In a frequently told tale, a rabbi declares a chicken non-kosher one week and kosher the next, despite the same defect. Questioned by a student, the rabbi points out that without this chicken, an impoverished woman would have nothing to eat for Shabbat.
Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac used this story to illustrate that even if change is not always possible within Orthodoxy, rabbis at least can “feel the pain,” for example, of women who cannot be counted in a minyan.
Antine’s remarks opened a discussion on Sunday for members of Greater Washington’s modern Orthodox community about their movement’s future.
“A Morning of Engagement and Dialogue” was sponsored by PORAT (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah), founded by New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, and the lay advisory council of the Beltway Vaad, a modern Orthodox rabbinical council.
The conversation, in which some 80 people participated, began with the definition of community.
One participant said, “To be part of the Orthodox community, a person must self-certify,” being an observer of Shabbat, kashrut and the laws of family purity. Another countered that it is “limiting” to define people by what they do or should do, while still another insisted: “We can’t afford to lose one single Jew. Orthodoxy is not monolithic, but a lot of different things.”
Sander M. Davidson, a member of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in Washington, said he was troubled that any branch of Judaism criticizes any other.
“I recently saw the term ‘JINO’ [Jew in name only] on the internet regarding Bernie Sanders,” Davidson said, referring to the former presidential candidate. “It offended me. If someone would have been considered Jewish by Hitler, it’s not for us to say ‘JINO.’”
The conversation shifted to “identity — approaches to gender, conversion and sexual orientation.”
“Halacha [Jewish law] has been an excuse as long as I remember for not listening to what women want,” asserted one woman. A male participant responded, “There is tradition versus [actual] Halacha when it comes to women’s roles.”
The liveliest conversation concerned homosexuality.
“Gays need to be accepted,” said Arlene Groner, a member of several synagogues. “If they’re sinning, it’s between them and God. We have to treat them with dignity and respect.”
Another participant said, “Rabbis often go only by Halacha and not sociology” in their understanding of gayness.
A discussion about intermarriage focused on reconciling a commitment to Jewish continuity with a belief in the equality of all people.
“We’re not there yet,” said Abigail Dauber Sterne, one of the day’s moderators of the high rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews. “Maybe it’ll be 10-20 years and not at such a high percentage. But it could happen to our own children.”
Weiss, who also founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, summarized PORAT’s three principles.
“Halacha is not a noun but a verb,” he said. “Its purpose is to take us to a higher place. It’s not just a legalistic system but should be suffused with values.”
The concept of mesorah — the transmission of Jewish tradition —includes not only reverence for the past but the “judges of the present,” he added.
The third principle, decentralization, means placing trust in local rabbis “in the field.”
“A rabbi needs to listen and look into the eyes of the questioner,” not only at the Shulkhan Arukh [the code of Jewish law] and other written sources, Weiss said.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a Washington-area writer.