August 24, 2006
By FRANCES KRAFT and LEILA SPEISMAN
Staff Reporters (
The Canadian Jews News
A group of people, some friends and some strangers, are sitting having dinner at a wedding. Two couples meet in a restaurant. Casual acquaintances stop to chat on the street.
Three different scenes.
What’s common to all of them is the subject of conversation: what is going on in Toronto’s Orthodox community.
While Jewish geography, communal gossip, Israel and shul politics are common topics of discussion among Jews, this time the focus is unusual, as is the frustration that often accompanies it.
Concern about what many consider to be a drastic move to the far right of religious observance by some in the Orthodox world is nothing new. What seems to have stirred the pot, though, is what has come to be referred to as the “Slifkin affair,” a brouhaha that erupted this past winter when the British-born, Israel-based Rabbi Natan Slifkin – also known as the “Zoo Rabbi” for his educational Torah-related zoo tours – visited Toronto to speak at a program sponsored by Torah in Motion, a Modern Orthodox educational organization that hosts lectures and programs.
Three of his books – including Mysterious Creatures and The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax, which include ideas about the origins of the universe that are anathema to his fellow haredim – were banned by Israeli and North American haredi rabbis in early 2005. Especially troubling to them are Rabbi Slifkin’s assertions in The Science of Torah that the world was created not in six days, but over millions of years.
However, the young rabbi’s profile remained relatively low in Toronto until his recent visit.
At that time, Rabbi Shlomo Miller, rosh kollel and av beis din (head of the institution and its rabbinical court) of Kollel Avreichim, issued “a letter of admonishment” stating that Rabbi Slifkin’s opinions on the six days of creation were “definitely heretical,” even “boorish.”
Located on Coldstream Avenue in the heart of the haredi community near Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue, “the Kollel,” as it’s commonly known, is the leading haredi post-yeshiva educational institution in Toronto, and its rulings have come to exert significant influence in the Orthodox community.
(Rabbi Miller declined to speak directly to The CJN, saying that the media has misquoted and misunderstood him. However, he authorized Jonathan Ostroff, a computer science professor at York University, to speak on his behalf.)
Against the view of the Kollel and other haredi voices, Rabbi Slifkin and his supporters argue – to little avail – that rabbinic scholars from many years ago, including the Rambam, were the first to posit these ideas.
In Toronto, the controversial trend toward more stringent interpretations of halachah has been ongoing, with a decision this summer by the Toronto Vaad Hatzdokah, an independent board that certifies Jewish charity collectors, not to endorse any future female applicants, despite having done so before. The Vaad said the collection of tzadakah by women is halachically problematic for reasons having to do with modesty. In addition, moves by the Vaad Harabonim, Toronto’s Orthodox rabbinic umbrella organization – such as challenging the city’s longstanding eruv, a physically demarcated boundary around the city that allows Jews to carry things in public on Shabbat and Yom Tov – are being seen as an attempt to bring the community more in line with haredi ideals.
Making the situation more volatile, many people in the Orthodox community are troubled by what appears to be a refusal of non-haredi rabbis and other Orthodox leaders to speak out against the situation.
Several people interviewed for this series expressed the view that many Orthodox rabbis and leaders are afraid of being censured by Rabbi Miller and the haredi community, and these sources contend this fear is behind the silence of Orthodox leaders.
It is this context – and our belief that issues that generate such vehemence should be discussed openly – that has led The CJN to investigate the situation.
* * *
Joseph Fried used to give charity “across the board” to all types of Orthodox institutions. But the 57-year-old Toronto lawyer no longer finds common language with much of the haredi community. An alumnus of Ner Israel Yeshiva, he says,“my mind is firmly in the Modern Orthodox camp, but alas, my soul is still tugged by the haredi world.”
Fried likes to say that he is “intolerant of those that are intolerant.” In January, he notified principals of two religiously right-wing Jewish schools that he was not prepared to continue providing them with pro bono legal services without “an unequivocal letter” indicating their support for Rabbi Slifkin.
In the preceding year, Fried did “a significant amount” of free legal work for the institutions, he said.
One school offered to pay him for his efforts, but he said he refused. “It’s not about money,” he insists.
“There is a distinct undercurrent of discontent and frustration among certain segments of the Orthodox community,” said Fried, who maintains an active e-mail correspondence with several hundred people about issues in today’s Orthodox world.
In Fried’s view, the Slifkin affair is just one symptom of a larger, troubling move to the right in the Orthodox world, characterized by a haredi “delegitimization and intolerance of those – even if from their own community, like Rabbi Slifkin – who subscribe to views grounded in traditional rabbinic sources but not in consonance with current haredi ideology.”
Although Fried is disheartened by the direction Orthodoxy has taken in recent years, he is not turning his back on observance. He is selective, however, about which Orthodox synagogues he will attend. But, he said, he has learned “not to confuse Judaism with certain haredi rabbinic authorities.”
Fried believes that the current situation would not have been possible when Rabbi Gedalia Felder was alive, an opinion echoed by others interviewed for this article. The late Rabbi Felder – the former spiritual leader of Shomrai Shabbos Chevrah Mishnayos Congregation and the former rabbinic chair of the COR kashrut agency – had an “authoritative and tolerant voice” and “engaged the whole community,” Fried said.
He added that he fears that the current trend toward conformity and stifling of centrist Orthodox opinions limits the possibility that haredi yeshivas will produce great thinkers or great religious leaders.
* * *
Rabbi Joseph Kelman, father of Rabbi Jay Kelman (who co-founded Torah in Motion) and rabbi emeritus of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, a traditional Conservative congregation in North York, remembers when Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis sat together on a joint board in Toronto and discussed issues of mutual concern, including Israel, Russian Jewry and Jewish education. “Every pulpit rabbi in town was a member. We took turns serving as president. There was a feeling that we were part of the community, and that doesn’t exist any more.”
The elder Rabbi Kelman, a graduate of New York’s Yeshiva University, widely considered the seat of Modern Orthodoxy, says the rightward shift in the Orthodox movement – in New York and other cities including Toronto – can be traced to the increased influence of non-pulpit rabbis and roshei yeshiva who have come to be regarded as “teachers and guides” to many Orthodox rabbis.
In a 1994 article in Tradition magazine, which is now available online, Jewish history professor Haym Soloveitchik traced the origin of the “swing to the Right.” He noted that during the course of the 20th century in North America, the lessening of “otherness” felt by Orthodox Jews, whose lifestyles and values increasingly came to mirror those of their non-Orthodox neighbours, resulted in a perceived need for greater observance in order to maintain distinctiveness.
In the process, traditional home practice, which was previously the main authority for religious observance, came to be re-evaluated through closer scrutiny of Jewish texts, which in turn led to more and more previously haredi stringencies being adopted by mainstream Orthodox Jews.
Some Orthodox rabbis are troubled by the current situation and would be interested in opening a dialogue on the issues.
“I would have loved for Rabbi Miller or one of his supporters to have come and spoken in a respectful way on why he feels Rabbi Slifkin is wrong,” said Rabbi Jay Kelman, referring to the program this past winter at Torah in Motion. “Our philosophy is to explore the issues that need exploring.”
The Jewish people cannot afford to be divided, he said. “The pressure being borne is ultimately hurting our community. It’s not allowing issues to be talked about. It’s creating ill will.”
His goal in addressing the issue publicly is “to try to make the situation better, and have an awareness in the community,” he said. “I want to do what I believe is right. Only God is the ultimate judge.”
The younger Rabbi Kelman believes that Modern Orthodoxy provides an important alternative to the haredi approach. “What I vehemently object to is saying that [haredi Judaism] is the only acceptable approach. For those who can’t or don’t want to live by that approach, we have to have a Modern Orthodox approach.”
He says he understands but doesn’t share the haredi approach of “ghettoizing” the Orthodox community.
Modern Orthodoxy is “100 per cent committed to halachah but accepts the validity of both [the religious and the secular] worlds,” Rabbi Kelman said. And although he acknowledges the “real challenges” that exist in the secular world, he said there is also “much to be gained” from it. As well, he believes that “the more you engage with that, the more you have to be aware of the challenges, so you can properly deal with them.”
Rabbi Kelman said he recalls a face-to-face meeting he had with Rabbi Miller four years ago, when the haredi leader tried unsuccessfully to persuade him not to appear on a panel with non-Orthodox rabbis on the subject of Torah being given from heaven. Their meeting was conducted “in a respectful way,” Rabbi Kelman said.
“There are disagreements in the Orthodox world as to whether Orthodox rabbis should engage in dialogue on these issues,” said Rabbi Kelman.
“Many of us feel, especially in today’s world, that it’s very important to explain to people an Orthodox view… Obviously I disagree with [the other panelists’] views. That’s why I’m there.”
* * *
Jonathan Ostroff, Rabbi Miller’s spokesperson, said that Rabbi Miller had no connection with the original ban on Rabbi Slifkin’s books, and had only issued his own “letter of admonishment” as a result of requests for his opinion on the subject from his own community. The letter was intended only for his followers, and not for the general Jewish community, Ostroff said.
Rabbi Slifkin’s “misrepresentation” of the six days of creation, as described in the book of Genesis, compromises the core beliefs of Judaism, Ostroff said. Rabbi Miller, therefore, objects particularly to his work in kiruv (outreach). “Would you want your children to be taught by someone who misrepresents a core belief of Torah?” Ostroff asked.
Rabbi Miller, Ostroff said, is a follower of the Vilna Gaon, the 18th-century Talmudist, and thus is not opposed to science, as some have said, but is very interested in it. Ostroff said the rabbi, however, distinguishes between “operational science” and “origin science.” Operational science, which Rabbi Miller accepts, examines how things work in the universe, while origin science looks at what caused things to begin. “It’s the difference between building a bridge, and who came up with the original idea of a bridge,” Ostroff said, adding that Rabbi Miller “objects to origin science, because it can’t be studied empirically.”
He said that in the rabbi’s, and the Torah’s, view, the world was created by supernatural means, by God, in six days. By the seventh day, when He rested, everything, from light and darkness to land and the seas to plants and animals to man, was in place. That, Ostroff said, is when operational science came into play.
* * *
One member of an Orthodox synagogue, who declined to be named, says he has never felt more alienated from the Orthodox community.
“The yeshiva world has taken over Orthodoxy,” he said. “There is a drive within the yeshiva-oriented haredi establishment toward total self-isolation – socially, religiously and culturally – and the effect of this is to try and re-engineer the Orthodox community so that it is split between ‘true Orthodoxy,’ and ‘go hang everyone else.’”
Evidence, he said, can be seen in the “overwhelming value” placed on conformity when it comes to attitude, belief, dress and behaviour. “Anyone in the Orthodox community who does not conform is clearly and increasingly an outsider.”
He sees the controversy over Rabbi Slifkin as an example, suggesting that “to be an accepted member of the Orthodox community involve[s] a total rejection of contemporary science and the adoption of… a total suspension of reason… actually a hostility toward modern knowledge.
“The Orthodox community has a sort of atavistic tendency which seems to make the rejection of modernity an article of faith and a test of membership.”
Haredi Judaism also rejects other aspects of contemporary life, including literature, openness and tolerance, he said.
“It’s not a respectful refusal to engage. It is [that] the outside world is false and liars.”
He added that he finds the recent emphasis on the kashrut of certain vegetables “scary.”
Last year, 30 rabbis, mostly from North America and including Toronto’s Rabbi Miller, issued a notice that even sealed packages of certain types of pre-washed lettuce and salad mixes with rabbinic certification are “forbidden” unless they are thoroughly checked by “an expert in the specific types of bugs that infest these vegetables,” because “insect infestation” has been found in these products.
“[COR is] promoting the idea that this is the new and only acceptable standard of kashrut,” said the Orthodox shul member, who wonders why this was not an issue for Jews before pesticides were developed.
But Rabbi Mordechai Levin, the executive director of the Kashruth Council of Canada, which issues the COR hechsher, said that changing times, changing technologies and changing public attitudes are responsible for what appears to be a more stringent approach to kashrut in Toronto.
He added that these stringencies on vegetables only apply to restaurants and caterers. “There are different issues at home [because of the smaller quantities of food involved]. At home, you can do what you want to.”
The main reason that insects have emerged as a key problem, he said, is the drastic reduction in the use of pesticides in the past few years, resulting in many more bugs being found in raw fruits and vegetables. Some smooth-skinned fruits, such as apples, can be dealt with by careful washing, but many vegetables, including broccoli and romaine lettuce, are seen as problematic because bugs can become lodged in crevices.
Also, since there are many more kosher products available than there used to be, “we don’t have to rely on leniencies, like we used to be able to,” Rabbi Levin said. Also, he noted, Jews are more educated Jewishly and demand more strictness.
On the general subject of stringencies, Ostroff said that 80 years ago, Orthodoxy was moving to the left. Today, it’s moving to the right. As an example, he noted that religious Zionists, including some in the Modern Orthodox camp, are questioning whether they should say Hallel, the psalms of praise said on Jewish holy days, on Yom Ha’atzmaut. “They are moving closer to the opinion of the haredim. It’s all part of God’s plan.”
Stricter kashrut guidelines are part of this trend. Kashrut standards in the wider Orthodox community are moving closer to haredi views on questions such as the dangers of insect infestation in fruits and vegetables, Ostroff said. “This may appear to some to being a stringency. In fact, it is exactly what the Shulchan Aruch demands.”
Part 2 of this article will appear next week in The CJN.
Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Jews News.
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