A critical measure of Orthodoxy's return to relevance and larger meaning will be our attitude toward ideas and values that are compatible with Orthodox thought, but that arise from outside traditional Jewish thought.
We need to regularly examine these kinds of ideas for their intrinsic value and determine whether they would make us a holier and better religious community. If these tests are passed, then we have to do the creative and educational work necessary to integrate these ideas into our religious vision and expand or change our communal behavior accordingly.
Precedents for this kind of religious development abound in Jewish history. For example, in Judaism's earlier days, polygamy and slavery were legal and recognized. On the other side of the coin, the now-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 religious value and consistent with the larger thread of Jewish thought demanded that we expand or alter our practice. Monogamy, the indignity of people being treated as property, marking a child's coming of age in the synagogue, and a mourner 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 Jewish expression. Despite this history, the last 200 years, and especially the last fifty years, have seen an abrupt about-face on this issue in the Orthodox community. The possibility of change in Orthodox religious behavior is not only resisted, it is often branded as destructive to the integrity of our religion and as a threat to its survival.
Our community is still somewhat shell-shocked by the rise of modernity and the impact of the Enlightenment. The stampede toward the Jewish exit that 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? Already we have largely "passed" on two of the most important ideas and social developments of the last thirty years, despite the fact that they both possess religious 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 early expressions in, classical Jewish thought. The first-century sage Ben Azzai proclaimed that the verse that reiterates that "on the day that God created humankind, in the image of God He created him" (Genesis 5:1) expresses the Torah's most fundamental principle: All of us are equally endowed with the Divine spark.
And the sages of the Mishnah taught that the reason God created only one human couple is so that no human being (or race) could ever claim superior status over another.
Even without participating politically, the Orthodox community could have extracted the underlying principles, lent support where appropriate, and integrated the movements' insights into Orthodox life and thought. By not 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 extol Martin 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 activism for 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, in this 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 his religious and moral insights?
Two years later, I became Rabbi Avi Weiss's assistant rabbi. Six years later I became the rabbi of my own congregation. I have never failed to devote my remarks on that special Shabbat each January to the work and memory of Dr. King.
Speaking, of course, is just a beginning. The real work is incorporating the religious imperative to recognize everyone's common humanity--the same imperative that Moses demanded Pharaoh obey--into our communal activity. It's the kind of work that will help make Orthodox Judaism matter.
The same can be said of the imperative to eliminate gender discrimination. Integrating this ideal into Orthodox thought and action is indisputably more complicated, but no less important. It is more complicated because Orthodoxy unquestionably recognizes a notion of gender roles. Orthodox law specifically exempts women from the performance of many of the daily rituals (such as tefillin, prayer at the fixed times, and daily Torah study) so that they can fulfill their roles as mothers. The roles of men and women, of fathers and mothers, are definitely not interchangeable within Orthodoxy.
But it is a great mistake to believe that by endorsing gender roles Orthodoxy opposes maximizing women's spiritual opportunities. The movement to enhance women's Jewish education has been under way for a century now. Unfortunately, there is a glass ceiling in this area in much of the Orthodox community. The study of Talmud and the Codes of Law--areas critical to the nerve center of Orthodox life--are still considered, in most Orthodox circles, off-limits to women. Nonetheless, a handful of Orthodox educational institutions are moving forward in this area of women's education. Their success will ultimately tear down one of the most important gender-discriminating walls in Orthodox life.
Even more controversial has been the effort to create prayer services for women, which meet on a periodic basis and which are led by women. Opponents of this see the creation of these prayer groups as a rejection of the Law's notion of gender roles. Even the mere handling of a Torah scroll by a woman is regarded, by these opponents, as a dangerous break with tradition. But supporters understand that the prayer groups are simply a way to provide women with an important spiritual opportunity--one to which the Law could not possibly have an objection.
There are ways that the positive value of nondiscrimination can be woven into the Orthodox system, thus enriching our members, and returning us to the role of meaningful participants in the contemporary religious and ethical conversation.
This part of the agenda for change is meeting particularly stiff resistance, and there is a long way to go. But every Sabbath morning, as I hand the Torah scroll to a woman in our congregation to carry through the women's side of the sanctuary during the procession that precedes the Torah reading, I see the joy in her eyes, and I am reassured that progress will continue.