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The Agudah Crisis
The disconnect between the rabbinic leadership and the constituency
The following anonymous letter has been circulating:
Dear Agudas Yisroel of America. I write to you as someone who considers himself an “Agudah Yid” even if I may be a few years behind in my membership dues! I grew up in a household where the Agudah and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah reigned supreme. But it seems to be that we have reached a crossroads and that Agudah needs to make a decision. Fast.
It is no secret that Ultra Orthodoxy today is divided into several groups.
There are the Chassidim. Many major groups of Chassidim were anti Agudah from the start and the ones who weren’t don’t seem to be too eager to join right now. They are largely insular and prefer the leadership of their own rebbes. No rebbe of a major chassidus is part of Agudah. And so Agudah does not represent them nor should they attempt to.
There is “Lakewood” and the people under their influence. (Full disclosure, I live in Lakewood) The Lakewood yeshiva community is a right-leaning community. This means practically that the Lakewood Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbanim will sign bans against 24/6 (and Megillas Lester), will take strong positions against all new technology, always rule stringently in areas of women’s modesty, and – well, you get my point. Similar to the Chassidim, they are insular and do not have much interest in the outside world. To date, there is no major support, respect, or interest in Agudah from the Lakewood yeshiva community.
Then there are the others. These are the Ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn to Passaic to Monsey and from the tens of smaller communities across the country. They have a bona-fide yeshiva education but also look outward. They may have gone to college, or they may not have, but they certainly see value in a broader education and worldview. They also see themselves as part of a larger Jewish world, at home and abroad. They do not “support” the non-religious, but they are pained by the fact that so many Jews do not live a life of Torah. It seems to me that this is Agudas Yisroel’s constituency. To be fair, I think this was the dominant (non-Chassidic) view of Ultra Orthodoxy in American since World War 2, and it is the Lakewood Yeshiva crowd that has slowly moved in a new direction.
You may not want that or like that, but those are the facts. The core followers of the Agudah are the non-Chassidish, non-Lakewood communities.
And yet, your Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah is filled with people who are often at odds with your core constituency. No one is questioning the greatness of any member of the Moetzes (obviously), and there are legitimate positions on many issues, but members of an organization need and deserve to have a rabbinical board that share basic values and approaches with them. Why should the Lakewood yeshiva world have such a strong voice in the Moetzes of Agudah when the Lakewood yeshiva world is not even part of Agudah?
Now I know what you will tell me: “we listen to our Gedolim and accept their words even if we disagree”. But you and I both know that is false. To date there is no member of the Modern Orthodox world on your Moetzes despite there being many great Talmidei Chachamim among them. There is no member of Chabad on your board either. Clearly, there needs to be a baseline “hashkafa” that a Gadol has to have in order to be considered for the Moetzes. And so again, why is the Moetzes made up of so many members who are so at odds with the people who look to Agudah for guidance?
The rally in Washington D.C. this week is a perfect example of the problem. I am not concerned with the merits of either side, I simply want to take a look at the disconnect here.
Many Ultra-Orthodox communities across the country were eager to participate in this historic, and what they saw as vital, rally. And what was the position of the Agudah? First, they sent out a timid email with what appeared to be reluctant support for the rally. To an outsider it seemed that the Moetzes did not want to support the rally at all, but realized that opposing it would not sit will with their constituents and so they did not come out against it. Their weak email created a vacuum to allow the mess that was to follow.
The evening before the event a letter comes out signed by 4 member of the Moetzes (a 5th joined later) saying that it is assur to go to the rally. Never mind the cruelty of the November surprise, but to our point, the views of this Moetzes are simply worlds apart from the people who would be Agudah members. Even before the letter came out there were almost no buses from Lakewood going to the event. In in 5 Towns you were embarrassed to not be attending the rally and in Lakewood no one even knew about it! Many rabbanim from outside of Lakewood supported and joined the rally; are they not “chared lidvar Hashem”?
There is a terrible divide between the ideology of the voice coming out of Agudah and the people who are its loyal adherents. This is leading to nothing less than the destruction of Agudah. Consider the fact that most people would struggle to find some positive communal initiative that Agudah has implemented for Klal Yisroel over the past few years. They are clearly handicapped by the many voices in the Moetzes and so they take the path of least resistance and do nothing. While their counterpart at the OU are engaged in community changing Torah projects and initiatives, Agudah is making grand conventions. With their AllDaf app OU is teaching millions of Yidden Shas, while the Agudah is making millions off of Yiden with a Siyum HaShas.
(Caveat – We are talking here about Agudah as a voice and guidance for Torah Jewry in America. There are a lot projects that Agudah is involved in, such as lobbying, legal/political initiatives that are invaluable.)
The Lakewood yeshiva world has adopted very different views then many of us. These are of course legitimate views, just as the Gedolim purporting them are tremendous people. If the Agudah wants to appeal to these voiced and embrace the rabbanim who speak for them- fine. Let us know and we will wish you well, and probably start a new organization to speak for us. I should warn you, however, that most of the “yeshivish” Rosh Yeshivas want nothing to do with Agudah and most of their followers have nothing but ridicule for you.
But if you want to continue to be the voice for what is still the mainstream Ultra-Orthodox in the country, it is time that real change comes to your institution. Those changes might be in who is allowed to be on the Moetzes, or maybe what types of questions need the Moetzes approval, or maybe who gets to have veto power, I don’t know. But I do know that you are currently in dangerous waters. You are being dominated by voices who are diametrically opposed to the deepest convictions of the only people who still support you. That situation cannot last.
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