An Interview with Rabbi Robert Hirt

BY: Jonathan Ziring.

Can you provide a basic history of the Orthodox Forum over the last twenty years?

The Forum was started in 1989, and we are now in our twenty-first year.  The objective was to expose the yeshivah- and college-educated graduate, not just the Yeshiva University graduate, to thoughtful consideration of the interface of Judaism and general culture that would speak with a degree of authority, but not authoritarianism.  The readers do not have to be Orthodox necessarily, but they do have to be sensitive to the concerns of Modern Orthodoxy for these issues to speak to them and enrich their lives.  We wanted to present things that were sufficient in length that the Forum could conduct serious discussions, but not necessarily articles that would be printed in academic journals.  We would ask people to write who would have an impact on the Modern Orthodox community and beyond, would be able to think in interdisciplinary terms, and would want to talk with leaders they would not otherwise see. The Forum has drawn many people throughout the years.  We have a Steering Committee of twenty people who choose the people involved each year.

Our goal was really twofold, then: to bring people together – Americans, Israelis, Brits, men and women – and to have them look at issues from a multidisciplinary point of view, through the lenses of Halakhah, history, sociology, and political thought, in order to produce a body of literature that the general public could read and learn from. Over the past twenty years, we have produced twenty volumes with over two hundred articles from rashei yeshivah, academics, community leaders, rabbis, Jewish educators, and communal professionals. R. Aharon Lichtenstein, for instance, has written eleven articles for the Forum, making him the most significant contributor. Today, we are hoping to expand the pool of participants to include younger scholars in their thirties and forties who will be the leaders of the Modern Orthodox community in the future.

Do you think the goals of the Orthodox Forum have changed over the years, and is the shift towards younger participants an indication of that?

I would say that the goals have not shifted, but there is the recognition that people may be thinking about things differently and may look at the same issues in different ways, so we have to adjust accordingly.  Pieces have to be shorter; authors have to gear their work to a younger audience; they often have to write outside of their own disciplines.  It encourages the development of new leadership to have younger people rather than the classic names one would expect to see.  So while the goals have changed, the awareness of a different generation of leadership has developed.  The articles do not have to be more authoritative because of who wrote them, but they have to be substantive so people can think about the issues.  And they also have to be made more publicly available.  As part of this goal, we have put some of the articles on YU Torah and the like.[i]

The community is meant to be broad, but the Forum books are often expensive, making them difficult for students to procure.  On the other hand, some of the articles are available on YUTorah.  What does this indicate about who the audience of the Orthodox Forum is meant to be?

The books run at about thirty dollarseach.  I think the question is whether you prefer prime value or prime grill – which one feeds you better.  Considering what they contain, the books are not overpriced, but if students would want them for a lower price, they could come to my office and get them for such a price.  For the general public, though, it is reasonable.

Furthermore, as mentioned, many of the articles are made available on YU Torah and other forums.  For example, an article by R. Aharon Lichtenstein on the relationship between Orthodox Jews and non-believing Jews of other religious ideologies, or non-believing at all, which was featured on Hirhurim, received two hundred responses in the first weeks.  That means it has been successful.  Are people reading blogs?  Yes they are.   For me, that is a way to go for the future.  I am not sure that if the books were $10 there would be many more readers or purchasers, and our goal is not to sell books but for people to read them.

Are there any intended goals of the Forum that have not been achieved?

No, I would say the two primary goals have been achieved.  We continue to attract people who want to write for it. Very few people refuse, unless the date does not work, and I am happy about that.  I see the volumes quoted often, in journals and student publications, and I am satisfied with that as well.

What I would like to see moving forward is that shuls, in addition to the classic things they do for adult education, would set up study groups using these articles, maybe with question guides, so that people can engage these issues.  At these groups, educators and lay people could get together and say, “This is what we want to study this year.” You do not need a book club, you just need an article.  I think this would be important in attitude building, because our community has been perceived by the outside as having moved away from the substantive concerns of the rest of Jewish life outside of Orthodoxy.  And I think we should not rely on sermons, sound bites, and internet pieces that are reprinted for such education – there is a need for more serious engagement with the issues.

I think adult education classes are not well attended within the Orthodox community.  Outside of our community, there are groups like the Me’ah program,[ii] the Wexner program,[iii] and the Melton program,[iv] and we are not doing enough of that here.  Not that I would substitute this type of group for a daf yomi shi’ur (daily class on one page of the Talmud), but I do not think there has to be competition between them.

For our community to grow, we need to use these pieces – not dumb them down but make them accessible.  And that means we have to show rabbis and educators how to do it, which was not originally our goal.  I think many young people are growing up less as readers than they were before, unless they are in the more intellectual tracks in Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women.  Still, I do not believe when they are thirty-five, they are going to be less interested in these issues – on the contrary, they are going to be more interested but may not have the keys to access discussions of them.  That is something that should be working on.   This is true if our general Hashkafah (worldview) and ideology is to be advanced. People should buy into it, not just because of our lifestyle and not just because our personalities are interesting, but because it is more substantively engaged.

We live in a competitive world – we could end up with “Torah u-Parnasah” (Torah and a profession [but not secular studies]) or “Torah and the Jets,” and people’s lives would not be as enriched.  People get tired about the things they do regularly, even if they continue to do them anyway.  I think even that we would do much better for our self-esteem as a community if people were exposed to some of the thinkers here, not just the latest shi’ur or the latest internet piece in response to a popular crisis.

Have there been moves to develop these types of programs?

Not enough.  President Richard Joel has as interest in it and Rabbi Kenneth Brander has been involved with some discussions through the Center for the Jewish Future, but it needs to move at a much more accelerated rate.  I am sure the readers and writers of Kol Hamevaser, upon reading this, would like to encourage people to do these types of things.  I think there is a value in the readership saying, “This is what we would like to receive,” as opposed to waiting for top-down leadership.  The days of top-down leadership in many areas of Jewish life, even within Orthodoxy, have been greatly reduced.  That does not mean that we do not look to rabbis for a pesak (legal decision) or have emunat hakhamim (trust in scholars), but I do think people are getting information wherever they want to get it, so we should try to find out what people want and get it to them.

Is there something in particular you would suggest younger people, students and the like, do to encourage the proliferation of serious Jewish thought?

Let me give some examples.  If you are giving a shi’ur, you could draw upon sources in the Orthodox Forum and the like.  Or if you are going on the Aaron and Blanche Schreiber Torah Tours, you can show the communities that there is something different that you can do because of your education, as opposed to just doing the classic things that you could have done even if you had not gone to Yeshiva.  I think utilizing our student ambassadors and faculty is a better way to go than just sending a guest lecturer.  I do not think it would take so much, but no one has ever suggested it to people like you. I would like to see much more of a student initiative, rather than just waiting for the people who are supposedly more prepared to start reaching out.

Moving to the methodology of the Forum, can you explain how the Forum is run, how many people are invited, how they are picked, who is allowed to be in the audience, etc.?

I would have to change the word “audience” to “participants” – that is exactly the point.  We do not want an audience.  About one hundred people are invited from across the spectrum.  Sixty to eighty people end up participating over a two-day period in the session.  The papers are distributed to participants in advance and everyone sits down together at a table to discuss them.  There are usually two or three people on each panel, depending on the topic that we are dealing with.  They sometimes make an opening statement for a minute or two, and then there are lots of questions. In this way, authors basically get a chance to review their articles before publishing them.

Dr. David Shatz, who is very much involved with the Forum, wrote a book on peer review, in which he discussed, among other things, how books get vetted.[v] I think it is better that things not get vetted from top down.  Instead, the discussion is around the table.  Everyone has to read the articles in advance.  Then people are able to refine and revise what they have done based on the insights of others.

If you had two hundred people at each Forum, you could not do that. We want a sense of community, so it is not open to the public, and we want the people to read in advance so they can participate.  No one speaks who has not read, and anyone who speaks generally has something to say that will contribute to the quality of the article being discussed.  It should be selective, but it should not be limited.  Some students are invited – we invite the Kollel Elyon and Stern scholars if they are interested, and those who approach us and say, “Can I come?,” but not more than that, so that we can have one table with everyone around it.  I think it should be continued like that.  Although I said we do not want to have observers, the exception are these groups – when the Kollel Elyon students and Stern scholars come, they are observers.  They could raise their hands if they wanted to, but they do not generally. Otherwise, everyone in the Forum is a participant. I think this format works and the people who come are amazed at the level of the interaction.  It does not always work, but nine times out of ten it works well and I think that process should be continued.

Finally, after the session is over, I sit down, as the Series Editor, with the editor of the particular volume, and we try to think about things that could enrich the papers.

How are speakers and topics chosen?

We have a Steering Committee composed of about eighteen people, including Rabbi Jeremy Weider, Rabbi Yosef Blau, Dr. David Shatz, Dr. Judith Bleich, Dr. Rivkah Blau, Rabbi Shmuel Hain, as well as a range of academics, like Dr. Moshe Sokol from Touro and Dr. Lawrence Schiffman from NYU.  The Steering Committee is responsible for coming up with ideas.  We meet as a Steering Committee and I ask them what they think we should talk about in a year or two from now.  Then, a small group will meet and they will come out with suggestions that will enable carrying out seven or eight sessions over two days, and then they will run it by the larger group.  If it is approved, we will see whether we have enough people who can write original articles on the topic, not rehashing what they have done before.  This coming year, we are dealing with religion and all the changes of culture – high culture, medium culture, and low culture, including Internet issues and the like.  What impact does it have on our thinking?  That topic was developed two years ago.  We have not run out of topics yet.

Is the Forum planning on revisiting any topics, or focusing only on new ones?

Well, in terms of the most recent book on the relationship between believing Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews,[vi] some people may think that this is the same as the book we had on the Jewish Tradition and the Nontraditional Jew.[vii] If you look at it, though, the topics are much broader now than they were then.  The concerns are different: apathy, secularization of the community, the differences between America and Israel, the relationship between the religious and non-religious in the army, etc. That did not exist before.  This volume deals with the status of the secular Jew in society, from a halakhic point-of-view and a non-halakhic point-of-view.  Who is in and who is out?  That is very different from the world that existed almost twenty years ago. I think this book is much more embracing of the fact that there are believing Jews who are not necessarily Orthodox. How do we see our community moving forward in a time of polarization?  The distinctions we had years ago between the Orthodox community and the outside have broadened because the community has narrowed.

So a topic can be revisited if the communal situation has changed and if we approach it from a new perspective than we had taken before. Just because we did a topic a long time ago does not mean that we have to redo it, of course, but equally true is the fact that if an issue was discussed a long time ago, there can still be new nuances many years later.

Do the changes of topics dealt with in the Orthodox Forum reflect changes in the Jewish community generally and the Orthodox community in particular?

If I look at the topics of the last five years, I think it reflects concerns that we have.  Yir’at Shamayim (fear of Heaven), for example, was one recent topic, because we feel it is on the decline.[viii] Our community is more geared towards professionalism and the intellectual, but where is the yir’at Shamayim?  With the decline of authority, in a post-denominational, multicultural world, do we think there is awe?  Similarly, gender relationships – there was a volume on that three years ago, because the education available for women was a big issue even before the recent ordination question.[ix] We have a book on philanthropy in an era of economic hardship.[x] Overall, I think there is a sense of relevance to what the community should be looking at.  Also, if one looks at some of the topics over the years, such as tikkun olam, engaging modernity, Jewish perspectives on suffering, those are classic issues.

What topics are currently being planned to respond to the community’s concerns?

The issue coming out next year, which is being edited by Rabbi Shmuel Hain, relates to the “Odyssey Generation.” David Brooks had written about the ages between twenty-five and thirty-five being very unsettling for many people.[xi] The word “odyssey” refers to these people who are on a journey – as opposed to in earlier generations when you could feel settled at twenty-five, only at thirty-five is it now standard that one has a stable job and family.  There are many people who delay those important decisions.  It is a concern in terms of what our community will look like in ten years with more people unmarried, not yet settled down, and so forth. Contemporary culture in general – how do we view it: with trepidation or as an opportunity for spiritual and religious expression?  What are the borders because of the normative system we have?  These topics get into the personal engagement with life and listen to what drumbeats people are marching to.

Over the last few years, there has been an Orthodox Forum held in Israel – can you explain its purpose? How does it differ from the American one and how is it similar?

I do not think it has reached a point where they know what types of discussions will qualify as meaningful in Israel.  The process is different.  Papers are not written in advance.  No book is published afterward.  The Forum in Israel has yet to define itself and develop a real sense of what ought to happen. Additionally, with the issues facing Israeli society being more pressing in nature, I think Americans are more free to address broader agenda issues, a luxury Israeli yeshivot do not have.  Also, in Israel the relationship between the academics and the rabbis is more stratified, whereas here many of the people we invite are comfortable talking with both.  All these factors change the possible dynamic.

As for the future, I do not know what direction the Israeli Forum should take.  They might be comfortable meeting for a weekend and discussing topics at the table, something that would not be sufficient for us.  They are generally less comfortable preparing for longer terms, unless they are actual academics, while we try to prepare ahead.  I think the best chance at coming up with a working parallel institution would be if we could put together the best of Har Etzion, Ma’ale Gilboa, Bar-Ilan, and Orthodox academics and see what are their concerns and look at those issues.  Otherwise, they have other venues in which they can express themselves if they so wish.

A forum like this, though, has not yet captured the Orthodox Israeli imagination, which is unfortunate.  The closest they had in Israel was the Kibbutz Lavi conference, but that was much more political – it was sort of a gathering of Modern Orthodox thinkers, talking about what our community needs practically.  Perhaps, that is what is right for that community. They want to talk about the issues that are pressing, even if there is not something that can be done about them.  With us, though, the purpose of the Forum is much more for its educational value. Ours is freer from the demand to have an immediate effect on society, which allows us to think more freely.

Are some of these limitations carried over when the Israelis come to the American Forum?

No, they are very excited about the Forum and the opportunities it provides: the openness, the ability to sit for two days without the pressure of going about their normal business (in Israel, it is very rare that a person gets two days off), the vehicle for expression, etc. We have had people such as R. Yuval Cherlow, R. Benny Lau, people from Ma’ale Gilboa, Har Etzion, Beit Morasha, and others. They are more independent; they do not necessarily identify only with certain institutions.

Has their involvement changed how the Americans interact in the Forum?

Not enough, but I think that is something that we should talk about in the future.  Like I said, we always try to include both Israelis and Americans because we think that it is important. On the ground, we are one community, though I am not sure the Israelis always see America that way.  This is not because of shelilat Benei ha-Golah (denigration of Diaspora Jews) or because they deny the value of the Diaspora, but because they think the center of Jewish life is in Israel, which makes the impact they can have on our community more limited.  However, the people we try to involve see the world as one, because of travel, internet, and other factors.  These people have much to add to the Forum, as they value our community as well. For example, Esty Rosenberg was involved with issues of education last year, and she found it very enlightening, and had many enlightened views – more than many of the people here.  Having people like that has added a great deal.

Do you have any closing comments?

I think that the Forum in general follows a particular process, but it should be open to students for ideas on how they can utilize this process, these people, and these volumes.  We would be open to hearing how people would like to do that, with or without support.  It is basically what Kol Hamevaser is trying to do, except that we have around-the-table discussions.

Rabbi Robert Hirt is the founding editor of the Orthodox Forum series and is Vice President Emeritus of RIETS.  He holds the Rabbi Sidney Shoham Chair in Rabbinic and Community Leadership.

Jonathan Ziring is a senior in YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Associate Editor for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] Available at: http://www.yutorah.org/browse/browse.cfm#series=4101&lang=cfm&organizationID=301.

[ii] Available at: http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/meah.

[iii] Available at: http://www.wexnerfoundation.org/.

[iv] Available at: http://www.fmams.org.il/1f_israelseminars/1_seminars.htm.

[v] David Shatz, Peer Review: A Critical Inquiry (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

[vi] Adam Mintz (ed.), The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Believing Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews (New York: Yeshiva University Press; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2010).

[vii] J. J. Schacter (ed.), Jewish Tradition and the Nontraditional Jew (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1992).

[viii] Marc D. Stern (ed.), Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2008).

[ix] Rivkah Teitz Blau (ed.), Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out (New York: Yeshiva University Press; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2007).

[x] Yossi Prager (ed.), Toward a Renewed Ethic of Jewish Philanthropy (New York: Yeshiva University Press; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2010).

[xi] David Brooks, “The Odyssey Years,” The New York Times (October 9, 2007), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/09/opinion/09brooks.html?em.