The Orthodox world today seems riven by controversy. Various wings within the movement have staked out sometimes stridently different positions on questions of gender roles and definition, conversion, the authority of the local rabbi versus a centralized rabbinate or rabbinical organization, and attitudes toward inclusivity, acceptance and mutual respect.
Against that backdrop, those in the more progressive camps of modern Orthodoxy have lacked an organized, grassroots voice. However, a new organization started earlier this year, called PORAT-People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah, holds the potential to provide that voice.
It is for that reason that the Lay Advisory Council of the Beltway Vaad (LAC), of which one of us serves as chair, has decided to co-sponsor PORAT’s inaugural event in the Greater Washington area on Sunday morning, Nov. 13, at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.
That event is conceived as a conversation — an opportunity to engage as members of the community on issues of common concern and interest. Those issues include approaches toward gender roles, sexual orientation and conversion, and expectations of our synagogues, schools and rabbinic authorities. Our local congregational Orthodox rabbis and maharats have been invited to attend and, if they wish, to participate in the dialogue. Several plan to attend. But the morning will belong to us, the laity.
Attendance does not connote endorsement of the views that may be expressed, but it does entail a commitment to respect one another, to engage and to attempt to hear and understand others’ perspectives and concerns.
PORAT is not meant to supplant the many valuable existing organizations already serving the Orthodox community. However, its mission is specific and unique: to be a grassroots movement and support group for those committed to an inclusive Orthodox community. It brings together lay and religious leaders to advocate for thoughtful observance of halachah, or Jewish law, within a framework that fosters mutual respect and understanding.
PORAT embraces a few key principles. First and foremost, PORAT believes in the need to restore an ethos of open dialogue, inclusivity and receptivity to diverse views. Disagreement should not lead reflexively to exclusion or delegitimization. When differing views are labeled as heresy, open dialogue and respect for the integrity of other viewpoints are lost. An overbearing focus on drawing lines to keep others out all too often can result in a poorer, less vibrant and mutually fulfilling community for those who remain “in.”
Second, PORAT believes that secular culture, too, in its most positive aspects is part of God’s creation and is relevant to the evolution of halachic approaches to a range of societal issues. Today’s society boasts unprecedented access by everyone to previously rarified halachic literature across the ages and cultures, unprecedented levels of learning among men and especially women, and a level of interest in Judaism among those who are halachically defined as outside of our faith that we have not seen in centuries. These issues require urgent examination and engagement in a spirit of inclusivity and mutual respect.
At bottom, PORAT and the LAC together believe in the existence of a substantial constituency that is dissatisfied with the Orthodox establishment and desires real change in Orthodoxy’s self-understanding and culture.
The modern Orthodox world is on the cusp of change. It can turn inward, toward its right and, in the process, forsake its historic commitment to openness, dialogue and the possibility of measured, authentic change in the tradition of our ancestors. Or it can reinvigorate, recapturing the spirit that animated its ideological forebears a century ago. They refused to retreat into reflexive rejectionism when facing the challenges of emancipation and the haskala movement, just as we should reject that temptation in the face of a rapidly changing world today.
It is our hope that PORAT, working with institutions like the LAC and Beltway Vaad, can restore the rusting bridges between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, strengthen Jewish unity and create a “safe space” within Orthodoxy for those committed to responding within an authentic halachic framework to the legitimate demands for inclusivity and diversity that a progressive modern society presents.
This is a process, a continuing conversation. For Greater Washington, that conversation begins on Nov. 13. We hope you will be there.
Steven Bayme is the American Jewish Committee’s director of contemporary Jewish life and a founding member of PORAT. Behnam Dayanim is a lawyer active in Jewish communal affairs and serves as the inaugural chair of the Lay Advisory Council of the Beltway Vaad. For more information, visit www.porat-online.org.