Nine years ago Edah entered into the Modern Orthodox world with much fanfare and controversy. Touting the slogan “The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox,” Edah seemed poised to combat the perception of Orthodoxy moving increasingly “towards the right” with Yeshiva University leading the way.1 Those against Edah likened them to Korach or Conservative Judaism in breaking away from “the tradition.” Edah’s supporters felt they finally had a voice within the often stifling Orthodox world and optimism for effecting actual changes in their communities. The dissension was so great that there were even rumblings of a formal schism within Orthodoxy. Regardless of how one considered Edah, there was a near universal feeling that Edah was going to be significant.
Nine years later, we have the ingenious revelation that Edah is closing down its operations. For the past few years it seemed evident that Edah as an organization had been in a gradual decline. The initial lavish conventions held in eventually became glorified yimei iyyiun at the Skirball center. Aside from producing a consistently solid journal, Edah had been relatively quiet in terms of its programming and contributions in the Modern Orthodox world.
Considering all the hype which has followed Edah, its inconspicuous closing seems anticlimactic though not altogether unexpected. Today on YUTOPIA, we take a brief look back at our experiences with Edah and offer our take of what once the most controversial organization in Modern Orthodoxy.
The first challenge in discussing Edah is defining exactly what it was. At the most abstract level it was some form of religiously defined organization, but this is about as specific as we can go. The common social categories for religious institutions are mostly inapplicable. Edah was not a denomination, church, or sect. It had no formal membership and did not present itself as a “breakaway” from Modern Orthodoxy, but another voice within the community.
To some extent, Edah had difficulty defining its own mission. At the conferences R. Berman would announce ideas for initiatives in education and social programs, but there was never any clear direction for implementation other than creating a website and holding more conferences.2
As an ideological alternative, Edah was hardly articulate. One of their main tenets was “Pluralism,” but as we have discussed in The Pluralism Equation, basing an ideology on pluralism cannot work. If Edah accepted all positions then it risked delegitimizing itself further by including various radical and misguided agendas. If Edah rejected those by establishing limits then it would be no different than any other group which relegates dissenters to being “outside the camp.” As a compromise, Edah had to needlessly expend energy patronizing and mollifying the extremists3 to maintain the illusion of Pluralism.
Pluralism aside, Edah clearly had several halakhic agendas, the most notable of which was expanding the role of women. In promoting these agendas, the recurring themes were an “intellectually honest” approach to halakha an end most often achieved by employing the tools of academic scholarship. When I interviewed R. Berman at the first Edah conference I asked how one could claim intellectual integrity while espousing an a priori agenda he responded:
…when we’re dealing with legal texts, we need for the interest for communal consistency to narrow the alternatives and adopt a reading of the text as the normative reading of the text to the extent possible or to narrow it so that there are only a narrow number of reading of the text. By contrast, in regard to texts which are not normative in character, we allow Torah has always allowed for a breadth of reading in which you can see the complex interplay between the subjectivity of the individual, the reality of the external environment, the nuanced potentials of the words themselves of the text and all of those words create a complex interplay which leads to multiple readings. Now, as the society changes, obviously the range of possible readings changes…That is integrity [sic] means bringing an honest internal reading combined with an honest perspective of what the society causes to be brought to that and an honest reading of the potential meanings of the text. There are of course dishonest readings. Dishonest readings are these situations where the text simply cannot meant that; where you are forcing the text to mean something in consequence of one of those two either internal or external factors. But intellectual integrity demands we bring with integrity our internal and external states to the text to determine what possible readings it has.
The system for R. Berman is still inherently subjective since determining the “normative” texts and which readings are forced are both products of one’s society. Furthermore, as we’ll see in a bit, not everyone held of R. Berman’s distinctions.
As with its organizational abstractness, I found Edah focusing more on the theoretical principles of halakha as opposed to its practice. For example, many would praise Rambam’s opinion in the Moreh Nevuchim that the purpose of mitzvot is some form of social justice, but completely disregard Rambam’s halakhic system for identifying and applying Jewish law. Some Rabbis proclaimed their allegiance to the tradition of R. Soloveitchik, while simultaneously promoting women’s prayer groups. As R. Aharon Lichtenstein lucidly wrote in a letter to The Forward, independent of the halakhic debate on women’s prayer groups, it is clear that R. Soloveitchik did not approve of the practice. As attractive as the theoretical ideas of Rambam and R. Solovetchik might seem, there was an unwillingness to apply them consistently.
Despite the importance placed on academic scholarship, practical halakhic matters were not treated with any sense of rigor. At the first Edah conference, R. Berman announced after lunch that the women who wished to form their own zimmun could do so. Women having a zimmun is hardly innovative (B. Brachot 45b), and depending on one’s read of the Talmud would either be optional (Tos sv. Shanei) or even obligatory in certain circumstances (Tur O.C. 199). But by stressing the egalitarianism of women’s zimmun, R. Berman neglected the halakha that when there is a zimmun of 10 men available, such fragmentation is impermissible (B. Brachot 50a, Rambam Berachot 5:10, Shulhan Aruch O.C. 193:1).
This oversight was corrected at the next conference when R. Berman called for a unified birkat hamazon for the entire conference. However when it came time to daven minha, I noticed that the designated room was lined with mirrors. According to many contemporary authorities, one is not permitted to pray in front of a mirror since it gives the impression that one is praying to himself. That such a room was designated could be attributed to an organizational oversight. Or perhaps some would argue that praying in front of a mirror does not constitute an actual prohibition. However when I asked several of the more prominent Edah figures how we could daven in such a room, the response was, and I quote, ” *shrug.* “4
One final example of halakhic ideological inconsistency comes from one of Edah’s “regional” conferences held in Springfield, NJ. I attended a session defending and advocating the institution of women’s prayer groups. The speaker argued that since women do not participate in the service, they are relegated to the status of “spectator” and are outsiders to the community.5 Furthermore, since the service cannot be experienced directly by the women, the synagogue rituals are devoid of meaning. The speaker’s answer to this problem was to get women more active in the service. In doing so the rituals of the synagogue would instill among the women a greater appreciation and meaning for the synagogue service and thus making them stronger members of the community.
During the public question and answer part of the presentation, I asked that if the problem was a spiritual isolation from the community then why should we advocate removing the women physically. The speaker responded that women’s prayer groups should not be thought of as an alternate minyan like a hashkama, but rather treated as an educational minyan like those run for teens. To this I replied that according to that logic then ideally we should not have women’s prayer groups at all. Once women are “repatriated” then the need would cease as women would feel part of the community again. Or in other words, the goal of women’s prayer groups would be such that they would become unnecessary. The speaker did not want to comment on the long-term ramifications.
The purpose in recounting the ideological complications within Edah is not simply to criticize them. In many respects Edah reflected the Modern Orthodox community from which it came. In terms of halakhic methodology they followed the same methodologies as their “right-wing” counterparts, only advocating a different agenda.6 On a practical level, they suffered from the same halakhic carelessness and thoughtlessness which can be found virtually everywhere.
On the other hand, one of Edah’s goals was to “wake up” and energize the Jewish community both religiously and socially, and to this end Edah was definitely successful. The conferences (at least the ones I attended) were full of excitement and optimism, some of which did manage to spill into the larger community. Women’s prayer groups or hakafot, while still controversial, are not as divisive as they once were. I am certain that their advocacy helped innovations like the prenuptial agreement to become widely accepted. Edah also unified disenfranchised elements of Modern Orthodoxy, gave them a voice, and the reassurance that among the growing sea of black hats there is a significant community of those who think differently. I am also certain that because of its halakhic and social initiatives, Edah facilitated the ultimate creation of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and thus the various changes at YU itself.
Edah as constructed could not survive in the long term. It’s message, while well meaning, was far too muddled and inconsistent. Edah also depended heavily on communal activism and responsibility, which is sadly not something the Modern Orthodox world can be trusted to maintain.7 Producing a journal is wonderful, but will only have an effect if people take the time to read an understand its contents. But while we can debate its relevancy in the recent years, there is no doubt that Edah did directly and indirectly contribute to changing the landscape of Modern Orthodoxy.
1. The prevailing sentiment at the time – and perhaps now as well – was that YU was progressively moving more “to the right.” Now isn’t the time to debate this point, but this certainly was the feeling among many both within YU and in the Modern Orthodox community at large.
2. This point actually came up once in Gruss. At the same press conference referenced earlier, someone asked R. Aharon Lichtenstein what he thought of Edah. R. Aharon replied that he was apprehensive if not concerned at first, but asked what have they done? No one was able to offer a response other then myself who sheepishly suggested, “um, they’ve held conferences.” Consequently, R. Aharon didn’t pay them much attention.
3. Of which there were many. From my shmoozing with random people at the conferences I found opinions and attitudes ranging from moderate openness to anarchistic rebellious.
4. The earliest source I could find prohibiting praying in front of a mirror is Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (Radbaz – 1497-1573), 4:107. Among later authorities, this Seems to be accepted as normative, see for example Iggrot Moshe O.C. 5:18 and Yabia Omer 4 Y.D. 35. One could argue that since the sages did not formally legislate against praying in front of a mirror there is no formal issur. My point is that people knew of the problem and simply did not want to deal with it.
5. It should be noted that this complaint does have merit. Some rabbis including R. Tendler did in fact say that the spectator role was the correct role for women in the synagogue. The speaker also noted the omission of women in the “communal” prayer of yekum purkan.
6. The major difference was the pretense of intellectual honesty, which to some degree of credit is not a claim many “right-wing” Rabbis make. However when one is creating an opposition movement, there is less leeway for such inconsistencies.
7. A post for another time.
Great post, Josh, you made a lot of interesting points. I just wanted to mention, in their defense – I went to one of their conference sessions about women receiving aliyot, and the speaker’s conclusion was that it is not permissible, so that goes to show that they’re not just starting with a conclusion and working backwards. But what was refreshing about his presentation was that it was solely based on halakhic sources, without any of the knee-jerk hysterical responses that usually dominate discussions of women’s ritual participation. It could be that this was what R. Berman meant by “intellectual honesty”.
Certianly there were people and speakers who did not parrot certain party lines – my father being among them. In fact one of the reasons why he was more forgiving of Edah is because they did allow a greater range of opinions to be presented.
Still, from my experiences with Edah – or at least the leaders – was that while they would give people forums for discussing issues, the official positions were pretty much set. You’d have a forum and people would listen to what you had to say, but it would be unlikely for them to change their minds.