The Orthodox Forum: What and Why

BY: Rabbi Yosef Blau.

For over two decades, a group of Orthodox thinkers has gathered annually for a two-day discussion focusing on a single topic affecting the Jewish world.  Originated by Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rosh HaYeshiva and then-President of Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Forum participants, comprising rashei yeshivah, rabbis, educators and academicians from America and Israel, have exchanged ideas and critiqued each other’s papers.  The format involves attacking an issue from many perspectives, halakhic, historical and philosophical. Papers are prepared in advance, read by all the participants and analyzed in a question and answer format.  The book that has resulted from each Forum consists of the papers given, modified to incorporate insights and criticisms emerging from the sessions.

The underlying concept is that through dialogue and exposure to the perspectives of others, formulations are sharpened and ideas clarified.  The Talmud points out the weakness of a person’s studying alone.[i] In the description of Rav Yohanan’s mourning for the death of his disciple and disputant Reish Lakish, Rav Elazar’s attempt to console Rav Yohanan by providing support for his views is rejected.[ii] Only through questions and answers, arguments back and forth, can the Halakhah become clarified.

Most, though not all, of the Forums related to issues of modernity.  Topics covered over the Forum’s twenty-one years have ranged from “Rabbinical Authority and Personal Autonomy” to “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition.” Issues emerging from science and modern scholarship, democracy and tolerance, ethics and egalitarianism, were each analyzed.  Responses to the emergence of the State of Israel and interaction with non-traditional Jews were discussed.  Volumes have appeared about enhancing yir’at Shamayim (fear of Heaven) and the impact of Lomdut (the conceptual approach to Jewish learning).  At times, there was conflict over whether some ideas presented were within accepted bounds of Orthodoxy, but, in general, civility has marked the discussions.

The goal of the Forum and the books that have appeared was not to formulate specific policies but to enhance awareness of differing perspectives in confronting issues important to Orthodoxy’s future.  One of the challenges to the Forum is to avoid involving the same people, as talented as many are, and in particular to effectively introduce greater participation by the next generation.  Last year’s Forum (the book has yet to appear) was dominated by the contributions of younger scholars.

Keeping the number of participants to a manageable size while allowing new people to hear the give-and-take has prevented many who would gain from the exposure from being invited.  The cost of the volumes published has also limited the Orthodox Forum’s impact; having some appear in paperback has been helpful in that regard.  There is a wealth of material in the twenty volumes that have so far been published.

The Orthodox Forum reflects the intellectual strength of Modern Orthodoxy both in Israel and America.  Our community, primarily but not exclusively comprised of products of Yeshiva University, has produced talmidei hakhamim and scholars in many disciplines who are enriching Jewish thought and are confronting many of the issues that challenge us in our complex world.

Rabbi Yosef Blau is Mashgiach Ruchani of RIETS.

[i] Makkot 10a.

[ii] Bava Metsi’a 84a.