A palpable energy filled the air at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday evening, May 27th, as hundreds of devoted Torah observant Jews gathered for the annual Agudath Israel gala dinner.
An umbrella organization for a variety of Jewish organizations affiliated with the Orthodox Jewish movement, the Agudath Israel was originally established in Europe in 1912 by some of Gedolim (Torah giants) of the time including the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna, the Radnizer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Elazar Leiner, the Gerrer Rebbe (Imrei Emes) and the Chortkover Rebbe. During the 1920s and 1930s the organization grew to be the political, communal and cultural voice of those Orthodox Jews who were not part of Zionism’s Orthodox Jewish Mizrachi party.
The remarks delivered at the dinner drew the ire of some non-Orthodox Jews and their respective organizations as Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Shlita, the Novominsker rebbe and the rabbinical head of Agudath Israel warned that Orthodoxy must be vigilant against more liberal strains of the movement. In what was perceived by some to be a critique on the “Open Orthodoxy” movement and its leader Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, HaRav Perlow told the assemblage, “The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of Jews, from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people.”
As to the influence that the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism have on American Jewish life, HaRav Perlow indicated that their agenda is outdated and obsolete. “They’ve become oblivious, and they’ve fallen into the pit of intermarriage and assimilation,” he said. “They have no future, they almost have no present.”
Open Orthodoxy is a relatively new phenomenon on the Jewish scene and its movement has been spearheaded by Rabbi Avi Weiss and centered at Yeshiva Chovevei Torah in Riverdale. Its program calls for a greater role for women in Jewish ritual, among other things. A major part of Rabbi Weiss’ permissive worldview is ordaining women for the Orthodox rabbinate.
In January of this year, Ynet News reported that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate was dealing with issues pertaining to Rabbi Weiss’ interpretation of Jewish law. According to the report, “The Rabbinate said it had received testimonies from well-known rabbis in the United States, some of whom are member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), that Weiss’ halachic opinions – reflected in different incidents and circumstances, cast doubt on the level of his commitment to the customary and acceptable Jewish Halacha.”
HaRav Perlow, however, took the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to task for not being condemning the Open Orthodoxy movement with more fervor. He said that the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos,” or heresy and that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is “not sensitive to this.”
Calling on the Modern Orthodox movement to “stand up and reject these new deviationists, cloaking themselves in the mantle of Orthodoxy,” HaRav Perlow said that, “There’s a grave danger out there…outside New York City, that positions of leadership amongst Orthodox Jews is being taken over by people who have completely deviated from the preservation of holiness.”
Also addressing the dinner was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who took the opportunity to heap accolades on the litany of accomplishments of Agudath Israel and noted that some of its lay leaders were key backers in his mayoral campaign.
Speaking of his campaign promise to establish universal prekindergarten, DeBlasio said that it has been his signature achievement since taking office in January. He said that his plan was conceived, in part, with the Orthodox community and Jewish schools in mind.
“From the very beginning I knew this would succeed for all of New York City if it was also something that succeeded for this community,” de Blasio said. “The yeshivot were such a crucial part of it. I knew if we did that so many children would benefit.”
DeBlasio however, did not address HaRav Perlow’s comments and his silence on the issue t drew condemnation from The New York Times in a column on May 29th. Aides to the mayor asserted that he did not hear the rabbi’s address and he was talking with well wishers at the time.
Responding to media criticism of HaRav Perlow’s address, Rabbi Dovid Zweibel, the Agudah’s executive vice president said in a prepared statement that, “This kind of stuff has been part and parcel of what our movement has been speaking about since time immemorial.”
The statement continued by vigorously defended their leader’s comments: “Rabbi Perlow, and the community of Orthodox Jews who look to him as a leader, have nothing but love and concern for all Jews, regardless of their affiliation, regardless of how misled they may be by their religious leaders.”
In an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Zweibel said, “One of the foundational missions that we see our organization as having is being ideological when ideology is called for.”
The paper also reported that Rabbi Zweibel said that HaRav Perlow’s remarks were “an appeal to the Modern Orthodox world,” particularly as graduates of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah which is led by Rabbi Avi Weiss are now beginning to seek rabbinical positions.