It seems safe to say that most religious people in the modern world struggle with the relationship between tradition and modernity.
In the Jewish world, the struggle is specifically between halacha, Jewish law, as determined by an unbroken chain of decisors based on the unshakeable foundation of God’s will and God’s words, and the surrounding culture that provides such undeniable benefits as modern science, medicine, and technology. Even the outlying groups to the far left and far right feel some of that tug; the closer to the center you go, the more frequently do you feel yourself swaying one way or the other.
Born out of the feeling that the pull to the right might be too strong, and that civility and the sense of connection with Jews to their left might be victims of that pull, a group of mainly lay leaders have created a new organization, Porat. The name, which means fruitful, is an acronym for People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah.
Larry Krule of Teaneck, the creator of the Orthodox minyan Davar, is on Porat’s founding committee. “Porat is a lay and rabbinic organization that was created with the objective of bringing thoughtful halachic observance and progressive education to an interested, committed audience,” he said, echoing the group’s website, poratonline.org. It’s aimed at people who “are committed to halacha, but at the same time open to intellectual inquiry, progressive thought, and the kind of Torah Umadda that used to be the foundation of the organized Orthodox community.
“I think that if it is done right, it will fill an articulated — and also sometimes unarticulated — need in the community.”
Torah Umadda — Torah and secular knowledge — is Yeshiva University’s motto, and the philosophy of at least part of modern Orthodoxy; it encapsulates the tension between tradition and change. It also is itself subject to changing interpretations. “There is a sense among the people involved in Porat that Torah Umadda as it was originally articulated is not being sufficiently promoted and does not appear to be a primary value of contemporary Orthodox leadership,” Mr. Krule said. “The synthesis with modernity is no longer prioritized.”
The word “progressive” comes up often as Mr. Krule talks about Porat. How does he define it? “It’s about the willingness to engage in open discussion about gender equality, about the position of LGBT individuals in our community, about a positive perspective on conversion. Porat wants to be engaged in progressive social dialogue, while always keeping a halachic perspective and orientation.
What is the connection between Porat and open Orthodoxy? Mr. Krule answered carefully. “It shares the values represented by open Orthodoxy, and institutions such as Yeshivat Maharat and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, among others, are manifestations of the principles articulated by open Orthodoxy. Avi Weiss” — the influential and controversial rabbi who just retired from his decades-long position as head of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — “is the common thread throughout much of these elements.
“There is a significant overlapping of spheres with open Orthodoxy, but open Orthodoxy is a movement, not an institution. The ideas and values associated with open Orthodoxy are consistent with the values of Porat, and some of the people overlap.”
“It’s the weltanschauung,” he said — the overarching world view members of those overlapping groups share. “Use that word if you can,” he added. “It’s a great word, and it really captures it.”
Porat was launched formally last Sunday evening at Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a panel, moderated by Steven Bayme, the director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department of the American Jewish Committee. The panel looked at the future of modern Orthodoxy, and according to founding committee member Rella Feldman of Teaneck, it was “exciting. The synagogue was filled to capacity, both downstairs and in the balconies — between 600 and 700 people.
“Modern Orthodoxy understands that we live in this world, the modern world, and we have the benefit of partaking in the cultural and political and social life, all the beauty, everything that the modern secular world has to offer, while we stay true to halacha and to our Jewish values,” Ms. Feldman said. “Modern Orthodoxy is meant to be a synthesis, creating a life that embraces both. To use Blu’s words” — that was Blu Greenberg, one of the panelists, who is a strong advocate for women in the modern Orthodox world — “we create a life where we can be both a citizen of this world and a faithful adherent to our inherited tradition.”
Porat does not see itself as outside modern Orthodoxy; instead, it’s “reinvigorating the strength of modern Orthodoxy,” Ms. Feldman said. “I have lived in Teaneck for more than 40 years, and I have seen the Jewish community here change dramatically.
“In its earliest days, one of its strengths was its diversity, and the acceptable. It wasn’t a judgmental place — when a community is small, it tends to be more unified.
“When I first moved here, there was one Orthodox synagogue, with about 100 families, two Conservative synagogues, and two Reform ones. Today in Teaneck — and I’m including Bergenfield and New Milford, which didn’t exist then — we now have 18 Orthodox synagogues, one Conservative, and one Reform.
“With that growth has come a tremendous amount of divisions. I belong to this synagogue, and we do this thing in this way. You belong to that one, and you don’t. The differences aren’t very big. We have gotten away from who we are as one people — and not that big a people. We have to be more accepting and unified, and we have to be open to non-Orthodox Jews as well.
“Porat has arisen to strengthen the perspective of open Orthodoxy. You can have speakers you don’t agree with. You can disagree. You can have a dialogue. You can’t close yourself off from everyone you disagree with.
“One of the very emotional dividing lines is the role of women, and how to make room for women leaders, women educators, women who want to be some kind of spiritual leaders, in our community. That is an issue that has been pushed aside, but we can push it aside no longer.
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Women are being educated, and for some it sparks a passion, and that grows into a passionate vocation. We can no longer keep pushing those women aside, as so much of the Orthodox world does. When you meet these women, you see that they are smart, they are sincere, they are educated, and this is what they are choosing to do. They can’t be told that they can’t do it. They have come all that way within the system; you can’t say, you want to be a doctor? You can’t be a doctor. You can be a nurse. Women can aspire to anything in the secular world, and some of them want to do it in the religious world as well.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss stresses Porat’s lay-led, up-from-the-bottom nature. “It emerges from the groundswell of the grassroots. Its intention is to demonstrate — and I think we already have demonstrated — that there is a critical mass of Orthodox Jews who support an inclusive modern Orthodoxy. That resonates not only with the large Orthodox community, but with the larger Jewish community. Ninety percent of those Jews feel little connection to Orthodoxy. They see Orthodoxy as irrelevant. I think that Porat also speaks powerfully about building bridges to the larger Jewish community.”
Rabbi Weiss talked about the Sunday night meeting. “There is a beautiful image in the Song of Songs of God knocking on a door, imploring those inside to open it. The beloved says ‘Open the door.’ The picture I tried to paint is that there are many people who are having doors slammed in their faces. In the spirit of imitatio Deo — of imitating God — they too are demanding that the doors be open.
“I painted a picture of those who are knocking on the door. I spoke about women being denied gittin” — Jewish divorces — “and those who are knocking on the door eager to become Jewish. I spoke about all those committed halachic Jews who are searching for a decentralized, collaborative, and transparent rabbinate. I suggested that all too often, those knocks go unheeded.
“The focus of the modern Orthodox world is on boundaries, on fences, on obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time condemning and declaring who is and who is not in.
“Porat, in response, was founded as an alternative response, focusing on creating a welcoming space. That’s what we believe Orthodoxy can look like in the coming decades.
“We believe in a Torah that is divine. We believe in halacha that is fully scrupulous and maximally inclusive. We believe in an Orthodoxy that welcomes, empowers, and inspires.”
It is vitally important that Porat be lay-led, Rabbi Weiss said. “The Orthodox grassroots must not be passive. It must partner with our rabbis and lay leaders in the halachic process, and in shaping the vision, values, and life of the Orthodox community.
“In that sense, Porat is saying that the engine of change, even halachic change, comes from the grassroots.
“We shouldn’t always have to look over our shoulders to the right for legitimacy. We should have confidence in ourselves, in our communities, in our poskim” — halachic decisors — “in our rabbis, in ourselves as inclusive ethical halachic Orthodox communities.
Rabbi Weiss does not want to use the term open Orthodoxy. “We are using the term inclusive,” he said. “Inclusive Orthodoxy.” There are progressive voices across the Orthodox world, he added. “I believe that there are ten thousand who support Porat’s philosophy of a more inclusive modern Orthodoxy. That is the key, and it extends beyond any existing institution or organization. There is a silent majority out there that extends beyond any existing institution or organization. There is a silent majority out there that identifies very much with the philosophy of Porat.
Dr. Kenneth Prager of Englewood also is on Porat’s founding committee. He and his wife, Jeannie, recently held a parlor meeting to introduce Porat to the community. “It was a very successful meeting,” he said. “We had a large turnout. Rabbi Weiss is correct in saying that there are modern Orthodox laypeople out there who are frustrated with the direction in which modern Orthodoxy is going.
“It is going to the right, to the right, to the right. People would like some vehicle to express their frustration with this movement, and to bring about change through their rabbis and existing institutions.”
Why Porat? There are institutions such as Chovevei and Maharat” — Chovevei is a rabbinical school and Maharat uses a similar curriculum to train women for not-yet-clearly-defined positions of religious leadership — “and Jofa” — the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance — “but there is not one large organization for laypeople,” Dr. Prager said. “I don’t know if there is exactly a silent majority, but I do know that there is a substantial number of people who are frustrated with the direction in which things are going. They have no way personally no bring about change. I think a lot of people are alienated from Orthodoxy because of the rightward swing. I hope Porat does effect change. It’s badly needed.”
Why the alienation? “It’s the nitpicking adherence to laws, while bigger issues, like agunot” — women chained to dead marriages because their husbands will not give them religious divorces — “and conversion and the inclusion of LGBT people and business ethics are being left by the wayside.
“We are ever more punctilious about our observance of molecular kashrut while not embracing LGBT people wishing to be part of the Orthodox community, and while women continue to suffer as agunot.
“There is a gross imbalance here. Judaism is supposed to be darchei noam. Its ways are supposed to be ways of pleasantness. It’s that no longer. Now it’s ways of nitpicking. I find that very distressing.
“I grew up in an era where modern Orthodoxy was not like this,” Dr. Prager concluded. “There were wonderful, scholarly rabbis who had a very different hashkafah — a very different worldview. Today, those rabbis would be considered outsiders.”
Porat’s next large meeting most likely will be in Chicago in September, probably right around the High Holy Days, Rabbi Weiss said. You can find more information about Porat, including both its philosophy and its plans, on its website, www.poratonline.org.