The First Klal Perspectives Shabbaton
I'm just back in Israel from the first ever Klal Perspectives Shabbaton held in Baltimore February 19-20. Klal Perspectives for the uninitiated is a public policy journal for the American Orthodox world. Each issue addresses a specific challenge confronting the Orthodox community from a variety of perspectives and with a range of contributors.
The Shabbaton included a leil Shabbos dinner attended by 300, and three panel discussions of an hour and a half, with the panelists lingering long after the bell had rung to speak to any member of the audience interested in carrying the discussion forward.
Each of the founding members of Klal Perspectives was present, and being on a panel with them reminded me once again of how much I respect each of them and enjoy their company. Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, is increasingly being recognized as Mirrer Yeshiva of Jerusalem's greatest gift to America. Throughout the Shabbaton, one could feel the audience grow more attentive every time he spoke to offer one of his pricelessmosholim or some reminiscence from the great figures of the Mirrer, which was his home for three decades.
He possesses the rarest of qualities -- balance and discernment – in short, wisdom. And his Torah is at once elevated and applicable to each and every listener's life and personal avodah. The thirst for what he has to offer was even more evident at the two-day conference for young rabbonim that followed the Shabbaton, where the rabbis lined up to speak to him.
Only a rabbi who has given his congregation much could have asked as much from Congregation Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion as was needed to make the Shabbaton happen. And Rabbi Moshe Hauer is that rabbi. The daf yomi and amud yomi shiurim he gives every morning are only the most standard fare on the panoply of offerings in the shul. And most important is the ready ear and emotional support he offers every congregant.
The entire weekend was very much his baby. The Baltimore baalebatim who joined the first day of the rabbinical retreat are all members of an ongoing chabura he initiated for young askanim who are seeking to find solutions to the most pressing communal challenges. And the young rabbonim were almost all products of his weekly chabura in practical rabbinics for those pursuing semichah while learning at Ner Israel Rabbinical College.
(The two days spent with that group of seventeen young rabbonim left me more confident about the future of American Torah Jewry outside the tri-state area. Their intelligence, idealism, and mesirus nefesh could not help but impress. Those two days also explored a number of major issues looming on the horizon. For instance, will the mapping of the human genome tempt us to turn into gods producing "designer children," who are nothing more than artifacts of our ego? How will Torah families deal with end of life issues if statutes go into effect allowing insurance companies to sever coverage at some minimal level of "quality of life," thereby forcing families to spend all the money saved for their children's weddings or retirement into keeping loved ones alive on ventilators and the like? )
Moishe Bane is perhaps the preeminent disciple of Rabbi Naftali Neuberger, the late president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, in communal askanus. He has thought as deeply about the craft and art of askonus as anyone I know. The respect he commands in this area was evident in the way the young askonim flocked to him over Shabbat and at the subsequent retreat.
For nearly a decade he has been actively involved in exploring a variety of approaches to lowering the tuition burden on strapped Orthodox families while retaining institutional viability. Klal Perspectives is another one of his many projects, and he is the journal's indispensable man. He is the one who constantly prods contributors to refine and sharpen their arguments through his questions and challenges.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is one of the most elegant and widely read writers in the Torah world, when not otherwise employed in his day job as director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He has authored highly useful adaptations of the Maharal and the Nesivos Shalom and sits on the Beth Din of the Rabbinical Council of California.
At the leil Shabbat dinner, he delivered an impassioned address on the threats from Open Orthodoxy. And at the rabbinic retreat, he provided a detailed presentation on the relationships between various Christian denominations and the Jewish people and Israel, and what role communal rabbis can play in strengthening those relationships. He also gave a lengthy shiur on halachic aspect of geirus.
SO WHAT CAME OUT of pulling these distinguished panelists together in one venue? That's hard to answer, certainly to quantify. One thing is certain. We did not solve the tuition crisis, which I was told a number of times is the number one pressure keeping young couples from sleeping at night. Well, actually, the delightful and energetic young askan who picked me up at the airport and facilitated my stay in numerous ways did show me a well-thought out plan that would make it a lot easier to raise money specifically for tuition reduction and encourage such giving.
One of the goals of the Shabbaton was to expand participation in the Klal Perspectives discussion beyond the contributors to each particular issue. At the Motzaei Shabbos session on the multiple directions in which today's yeshiva-trained baalebos feels torn, the moderator also directed questions on the wife's role in supporting her husband to three distinguished women in the audience: Mrs. Zlata Press, principal of Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva High School; Dr. Hinda Dubin, a psychiatrist: and Dr. Aviva Weisbord, a psychologist.
Minimally, I think we provided proof that it is possible to disagree respectfully with others who have a different viewpoint, and even more important, to reformulate one's own thoughts in response to their being challenged from another perspective. At the very least, the discussions were an edifying contrast to the Republican presidential debates.
Judging by the enthusiastic response thus far, I also have the feeling that just hearing individual and communal challenges being addressed gave people confidence that even if those challenges cannot be fully solved they can at least be meliorated greatly by greater attention and exploration of solutions. The discussion alone removes some of the feelings of passivity and hopelessness with which many people deal with ongoing challenges.
KLAL PERSPECTIVES FOCUSES exclusively on the American Orthodox community. But Israel did come up in the Motzaei Shabbos discussion of the multiple pressures on baalebatim. Rabbi Adlerstein, who has two children living in Israel, mentioned that Israel, with its much lower school tuitions and health care costs, should be considered as an option. I added that with Europe becoming increasingly dangerous for Jews and with Hashem providing ample evidence of removing His Divine favor from America, it appears that the destiny of the Jewish people will primarily be determined in Israel. One who wants to play a role in that destiny therefore has more chance of doing so in Eretz Yisrael.
It therefore saddens me to realize that the current culture in the Torah community in Israel would find little place for a Klal Perspectives. That is painful on two accounts. First, even in a society in which decision-making authority is highly centralized, there must be feedback mechanisms that provide the leaders with some means of knowing what the populace is thinking and what are their concerns for the future. The presence of feedback mechanisms is a large part of the reason market economies are more efficient and democracies are, at least most of the time, more stable.
A journal like Klal Perspectives aims to provide, inter alia, feedback to decision-makers and sometimes to help frame issues. In a similar vein, Rabbi Moshe Sherer sometimes arranged for two teams of articulate baalebatim to debate specific issues in front of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America prior to major decisions. Some issues of Klal Perspectives have drawn heavily on empirical research, an area only now developing in Israel under the auspices of the Machon Hareidi.
The very premise of Klal Perspectives – i.e., that discussion is good and beneficial – runs against the grain in Eretz Yisrael. A few decades back, the idea took hold in Israel that daas Torah is unitary – i.e., it inheres to only one gadol in a generation. A pernicious corollary of that view, which has embittered our lives with ongoing machlokes, is that anyone expressing disagreement with the designated gadol must be an apikorus.
The dominant view in America has always been different. Rabbi Sherer once told Yosef Chaim Golding, "Daas Torah refers primarily to what emerges after the gedolim have sat and discussed an issue together." As Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky once told a great gadol who asked him to remove his haskoma from a certain book, "We can disagree."
I once heard one of the present members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America respond to a demand that he attack a rosh yeshiva who had disagreed with Rav Schach, the acknowledged gadol hador, about the propriety of involving yeshiva students in election campaigns, "Rav Ploni is fluent in all four sections ofShulchan Aruch. He is entitled to an opinion. But if you want me to explain Rav Schach's opinion, not attack the one who disagreed, I'll be happy to do so."
Understanding that different perspectives are not only inevitable but necessary if one wants to approach the Truth not only serves as a protection against every difference of opinion between great Torah leades becoming a war to the death, but is also well-rooted in classical sources. The Maharal, for instance, explains that creation begins with beis, representing multiplicity, because the created physical world, in contrast to the Heavenly realm, is one of fragmentation and division, and can therefore only be apprehended fully from a number of perspectives. Perhaps that is why the Gemara warns against learning without a chavrusah – i.e., without having one's understanding challenged by another's – on the grounds that it renders one's understanding less acute.
In any event, I'll rejoice on the day that discussions like that at the Klal Perspectives Shabbaton are also something unremarkable in Eretz Yisrael.