For nearly all of the first half of the last century, Orthodox leaders in North America were, in the main, congregational rabbis. These were men of talent and often of considerable learning who in their personal lives were certainly committed to religious observance. What they were lacking is vision, the ability to see our religious life not as it was in this Goldene Medinah which was also a treife medinah, but as it could become.
The situation in this period that saw wholesale Judaic abandonment as hundreds of thousands of once observant Jews cast away religious practices is captured in the final Mishnah in Sotah, as interpreted by Rav Aharon Kotler, an interpretation that has also been attributed to Rav Elchanan Wasserman and others. I heard the following from Rav Aharon: The Mishnah elaborates the frightening curses that will befall our people prior to the coming of the Moshiach. There will be an increase in insolence, the meeting place of scholars will be used for harlotry and their wisdom will decay, those who dread sin will be despised, truth will vanish, the young will publicly shame their elders and much else, including pnei hador kipnei hakelev, the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog.
After all of the horrifying details, the Mishnah adds, “Upon whom may we rely? Upon our Father in Heaven.” This is ordinarily interpreted to mean that because we will be in such an extreme state of degradation, our only hope will be to rely on Hakadosh Baruch-Hu. Rav Aharon said that this attitude was the greatest curse of all because it is an expression of yi-ush, of abandoning any hope in our capacity to challenge and reverse the situation we are in.
There were rabbanim who were great Torah scholars who looked at the American scene, at the steady and often rapid decline in observance, and then despaired about the future. They retired to their sefarim and writings. Others thought that they were witness to the flowering of a new Orthodox Jewry, an American brand that although different from what had existed in Europe would still be faithful to our heritage. These were mostly rabbis whose shuls were filled on Shabbos, men who honed their sermonic skills. Their congregations had Talmud Torahs with large enrollments. In their state of self-delusion, they scarcely paused to recognize that there was no Talmud and very little Torah.
These after-school programs were the handmaiden of massive religious loss. Sadly, few congregational rabbis saw the need for day schools. They bought unthinkingly into the dominant American Jewish ethos that yeshivas were an anachronism and not suitable in this land of freedom and opportunity. This helps us to understand why with few exceptions, Rav Aharon had little to do with congregational rabbis, this despite his being a remarkable people person who interacted with an astounding number of religious Jews, to an extent not approached by any other Torah leader.
When Rav Aharon came here in the late 1930s to raise funds for Kletsk, the invitation to a Manhattan reception in his honor included the names of New York’s most prominent rabbis and described him in exceptional language. When he settled here a few years later, however, his involvement with congregational rabbis was curtailed, especially after the early Vaad Hatzala activity. In the more than a decade that I knew him, he had little to do with the Agudas Harrabanim or congregational rabbis.
The flip side of the prominence of congregational rabbis in the first decades of the twentieth century was the limited role in Orthodox life of Roshei Yeshiva. Their ranks were small and they were primarily confined to the four cubits of the institutions where they taught. To my knowledge, there was no Moetzes Gedolei Torah or any similar body. Torah Umesorah was established in 1943 and Agudath Israel was years away from being the key organization that it ultimately became.
Rav Aharon’s arrival triggered a role reversal, not immediately or dramatically, but incrementally. Ultimately, Roshei Yeshiva became a vital force in our religious life. Paralleling this development was the decline, not rapid but in stages, in the position and authority of congregational rabbis. When Rav Aharon passed away in 1962, the reversal was just about complete and the landscape of American Orthodoxy had been transformed.
This development, out of which so much that is praiseworthy subsequently emerged, was not universally welcomed within Orthodox life. There was discontent among the Modern Orthodox, notably in the rabbinate. Was the decline of the rabbinate caused by the ascendency of Roshei Yeshiva who deliberately undermined the rabbinate, as was claimed, or were these two parallel but separate developments, meaning that the rabbinic decline occurred for reasons not directly related to the expanding influence of Roshei Yeshiva?
This issue was the subject of much discussion in the 1960s and I participated in the debate. In a 1966 essay called “Rabbis and Deans” that was published in Tradition, then and still the excellent journal sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits launched a severe attack against Roshei Yeshiva. Later, of course, Rabbi Jakobovits served with great distinction as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. At the time, he was Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. In a follow-up to his original piece, Rabbi Jakobovits summarized his principal criticism of Roshei Yeshiva as follows:
1. The denigration and usurpation of the role of practicing rabbis by yeshivah deans had virtually eliminated the traditional place and functions of the rabbinate in the spiritual government of the religious community, resulting in the disappearance of the public Torah image in the community at large.
2. The transfer of rabbinic jurisdiction from communal rabbis to academic scholars confined to yeshivot had severely limited the scope of contemporary Halakhah and caused substantial deviations from the traditional pattern in the methods used to determine Jewish law.
3. These unprecedented developments had led to the displacement by yeshivot of kehillot as the institutional center of gravity in Jewish religious life.
4. The yeshivot’s discouragement of rabbinical careers was directly responsible for the spread of mediocrity in the rabbinate and the growing scarcity of candidates for leading rabbinical positions.
5. Yeshivot, by tending to stifle rather than to promote a sense of commitment to the wider community, had been equally unsuccessful in raising a community-minded laity, so that public Jewish life became increasingly drained of rabbinical and lay leaders alike.
I responded in a long letter that Tradition published in its entirety. Reading it for the first time in many years and after the passage of nearly a half-century is a strange, even eerie, experience. I believe that I was respectful to Rabbi Jakobovits, although in his rejoinder he accused me of “some quite unworthy imputations.” In brief, I wrote that “the Roshei Yeshiva have filled a vacuum and are contributing mightily, and at great sacrifice, to the development of a viable Orthodoxy… and to the possible evolution of a more functional rabbinate.” As for the claim of usurpation of rabbinic authority, I regarded this as astonishing “when we recall that a charge leveled against Roshei Yeshiva, most often from the Orthodox left, is that they restrict themselves too much to the yeshivot and do not vigorously lead the Orthodox community at a time when there is a paucity of leaders.”
I invite readers to revisit this discussion because it sheds important light on what American Orthodoxy was like nearly two generations ago and the transformations that have occurred since. Of note, neither Rabbi Jakobovits nor I made any mention of Rav Aharon Kotler, although it was certain that at issue was the pivotal role that he played in the changed character of American Orthodoxy.
From the perspective of nearly half a century, we can see how the rabbinate has been transformed and how congregational rabbis, including among the Modern Orthodox, have become involved in yeshivas and day schools and have encouraged their members to devote significant time to Torah study. This is confirmation that Rav Aharon’s vision has been fulfilled and that, as a consequence, when we now write about rabbis and deans, the reference is not to warring camps within Orthodox life but to a relationship that is generally respectful and cooperative.