Thursday, July 4, 2013

Where Were the Right-Wing Orthodox Jews?

For purposes of this article, I am defining Modern Orthodox Jews as adherents of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and right-wing Orthodox Jews as adherents of the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). I know that Modern and right-wing Orthodoxy are a lot more nuanced than I paint them, and that many people would strongly disagree with my description of the two. For the sake of conversation, let’s work with the definition above.

As a feminist activist and BaisYaakov graduate, I’m uncertain about what form of Orthodox Judaism I prefer to identify with. At the moment, I straddle the divide between the left and right, counting myself as part of neither Modern nor right-wing Orthodoxy.

At the Agunah Summit last week, few other attendees or presenters visibly shared my identity crisis. The vast majority of the crowd was solidly in the Modern Orthodox camp. I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me, as the summit was sponsored by a Modern Orthodox feminist organization. However, it did.

Perhaps the reason I was so surprised is because I’m used to Jewish-themed gatherings being run by right-wing Orthodox Jews, like the anti-Internet Asifa and the Siyum HaShas. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the past four years surrounded by right-wing peers and teachers in school. I don’t believe that either of these reasons are the cause of my surprise, though. I think the Agunah Summit’s all-Modern Orthodox attendance took me aback because I was shocked that only Modern Orthodox Jews seem to care about the plight of agunot.

I know that it’s unfair and incorrect of me to accuse right-wing Jews of completely disregarding agunot. An innumerable amount of right-wing rabbis and laypeople have done a lot of amazing work to help resolve agunot, and they deserve recognition. However, the Agunah Summit was billed as “a historic summit of Jewish leaders gathering to resolve the agunah problem.” There is no specification of denominational affiliation; the summit was an open forum for Modern and right-wing Orthodox Jews alike.

And yet, right-wing Orthodox Jews declined to attend. Where were they? If I heard about it, then they knew it was happening too. Why weren’t they there?

During the summit, Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari pointed out that get refusal becomes more common as religious level goes up, showing that the right-wing Orthodox community should be even more concerned about agunah than the Modern Orthodox community is. Then why doesn’t the right-wing community seem worried over agunah? Why haven’t there been any large-scale Agunah Summits convened by right-wing organizations like the OU, RCA, or Agudath Israel?

Nearly all of the presenters and audience members at the Agunah Summit were extremely concerned about finding solutions that will help agunot from every point on the religious spectrum, not just Modern Orthodox ones. It’s not fair that the Modern Orthodox community is concerned about the right-wing agunot, but there seems to be little anxiety from the right-wing community about Modern Orthodox (or right-wing, for that matter) agunot.

When I made this complaint to a right-wing friend of mine, he said that major right-wing rabbis and leaders don’t have the time or patience to attend a conference where the content is not halakhically based. Putting aside the fact that all but one of the suggestions presented at the Agunah Summit were halakhic, right-wing rabbis should make it their business to attend summits like this and ensure that the solutions offered are indeed based in halakha. That way, valid halakhic solutions can be presented and supported and the women of their communities can be protected.

“There are two conversations going on, one in this room and one on the RCA listserv….We need to bridge these conversations,” Rabbi Jeremy Stern said during his presentation at the summit. His words hit the nail on the head. Based off of what I heard at the Agunah Summit, it seems like the Modern Orthodox community will be more than happy to work with the right-wing Orthodox community on this issue. It’s up to the right-wingers to accept the invitation and start working together to end agunah. Time is of the essence, as the number of agunot in existence and the rate of get abuse is alarmingly high. We need to bridge the conversation to end the agunah crisis, and we need to do it now.

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