Edah agenda: Modern Orthodoxy is not an oxymoron

NEW YORK –When 1,500 modern Orthodox Jews gathered to affirm their distinctive identity in 1999, one author described it as the day modern Orthodoxy "climbed back up from its knees."

But this past President's Day weekend, as 1,100 people gathered in New York for the second biennial conference of Edah — a group whose motto is "the courage to be modern and Orthodox" — it was not clear just how far the liberal wing of American Orthodoxy had climbed.

Edah was formed largely out of concern that Orthodoxy had become dominated by right-wing and separatist elements and that modern Orthodox Jews — who embraced secular as well as Jewish learning, who supported Jewish pluralism and who wished to advance the status of women — were a timid and dying breed.

Some of this year's participants praised Edah for provoking thought, fostering a sense of community and lessening the feeling of "extinction" among modern Orthodox Jews.

"There's been a heightened consciousness of the strength of the modern Orthodox community," said Rabbi Saul Berman, Edah's director.

But others complained that modern Orthodox Jews, particularly outside Israel, still "look over the right shoulder," seeking the approval of more fervently Orthodox Jews.

Some expressed concern that Edah is not growing, building enough grassroots support or making bold enough strides.

"There has to be a lot of grassroots stuff going on beyond the conference and a lot of community organizing," said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, headmaster of the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston and a speaker at the conference.

"I'm not sure people are really understanding that," he said.

This year's conference attracted a smaller crowd and less controversy than the 1999 one.

Then, several Orthodox leaders condemned the conference, with Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a prominent Yeshiva University professor calling Edah "outside the pale of Judaism."

This year there were no public condemnations before the conference.

Rabbi Zvi Grumet, associate principal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County in New Jersey and a member of Edah's advisory board, interpreted that silence as an "acceptance that Edah and what it stands for is real, exists and is not a threat to anyone."

But Tendler, reached by telephone after the conference, said his criticism "is only sharper today."

Asserting that modern Orthodoxy is an "oxymoron," Tendler said his main objection to Edah is that its leaders confer "legitimacy" on the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

He also criticized many Edah leaders' support for prayer groups in which women read from the Torah, something he said violates Jewish law.

Titled "The Quest for Holiness," this year's Edah conference focused more on spirituality and ethics than the more controversial issues taken on last time.

Those issues included concerns that modern Orthodox day schools, often staffed by haredi, or fervently religious, educators, are not teaching their own ideology as well as concerns about youth becoming more fervent after studying for a year at yeshiva in Israel.

This year's conference included sessions on Orthodox feminism and the future of women's prayer groups.

But the mood in the prayer groups session was gloomy, with several women lamenting the hostility such groups have faced from rabbis as well as the apathy the groups seem to face from younger women.

Some plenary speakers, like Moshe Kaveh, president of Israel's Bar-Ilan University, endorsed liberal and controversial moves, such as allowing women to be judges on certain halachic matters and allowing marriages to be annulled in cases where recalcitrant husbands refuse their wives a Jewish divorce.

Those suggestions were greeted with a smattering of applause, but did not receive a groundswell of support.

"On the one hand there were sessions like bugs in the vegetables and can you play ball on Shabbos, but other sessions were really groundbreaking in terms of addressing pluralism, relations with non-Jews and the role of women," said one participant who did not give her name for fear of sounding dismissive about the finer questions of Jewish law.

For the most part, participants felt that — with the exception of a new modern Orthodox rabbinic seminary and the creation of Edah's online scholarly journal — little has changed among Edah's adherents in the past two years.

Lehmann urged Edah to do such things as create new prayer books and establish leadership-training programs for young people that reflect the movement's ideology.

But asked whether there are enough people to support such projects, Lehmann said he did not know.

Mark Charendoff, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a speaker at the conference, also called for those involved to be more proactive and less concerned about criticisms from the fervently Orthodox.

"I don't want to apologize to haredim that women in my synagogue take a more active role — I want to celebrate it," he said.