Orthodox Forum 2.0: Thoughts on the future of the Orthodox Forum

BY: Rabbi Shmuel Hain.

For over 20 years, the Orthodox Forum has produced an invaluable body of literature addressing, in a sophisticated, comprehensive and academic fashion, the central issues confronting the Orthodox Jewish community.

This past year, in recognition of 20 years of the Forum, the Series Editor, Rabbi Robert  Hirt, along with the Steering Committee (led by Dr. David Shatz and Dr. Moshe Sokol), decided to convene a different kind of Forum, one that would reflect on the history of the Forum while engaging a new generation of leaders and readers.

I had the privilege of co-Chairing this effort, and, armed with a great deal of input from Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and a number of young Jewish leaders, we designed and executed a forum consisting of 18 papers and 6 panel discussions featuring the next generation of Modern Orthodoxy’s leaders discussing essential questions for the Jewish community. The Forum included original papers on the odyssey years and the role of “emerging adults” in the Jewish community, the impact of new voices (female, academic and spiritual) on the traditional beit midrash, and new perspectives on social justice and rabbinic authority/personal autonomy, as well as sessions discussing the future of Modern Orthodoxy and its educational system.

Perhaps just as important as the fruitful discussions of these subjects produced at the Forum, the Forum’s new format and focus underscored that an updated and enhanced model has much to offer the Yeshiva University community and the broader Jewish world.

One of the central tenets of the Forum is that truly open and honest dialogue occurs within a cohesive community committed to common values. By modifying the format (from paper presentations to panel discussions) and by inviting to participate a young and varied cohort of men and women comprised of academics, Ramim (Talmud lecturers), communal leaders, educators, students and others who share the ideals of the “Forum regulars,” we furthered the Forum’s mission to create a diverse, interdisciplinary community of Jewish thinkers to discuss and debate ideas. The intergenerational dialogue, the balance of academic and more popular perspectives, and the new venue (Yeshiva University’s Belfer Hall) all combined to create a new energy and vitality to the discourse.

Several additional new elements will further transform the Forum into an even more significant vehicle for year-round discussion and debate. This past year, on the Shabbat before the Forum, several synagogues hosted Forum participants to bring the Forum discussions to the broader Jewish community. New initiatives to engage the entire community should include a Forum website featuring new analyses and assessments of earlier Forum topics and papers as well as ongoing discussion of issues that future Forums should address.  The Steering Committee and the student body of Yeshiva (including those students involved in Kol Hamevaser) can collaborate to engage the future leaders of Modern Orthodoxy in the conversation by encouraging student clubs to host special colloquia on Forum subjects and by co-sponsoring a call for papers from undergraduate students with the winner invited to participate in the Forum.

By building on the accomplishments of the Forum and adding these new ingredients, the Orthodox Forum will continue to fulfill the words of the prophet Malakhi, cited and beautifully applied by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at a special address at this past year’s Forum:

“Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another; and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name.”[i]

Rabbi Shmuel Hain serves as Rosh Beit Midrash of The Graduate Program in Biblical and Talmudic Interpretation and as Rabbi of Young Israel Ohab Zedek in North Riverdale.

[i] Mal’akhi 3:16.