The realignment of American Orthodox Judaism

Hmmm…provocative ideas. On his blog, Alan Brill writes:

At a recent conference, a speaker noted as a forgone conclusion that Chabad was the only force shaping the last decade of American Jewry. Prof Adam Ferziger responded strongly and loaded with data that the Yeshivish world has had a great influence in shaping the current American reality. His latest work Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, examines this claim and in addition offers several other essays where he investigates the changes in American Orthodoxy of the last two decades.

….In his prior work, Exclusion and Hierarchy (excerpt here.) , Ferziger shows how 19th century German Orthodoxy evolved two different approaches toward the non-Orthodox majority. In the initial approach, that became associated with Ultra-Orthodox, the non-Orthodox Jews were simply excluded from the purview of the minority community.

In the predominant approach, which emerged in the context of Neo-Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy created space for the nonobservant but spawned a hierarchical culture in which some were seen as keeping the tradition better than others, and as such more “authentic” Jews than others. Hence only the top of the hierarchy could have public religious roles.

In his latest work, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, Ferziger arrives at the binary conclusion that American Haredi movements such as community kollels have been socially outgoing, pragmatically protean, and concerned with outreach.

In contrast, Modern Orthodoxy – once the pioneering Orthodox movement that engages the spectrum of American – has gravitated toward an inward looking, boundary drawing religious style , and is focused more on raising its own education level.

In short, the former has recast itself as outward and outreach oriented, while the later has become more centripetal focused on its own narrow enclaves.

The first part of the book is a collection of Ferziger’s articles on a wide range of topics in American Orthodoxy: Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Grunwald , the Lookstein dynasty, and the SSSJ- Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

The second part of the book is a theme and variations on the current approaches to sectarianism of American Orthodoxy. In 1965, Charles S. Liebman published a study dividing Orthodoxy into two groups, modern Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy. Liebman based this division on the sociological distinction between a “church” group that seeks to be open and broad, as opposed to a “sectarian” group that is only concerned for its own members. Ferziger traces a narrowing of the gap between the two Orthodox trends and ultimately a realignment of American Orthodox Judaism.

Ferziger shows that significant elements within Haredi Orthodoxy have abandoned certain strict and seemingly uncontested norms. He shows how Yeshivish Haredi Jews in the United States are outward looking, non-sectarian, college educated and acculturated in American life. Much of the discussion focuses on the emergence of outreach to nonobservant Jews as a central priority for Haredi Orthodoxy pushing even its core population to new attitudes.

In his focus on Centrism, Ferziger has a long essay, first published a few years ago, on Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s creation of a social boundary by labeling feminism as heresy. Centrism [the right-wing of Modern Orthodoxy] uses this heresy boundary to police its own sect by hunting down violators.

He also shows how Rabbi Schachter created an entire historical vision and criteria for authority based on his own newly minted ideas of mesorah….

Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism

On a related topic see Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy

Jewish Denominations Streams Wordle

One comment

  1. For those studying the historical development of Orthodox Judaism in the 20th century, this may not come as a surprise. But since the 1960s Modern Orthodox Judaism has come under attack from itself, with Centrist/Modern Orthodox rabbis attacking other Orthodox Jews as “Reformers” – or even as “heretics” if they suggest allowing women to have a new role, even when that role is halakhically justifiable.

    Orthodox Jewish women – and their allies – have for 30 years been increasingly treated as heretics for “allowing women to read our own Bible in synagogue, or be respected as someone who is learned enough to render a ‘psak halakha (being a rabbi.) The attacks on any innovation, even strictly within halakha, are not actually traditional, but in fact are a new philosophical development, as explained by Prof Adam Ferziger on Alan Brill’s blog:

    – – – – –

    5) How did Rabbi Herschel Schachter create a new heresy?

    Rabbi Schachter has been responding vociferously in writing to various ritual initiatives of Orthodox feminism since 1984, when he together with four other RIETS rashei yeshiva published a responsum forbidding participation in women’s prayer groups.

    All of his relevant discussions during the late twentieth century were rooted in his perception of a direct relationship between Orthodox feminist proposals and the “slippery slope” of adopting behaviors associated with the Reform and Conservative movements. (For Ferziger article, see here. )

    This focus on interdenominational boundaries changed in 2003, when he published an essay titled “On the Matter of Masorah,” in which Reform Judaism is not the main culprit, but merely one among a long line of heresies that, according to Rabbi Schachter, now includes Orthodox feminism.

    The initial theme in the essay is the significance of masorah—longstanding traditions of handed-down religious behavior—for deciding normative Jewish law, even when the textual sources may allow for alternative rulings. He then applies this principle as the basis for prohibiting public Torah recital by women, a novel practice that had risen to the forefront of Modern Orthodox debate.

    In a certain sense, Rabbi Schachter’s utilization of “masorah” as a tool for ruling on normative observance is not unlike the authority given for many generations to minhag (custom) as a basis for the correct religious behavior. That said, minhag may provide justification for conduct that does not seem to be consistent with textual sources, but it does deny the theoretical correctness of the interpretation derived directly from the text.

    Masorah, on the other hand – as articulated by Rabbi Schachter, not only specifies the correct behavior, it nullifies the possibility of acting differently or even identifying the existence of an alternative approach, even if there exists a strong textual basis for doing so.

    Toward the end of his essay, Rabbi Schachter reinforces his prohibitive ruling by depicting a “historical tradition” relating to women and Judaism:

    “The Tzedukim [Sadducees] were apparently bothered with the fact that the Torah discriminated against women regarding the laws of yerusha [inheritance], and they attempted to “rectify” this “injustice” somewhat. In later years the early Christians adopted several of the positions of the earlier Tzedukim…Several centuries later, the Reform movement continued with this complaint against the tradition, that the rabbis were discriminating unfairly against women by having them sit separately in the synagogue, etc. This complaint has developed historically to become the symbol of rebellion against our masorah. The fact that this symbolizes harisus hadas [destruction of the religion] causes it to become a prohibited activity.”

    In this narrative, which is unprecedented among Orthodox authorities, feminists have not simply followed the path of their Reform and Conservative contemporaries. Rather, through their behavior they had declared themselves direct heirs to the heretical groups who deviated from normative Judaism since ancient times. For beyond any other areas of dispute with the rabbis, according to Rabbi Schachter, the complaint that linked all these historical heresies was discrimination against women.

    As such, anyone who raises objections to accepted rabbinic policy on this topic is clearly aligned with the deviant legacy and intent upon destroying the religion.

    During the following year, 2004, Rabbi Schachter published an essay “Can Women Be Rabbis?” in which attacked the new custom of inviting a learned woman to recite the text of the ketubah (marriage writ) under the wedding canopy.

    Following the masorah thesis, he argues that the fact that there is no law which requires a male reader for the ketubah, does not automatically mean that having a female one is consistent with other hallowed values that emerge from the halakhah. Here, once again, Rabbi Schachter returned to comparing Orthodox feminists with classical heretics through the common goal of destroying rabbinic Judaism: “Clearly the motivation to have a woman read the kesuba is to make the following statement: the rabbis, or better yet—the G-d of the Jews, has been discriminating against women all these millennia, and has cheated them of their equal rights, and it’s high time that this injustice be straightened out. . . ”

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