This past Shabbat, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein held a question and answer session in Teaneck. The questions were indicative of where the community is at right now, while the answers led the older members of the audience to sense their own mortality.
The four questions asked were:
1] After all the effort put into day school education, we are losing members of our community- some of them to the right but many more to the left by their not continuing on the path of modern Orthodoxy. What are your thoughts?
2] How should we relate to Homosexuality? Is it a choice or natural orientation? Do we accept them as synagogue members? Enroll their kids in day school? Welcome them into the community?
3] Could we hear your thoughts on women rabbis or women serving in a public position?
4] Why are there so few religious Zionist leaders who defend democracy today?
They offer a good sense of what is bothering the community right now.
Very Short versions of the answers are as follows:
1] Defection from the community- This is not a new phenomena. There were places in Europe where 80% of the youth stopped keeping Shabbat. [AB- There were places that had 95% defection.] It was tough in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was tough in the 1950’s. And even in the 1970’s Peter Berger would not have envisioned the rise of yeshivot and observance. Back in the 1950’s almost no one had a Sukkah, today everyone in Teaneck has a sukkah.
There is no need to question the money spent on day schools since that is our spiritual goal, our axiology, our formative activity. What else would we build and spend our money on?
2] He did not grasp the first part of the question at first. Rabbi Nati Helfgott, who drafted the Statement of Principle and was named one of the Forward’s 50 last week, was in the first row reformulated the question. The answer was formulated a tension between minimizing the issue by considering the person halakhic with an idiosyncrasy and on the other hand letting this aspect of their life override our ability to see their commitment to learning and a halakhic life. (Someone mentioned to me how 15 years ago even this position would have been rare in the community).
3] He did not want to use analogous thinking to other cases, if a woman cannot be A or B then she cannot be a rabbi. We have to appreciate everything she can do like teach and we have to appreciate the inherent virtue of being conservative in our judgment.
4] In 1952, in the first elections in Israel, the religious party went from those who God forefend davened in shorts to the Agudah and the gedolim supported it. More 1950’s stories.
Immediate reaction to those I spoke to: Oy we are getting old. I remember Rav Aharon when he gave me my bechinah in 1974. He was so strong and robust., now he is frail. And Oy, I use 1970’s stories with my college age kids the way Rav Aharon starts everything with a early 1950’s story.
Some (many?) were frustrated with the answers as not addressing the community. And happily, a HS senior reacted to the talk with “It was really good.” He gave subtle answers framing the issues in an intelligent way and showing how to think critically about the topic. He showed both sides on the issues. But for the passage of time, I think many of the old timer would have given the same answer, but they cannot go back again.
(If you were there and think I did not get the details correct, then email with corrections.)