A critical measure of Orthodoxy's return to relevance and largermeaning will be our attitude toward ideas and values that arecompatible with Orthodox thought, but that arise from outside traditionalJewish thought.
We need to regularly examine these kinds of ideas for their intrinsicvalue and determine whether they would make us a holier andbetter religious community. If these tests are passed, then we have todo the creative and educational work necessary to integrate these ideasinto our religious vision and expand or change our communal behavioraccordingly.
Precedents for this kind of religious development abound in Jewishhistory. For example, in Judaism's earlier days, polygamy andslavery were legal and recognized. On the other side of the coin, thenow-common practices of bar mitzvah and Kaddish recitation by mourners simply didn't exist. (Both are medieval to late-medieval developments.)
Each of these situations changed when an idea possessed of religiousvalue and consistent with the larger thread of Jewish thought demanded thatwe expand or alter our practice. Monogamy, the indignity of people beingtreated as property, marking a child's coming of age in the synagogue, and amourner bringing honor to a deceased parent through leading the prayers--all resonated with us, and so we took them in.
This general phenomenon is by no means foreign to classical, traditional Jewishexpression. Despite this history, the last 200 years, andespecially the last fifty years, have seen an abrupt about-face on this issue inthe Orthodox community. The possibility of change in Orthodoxreligious behavior is not only resisted, it is often branded as destructive tothe integrity of our religion and as a threat to its survival.
Our community is still somewhat shell-shocked by the rise of modernityand the impact of the Enlightenment. The stampede toward the Jewish exitthat those events wrought drove most of Orthodoxy into a defensive crouch,where it seems to be somewhat frozen. The staggering loss of scholars and institutions in the Holocaust intensified the reflexive preservationist impulse, and the severe distrust of modern ideas.
What has the cost of all this been to the Orthodox community? Alreadywe have largely "passed" on two of the most important ideas and socialdevelopments of the last thirty years, despite the fact that they both possessreligious value and are consistent with the larger thrust of Jewish thought: neither the civil rights movement nor the movement for women's rights was embraced by the Orthodox community.
Jews were prominent in both struggles, but Orthodox Jews were absent. This was true in spite of the fact that the fundamental idea underlying both movements was clear. Neither skin color nor gender should determine anyone's legal rights or their worth.
This idea is not only compatible with, but has earlyexpressions in, classical Jewish thought. The first-century sage Ben Azzai proclaimed that the verse that reiterates that "on the day that Godcreated humankind, in the image of God He created him" (Genesis 5:1) expressesthe Torah's most fundamental principle: All of us are equally endowedwith the Divine spark.
And the sages of the Mishnah taught that the reason God created onlyone human couple is so that no human being (or race) could ever claimsuperior status over another.
Even without participating politically, the Orthodox community couldhave extracted the underlying principles, lent support where appropriate,and integrated the movements' insights into Orthodox life and thought. Bynot doing so, Orthodoxy has suffered a severe loss of relevance.
Fortunately, the opportunity is still there, and there are those of us who are carefully creating a model that incorporates these values within the law and spirit of Orthodox Judaism. I clearly recall the first time that I heard an Orthodox rabbi extolMartin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon. I was visiting the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., on the Saturday just preceding Dr. King's birthday.Avi Weiss, whom I knew only through his reputation of political activismfor Jewish causes, was the speaker. I was thrilled when I realized that Dr. King's work and legacy would be the focus of the sermon. It had been completely outside my experience while growing up in Orthodox synagogues.
After the surprise wore off, I felt embarrassed over how closed, and, inthis sense, how poor a community was the one I grew up in. It should not be unusual for an Orthodox rabbi to preach about Martin Luther King, Jr.His ideas amplify and enrich ours. How could we fail toembrace hisreligious and moral insights?
Two years later, I became Rabbi Avi Weiss's assistant rabbi. Six yearslater I became the rabbi of my own congregation. I have never failed todevote my remarks on that special Shabbat each January to thework and memory of Dr. King.