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Rabbi Yisroel Miller

Shtot Rav: An Impossible Dream?

The Great Torah movements of the modern era (e.g. Mussar, Beis Yaakov, Agudas Yisroel and Rav Hirsch’s Torah-im-Derech-Eretz) all arose in response to a widespread defection from Torah-observance among young people. In each case, the new movement gained acceptance only after a consensus was eventually reached that a crisis did, in fact, exist and that it demanded innovative responses.

Because of the apparent success of American Orthodoxy today, serious calls for spiritual renewal or innovation are ignored if not opposed, and suggestions that communal institutions are flawed or inadequate are often considered treasonous. That being so, these paragraphs do not necessarily seek to identify our principal spiritual challenges or what new communal structures are needed, since the time for that is not yet ripe. Instead, their focus is on those principal problems whose solutions and needed structures are today within the realm of possibility.

Question One: What do you see as the principal socio-economic and spiritual challenges (and the interplay between the two) facing American Orthodoxy over the next twenty years?

The rising cost of yeshiva and day school education is no secret in our communities, but less well-known is the full extent of its spiritual impact.  One example is the growing number of young married couples whose concern over tuition fees leads them to choose to have fewer children (yes, this is happening, even among parents who are graduates of our finest yeshivos and seminaries).  Another is the disillusioned yeshiva teacher who complains that “my yeshiva fooled me; they said that it is worth sacrificing luxuries in order to have a career in chinuch, but they never told me that I would be reduced to begging for tuition reductions for my own children, or that certain schools would be closed to them.”

Perhaps it is time to develop a full yeshiva ketana/Beis Yaakov program for online cyber schools, which would allow parents to home-school their children at minimal cost.  This might be combined with a traditional classroom led by a Rebbe/Morah for two or three hours a day, to strengthen skills and provide social interaction (including davening). Tuition fees would be only a fraction of what they are now.  Such an alternative would not appeal to most parents, but it would be a lifesaver for some (including some who are financially well-off but whose children do not do well with thirty students in a classroom); and knowing that alternatives exist would take the pressure off many young couples who worry about the future.

Question Two: What sort of empirical information, if any, would you consider crucial to proper communal planning and informed decision-making with regard to the challenges identified above?

Marvin Shick’s series of surveys of the American Jewish day school population (sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation) have been very helpful, and it is hoped that the series will continue.  But there is so much more we need to know, such as:  How many of our children abandon Jewish observance, and what are the percentages in different communities (NY and “out-of-town”, Modern Orthodox and Chareidi)?  How many baalei teshuvah do we gain per year, and what percentage of them remains committed over time?  How many millions of charitable dollars are raised to help individuals who have been accused of crimes, and does such fund-raising reduce the number of dollars contributed to communal institutions?  In-depth studies to research underlying causes (e.g., the different reasons teen-agers abandon observance, and what leads many of them to come back) would be even better, but raw numbers alone can also be useful.

Question Three: What forms of new communal structure do you view as necessary to confront the coming challenges, and what can be done to bring them into existence?

In centuries past a town may have had many talmidei chachamim, perhaps a yeshiva with its own Rosh Hayeshiva, and a Dayan (judge) to answer questions in halacha.  But in addition, every community had an Av Bes Din or Shtot Rov, “the” Rabbi, who was responsible for upholding justice in the community according to the Torah, and who was given authority by the townspeople to do so.

Even today we have the examples of Chassidishe kehillos and the town of Gateshead, England, whose many independent Torah institutions are all accountable to the town’s Rav.  We don’t expect Flatbush or Monsey or Queens to appoint a Chief Rabbi any time soon; but the creation of a vaad, a rabbinic council comprised of leading talmidei chachamim in each community, meeting regularly and holding themselves responsible for their own community, is certainly possible.

Would we need separate vaadim for Modern Orthodox, Chasidic, and non-Chasidic chareidi groups living in the same neighborhood?  If that is necessary, there are precedents for having separate organized kehillos co-existing in the same city, each with its own schools and other institutions.  It was done in 16th-century Italy, with Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Italian kehillos in the same town; in Dvinsk, with the Rogachover z.l. serving the Chassidim and Rav Meir Simcha z.l. the Lithuanians; and in Frankfurt-on-Main, with the IRG of Rav Breuer z.l. alongside a more “modern” group with its own Rav.  What is important is that every shul, yeshiva, school and charitable body in each group be clearly under the authority of a single Rav or vaad whose members have no personal stake in the institution, but who have the power and the responsibility to act as needed.

Item:  Some years ago, a highly respected Torah organization set up a beis din (Rabbinic court) to deal with employer-employee disputes in Torah schools.  A leader of the organization told me that the Beis Din was disbanded after one school refused to accept its decision, and the organization did not have sufficient backing to demand that its verdict be enforced.

Item:  The principal of a respected girls’ high school left to open her own school, taking students from her previous place of employment in mid-year and placing the first school in danger of imminent collapse.  The Rabbinic leadership of Torah Umesorah published a letter stating that the new school could not take students away from the old school in mid-year, and the letter was simply ignored, even by some talmidei chachamim whom parents asked about switching their children.  I am neither qualified nor interested in passing judgment on the rights and wrongs of the case, but the case illustrates the problem that the authority of our national Torah organizations is not accepted.

Item:  Allegations have been made that scandalous and criminal improprieties took place at a certain school that endangered the welfare of children, and that the school administration chose to ignore the problem and to deny that any problem existed.  It is further alleged that the situation was brought to the attention of several recognized Torah leaders who agreed that improprieties had occurred, but who felt powerless to act, and the situation went on unchanged for years, until it reached the newspapers and secular courts.  I don’t know if any of these allegations are true, but thousands of Jews (including Orthodox Jews) do believe they are true; and the enormous chillul Hashem, not to mention possible harm to innocent children, could have been avoided had there been a vaad acknowledged by the community as authorized (and expected!) to act.    

Item:  Many talmidei chachamim have criticized the proliferation of segulos, mitvza or semi-mitzva activities which are said to have supernatural power to help one make a living, find a mate or be blessed with good children.  Some of these are of questionable value, and many of them detract from the need to focus on teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity) and learning Torah instead of seeking a “quick fix”.  But without a recognized Shtot Rav or vaad, there is no one with the authority to say that these practices have no place in our community, beneficial as they may be in other communities elsewhere.

Item:  There have been several cases in which a respectable Orthodox rabbi published a book that was condemned, along with its author, in an open letter signed by several prominent talmidei chachamim.  In each case there were other talmidei chachamim who did not agree with the condemnation, and who were especially upset by the letters’ harsh tone of ad hominem attack.  But these other talmidei chachamim did not publish their views, because they had no official forum in which to do so, and they did not wish to be seen as creating machlokes with the first group.  But a recognized communal vaad would be such a forum, and the community would expect them to speak up, not to add to the controversy but to say that:  “With the greatest respect for those who published the letter, nevertheless, for our community, the following is the view we believe is most correct…”

Some critics of our community have written than Orthodox Jewry suffers from a “leadership crisis.” I don’t agree.  Instead, I would suggest that we suffer from a crisis in “followership.”

We have no Shtot Rav because lay people do not demand one, nor would they be likely to demand that his rulings be followed if we had one.  But if prominent talmidei chachamim in each community could create a vaad to become the recognized authority in that community, such a body might come to be accepted as the community’s leadership, which would in turn strengthen the sense of community as a whole.  There are many obstacles to creating such a Vaad, starting with establishing criteria for membership.  But as Rav Yisroel Salanter z.l. said, “If we have baalabatim like (the righteous) Kalba Savua, we will have leaders like Rabbi Akiva.”  Recognized leaders will emerge, if there is a clamor for them, and raising our individual voices is a step that all of us can take.

Rabbi Yisroel Miller is the Rav of Congregation House of Jacob – Mikveh Israel in Calgary, Alberta

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