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Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger

Klal Perspectives, Communal Leadership Infrastructure

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Musings Regarding the Orthodox Community

THERE IS ENORMOUS DIVERSITY of opinion regarding the proper definition of “community” in American Orthodox Judaism.  Similarly, there are numerous views regarding the appropriate degree of authority and leadership properly wielded by the rabbinic and lay heads of the community. These divergent views are not simply narrow areas of disagreement, but are rather connected to a broader scope of differences expressed in varying approaches and attitudes to Torah and Halacha, the role of Rabbonim and Gedolim, attitudes towards Eretz Yisroel, and lifestyle issues such as mode of dress, culture and language, and the overall relationship to modern secular culture.

A Survey of the Components of American Orthodoxy

Perhaps a contemprorary American chassidic enclave is most similar to the communities of the Vaad Arba Arotzos or the Jewish shtetl of old.  In Skver, Monsey Vizhnitz, and generally in Kiryas Yoel, the Rebbe is the recognized supreme leader and all community members are expected to obey and mirror the official position promulgated by him.  Outside influence and products are simply not tolerated, just like “shechutai chutz1 was not permissible in shtetlach of old. [1]

This model, however, is not restricted to insular towns.  Strong Chassidic groupings that are spread out among several large cities, and even transnationally, such as Ger, Belz, Vizhnitz and Bobov, also recognize the Rebbe as the very real authority and ultimate arbiter of disagreements. Since these groups do not enjoy the seclusion afforded by avoiding metropolises, there is a lesser shield against outside influences.

There is also a Chassidic concept of a “heimisher yid.”  This is someone who is a nominal follower of a Rebbe, perhaps due to familial background, who dresses in a nominative Chassidic mode, but will conduct life quite independent from the guidelines and dictates of the Rebbe. Yet, to a certain degree, he is guided by “consensus Chassidus.” In certain regards, the Heimisher yid is more akin to being a member of the yeshiva world than a rebbe-dominated Chassidus.

Chabad is sui generis, due to several factors, perhaps most particularly the absence of a living Rebbe.  Nevertheless, they express strong adherence to their leaders’ perpetuation of the Rebbe’s will and world-outlook.  Chabad has many characteristics of both the insular and the non-insular Chassidic groupings, although their primary characteristic is fierce independence.

The “yeshivishe world” also has numerous sub-groupings.  Many community members develop an allegiance to their Rosh Yeshiva, typically the head of the post-high-school yeshiva attended by the individual before studying in Eretz Yisroel or in Lakewood’s Beth Medrosh Gevoha.. The Rosh Yeshiva serves not only as an educator but as a life mentor, typically serving as a continuing source of authority for years after the student has left the yeshiva.  Some of these Roshei Yeshiva turn to the Agudah’s Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah as their guide, while others follow the “Brisker derech,” which assumes a far more definite world-outlook but also encourages greater independence from higher authority figures.

There are many who do not fully identify with the classical Chassidic and yeshivish communities, though regard themselves as staunch members of the Orthodox community.  This distancing often has more to do with their view of community leadership than its hashkafa. Often, they will turn to the shul Rav as their authority.

Communities far from the Tri-State area are often referred to as out-of-town communities, and they vary significantly in size and diversity.  The Rav of smaller towns in particular is frequently the key authority, guiding his flock in accordance with his own allegiances and views.  Some of these smaller communities are the final vestiges of true kehillas.  Once an out-of-town community develops beyond a certain point, it tends to assume some of the diverse features of large cities, and risks losing its kehilla flavor.

Lakewood is a phenomenon to itself.  While almost all community members adhere to a certain halachic framework, for many, their earlier relationship with a Rosh Yeshiva or Rebbe remains important.  Some select the Roshei Yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoha or one of the town’s official poskim as their authority.  The ultimate authority, however, is often the Gedolei Eretz Yisroel, as it is for many of the roshei yeshiva nationwide.

The Modern Orthodox community prefers to foster more “independent thinkers.”  There is a wide range of adherence to rabbonim in matters of halacha and world outlook, though rabbonim eschew the concept of “daas Torah” (reverence for pronouncements of Torah leaders) so cherished in the yeshiva world.  As a result, it is more difficult to formulate uniform policy and action within this broad group.  On the other hand, much as the groups mentioned above, Modern Orthodoxy is split into subgroups with variations in practice and beliefs.

An Overview of the Yeshiva Community

A very partial list of Orthodox communal organizations within the yeshiva community (outside of the many organizations that operate primarily for the welfare of the community in Eretz Yisroel) and their categories are:

  1. Health organizations:  Hatzalah, Misaskim, Chesed shel Emes, the many Bikur Cholim organizations, Bonei Olam, A-Time, Relief, Echo, RCCS, Chai Lifeline, Chaim Aruchim, MRI, Dor Yeshorim, Chevra Kadisha.
  2. Poverty:  Keren Aniyim, Tomchei Shabbos, Masbia, Free Loan Funds (Gmachim)
  3. Education, Training and Jobs:  Chedarim, Bais Yaakovs and Yeshivos, Torah Umesorah, Reshet Shiurai Torah, the Daf Yomi movement, PCS, COPE, EPI, Learn and Network.
  4. Umbrella Organizations:  Shuls and Kehillos, Agudah
  5. Assistance:  Shomrim, Chaveirim. Jewish Neighborhood Community Organizations.
  6. Kashrus organizations:  Too numerous to mention.  These often are run on a business model, rather than on a communal model.
  7.  Kiruv:  Chabad, Oorah, Aish Hatorah, Ohr Sameach, NCSY, Gateways, Partners in Torah, Community Kollels.
  8. Dropout prevention: Project Intercept, Project YES, Our Place, Rachel’s House, remedial schools.

When a new communal need is identified, a new organization is formed or an existing umbrella organization establishes a new division (such as Torah Umesorah’s creation of Partners in Torah).  Each organization in a particular field gravitates to what it does best.  However, too often ego and perception of unfilled needs often result in turf wars.

Generally, these organizations do a good job, but they are often run as personal fiefdoms and, unfortunately, there are sometimes turf wars among these organizations. Many organizations begin sub-branches for distinct functions, and these targeted programs occasionally are spun off into separate or quasi-separate organizations.  Within the broader Orthodox community, examples include NCSY from the OU, Shuvu or Project Yes from Agudath Israel, and the Bikur Cholim of Satmar.

Competing Agendas Within American Orthodoxy

As noted above, different communities within American Orthodoxy have distinct agendas and perspectives. Not only does this translate into varying types of programs and styles, but occasionally into conflicting or inconsistent Orthodox messages to governmental offices. Government officials often justifiably complain that they are unable to determine the Orthodox community’s actual priorities, or the community’s ultimate position on key issues.

The solution is increased communication among community factions.  Groups must learn to understand each others’ viewpoints and to cooperate in instances of agreement. The need for such communication and mutual respect, however, is certainly not limited to governmental matters.  Can it possibly be in the community’s interests for there to be conflict between the Hatzalah organizations in different neighborhoods, or between fertility assistance groups, or among bikur cholim organizations?  Does it really matter whether the kosher hospitality room in a given hospital is run by the wide-brims or the tall-crowns?

This communication needs to be facilitated, or it will never occur.  Forums need to be created for the interchange of ideas and frank discussions of issues.  Ideally, the organizers should come from the organizations themselves, but perhaps it has to be done by Rabbonim or national organizations.  Let the groups learn about each other and develop camaraderie and confidence in each other.

Issues that face every community and upon which there is little disagreement should be addressed by the national organizations on a collective basis.  Examples include funding for Yeshivos, immigration and health issues, and morality concerns.  National organizations should recognize their constituencies and respect their differences with other Orthodox constituencies.  Within limits, the leaders need to stand above the fray and let disagreeing communities state their positions frankly while respecting the equally frank attitudes of other communities.

The Dynamic Between Lay Leaders and Rabbinic Authorities in the Yeshiva Community

In the chassidic and yeshiva communities, lay leaders are expected to adhere closely to rabbinic leadership and thereby serve as the executive arm of the community.  Rabbinic leadership, by contrast, serves as the legislature, judiciary and ultimate head of the executive arm, as well.  Under the guidance of Rabbonim, lay leaders develop or perpetuate communal organizations and serve as the implementation arm of such organizations.

The role of intelligent, caring lay leadership (askonim) is to bring issues to the fore, to solicit experts in the areas of concern, to outline the nature and effects of individual issues, to debate the issues and to develop clear pro-and-con positions.  Their obligation is then to bring their distilled knowledge and individual recommendations to Rabbonim for halachic review, for Torah-oriented views of the issues, and for advice and re-examination.  Rabbinical leadership should be actively used to resolve issues within a community and between communities.

Much of what lay communal leaders address involves a close connection to halacha and minhag Yisroel (Torah tradition).  Lay people must necessarily retain close relationships with rabbonim, and function harmoniously with them.  Yet, despite the clearly subordinate role of the lay community, lay leaders must be recognized and appreciated since they organize and run the dozens of communal organizations without which Orthodoxy would be much the poorer.

The Rabbonim selected to work with the lay leadership must be the best minds and of outstanding character.  They should have significant levels of experience and insight and should be “mesunim b’din,” careful in analysis and slow to judge. They must be individuals whose advice is valued by the intelligent, committed members of the community.

The Need for Expert Advice and Empirical Data

In addition to serving as the arbiters of communal decisions, rabbonim should also be catalysts in bringing experts together for analysis and to serve as think tanks for solutions or workarounds.  One example was the rabbonim’s approach to exploring appropriate communal safeguards against the scourge of the Internet. Some communities flatly banned its use, others put in safeguards to ensure it only be used for business purposes, others disabled or censored access to specific immorality but left the Internet usable as a general tool and still others believed that moral suasion was the only solution that could be permanent.  Yet, notwithstanding the disparate responses, the examination of the dangers and the technical knowledge and skills to deal with the situation produced the basic premises upon which the various communities reached their respective policy positions.

Another example of rabbinic utilization of outside guidance arose in exploring solutions to the problem of older unmarried girls in the yeshiva community.  A mathematical analysis and empirical studies pinpointed the age gap between marriageable boys and girls as a major contributing factor.

There is a need for scientific and sociological empirics, together with the primary source of traditional Torah teachings (indeed, Torah teachings often provide the clearest empirics), in order to focus accurately on problems affecting the Torah community.  Examples of the success of these methods over the span of Jewish history include Jewish public education (Rav Yehoshua ben Gamla), the institution of yeshivos (Rav Chaim Volozhiner), education for girls (Sarah Schenirer) and Daf Yomi (Rav Meir Shapiro and the Imrei Emes).  I would venture to put Chassidus (the Baal Shem Tov and Rav Dov Ber of Mezeritch), Mussar (Rav Yisroel Salanter) and the Shulchan Aruch (Rav Yosef Karo and the Ramo) in the same category.

In many ways we live in the ‘best of times and the worst of times.’ We have been afforded unparalleled freedom to observe all the tenets of Yiddishkeit, to live as we choose and devote ourselves to our faith, our families and our community. Yet, we face the ever-increasing specter of attacks from within and without, attacks that sometimes question our fundamental attitudes and practices.  Each of the diverse subgroups cannot meet these challenges alone. Working together when appropriate can yield results of immense proportions.

It is up to us to work hard to make it happen. B’siyata dshemaya, our kehillos will continue to grow and flourish.

Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, Chairman of the Board Emeritus of Agudath Israel of America, is a prominent lay leader in numerous national Orthodox organizations and educational institutions, including Torah Umesorah, Bais Medrash Govoha and Torah Vodaas.

[1] Literally, “outside slaughtering” referring to animals sanctified as Temple offerings that are slaughtered outside the Temple courtyard, which are disqualified and forbidden. It is a term applied to disqualify unwanted imports from outside the confines of an insular Jewish community.

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