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A More Inclusive Modern Orthodoxy

A new, lay organization called PORAT invites individuals to focus on building community by engaging in civil discourse rather than ostracizing

Avi Weiss and Rella Feldman
May 11, 2016

This past year a growing number of Orthodox rabbis have been declared personae non gratae by institutions and organizations that have been identified with the more centrist streams of Orthodoxy. Some of these instances did not occur in the public eye, and I (Avi) have witnessed them myself: A world-renowned rabbinic figure was invited and then disinvited from serving as a Shabbat scholar-in-residence in a centrist Orthodox synagogue; a rabbi with ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel was denied membership in the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) because he supported the values of an institution not to their liking. I have also been personally affected: after writing weekly divrei Torah for a widely read Jewish newspaper for many, many years, I was recently informed that my column would be discontinued because of my association with a more open Orthodoxy.

Certainly, for many years now, criticisms have been leveled at leaders of a more inclusive Orthodoxy by the Agudas HaRabonim, a group of rabbis associated with Haredi Judaism. As could be expected, these critiques have focused on women’s roles, conversion, interacting with non-Orthodox denominations, rabbinic power, and honest intellectual engagement with the mesorah. That criticism from the right has had a chilling effect on well-established non-Haredi institutions. Whether fearful of backlash or from a need to find legitimacy and validation from the right, these more centrist institutions have failed to live up to the true values and commitments of Modern Orthodoxy.

Indeed, these most recent censures come from more centrist groups. While deeply distressing, this phenomenon of criticism of Modern Orthodoxy from the center, is really the continuation of a trend that has been going on for many years. Consider: many of these institutions prefer the label Centrist Orthodoxy or simply Orthodoxy over Modern Orthodoxy, reflecting a rejection of a true engagement with modernity and its challenges in favor of situating itself merely as a non-extreme-right version of Orthodoxy. Lacking the verve of animating values, it is not surprising that this approach would wind up focusing on drawing lines and establishing borders, with identity politics replacing true religious engagement and constructive responses to communal challenges.

In the past 25 years, the Modern Orthodox community has shifted precipitously to the right. In response, rabbinical schools have been created to graduate men and women as spiritual leaders—Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat; a new Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, has been formed; a Jewish court, the International Beit Din has been established to deal with the plight of agunot; the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has come into being; a think tank, The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, has come on the scene; at Yeshiva University, the Center for the Jewish Future has reached out to the broader Jewish community and done yeoman’s work in social justice.

What’s missing is a broad, lay organization that subscribes to this more inclusive Modern Orthodoxy. In response, a new national organization called PORAT (literally, “fruitful,” from the acronym People for Orthodox Renaissance And Torah), has been formed. Its founding committee includes leaders from within the Modern Orthodox community, including this article’s authors. But the most central members are lay Modern Orthodox adults of all ages. PORAT is a grassroots organization.

The goal of PORAT is clear: to demonstrate that a critical mass (we believe it is in the tens of thousands) of Orthodox Jews identify with the values of an inclusive Modern Orthodoxy. It will make this point by organizing events around the country, and using the web to encourage individuals to sign on as supporters of PORAT’s values. Unlike the Orthodox Union, which is primarily a federation of synagogues, PORAT is exclusively a “union” of thousands of individuals.

PORAT will focus on providing a platform for civil discourse on the pressing matters challenging our community. People will be encouraged to come forward to join the conversation—without fear of being ostracized or locked out.

PORAT will also focus on identifying spiritual opportunities in halakha and Jewish life for people to grow. It sees meticulous observance of halakha as a verb rather than a noun, leading to a life of kedusha.

It is our strong sense that PORAT supporters include a “silent majority” in communities like Teaneck, Boca Raton, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Skokie, IL, even as it includes many of the more progressive graduates of Yeshiva University, Gush Etzion and Chabad. The hope is that PORAT will encourage this silent majority to step up, unafraid to respectfully identify with an inclusive Modern Orthodoxy. Our hope, too, is that PORAT will expand to include counterparts in Israel and around the world.

The first PORAT program will be held on the eve of May 15 at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan. It will include leaders across the Modern Orthodox spectrum: Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, KJ’s newly appointed senior rabbi; Rabbi Benny Lau, one of the great rabbinic “bridge builders” in Israel; Ann Pava, who serves on the boards of Yeshivat Maharat, and GPATS at Yeshiva University; and Blu Greenberg, a legendary Orthodox feminist. In September, similar PORAT programs will be held simultaneously around the country.

Today, Modern Orthodoxy is faced with a central question. On the one hand, there are those who focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick—obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing, condemning, and declaring who is beyond the pale. On the other hand, PORAT takes the alternative approach. Its focus is on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century.

Rella Feldman is a former president of the Moriah School in Englewood, New Jersey. Avi Weiss is the Rabbi in Residence of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. They are both members of the founding committee of PORAT.

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