Ohr Torah Stone Weighs in on the Future of Modern Orthodoxy
By Harry Glazer |The Jewish Link | June 21, 2018
Jews who identify as Modern Orthodox can be excused for wondering about the long-term viability of their approach, since reports of its perilous prospects are common in Jewish publications. Recurring news of squabbles in Israel between the haredi political parties and other sectors of Israeli society, and efforts by the Chief Rabbinate to create stricter rules for acceptance of conversions, indicate that the perils facing Modern Orthodoxy extend to those in the State of Israel as well.With this backdrop, it was refreshing to hear two prominent proponents of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, assert the vitality of the movement and chart its bright prospects in a forum on June 13. The event, sponsored by the Ohr Torah Stone (OTS) organization (and of which Rabbi Riskin is the outgoing president and Rabbi Brander is incoming) and held at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, moderated the forum and posed questions that were answered in turn by each of the rabbis. Asked to define Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Brander used the disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding the role of fire in two mitzvot. Fire, the first element created by humankind in partnership with God, is used in kindling the Chanukah lights and in Havdalah on Saturday night. He stated that Beit Hillel’s opinion is that we add a candle each night of Chanukah, which reflects the view that we must always be ma’alin bakodesh (rising in holiness), and on Saturday night the blessing of Beit Hillel over the webbed candle is focused on creating future lights. How Beit Hillel uses the first article created with human ingenuity is reflective of a metaphor for Modern Orthodoxy. Our purpose in this world is accomplished by engaging with all Jews and adding light to the entire society.
Rabbi Riskin pointed to the second blessing made over a Torah scroll by someone who receives an aliyah, which says that Hashem gave us the Torah, and with this gift, chayei olam nata b’tocheinu, He implanted eternal life within us. Rabbi Riskin said that this phrase tells us of the imperative to make Torah eternally relevant, not by avoiding but by carefully considering and learning from the scientific, sociological and technological advances of each era, and grappling with them within the halachic framework. He said, “Halacha isn’t static; it speaks to the issues of each age. And that’s what makes Torah eternal.”
Asked about the phenomena of religious Jews in Israel leaving observant lives and what that portends for Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Brander said that a study from the Israel Democracy Institute noted an increasing number of Jews in Israel affiliating with Modern Orthodoxy. “Still, we must do better to engage all our youth in observant life,” said Rabbi Brander. He related the view in Gemara Menachot that while all the vessels Moshe made for the Mishkan are “for all generations,” the chatzotzrot (trumpets) were only for Moshe’s era and must be created anew for each generation. This, taught Rabbi Brander, instructs our leaders that their spiritual messages must be uniquely crafted to speak to each generation in “music” they understand.
Rabbi Riskin added that we tend to romanticize the past, citing a scholarly study that found that 25 percent of students in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva regularly violated the Shabbos. While there is always a falling off, he said, what is remarkable in our age is the strength of the baal teshuva movement and the resurgence of spirituality.The forum also served as an implicit public celebration of the transition at Ohr Torah Stone, with organization founder Rabbi Riskin stepping down from its leadership and Rabbi Brander assuming that role, as president and rosh hayeshiva. Rabbi Riskin will remain very active in Ohr Torah Stone by teaching classes, writing responsa and engaging in other activities.