Why Is Orthodoxy Packing Up Big Tent?

Decades of Inclusivity Laid Foundation for Growth

courtesy of YCT

By Jonathan Sarna

Published November 06, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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In 1939, the Agudath Harabonim went after Abraham Goldstein, who is one of the pioneers of the modern kosher food industry and the chemist who, among other things, devised the O-U symbol of kashrut and helped to establish Modern Orthodoxy’s Kosher Certification Service. “Mr. Abraham Goldstein,” the Eastern European rabbis charged, “is a thorough ignoramus in matters Jewish.” As a Modern Orthodox Jew, they alleged, he had “impudently assumed authority to decide in matters of kashrut.” The rabbis warned that he was “misleading the Jewish public.”

Today, it seems, the travails of the early RCA rabbis who withstood the attacks of those to their right and established a thriving English-speaking American Orthodoxy have been all but forgotten. Like the 17th-century Puritans, who left England to escape its persecution of religious dissidents and in America promptly began to persecute dissidents of their own, so the 42 signers of the RCA manifesto now accuse Lopatin and Open Orthodoxy of the same sins once leveled against their own founders. In a tale as old as religion itself, yesterday’s heretics have become today’s heresy hunters.

A deeper issue, however, also underlies the battle concerning “Open Orthodoxy,” and that is the question of inclusivity versus exclusivity. Orthodoxy’s growth over the past half-century has relied on, like Protestant evangelicalism, an inclusive model. Seeking to compete with liberal Jewish movements, Orthodoxy stretched its big tent to embrace Modern Orthodoxy, Chabad, the “yeshivish” Orthodox and the Hasidic enclaves, like Satmar. Plenty of bickering took place internally, but for the most part Orthodoxy’s major wings learned from the bitter experience of earlier decades that peaceful cooperation would serve all of them better than open warfare would. The calamitous decline suffered by the Conservative movement when the Reconstructionists on the left and the traditionalists on the right angrily abandoned that movement’s big tent served as an object lesson as to why it was so important for inclusivity to be preserved.

Nowadays, though, the Orthodox community feels increasingly secure. Recent studies, including the New York Jewish Population Survey and the Pew Research Center study, indicate that its numbers and influence are rising. In more right-wing corners of the movement, which are growing the fastest, triumphalism reigns supreme.

This mood is a natural breeding ground for those seeking to create a purer, holier and more exclusive Orthodox community, one that will adhere more punctiliously to “Orthodox laws, customs and traditions.” Indeed, the RCA itself has recently fallen victim to this trend. Hamodia: The daily newspaper of Torah Jewry, ran an editorial last June, titled “The Hypocrisy of the RCA.” To those who listen closely, indeed, there are growing indications that the Orthodox “big tent” is straining, as religious policemen at home and abroad push for ever more exclusive definitions of who belongs within the Orthodox fold and who should be excluded.

Against this background, the battle over Lopatin and Open Orthodoxy takes on greater significance. The Orthodox infighting played out in Haaretz.com and other venues is not about just, as the 42 signers of the manifesto would have it, the border dividing Orthodoxy from “neo-Conservatism” (a religious movement that, until now, nobody has ever heard of). It is instead a battle over the nature of Orthodoxy itself: whether it will be inclusive or exclusive; whether the Orthodox big tent will continue to hold up or collapse on itself.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and the author of “American Judaism: A History” (Yale University Press, 2004).


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