It wasn’t the “grassroots” of Orthodoxy. It was liberal Jews.

There is a fascinating (to me anyway) and respectful debate about Partnership Minyanim going on in a multi-part series over at Modern Torah Leadership. It starts off with an essay by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper,  Are Partnership Minyanim Orthodox?  and then includes responses from Rabbi Dr. Martin Lockshin, Malka Simkovich, Shira Hecht-Koller, and Dr. Yoel Finkelman.

While the essays contain very interesting exchanges on the nature of rabbinic authority and how vital it is for Orthodoxy and how Partnership minyanim challenge it, I could not help focusing on another aspect of the exchange.

In his pro-Partnership Minyanim essay, Rabbi Lockshin writes on the issue of enacting change that does not come from rabbinic innovation but is driven by the will of the laity:

Partnership Minyanim do not have the support of the “gedolim,” the great Torah sages of our generation. In this, PMs are like many other innovations introduced into modern Orthodoxy in the last two hundred years—they proceeded from the grass roots. Many of them later won the (often grudging) approval of some gedolim. In this category I would list, among others:

  • Sermons in shul in the vernacular.
  • Beardless rabbis.
  • Believing that the world is more than 6000 years old.
  • Bat mitzvah celebrations.
  • Orthodox Jews studying humanistic subjects in a university.
  • Women’s tefillah groups.
  • Women teaching Torah to men.
  • Women reciting mourner’s kaddish in shul.

Implementing these innovations, it was argued in almost every case, would ultimately lead people to abandon Orthodoxy. Rabbi Henkin has made the same claim about PMs. Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik took another approach when he gave his unenthusiastic support to women reciting mourner’s kaddish in an Orthodox shul. He said that if we did NOT permit this, women would be likely to go to a Conservative shul to say kaddish.

While Rabbi Lockshin is a scholar and real mentch and is paving an admirable path in a difficult landscape, I have to disagree with him here.

The list of innovations he lists above did not originate directly in the Orthodox laity. Every innovation listed (OK so maybe not the university thing) was something that was started by liberal Jews and which they were ridiculed, called ‘treif’ and rejected by Orthodox Judaism of the time for. Do your really think that Orthodox women would have begged to say Kaddish in droves if that was something that was not done without comment for decades by their liberal sisters? Rabbi Soloveitchik’s response reveals the truth- that women wanted basic ritual rights they saw in other denominations and would have left Orthodoxy to get them. So while the laity may have asked for these changes, they originated elsewhere. And while he is less blunt, Rabbi Lockshin echos the idea that modifying Orthodoxy to meet women’s needs is far preferable to having them go to a Conservative minyan.

Within Orthodoxy, change driven by the demands of the laity are indeed threatening, but more so is change driven by innovations in other denominations.

Advocates of Partnership Minyanim and other forms of Open Orthodoxy  are facing a lot of threats with Orthodoxy and a lot of pressure. They are threatened with being called illegitimate and having their rulings  and their conversions declared invalid. Being the face of these movements requires a fair amount of courage.

I wish these advocates also had the courage acknowledge their links and debts to liberal Judaism, without shame, and not discount the history, contributions and the validity of religious innovation that originated within it. I say this even though doing so I know would create more problems for their reputations in the eyes of their more fundamentalist colleagues.

This entry was posted in Feminism and Jewish Ritual & Practice, Liberal Judaism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It wasn’t the “grassroots” of Orthodoxy. It was liberal Jews.

  1. sjewindy says:

    Reblogged this on A secular Jew in Indianapolis and commented:
    An important read. (Sometimes this is a problem among liberal movements, too.)

  2. Charles Cohen says:

    There is a joke that when the Catholic Church issues a document that marks a significant change to Church doctrine, that document always starts:

    . . . “As the Church has always taught . . . ”

    As you point out, to _admit_ that these “innovations” were started by liberal strands of Judaism, would doom the argument in the Orthodox community. It has to be _their_ idea.

    . Charles

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