Fifteen years after he came to live in the United States and set out to build Torah in this land in fulfillment of the vision of Rav Chaim Volozhin, Rav Aharon Kotler and ten other eminent Torah leaders issued their historic ruling forbidding Orthodox membership in rabbinical and congregational bodies with the Reform and Conservative.
In a popular book on Rav Aharon that devotes one page to this epic event, the author writes that Rav Aharon “wasted no opportunity to demonstrate how Orthodoxy undermines its very essence by extending religious status to the Reform through an organizational association with them within a religious framework.” That certainly was his position, yet it remains that he came here in 1941 and the psak was issued in 1956. Why the delay in declaring “that it is forbidden by the law of our sacred Torah to participate with [them] either as an individual or as an organized communal body.”?
I believe that Rav Aharon did not focus on this issue because for him there was no issue. Whatever their titles or affiliations, the Reform and Conservative were entirely without legitimacy. Their clergy were not rabbis and their congregations were not synagogues. This was self-evident and no elaboration was needed.
Although he had ongoing and, at times, extensive contact with lay persons from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, specifically including many who were quite modern in their outlook and even behavior, in an intriguing way his involvement with rabbinical figures was limited. After his first years here which entailed Vaad Hatzala activity, he had little to do with the Agudas Harrabanim, this despite that organization being comprised of Yiddish-speaking rabbis, many of whom came from Lithuania or nearby places in Eastern Europe. I hope to deal with this issue in a subsequent column.
There is a collateral point that merits attention. Rav Aharon was a person of intensive activity who toiled in a state of constant exhaustion as he labored to sustain his yeshiva through shiurim, contacts with students and fundraising and, as has been described previously, to create and nurture both financially and spiritually Chinuch Atzmai in Israel and the emerging day school movement in North America. This was his life. Although there are those who out of ignorance or malice have accused him of routinely issuing issurim or prohibitions, in truth that was not his style.
Thus, in his leadership role at Torah Umesorah which at the time encompassed more than a handful of co-educational schools, he tacitly accepted an arrangement that he did not approve of because he understood that through diligent efforts, ultimately these schools would transform the religious Jewish landscape in North America. In fact, as is evident in passages published in Mishnas Rav Aharon, he believed that co-education is absolutely forbidden at the high school level and, at best, problematic at the upper elementary school grades. Yet, there was no public prohibition. There is a lesson in this, which is that the primary path to expanding Torah living is by showing how it is life-giving.
The prohibition against the Board of Rabbis and Synagogue Council of America (SCA) membership begins “We have been asked by a number of rabbis,” and by others, whether “it is permissible to participate.” The clear indication is that the ensuing ruling is a response to an issue that was presented to the Gedolai Torah. My recollection is that the key person was Rabbi David B. Hollander who had previously served as president of the Rabbinical Council of American (RCA), which was comprised primarily of Yeshiva University rabbinical alumni and which together with the Orthodox Union was a member of the Synagogue Council. Rabbi Chaim U. Lipschitz who was involved in the Iggud Harrabanim which at the time consisted mainly of Torah Vodaath musmachim also played an important role.
As significant as the issur was in the delegitimation of boards of rabbis and the Synagogue Council, its immediate – and even short-term – impact was in practical terms limited. Few members of the Rabbinical Council resigned from that group and the RCA remained in the Synagogue Council, as did the Orthodox Union, this despite unceasing efforts in which I was involved to get the Orthodox Union in particular to abide by the prohibition. In communities across America outside of the New York area, local arrangements that accepted joint membership generally remained in place and these arrangements often included local day school principals, as well. In many localities it was accepted that it was preferable to maintain a semblance of unity rather than to envelop the community and its day schools in conflict that would occur if rabbis resigned from joint bodies.
Over time, the message that was sent in 1956 took strong root. The ties between Orthodox rabbis and organizations and boards of rabbis, as well as the Synagogue Council, grew constantly weaker. Ultimately, the Orthodox Union withdrew from the Synagogue Council and that organization collapsed. It hasn’t been missed. About five years ago, I spoke at a Rabbinical Council event. It was remarkable to see how the organization’s composition and orientation had changed, how a significant proportion of its membership now came from yeshiva-world institutions.
Paradoxically, the changed character of the Rabbinical Council has undermined the distinctive mission of the Iggud Harrabanim, which a half-century earlier had been pivotal in the prohibition issued by Rav Aharon and the other Gedolai Torah.
There is an additional paradox. For all of the conflict, even contentiousness, within Orthodoxy over membership with the non-Orthodox, that critical issue did not serve as a barrier to intra-Orthodox cooperation on a host of public issues. Amazingly, in the 1960s and 1970s and during the heat over the Synagogue Council issue, every major Orthodox group joined within the framework of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) to advocate for government aid to parochial schools and to further the rights of religious persons in the workplace and elsewhere. I was intimately involved in these efforts as COLPA’s first president. Intra-Orthodox cooperation brought about abundant beneficial fruit.
Throughout this period, I was active in both Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union, both on a voluntary basis. Gedolai Torah authorized my Orthodox Union activity. However, I was not allowed to become an officer of the organization because it was a member of the Synagogue Council. In this activity, I believe that I was faithful to the lessons that Rav Aharon taught about Orthodox unity and the instructions that he had given me.
There no longer is conflict within Orthodoxy over membership in joint bodies. As noted, the Synagogue Council is gone. The New York Board of Rabbis apparently exists, serving as another example that many organizations continue to operate even after they have died. This should be a glorious time in Orthodox life, a period of constant cooperation to achieve mutual goals. There is much to be proud of in fulfillment of Rav Aharon’s vision. Unfortunately, because the major Orthodox organizations do not cooperate, there have been scant advances over what was achieved a generation ago regarding the rights of religious persons and government aid to our schools, when despite tension and conflict our organizations put aside their differences and knew how to cooperate.