Behind the Headlines: Modern Orthodoxy Shifting to Right As It Faces Traditionalist Pressures [part
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Behind the Headlines: Modern Orthodoxy Shifting to Right As It Faces Traditionalist Pressures [part

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Whatever happened to Saturday night dances at the neighborhood Young Israel, where the girls wore pink taffeta and the boys their best blue blazers, where young Orthodox Jews drank punch and danced the foxtrot to the tunes of Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter?

You won’t find a teen-age dance at a Young Israel synagogue these days. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find mixed dancing, much less mixed seating, at an Orthodox wedding today.

Things have changed in the modern Orthodox movement in America, with the emphasis shifting from modern to Orthodox. And while some rabbis question whether the changes are going too far, others contend they are not going far enough.

"There is a new force in the Orthodox Jewish community," said Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of America, the congregational arm of the Orthodox movement.

"It’s a force that’s pulling the movement not so much to the right as toward consistency," he said. "Public deviations from the very nature of the synagogue as a sacred institution can no longer be tolerated.

"You can’t make your own rules and call yourself Orthodox anymore," he said. "We expect the affiliates to tow the line."

But some modern Orthodox rabbis think the trend to the right is not as much an indigenous force within modern Orthodoxy as a show of force by a minority of fundamentalist rabbis within the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, the movement’s rabbinical arm, who arc bullying the movement to take more right-wing postures.


"Moderate views have come under increasing attack from the surging right of Orthodoxy," Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, founder of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, writes in the June issue of CLAL News and Perspectives.

"Classic modern Orthodox views have been rolled back or eroded. Some modern Orthodox leaders have shifted positions. Others have become silent," he writes. "Nothing less than a struggle for the soul of modern Orthodoxy is now raging."

Similar warnings were sounded in mid-June at the RCA’s annual convention in the Catskills.

"The way of moderation is open to attack by extremists," Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, said in a speech to the convention. "We must not be intimidated, nor must we compromise on principle or policy."

Lamm explained later that "subtle pressure" is coming from all sides: the left, meaning Reform and Conservative Judaism, and the right, by which he meant more traditional, European-style Orthodoxy, represented by Agudath Israel of America.

At the center of the debate are questions of liberalism, secularism and a more permissive interpretation of halachah, or Jewish religious law.

The "Who Is a Jew" controversy that divided the Jewish community in 1988 and 1989 has been replaced by less publicized–though no less contentious — debates over women’s issues, standards for conversion in the United States and interdenominational dialogue.

The rationale against interdenominational dialogue is that communication with the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements lends legitimacy to non-Orthodox Judaism.


If the RCA were willing to break its ties with the other movements of Judaism by not affiliating with such interdenominational organizations as the Synagogue Council of America or CLAL, it would be possible for the modern and more traditional elements of the Orthodox movement to unite, said Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, executive vice president of Agudath Israel.

"There’s room to talk," said Bloom, "but we won’t compromise on what we believe in." The problem, he said, is that "they won’t either."

Bloom is right that the RCA leadership is also unwilling to back down on at this time.

"It’s got to be they (Agudath Israel) who make the break," Lamm said in an interview. "We believe in the klal Yisrael (one Jewish people) approach. It means stretching out our hand to the more intense as well as the less."

Lamm, however, does not have the backing of all modern Orthodox rabbis on this issue or, for that matter, many others. The modern Orthodox movement is facing pressures from within.

Individuals within the RCA said to be under the unofficial leadership of Rabbi David Hollander have been pushing the rabbinical group to proscribe interdenominational intercourse.

This faction also opposes Orthodox rabbis who take more liberal positions such issues as conversion, the division of the sexes in synagogue and the right of Orthodox women to form their own prayer groups.

Many rabbis believe the RCA membership is much more right-wing than the group’s past history or present leadership indicates.

Lamm and Rabbi Marc Angel of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York are commonly considered the leaders of modern Orthodoxy today. Angel, who was recently elected president of the RCA, is known for his centrist Orthodox orientation.

"Rabbi Angel and Rabbi Lamm do not represent the general sentiment of the RCA or Y.U.," said Rabbi Gilbert Shoham, a pulpit rabbi turned professor in Kansas City.


The Talmudic experts at Y.U. and member: of the RCA "are not liberal by any means," said Shoham. "Centrist, liberal, halachically committee Orthodox rabbis arc becoming a dying breed." "You’re going to see a battle emerging within modern Orthodoxy," said Rabbi Avraham Weiss, religious leader of the Hebrew Institute o Riverdale, a modern Orthodox shul in the Bronx.

Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz of Stamford, Conn said that some of the more liberal rabbis with the RCA arc beginning to feel intimidated. But h insists that the forces on the right arc not a strong or as numerous as some would suggest.

"The majority of the rabbis in the RCA are not rightist, but the right-wingers are more vote and cause the others to be intimidated," he said.

"They shout the loudest and speak in the name of God," he said. "And if you don’t agree you’re automatically wrong, of course, because you’re not with God."

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