Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Future of Young Israel

This article (link) is a pretty good piece of reporting in Yeshiva College's newspaper The Commentator about the negative reactions to new rules recently announced by the National Council of Young Israel. The responses to these rules have, evidently, been quite negative.

I think what the furor over the new NCYI rules boils down to is the impression, perhaps mistaken, that the NCYI headquarters are farther to the right than their constituents and are trying to impose right wing pesak and ideology on all Young Israel synagogues. This impression is probably further underscored by the high-profile consultations between NCYI leadership and prominent Charedi Torah scholars. I can imagine that people are wondering whether the NCYI leadership's is taking its cues from Charedi leaders and whether that is really what it should be doing.

This impression is also strengthened by the new NCYI rules. While I personally don't really object to any of the new rules, I'm on the right so I shouldn't be expected to disagree with them. Here are the rules and some comments:

Click here to read more1. A committee must approve a rabbinic candidate's ideology and scholarly competence. Laypeople are often unable to judge a prospective rabbi's qualifications and as long as the national office will allow local shuls to make the final hiring decisions, I'm OK with this in theory. The problem is the context. In today's climate, the move appears--perhaps unfairly but nevertheless--to be an imposition of the right wing views of a few individuals on the entire movement. Yes, a Young Israel rabbi needs to be Orthodox. The question is whether NCYI will require that he be right wing Orthodox. Left wingers are concerned.

2. Women and converts may not serve as synagogue presidents. I think the convert issue is fairly clear cut (see this post) but there is a view among posekim that women may serve as synagogue presidents. So I'm not quite sure why the NCYI is making it official policy to follow the posekim who prohibit it, especially given the sensitive nature of the subject.

3. A ban on women's prayer services and women's megillah readings. I'm not aware of any significant halakhic authority who permits women's prayer services. Women's megillah readings are a separate issue and more halakhically defensible. Regardless, these practices are accepted by the left wing of Orthodoxy and these new rules are seen as a move against that wing.

On the one hand, I wouldn't mind if the whole world was Right Wing Modern Orthodox. On the other, trying to force the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy out of mainstream organizations seems to me to be an invitation to them to start their own organizations or increase their influence in other, existing organizations. That, I think, is a bad idea for three reasons. First, having their own institutions could actually increase their influence rather than the intended opposite. Second, I believe that Young Israel has historically tried to be inclusive of the left wing of Orthodoxy, if not its main organization. And third, we are such a divided people that I lament any additions to that fragmentation.

One important question in all of this is how strong the opposition to the new NCYI rules really is. Are the objections going to remain for the long term and cause things to change at NCYI headquarters or are they just an immediate reaction that will not be followed up with action? I don't know but I suspect the former. If that is the case, if the leaders of NCYI want to retain their positions then they will have to rethink their strategy and make some attempt to compromise.

The current scrutiny on the NCYI headquarters raises the question of what they should be doing. I think the consensus seems to be that they should be focusing on providing services to synagogues or, perhaps more accurately, explaining how they are already serving them.

If I were them, I would immediately revoke the new rules, apologize for not incorporating the viewpoints of all the synagogues before making such important steps, and go on a listening tour of Young Israel synagogues to learn what people need and how NCYI can provide it. But that's assuming that this doesn't all blow over in a few weeks.

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