Friday, February 23, 2007

The Challenge of Constructive Criticism

An article in last week's Yated entitled "Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: Is It Orthodox? " is being discussed on the blogoshere. I would like to move away from the question of whether specific statements and actions, made or done by some affiliated with the yeshivah are or are not beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. Instead, I wish to focus on the purpose and goal in writing the article in question.

The article's purpose is mentioned in the last section:

In a way, YCT is acting in the tradition of the Maskilim of a previous era. Although they are not experiencing the success that the Maskilim had with the masses on an individual level, on a communal level, their efforts to conquer pulpits in communities across the United States and Canada is something that should concern every Jew who values kvod shomayim.

It was with great reservation and heartache that we undertook to expose to our readers to the terribly destructive conduct of YCT. It is a responsibility that we undertook with great trepidation. As a Torah newspaper we hesitate to expose and pain our readership by enumerating the terribly distressing things contained within this article.

Nevertheless, after watching YCT develop and spread with barely a peep of public outcry from the Modern / Centrist Orthodox establishment we felt compelled by the injunction of our sages, that state, “Bemakom she’ein ish, hishtadel lihiyos ish: In a place where there are no leaders; strive to be a leader (Avos 2-6).”

The wider community must be made aware of this growing threat, this growing attack on the very foundations of our faith that is gathering strength. We hope that this small sampling of items will travel well beyond the natural constituency of Yated readers and serve as a point of discussion and most importantly a wake up call for all Jews, Right, Left or Center, who truly care about kvod shomyaim and the integrity of the Halachic system.

Jewish leadership involves walking a tightrope called s'mol docheh v'ymin mekareves. On the one hand, if one is afraid to speak out when appropriate, then a person will never be able to criticize anyone for fear of alienating them. This is an abdication of leadership. On the other hand, one must be very careful lest one push people away; erring on the side of s'mol docheh, is not an option, and it is counterproductive to one's cause.

Edah and Chovevie Torah were founded because there were those that felt that Modern Orthodoxy had shifted rightward. As Rabbi Saul Berman wrote in the Jewish Press("The Emergence, Role, and Closing of Edah"):

By 1995, Modern Orthodoxy was in crisis. The lead American institutions of Modern Orthodoxy had been reoriented toward the separatist, haredi ideology. For many who resisted the separatist shift, being Modern Orthodox had come simply to mean not being as frum. Modern Orthodox Jews were feeling isolated and besieged. Modern Orthodoxy seemed to have lost both its identity and its way.

We founded Edah in 1997 as a think tank to restore the essential elements of Modern Orthodox ideology. Edah was not formed as a critique of haredi Orthodoxy but as a critique of the Modern Orthodox neglect of its own distinctive ideological positions.

YCT was founded for a similar reason, as mentioned by Rabbis Dov Linzer and Avi Weiss in an article in Sh'ma ( "Creating an Open Orthodox Rabbinate"):

Orthodox Judaism is currently at a crossroads. In the post-Holocaust generation, Ortho-doxy has shown new life, attracting and maintaining adherents and cultivating an increasing commitment to scrupulous observance and regular Torah study. The choice that Orthodoxy faces today is whether to focus on the needs of its own community or on the needs of the larger Jewish community, expanding outward, nondogmatically and cooperatively. Believing in an Orthodoxy that is open intellectually and expansive and inclusive in practice, we need a new breed of rabbis. To this end, three years ago, we created Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

To it's credit, Open Orthodoxy's leaders speak about their Orthodoxy and commitment to Halacha. However, by its own defintions, this school of thought pushes the limits of Orthodoxy leftward. Certainly, there have been statements made by its graduates which those to its right find seriously objectionable, and there is concern that the rest of the Orthodox world could be influenced in that direction. Yet, the people who affiliate in different ways with the school are Torah observant, and they should not be pushed towards institutions which are not part of Orthodoxy. The challenge for the Orthodox world to the right of YCT is to find a constructive way in which to respond.

I felt that there was much merit in an article by Rabbi Amos Bunim which the Yated had previously published, and which was also printed in the Five Towns Jewish Times:

The lay leadership of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah expressed their feelings that Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), an affiliate of Yeshiva University, has leanings that are more to the right and that it was necessary to organize Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as a Modern Orthodox yeshiva that would have leanings more to the left.

Edah and Chovevei Torah are creating a movement that will encompass those who identify themselves as part of the Orthodox left. The leaders of these organizations, however, should be prepared to face the fact that such a step involves enormous challenges to the very fabric of our religious beliefs. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its leaders should therefore redouble their efforts to remain true to the tenets of Torah and Yiddishkeit...

Rabbis Berman and Weiss ought to look into some of the positions and philosophies espoused by some musmachim of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. These positions need to be corrected in order to ensure that critical errors not be made.

What needs to be done now is to reevaluate many of the positions and philosophies that have developed within this new movement, with an eye toward reestablishing the primacy of Toras emes. My wish for them is, “chazak ve’ematz” in Torah values.

It is important to note that despite the strong concern that Judaism in America would not thrive unless altered, the camp of b’nei Torah is flourishing and blossoming. The underlying reason for the burgeoning of the b’nei Torah camp cannot be dismissed: it represents true, unadulterated Toras emes. Refusing to compromise in dikduk ha’mitzvos and Torah-true values is the secret behind the success of the b’nei Torah movement.

I was most impressed with the ymin m'kareves element implicit in "my wish for them is, “chazak ve’ematz” in Torah values " and in "Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its leaders should therefore redouble their efforts to remain true to the tenets of Torah and Yiddishkeit".

Certainly, people have a right, and from their perspective a duty, to be concerned about the direction of YCT, and to engage in necessary criticism. But we should also be very careful of responses which are merely cathartic, and which do not clearly reflect a concern on the part of the critic for those being critiqued. While I am not judging whether the Yated article fufilled this aspect or not, the broader point is that we need to ensure that any future criticism will be interpreted as reflecting both a firmness in resolve, but also a true caring and genuine concern for our bretheren in the Open Orthodoxy camp.

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