May women enter the Orthodox rabbinate? May conversions to Judaism be left to the discretion of a local or communal rabbi, or must they be sanctioned by a centralized rabbinic authority? How do concerns for peoplehood weigh on the issue of who is a Jew?
Disagreements over these and other questions have divided the world of contemporary Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy itself is divided among its haredi, centrist, and modern wings. As Orthodoxy continues to grow in importance in terms of demographics and politics, it increasingly will fall under the scrutiny.
Last month a group of Orthodox thought leaders, rabbis, communal professionals, and lay leaders announced the formation of PORAT — People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah (the acronym is the Hebrew word for “fruitful”). The new organization is a vehicle to reclaim the mantle of Modern Orthodoxy and provide a distinctive counter-voice to those advocating greater isolationism and rejection of modern currents.
PORAT is designed as a grassroots movement and support group for those committed to tolerance and an inclusive community. It brings together lay and religious leaders to advocate for thoughtful observance of Jewish law and progressive education.
Many have questioned the necessity of yet another Jewish organization. I believe there are at least three reasons for PORAT.
First, the voices of Modern Orthodoxy, often silenced in recent years by an ascendant haredi community, have much to contribute. They insist that secular culture is both part of God’s creation and a vehicle to better understand Jewish text and tradition. They support gender equality within the parameters of Halacha and cooperation with all Jewish religious movements for the collective enhancement of the Jewish people. They are committed to religious Zionism as an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate the meaning of a Jewish state and its compatibility with the principles of liberal democracy.
Second, given the Orthodox drift to the right over the past five decades, PORAT’s founders believe it is necessary to foster an atmosphere and ethos of open dialogue and exchange, inclusivity, and receptivity to diverse views. As the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel over personal-status matters has demonstrated, imposing one view over the entire Jewish people only ignites a backlash against Jewish tradition and alienates many.
PORAT neither expects nor desires unanimity or agreement with its positions on the highly contentious and controversial issues delineated above. What it does expect is respect for — rather than confrontation with — those who disagree in principle.
Third, PORAT is necessary precisely because rather than becoming moribund, Modern Orthodoxy appears to be on the cusp of resurgence. Gender equality, new rabbinical training programs, receptivity to modern scholarship in the study of the Bible and Talmud, renewed interest in interfaith dialogue — all have appeared on the Orthodox scene in novel ways in recent years. PORAT aims to work with the nascent institutions and voices promoting these values.
The entire Jewish community has a great stake in PORAT’s success. As Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy increasingly drift apart, bridges need to be built between all sectors of the Jewish world. Historically, Modern Orthodoxy served as that bridge.
Modern Orthodoxy forfeited its verve and independence in recent decades; bridges were torn asunder. Non-Orthodox communities ignored Orthodox teachings on the grounds that “they do not recognize my Judaism in any case.”
PORAT is intended to rebuild those bridges and strengthen Jewish unity, peoplehood, and intra-Jewish relations. Its inaugural conference will take place on Sunday, May 15, at Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun in New York City. Much depends on the outcomes of PORAT’s efforts; the stakes for all of us are much too high for it to fail.