Face it: Orthodoxy is divided

The modern Orthodox and Charedi movements would be healthier going their own ways

By Miriam Shaviv, June 11, 2009

To our east and to our west, two radically different snapshots of Orthodoxy. In Israel, the government is deciding whether to continue to allow certain public buses to be segregated by gender. On 40 lines, which run mostly through Charedi areas, men sit at the front, and women (who are not allowed on unless modestly dressed) at the back. These “kosher buses” are being aggressively promoted by politically minded Charedi leaders and by thugs who physically assault women who refuse to move to the back.

In the US, meanwhile, an Orthodox woman has become a rabbi in all but name. Sara Hurwitz completed the same exams men take in order to be ordained, and was granted the title Maharat — Leader in Jewish Law, Spiritual Matters, and Torah — by Avi Weiss, a leading New York Orthodox rabbi. She will fulfil all the rabbinic roles permitted to her by halachah, including ruling on Jewish law. This autumn, Rabbi Weiss will open a school for other women who wish to join the Orthodox clergy.

Here in the UK, it is possible we will never have to make a choice between these two approaches. We have neither kosher buses nor Orthodox women rabbis — yet — and Orthodox Brits have always taken pride in their moderation. But in New York — the world’s largest Jewish city — the hot topic is whether Rabbi Weiss’s move will bring about a split in Orthodoxy between traditionalists and modernisers.

There is no need, however, for a formal breakup. No Charedi Jew would be comfortable in a shul in which a woman gives the sermon. Few modern Orthodox women would accept a bus system in which they were shunted to the back. Between the two approaches — to women, to halachic innovation, to rabbinic authority, to the place of religious people in the state of Israel — lies an unbridgeable chasm.
Though they are still united by their acceptance of the halachic system, the truth is that modern Orthodoxy and Charedi Judaism have long since diverged into two separate movements, and continue to move in opposite directions.

This is no bad thing. The instinct, of course, is to root for unity, to try and emphasise what binds us. But for the modern Orthodox, at least, there would be a distinct advantage in finally admitting how much divides them from the Charedim.

For too long, modern Orthodox leaders have refrained from asserting their full authority out of deference to their Charedi peers. In Israel, for example national-religious rabbis have all but abandoned the conversion and divorce courts to the Charedi camp, and seem afraid of challenging their approach, which places severe obstacles in the way of converts and has left too many wives unwillingly “chained” to their husbands.

In the diaspora, modern Orthodox rabbis regularly moderate their behaviour for fear of offending Charedim. Think only of Rabbi Sacks’s Hugo Gryn letter. Even Rabbi Weiss, when “ordaining” Maharat Hurwitz, could not bring himself to give her the title “Rabbi”. This respect is rarely reciprocated by the Charedim.

The modern Orthodox need to break the psychological link with the Charedi world so they can pursue their own halachic priorities without constantly looking over their “right shoulders”. They must get over the idea — aggressively promoted by the strictly Orthodox — that Charedi Judaism is “authentic Judaism”.

It is, in a sense, the most modern of the Jewish streams, a 19th-century reaction to Reform and to assimilation. Until then, halachah was never considered rigid and static. In medieval Europe, Jews, including senior rabbis, interacted closely with their Christian neighbours, held professions, gained secular knowledge. Women worked; there are even examples of them acting as sandak in a brit, as mohelet and ritual slaughterer.

So the modern Orthodox must not fear going it alone and asserting their own values. The stakes for Orthodoxy are high: will future maharats will be sitting at the front of the bus; the back of the bus; wherever they choose — or will they be on the bus at all?

Last updated: 11:51am, June 16 2009