Orthodox leader speaks out on Jewish unity, breaking long silence

SPRING GLEN, N.Y. — As Israeli Orthodox political and religious leaders battle over the future of Jewish peoplehood with the Reform and Conservative movements, public input from leaders of American modern Orthodoxy has been patchy.

Leaders of the congregational branch of the movement that integrates Torah and modernity have occasionally spoken out against the liberal movements' positions.

But until now, Rabbi Norman Lamm — president of Yeshiva University, the fountainhead of modern Orthodox ideology and the training ground for many centrist Orthodox rabbis and educators — has been noticeably silent.

This silence is in marked contrast to his more vocal role a decade ago, when the "Who is a Jew?" debacle threatened Israel-diaspora relations.

At that time, Lamm urged the Israeli government to put Jewish unity ahead of the desire of Orthodox political parties to exclude non-Orthodox converts from invoking a Jew's automatic citizenship in the state of Israel.

Now, after months of silence, Lamm has once again come out on the side of Jewish unity, urging his constituents to put compromise and cooperation with the non-Orthodox ahead of theological differences.

"We should vigorously support compromise produced by the Ne'eman Committee," Lamm said, referring to the Israeli government-appointed interdenominational committee charged with reaching a solution to the current conversion crisis.

The committee is seeking to avert Orthodox-sponsored legislation that would codify Orthodox control over religious life.

While the Orthodox need to ensure the validity of all conversions to Judaism in Israel, Lamm said, "communal peace is also a principle of Judaism."

Lamm's remarks came during a speech and in a private interview during a convention of the World Council of Orthodox Leadership, which drew some 650 people to the Homowack Hotel in Glen Springs, N.Y., over the Thanksgiving weekend.

The council is a new umbrella organization representing the leaders of 21 modern Orthodox institutions.

The goal of the conference, an organizer said, was to clearly articulate the principles of modern Orthodoxy and to develop a strategy to implement them.

The gathering came at a time of intra-Orthodox as well as interdenominational Jewish strife.

It is a time when, because of the influence of the right on centrist Orthodoxy, some are questioning what modern Orthodoxy really stands for.

Lamm told his listeners that they should value and encourage the efforts of non-Orthodox leaders to more seriously integrate traditional Jewish practices into the lives of their followers.

They should welcome the creation of Reform and Conservative day schools and not see them as a threat to their own, Lamm said. In many communities, Orthodox day schools, or Orthodox-oriented community day schools, have large numbers of students from non-Orthodox families.

The liberal movements should be appreciated and encouraged because they are doing something Jewish, even if it is not the way that Orthodox Jews would like them to, he said.

"What they are doing is something, and something is better than nothing," he said in his speech.

"I'm very openly attacking the notion that we sometimes find in the Orthodox community that `being a goy is better'" than being a non-Orthodox Jew, he said in an interview.

But it was apparent in one of Lamm's offhand remarks in his speech that while tolerance may be a goal, it has its limits in practice.

Lamm mocked the president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for calling himself a rosh yeshiva, a term generally used by the heads of Orthodox schools.

Lamm also derided the Reform school for calling its part-time adult education program a kollel. In Orthodoxy, kollels are centers for adult men's advanced, full-time study.

"As soon as I finished saying that, I regretted it," Lamm said later.

If concerns over Jewish unity and pluralism were central at the conference, which was titled "Translating Vision Into Reality," so were intra-Orthodox tensions.

Haredi, or right-wing, Orthodoxy's influence on modern Orthodoxy has long been conceded by people in the centrist camp — and celebrated by those to their right.

Many of the conference's speakers focused on shoring up confidence in modern Orthodoxy and on reminding them about the central tenets of their movement.

"We live in two worlds, consciously. We see legitimacy and value in two worlds, in things like Zionism and feminism," said J.J. Schachter, rabbi of The Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"Our modernity has challenged our Orthodoxy. But Orthodoxy and modernity are not equal," he said. "We have to keep our priorities straight. Have we accepted that we have to submit ourselves, wholly, to a transcendent God, which requires a certain kind of behavior?"

Leaders of the groups sponsoring the conference passed resolutions endorsing the religious value of work outside the synagogue and Torah study hall — work that benefits the Jewish community and humankind.

Other resolutions committed them to a renewed focus on Zionist education and activity, and endorsed efforts to expand women's leadership roles within Orthodoxy, an issue that was a major theme at the conference.

Many speakers also unequivocally criticized the community's intimidation from the right.

"There is great danger when authoritarianism comes into play and there are attempts to quash discussion," said Rabbi Marc Angel, president of the Rabbinic Alumni of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan TheologicalSeminary.

"Some people are declared acceptable and some are declared unacceptable," said Angel, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, speaking of an ideological blacklisting that he said has become quite routine.

"Unless we defend people's rights" to speak freely, "the atmosphere gets worse," said Angel. "If the modern Orthodox community doesn't stand up, then who will? If we can't rise above petty sectarian differences, then who will?"

Even within modern Orthodoxy, the limits of inclusion and tolerance were visible.

Edah, a group established last year to educate Orthodox rabbis about tolerance, was invited to participate but was then disinvited.

There was concern about the participation of Rabbi Saul Berman, a New York rabbi who runs the organization.

Edah was deemed traif last year by some rabbinic leaders at Yeshiva University because Berman and Rabbi Avi Weiss, another Edah leader, have initiated a leadership training program for women that has been interpreted by some as being too close to rabbinical training.

They are also resented because they are working outside the establishment organizations, the organizer said.