An Interview with Steven Bayme of the AJC

The AJC (American Jewish Committee) was known for decades as supporting the complete integration of Jews in America, as exemplified by its white shoe leadership under Joseph Proskauer and Jacob Blaustein. The best example of their approach is the Blaustein- Ben Gurion agreement, included in the widely used documentary history book Jew in the Modern World. Blaustein believed that the view of the Jew as doomed to hostility and lack of integration was irrelevant to the robust Jewish community in the U.S. In exchange for American Jewish support for the new state, Ben-Gurion was forced to acknowledge that the State of Israel spoke only for its own citizens and that Jews in other countries had no political obligation to the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion gave public recognition that the future of Israel depended on not damaging the health and security of American Jews. (For more info- see here, here, and here.) The AJC changed its direction to traditional values and away from universalism under the leadership of Steven Bayme as head of its American Jewry desk.

Fifteen years ago in 1999, Steven Bayme was included in the Jewish Daily Forward’s Forward Fifty with the following description.

Of all the recent transformations sweeping the American‑Jewish landscape, none is more startling than the transformation of American Jewish Committee from liberal voice of an assimilationist Jewish elite into its current stance as a crusader for old‑time religion, advocating Jewish day schooling and a full‑bore war against interfaith marriage. The man behind the transformation is AJCommittee’s director of Jewish Communal Affairs, Steven Bayme. Mr. Bayme, has emerged in recent years as the nation’s most visible advocate of the circle‑the‑wagons “inreach” approach toward intermarriage, which opposes reaching out to welcome interfaith families. He sees intermarriage as a disaster that could result in a net loss of up to one million Jews in the next generation, and he’s marshaled the considerable resources of AJCommittee to his cause, staging prestigious conferences and issuing publications like last year’s “Statement on Jewish Education,” which put the organization, once the champion of “Americanization” of Jewish immigrants, squarely behind Jewish day schools as “the primary if not sole solution” to assimilation. Himself a product of the Modern Orthodox Maimonides High School in Boston, Mr. Bayme looks to Orthodoxy as a model of a community willing to “undergo any sacrifice and pay any price — financially, culturally, or even familially [sic] — in order to provide quality Jewish education for its young.”


According to his writings, Bayme came to this position after seeing the 1990 Jewish Population study which showed high rates of intermarriage. (See here and here.) Demography created ideology, the way to fight assimilation is old-time religion despite the immense changes in American religion or the firm sociological data on the shift to seeking one’s own path requiring a response of outreach, relevance, and renewal.

In Bayme’s view we are to focus on the committed core. We can already write off from Judaism Jon Stewart, Bob Dylan, Joel and Ethan Coen, Senator Al Franken, Aly Reisman, and Adam Sandler. And we can still save infrequent synagogue members Senator Chuck Schumer, Chief Justice Elana Kagen, and Sasha Baron Cohen if only they would attend the Wexner training or Bardin-Brandeis or similar programs that teach traditional Jewish values.

Jews who claim to be “just Jewish” or “cultural Jews” or who only attend synagogue for the High holy days are not significant for him for the maintenance of Jewish continuity.:”Occasional ritualism is a part of civil Judaism of post-World War II,” Bayme says. “After the war, the symbols of the Holocaust and Israel could sustain Jewish life, even for the marginally religious. But these symbols are “not powerful enough to sustain us into the next century,” he adds. And the third symbol, ritual involvement [of the high holidays], “is too occasional to make much of a difference.”

Bayme as stated in his own responses below has many critics who think he is writing off the majority of American Jewry (see here for one and here is another). Since he has no interest in reaching out to non-committed Jews who wont play by his rules or accept his tenets, he is credited by his critics with helping the decimation of American Jewry, and with directly causing the decline of the Conservative movement by counseling them to stick to the past and not to fund new ideas. He rejected renewal, post-ethnic, and syncretic Jewry or efforts to integrate them. For him, journals like Jewcy were just pandering. He is used to being called by liberal outreach programs as “hard-hearted reactionaries, “mean-spirited”, or simply out of touch with communal needs.”

The other major formative event for Bayme’s approach is his commitment to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg as the epitome and model for Modern Orthodoxy. In a recent Jewish Week article, Steve Bayme gushed about the recent Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism discussion of Greenberg’s ideas, convened by Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel of University of Oxford and Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan University. For him, Greenberg’s approach is the standard to judge Orthodoxy. Hence, my research has shown that Bayme has the unique distinction of being the very first author to complain about the death of Modern Orthodoxy in 1983 as it retreated before what he considered the almost Haredi world of Centrism .

Since then he has repeatedly argued that “Modern Orthodoxy needed to recover its intellectual verve and independence, and engage cultural issues such as Biblical criticism, Jewish education, ethical treatment of non-Jews, gender equality, and relations with the non-Orthodox movements.” He considers the YU “Talmud faculty as isolationist” and “that Y.U. remained an Eastern European-style Yeshiva by day with a number of college courses attached to it by night. More broadly, the gulf between a Talmud faculty that perceived secular education as, at best, necessary for earning a living but otherwise a diversion from Torah.”

Full disclosure, many years ago he was my Professor for the Yeshiva College required Jewish History class. The class debate was lively and intense since the class was made up of the first years of American hesder students and those who shifted from a more liberal approach to Judaism to the renewed Centrism. His approach clearly shows the generational gap. Even if you disagree with his views or are on the opposite side of the issues, this interview offers great insight into the Jewish Establishment or the traditional insular NY Jewish world shown in the pages of the Jewish Week.

Interview with Steven Bayme

1)Tell me about the committee you formed with Dov Zakheim to make changes in Israeli marriage law?

We are forming a coalition of individuals and Jewish organizations both here and in Israel to create alternatives to the laws governing personal status matters, particularly marriage, divorce, and conversion to Judaism. We believe the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate in this area inflicts real harm on individuals and the Jewish people, for example those wishing to convert to Judaism but cannot meet the stringent tests imposed by the Rabbinate. Our long-term objective is to create a broad-based initiative to advocate for religious freedom and equality, notably with respect to issues of personal status, as a means of strengthening Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state that assures its ties with global Jewry. Attenuated ties between American Jewry and Israel may impact negatively upon U.S. support for Israel. As a result, there is also a national security dimension to this initiative as well.

In the short-term we are focusing on the question of civil marriage. Jewish law, as is well known, forbids certain categories of marriages, e.g. between a kohen and a divorcee. By contrast, a modern democratic state does not seek to regulate whom one may marry. For Israel the solution would appear to lie in one of several bills currently before the Knesset allowing for civil marriages (or civil unions). Conversion, of course, may represent a greater challenge and one of greater significance for American Jewry, but, in the short-term, we feel that civil marriage is an idea whose time has come.

2)How do you characterize Modern Orthodoxy as you conceive it and as epitomized by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg?

Yitz Greenberg in the 1960s articulated a most compelling vision for Modern Orthodoxy through his courses at Yeshiva University and through his involvement with Yavneh, the Orthodox collegiate organization. The vision included social activism on behalf of both particularistic and universalistic causes, educational reform within Orthodox institutions through introduction of new courses and programs embodying synthesis, including but not limited to Biblical criticism, engagement with serious non-Orthodox religious leaders and thinkers, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and limited but significant halachic changes. Although this agenda has evolved over the decades, especially with respect to Jewish feminism, it remains a statement of Modern Orthodoxy that is both bold and unapologetic and a clarion call for Modern Orthodoxy to work out its own independent destiny.

The beauty of Modern Orthodoxy lies in the synthesis of Judaic tradition and modern culture. That entails the excitement of exploring in-depth two very different value systems, analyzing where they complement, where they contradict, and where they co-exist with one another. The agenda for Modern Orthodoxy I define as four-fold:

1. Secular education and academic scholarship are both valuable in themselves and illuminating of Jewish texts and tradition. This vision of secular education represents a sharp break with Haredi Orthodoxy, which limits the permissibility of secular education to providing skills necessary to earning a living and become a “learner-earner”. Similarly, it breaks with Hirschian Orthodoxy that underscores the value of secular knowledge and science but not for the purposes of understanding Judaism, thereby rejecting critical study of Bible and Rabbinics.

2. Cooperation with the non-Orthodox movements will enhance the Jewish people, and those movements have much to teach all Jews, including the Orthodox. Religious pluralism serves as a brake upon religious extremism and provides diverse entry points and connections to Judaic heritage. To be sure, the yeshiva world does seek to be inclusive of all Jews, particularly through its kiruv programs. The concept of pluralism, goes much further in that it not only acknowledges the fact of religious diversity, it perceives actual value in that different Jews will find different avenues for Jewish religious expression.

3. The State of Israel constitutes a fundamental challenge and laboratory to work out the relevance of Jewish tradition in the modern culture. Unfortunately, Modern Orthodoxy in Israel has been “hijacked” by Gush Emunim, the West Bank settlers’ movement.

4. Feminism and gender equality. Orthodox Jewish feminists stood their ground and did not surrender to right-wing opposition. The RIETS Five issued a proclamation against women’s tefilla groupings back in 1985. At a time when the authority of roshei yeshiva has increased, and much of Modern Orthodoxy lost its verve and independence, Orthodox feminists refused to cede their ground, and the number of women’s tefilla groupings has increased exponentially since then. We are currently witnessing a similar phenomenon in the growth of partnership minyanim.

5. To be sure, there are signs of an incipient and robust Modern Orthodoxy in Israel-the growth of partnership minyanim and Orthodox academics and public intellectuals practicing critical Jewish scholarship, to take two specific examples.

3)How is it different than Centrism or that of your Centrist critics? Be specific.

I objected to the word “Centrism” because it replaced the notion of synthesis of Judaism and modern culture with a vague almost geographical statement that we are neither haredi nor Yitz Greenberg and the Orthodox “Left”, but somewhere in between. Dr. Lamm himself, who coined the term “Centrism”, to his credit admitted that the change in name had been a mistake. “Modern Orthodoxy” connoted distinctive value in modern culture and that Orthodoxy was not only living in the modern world but also was in a position to benefit from the positive values of modernity as well as to critique its excesses.

Dr. David Berger is my revered former professor, a man of outstanding scholarship and impeccable ethical and intellectual integrity. I have signaled to him over the years that I believe he is defining Orthodoxy too narrowly with respect both to Chabad and “Open Orthodoxy”. On “Open Orthodoxy”, I believe Dr. Berger is defining the parameters of Orthodoxy much too narrowly, for example with respect to his complete rejection of “partnership minyanim” that allowed for greater roles for female participation in the services and his complete dismissal of Biblical criticism in so far as it pertains to the books of the Torah. As he put it in his class some 45 years ago, “There is room for deviation to the Right, but (and turning to me personally) there is not too much room on the Left.” So I credit him for the consistency of his thinking and his intellectual honesty, even as I disagree with significant aspects of it. (see here and here)

The roshei yeshiva at YU obviously are not all cut from the same cloth, but leading figures among them have adopted positions in recent years that insulate their students from the broader currents of modernity, isolate them from critical thinking, and, tragically at times have issued extremist statements unbecoming of religious leaders. As one of the most revered of roshei yeshiva put it some years back, in his view no difference existed between Yeshiva University and Ner Israel except that YU makes it easier for students by providing all of its programming within a 6-block radius. Those are hardly Modern Orthodox positions.

Put broadly, Centrism has room for secular education but rejects Biblical scholarship, encourages inclusivity of non-Orthodox Jews but rejects pluralism, fosters women’s education but not equality, and has become subservient to a Haredi Chief Rabbinate on issues related to Israel. All these positions directly contradict what I would call the Modern Orthodox agenda.

4)Wasn’t your vision of Modern Orthodoxy already rejected? Are you not like someone still hoping that George McGovern will be President? Aren’t you, and other baby boomers, just nostalgic for an older vision of modern Orthodoxy?

First, let’s not shed crocodile tears over McGovern’s defeat. I voted for him in 1972 out of opposition to the Vietnam War, but I shudder to think what he would have done had he been President during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nixon deserved impeachment over Watergate, but let’s not forget he came through for Israel and for us in Oct. 73.

That said, the agenda for revitalizing Modern Orthodoxy is rooted in far more than nostalgia for a bygone era. It is partly a protest against the steady slide to the Right, or as some would put it the “haredization” of contemporary Orthodoxy. Partly it represents a clarion call for change among well-educated Orthodox laity, which finds modern culture to be quite attractive and works to marry it with Judaic tradition.

There are indeed signs of a Modern Orthodox resurgence that are hardly indications only of nostalgia. I have already mentioned Orthodox feminism, particularly in JOFA and partnership minyanim. Other signs include, YCT, the IRF, and, perhaps most importantly the continued presence and power of coeducational high schools
What you may define as nostalgia is my conviction that the vision of Modern Orthodoxy articulated in the 1960s remains compelling for 21st century Jews.

5)How can you write off most of American Jewry as not Jewish enough?

I do not write American Jewry off. My objective at AJC over more than three decades has been to increase the Jewish atmosphere within AJC as a Jewish organization. That entails working with Jews of all stripes and opinions (including Haredi as well as those unaffiliated with synagogues). What I do say, however, is that we need to speak the truth even if it causes pain to individuals. Those leading more intensive Jewish lives are those most likely to see Jewish grandchildren. But unaffiliated Jews, or “Jews of no religion” in the Pew survey, are the most difficult to reach Jewishly and stand at greatest risk of assimilation.

6)How can you reject outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried? Doesn’t your approach limit revival?

Again, I do not reject either the intermarried or outreach to them. I have been misinterpreted here for a very specific reason (which I will explain). But my main point is that the twin values of endogamy, or inmarriage and conversion to Judaism as single best outcome to a mixed marriage largely have been permitted to disappear as articulated values outside the Orthodox community.
As for outreach I favor outreach targeted to those mixed marrieds open to and interested in leading a Jewish life and appropriately designed so as to safeguard the values of inmarriage and conversion to Judaism.
Why have I been misinterpreted here? Outreach advocates insist that we become neutral on inmarriage and conversion so as not to give offense to mixed marrieds. I do not feel we can afford neutrality on these questions and have been outspoken in opposition to these advocates. Therefore I have wrongly been interpreted as a foe of outreach per se.

7)What is your theory of talented tenth or small group of Jews who sustain the community?

I want to see a Jewish leadership that is Judaically rich. Strengthening that core will help create a Jewish community sufficiently compelling that others will wish to join it. Secular Jewish leaders generally are products of first-class American universities. By contrast, their Jewish education has been relatively poor. Wexner programs were designed to create a relatively small cadre of Jewish leaders who were Jewishly literate. The program does send an appropriate message – that Judaic study is a life-long endeavor and we need to enhance the expectations of Jewish leadership in this regard. The great Jewish historian Salo Baron decades ago argued that a relatively small group of 100 rabbis, 100 lay leaders, 100 academics, and 100 communal professionals, who are well-versed in both civilizations could transform the entire ethos of the Jewish community in a positive direction.

8)Isn’t it self-serving to reject most of Orthodoxy and most of liberal Jewry and see yourself (and only a few thousand others) as having a special role?

No, in my vision, heavily indebted to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the Jewish community is divided into three parts:
1. A core of 20-25% consisting of all Orthodox Jews, committed Conservative and Reform Jews, and Jewish leaders of all stripes;
2. the “Nones”, 22% in the Pew survey, who are largely uncommitted, and, frankly, largely uninterested, and;
3. the great “middles” of Jewish life, the 50-55% who generally want Jewish continuity but are unsure how to realize it.
My vision of strengthening the core targets the great middle and aspires to bring them into the core. Orthodoxy, for example, has inspired many to join the core by being such a compelling and attractive community that others seek to join it.

9)What should the community do with the already-intermarried (whose households now outnumber the in-married in America) or the adult children of intermarried (who now outnumber Jews with two Jewish parents under age 25?

Work towards and hope for the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. When that is not in the cards, try to hold onto the children and keep the door open for potential future conversion. But we do need to be realistic and realize that in a free society some people will choose not to lead a Jewish life. It is somewhat demeaning to them not to respect those choices and continue to run after them when they have no desire to be chased.

10)As a leader of American Jewry for over 25 years, how do you avoid blame for its sorry state? Do you take any responsibility for your approach as having led to the decline that we are witnessing?

No question that the collapse of the twin norms of endogamy and conversion to Judaism occurred on my watch. I also believe that we focused heavily on the external agenda because you could forge a consensus around questions of anti-Zionism, threats to Israel, anti-Semitism, and terrorism. In contrast, there are no more divisive issues in Jewish life than questions of Jewish identity and education. I have tried to persuade the community that if the internal agenda is neglected, there may not be a critical mass of Jews to defend in future generations, but I do confess failure on that score and acknowledged the failure in a memoir I wrote of my AJC years on my 30th anniversary three years ago.

11)With your views that write off most of American Jewry, similar to Haredi view of a silent Holocaust, shouldn’t you be giving to those who do outreach?

AJC has never specialized in services to individuals. In that sense we cannot be a “kiruv” organization so much as providing opportunities for Jews to become more active and involved, much as we have done through our justly-hailed ACCESS or young leadership program. Beyond that we define ourselves as catalysts for the community and raising public consciousness through our research, analysis, advocacy, and media skills I note that much of the work of outreach admittedly is done by the haredi community. However, its content all too often is remarkably thin or naïve.

12)What is your position on Revelation and Scripture? What makes that Orthodox?

First, let me be clear that I am neither a Biblical scholar nor a theologian. Rather, I am a lay person who has remained fascinated with Biblical scholarship since initially being exposed to it during my high school years at Maimonides in Brookline. Theologically, understanding the context of specific texts enhances our understanding of the meaning of the text both in historical and in contemporary times. I do not think we can pretend that biblical scholarship does not exist or is irrelevant. When historical research and findings contradict truths of inherited tradition, we need to weigh respective claims carefully but with the understanding that the truths of Torah are not dependent upon who wrote the text and whether the facts recorded in it are all factually accurate.

Theologian Franz Rosenzweig understood this almost a full century ago when he argued that if research proved that the Documentary Hypothesis of Wellhausen was correct and that the Samaritans had the better text, our faith would not be shaken in the least. More recently, a Modern Orthodox rabbi on the west coast reminded me that some 30 years ago in class I commented that “I did not accept Purim historically but I did accept it theologically.” In a similar vein, Dr. Norman Lamm in a class on Jewish mysticism some 45 years ago noted that he did not know who wrote the Zohar or when it was written, but regardless, he recognized it as a “great work.” At the time I inquired whether he would apply that position to Scripture itself. Much to my surprise, he responded “Quite possibly, Bayme, quite possibly.”

I believe that something happened at Sinai, the details of it are a mystery, but the Torah as we have it is the record of that encounter between God and the Jewish people. Portions of it may be rooted in different historical records, but that does not make the text less authoritative as a work of theology. What does make it authoritative is that it is the inheritance of the Jewish people-morasha beit yaacov. As a Jew I treasure it greatly and study it regularly. Portions trouble me on ethical grounds, e.g. Amalek, but I long ago chose to historicize those sections as reflecting the morality of the time. In this sense the Torah spoke in a language human beings could hear-e.g. it could not outlaw slavery much as that would make us feel better three millennia later. Last, there are undoubtedly errors of historical fact and chronology in the text, but we need to recall that the Torah is fundamentally a work of law and theology and not a history text or a book of science.

To be sure, there are areas of law that are also troublesome, but here we need recall that Sinai also connoted a hand-off to human beings to continue the process of halachic development. Unfortunately, as Eliezer Berkovits wrote several decades back, that process became frozen and ossified rather than continue into contemporary times.

I do admit that critical study often distances us from the text and with distance can come a loss of reverence. Our first task, educationally, must be to inculcate love and respect for the text as the heritage of the Jewish people. In that sense, it is debatable whether critical study ought to be introduced in high school (although, to be sure, in my case it was, and it only deepened my love and reverence for the text). But serious Modern Orthodox Jewish adults do need to be aware of critical scholarship, and I believe many if not most will profit from understanding the context in which the text originated.

13)Do have anything to share about your teaching at YU?

Teaching at YU, frankly, was the highlight of my professional career. Never did I feel I was accomplishing so much as I did teaching Yeshiva students and, as many former students commented enthusiastically, opening their minds and broadening their outlook. I always felt YU students could easily attend Harvard and their intensive Jewish backgrounds made for wonderful classroom discussions. They were such a joy to teach that in 1979, my last year as a full-time faculty member, the students asked if I would teach a voluntary Sunday evening seminar on modern Jewish thought. Notwithstanding the absence of compensation (and the miserable state of my personal finances at the time), I agreed enthusiastically. My rewards were spiritual in nature knowing that I had challenged students with ideas concerning the meaning of being a Jew in the modern world and the challenges of modern culture to Jewish belief, for example through the writings of Nachman Krochmal.

I am actually to this date still somewhat unclear as to why I was encouraged to leave, aside from the then-stated issues of university finances. When Richard Joel became president I harbored aspirations for returning to an active role. But it quickly became evident to me that Y.U. was not interested in engaging me. I loved teaching elsewhere-JTS, YCT, Queens, and Brandeis-and have built a reasonably successful career at AJC in Jewish public service. But there is no question teaching at YU in the 1970s provided me the greatest satisfaction-a long day of classes left me only exhilarated and eager for more. I left YU with bittersweet emotions, but I have never ceased to value its significance for the future of the Jewish people, notwithstanding our very different visions of that future and the very different roads we have traversed since I left.

7 responses to “An Interview with Steven Bayme of the AJC

  1. Sounds pretty elitist, I would not write off the continuity of the less committed. How successful has Chabad been with increasing Jewish identity with the least affiliated ?

  2. Unconscious bombshell revelation about Rabbi Norman
    Lamm ‘s uncertainty about
    Torah min hashmayim

  3. “Portions of it [Torah]may be rooted in different historical records, but that does not make the text less authoritative as a work of theology. What does make it authoritative is that it is the inheritance of the Jewish people-morasha beit yaacov.”

    No, what makes it authoritative is that G-d is the sole author. Mr. Bayme’s view is classic non-Orthodox theology.

  4. If one accepts genuine denominational pluralism within Judaism and the validity of Conservative and/or Reform approaches to Halakhah, why bother with “Partnership Minyanim” or other recently liberal Modern Orthodox innovations? Why not just have complete egalitarian minyanim?

    Either Conservative Judaism’s approach to Halakhah is wrong (and therefore pluralism is rejected) and that is why one is limited to creative innovations like “Women’s Tefillah Groups” or “Partnership Minyanim” or it is correct and their is no need for liberal Modern Orthodox inventions as any such needs could be fulfilled within Conservative Synagogues.

    As Yitz Greenberg’s theology includes the non-binding nature of Halakha and the acceptance of Jesus as a failed Messiah how is his theology Orthodox (even Modern Orthodox)?

  5. Dr. Bayme taught a superb course on the Holocaust which I took at YU. The readings, lectures and discussions were outstanding and gave me a great insight into the various factors that led to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. I also audited Dr. Bayme’s course on Jewish history, and found many of the sources incompatible and well beyond the pale of standard Orthodox hashkafa. The facts remain that R Lichtenstein, both in the 1960s and in the YU Judaica book , set forth where he disagreed with R Greenberg.

  6. Nothing to add about the Bible issues. But on the social front, it may sounds brutal, but it’s likely true that the Jewish future will come from those who don’t intermarry. Pew found that 17% of people who said they were partly Jewish were raising their children as Jewish. So while it might not be kind, what grounds are there for disagreeing with Bayme’s assessment that the community should pour all its resources into those not (and not yet) intermarried?

  7. ” The great Jewish historian Salo Baron decades ago argued that a relatively small group of 100 rabbis, 100 lay leaders, 100 academics, and 100 communal professionals, who are well-versed in both civilizations could transform the entire ethos of the Jewish community in a positive direction.”

    Perhaps relevant is what Rav Soloveitchik said about it being the quality and not the quantity of committed Jews that’s most important:

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