orthodox community.”

Wrote Schreier: “We appeal to our colleagues to come back to the RCA and cease their separatist efforts.”

Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of the RCA, said that the “tragedy” of the FTOR is that there is already a place for left-of-center rabbis within the RCA.

The RCA is democratic, Wallfish said, within the bounds of halacha. “I’ve begged them to do it under the auspices of the RCA,” he said.

The O.U. takes an identical position to the new group as the RCA, according to Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, executive vice president. “If there are rabbis who feel they have special agendas, it should be addressed within the O.U.,” he said.

Stolper said the O.U. also has an outreach program that maintains contact with synagogues that do not preserve halachic standards, but wish to associate with Orthodoxy.

Said Rabbi Stewart Weiss, of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Dallas, Texas, “Many of these rabbis are giving their lives to their congregations, some in the real ‘sticks.’ They want to bring a sense of Torah-true tradition to people. And they need a larger organization that gives them support.”

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