On Sunday of last week, the modern orthodox community convened two very large gatherings. Over 1500 people attended a “Torah in the City” day of learning sponsored by the Orthodox Union (“OU”), as leading Rabbinic personalities and educators delivered numerous shiurim and lectures on a whole host of contemporary topics. That same day, over 1200 people, including many young men and women, attended a conference sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (“JOFA”). The conference dealt with a whole host of cutting edge topics relating to Jewish orthodoxy and feminism, with women’s ordination one of the major topics addressed. Both of these conventions point to the vibrancy of modern orthodoxy in America. Meanwhile, a new Rabbinic organization called TORA recently formed, with the aim of being a Rabbinic voice that “clearly, unequivocally, and unhesitatingly articulates the hashkafa of Orthodox Judaism on timely and timeless issues.” TORA recently came out with a statement criticizing the recent ordination of women at Midreshet Lindenbaum, who were given the title of Morot hora’ah. It should be noted that the OU formed a Rabbinic commission months ago to articulate a position on women’s spiritual leadership in the orthodox community, but they have not done so as of yet. In my mind, the question that emerges from all of these events is who will win the heart and soul of the modern orthodox community, especially the modern orthodox millennials? Perhaps we can gain some insight by looking at the selection of leaders both in the Torah and in traditional American society.
Last Friday, President Trump issued the presidential oath. The presidential oath states that the president will, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. This is a fascinating concept and highlights the key difference between a democracy and a democratic republic. Despite having been selected by the people, the president’s oath is not to preserve, protect and defend the people. Instead, it is to preserve, protect and defend a piece of paper called the Constitution. In a pure democracy, when there is no Constitution, the majority of voters can vote to take away the rights of the minority. Madison argued in the Federalist papers that a pure democracy opens the door to unlimited tyranny by majority. However, in a republic like the United States, which has a constitution, the government cannot take certain inalienable rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution, unless the Constitution is amended. In other words, the president must not necessarily do what people want and value or even what he wants and values, because he must submit his will, his judgment, his values, and the values of his constituency to the ideas, the values and the principles of the Constitution in order to allow this great country to flourish.
This idea resonates with us because we, the Jewish people, appreciate the value of a Constitution. In our own religious lives we have a living document of our own, the Torah. As Jews, we have faithfully protected and defended our Torah for thousands of years, even at the cost of our lives, because for thousands of years this document has in turn preserved our nation and kept us alive.
On the surface, God’s selection of Moshe to be the first leader of our nation and to deliver the Torah, our Constitution, seems surprising to me. At first glance, Moshe doesn’t seem to be someone who will submit his will, his judgment, and his values to the ideas and values of a Constitution. Moshe is introduced to us as a freethinker and not someone who is submissive. In Egypt, he grows up as a prince being taught that the Hebrews should be treated a certain way, but he challenges authority for the sake of what he thought was correct. The Torah states, vayar b’sivlotam – he empathized with his people, he felt their suffering. Moshe cared more about the people than the legal system that was in place at the time. This empathy is a very honorable trait but also begs the questions – is this the person that you’d want to deliver the Constitution to your people? What if Moshe ends up disagreeing with one of the rules of the Torah because it goes against his moral instincts? Shouldn’t God select someone to deliver the Torah who has a more submissive character and will uphold the rule of law even when it goes against his own instincts?
It seems to me that there are two critical ingredients for a successful leader. Not only must he uphold the Constitution, but he must also connect with his people. Whether you voted for President Trump or not, he won the election because he connected with so many voters. He successfully conveyed the image of vayar b’sivlotam to those voters, and made them believe that he felt their pain. A great leader is someone who is passionately connected to making the lives of his constituents better, while at the same time surrenders his will and his judgment to the core, underlying values of his society. This tension of passionate advocacy and submission to the values of the Constitution, and the balance one delicately strikes, is what ultimately makes a leader great.
That is why God selects Moshe to deliver the Torah to His people. On the one hand, he was someone who was vayar b’sivlotam. As Rashi writes, natan einav v’libo lihyot aleihem. Moshe saw their suffering first-hand and he felt their pain in his heart. Moshe was someone who would plead with God when his nation was suffering, whether it was at the end of Parshat Shmot when Pharaoh made life more difficult for them or whether they were threatened with extinction after they sinned with the Golden Calf. On the other hand, Moshe’s initial response to God when God charges Moshe with the task to lead His people out of Egypt was mi anokhi ki eileich el Pharaoh – who am I to go to Pharaoh? Moshe’s initial response to this mission is, “I’m not worthy.” It’s one of humility and it immediately draws God’s reaction that Moshe will not only lead His people from Egypt, but b’hotziakha et ha’avm miMitzrayim ta’avdun et ha’Elokim al ha’har hazeh, he will lead the Bnei Yisrael to Har Sinai to deliver the Constitution to His people. Moshe’s humility and sense of unworthiness will not allow him to deviate from the word of God that he will deliver to his nation. It is these values of vayar b’sivlotam, of empathy for our people, balanced with humility and the surrender of our will to the will of a greater system of law, that makes a great president and a strong Jewish leader.
There is a battle for the soul of the modern orthodox Jew. The hot-button issue of today is spiritual leadership for women and I wonder who will win this battle. As I see it, JOFA very much presents itself as vayar b’sivlotam – as connecting with the people, feeling the pain of so many women who feel disconnected and disenfranchised from an orthodoxy that shuns them. While their aim of empathy and inclusion is admirable, I wonder how well they defend the Constitution of our religion. As an example, I have heard some progressive thinkers suggest that semicha for women should be mandated because of the human element. This language strikes me as vayar b’sivlotam without the commitment to humbly surrender our will to the halakhic principles of the Torah. It is my experience that the modern orthodox thinkers who are hesitant to embrace JOFA’s mission cite this as their major concern. Understanding the challenges that our people face and working to address them is critical to the preservation of modern orthodoxy, but working within the bounds of our Torah must be paramount.
When two women were granted the status of being morah hora’ah at Midreshet Lindenbaum, TORA issued a statement asserting that this certification is akin to semicha and they reject what was done as a breach of our mesorah. The Rabbis of TORA clearly aim to protect and defend our Constitution, but do they convey vayar b’sivlotam? Are they actively engaging women who want to be spiritual leaders and who want to play a more active role in Jewish communal life, or do they simply dismiss these women as feminists? When they do feel the need to uphold what they see as the rule of Torah law, does their empathy make it painful for them to turn away some of their constituents?
To me, the fact that the OU has not as of yet put out a statement or a position paper on the parameters of women’s spiritual leadership in the orthodox Jewish community points to this struggle of how to exercise effective Jewish leadership in balancing the values of vayar b’sivlotam and humility in defending the Constitution. I myself struggle in clearly defining what the parameters of spiritual leadership for women should be. Ultimately, I believe that if the progressive voices within modern orthodoxy do not preserve, defend, and protect our Torah, they will move farther and farther away from orthodoxy. At the same time, if more conservative organizations such as TORA and the OU are not vayar b’sivlotam in a very clear way, if they do not engage in serious dialogue with those who feel disenfranchised, then they will lose thousands of young orthodox men and women who feel that orthodox Judaism no longer speaks to them. My hope and prayer for our political and communal leaders is that they embody both the qualities of vayar b’sivlotam and humility in defending the Constitution, as this tension and this balance will create the atmosphere in which we all may flourish.