The Decline of Central Authority

Three presidentsWhen I was in my early 20s, I was working for Alpha Epsilon Pi, whose aim is to develop leadership for the Jewish community. I was lamenting to a friend how my generation feels a bit distant from our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., and how I would completely change the State of the Union to be more in touch with the people.

I proposed letting Michael Buffer introduce the President, and having a half-time show of sorts before the response from the opposing political party. My friend told me it was a horrible idea because it would further erode any respect we have for our elected officials.

Of course, my proposal was an awful one. And today, just over a decade later, I still struggle with how “leaders” relate to the average person. It turns out that I’m not the only one.

James Walker sent me an article several months ago stating that the Modern Orthodox Movement may be in decline and that among the movement’s issues is the role of rabbinic authority. Here is the key excerpt:

  • Rabbinic authority is waning. . . “What rabbis say does not matter,” is a refrain I have heard repeatedly. “Authority is in retreat,” declares one rabbi; says another, “People like traditional davening (prayer) and singing; but when it comes to halakhah impinging on them, then they resist.” In one haredi school, the head of Jewish studies states without any prompting, “In today’s age, the model of rabbinic authority does not exist. We don’t live in ghettoes anymore, so you have to reach students where they are. Saying ‘because it is so’ no longer works.””[1.]

I actually would love to see the Modern Orthodox Movement thrive. For the most part, I have been able to have open and honest conversations about Karaite Judaism (and halakha, in general) with its adherents.

Unlike the history of the Orthodox Movement, the nature of Karaite Judaism is decentralized. That is, we never really had a model that valued a central authority.

Yet, similar to the Modern Orthodox Movement, Karaites have never been particularly good at meeting people where they are. This has changed slightly over the past few years. But a much greater investment needs to be made in this regard. Karaite Judaism cannot simply be an academic pursuit of a million individuals. It needs to be a spiritual pursuit of millions of individuals who seek every and any legitimate expression of Judaism – even if that expression has never been “sanctioned by a central authority.”

So, in the effort to meet you where you are, please drop me a note telling me what the Karaite Jewish community can do to help you live a better and more meaningful Jewish life.

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1.  CAN MODERN ORTHODOXY SURVIVE? by Jack Wertheimer (


Filed under Ortho-Curious, State of the Movement

13 Responses to The Decline of Central Authority

  1. Susan

    The role of rabbinic authority in today’s world would be an interesting question to ask this summer in the Catskills, where on a Friday afternoon in South Fallsberg you will see every variety of Orthodox from Satmar to MO with a rainbow kippah s’rugah.

    My job as a rabbi (8 days and counting) is to meet people where they are, and for many, that can mean exploring Karaite Judaism as a way to have a meaningful Jewish life as an individual, balanced with the needs or community.

    As for our elected officials in Washington, I’m older than the president, which is weird, but in a way I miss the days of the “old boy network” because they usually had the good of their constituents in mind.

  2. Kara

    I believe that there is something very important happening in Judaism. I call it the practice of cyber Judaism. Judaism is not on the decline, to the contrary is is bursting at the seams- just not in the synagogue. The temple without walls is a reality. Jewish people: Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Karaite and secular alike are finding a cyber Jewish community through websites, blogs and social media. They are able to accomplish what the institutionalized religion of Judaism has not. The internet allows a Jew to learn about Israel, Zionism as activism, you can learn Hebrew online, collect Jewish recipes, and discuss the culture, history and traditions of Judaism. People can connect with Jews on every continent and embrace Mizrahi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi alike. Will Rabbis be willing to step into the cyber arena and make themselves known? I have witnessed discussion and argument over Halachic matters, some are resolved while other matters are not. The point is that a Jew is a Jew and no one can take away someone’s Jewishness. The cyber Jew can feel safe and brave enough to participate because they are doing so from a hand held device or a computer. This autonomy is essential to strengthening the otherwise timid Jew who might not feel comfortable in a traditional Jewish community of bricks and mortar. I am finishing a paper on this matter right now. I tie this issue directly to the failure of the Pew Institute Research Center. They use question in their polling analysis that are not helpful. The information is not relevant, thus the Jewish community panics because they think they are loosing Jews. Pew does not tap into the cyber Jewish community, therefore their findings have no meaning. I would encourage the Karaite community to post provacative questions that spark meaningful dialogue. Keep going, continue using social media as a platform. It is working…

    • rhiamom

      YES!! What you just said, the cyber community. By choice, I live a bit too far from any synagogue to attend regularly. (While the lack of a local synagogue was a serious con, the pros of this location outweighed that) But I do not lack a community. I frequent a Jewish forum with a core group of active members, and have for years. We know each other rather well by now. We range from Haredi to Renewal, with all stops between. I “attend” live streamed services erev Shabbat and festivals, with a different community of people. Would it be nice to be able to invite Jewish friends over for Shabbat dinner? Sure, but this small town has none. I live a pretty satisfactory Jewish life, and the opportunities I get here for helping others are plentiful. I just need some personal accountability to keep me engaged in trying to learn Hebrew.

  3. I understand that my family, originally from Spain, settled in Mexico and moved further North to Texas to escape inquisition.
    But my families never practiced Jewish customs like other Jews…and many practices where similar to traditions you often write about. The family name would be Curiel…or Cur-el
    Do you think we were actually Karaites?

  4. MORE BLOGS, VIDEOS AND PODCASTS. Oh, sorry, I was yelling in cap-locks. More blogs. More videos. I’d like to see other Jews even just interested in Karaite thought brew up some content for the web. At least ask questions so they can get answered. In by doing that, you’re 50% responsible for creating online content. Actually, probably more like 65% responsible for getting the ball rolling.

  5. Tom

    Cohayn has the meaning of a leader. Not is the sense of being in charge, but rather as a respected guide. If I was going on a journey I would want to chose my guide (the one who will lead me on the journey) rather than have one forced upon me, who has a title, but has not gained my confidence or respect to what he claims to be.
    The creator made us in his image. that image is a sovereign being. I will never acknowledge or submit to anything claiming to be my authority; except for the one who made me in his image.
    An authority is properly defined as an expert in some particular field. Today it is twisted to mean some man, or some government, we are expected to submit to.

  6. David Marshall

    Great post, Shawn.

    I hope and pray that both the Karaite movement and the Modern Orthodox movement thrive. I personally have come to the conclusion that if a Jew absolutely rejects/ does not engage with the idea/ belief/ concept that G-d/ Hashem gave us the Torah, the consequence is that they just won’t take Judaism very seriously at all.
    On the other hand the Haredi version of Rabbinic Judaism is unsustainable over the long run, as is Reform and (sadly) most of Conservative.
    So that leaves Karaites and Modern Orthodox. May you live long and prosper.

  7. Matityahu

    I second Ken’s call for media resources. I would like to see more readable versions of Karaite Jewish works made available. The Mikdash Me’at is wonderful, but there is so much more out there. Any Rabbanite can find a copy of Maimonides’ “The Guide to the Perplexed” or Sa’adia’s “Beliefs & Opinions”, but where is Haddassi’s “Eshkol HaKofer” or Luski’s “Or HaHayyim”. The versions that I have found available are very difficult to read, if not impossible (my copy of Eshkol is apparently a photocopy in which on a good page every other letter is discernible).

  8. Yisrael Kohen

    I also see more and more people changing, both halachic jews and non jews, people who want to embrace the Torah, I think the explosion we are seeing is far underestimated but we have seen growing interests in people wanting to come to karaite judaism or pure scriptural judaism in general, more and more people in Latin America who were formerly catholic are rejecting Jesus and are either discovering they are bnei anusim or that they want to be a part of the jewish community in some way. I was surprised to learn in Brazil apparently there is even a Samaritan community there that has a newspaper in paleohebrew and a karaite movement in São Paulo. There is also a large beni anusim group practicing Orthodox Judaism but not under a central authority specifically, though some rabbis from israel are trying to get them under central authority. Many are still facing discrimination from Argentina to Mexico from some of the other jewish community saying they don’t have the resources or room in their schools and won’t recognize these neo jews amongst them, I also know the Syrian jewish community has passed prohibitions as well.

    In israel, it seems more are becoming agitated with the haradeim and the rabbinic courts and even the scandals now with that Barry fruendel guy in Washington, D.C. And how his conversions are still recognized after his peep show and conviction.

    Either way, I think what we are seeing is the beginning of a change to true Torah Judaism, I have met a significant number of modern orthodox who are now sticking closer to the Torah, admitting that original judaism was paternal all across the spectrum Ashkenazi, Sephardic and mizrahi and more are saying that the Talmud is not divine but it is a guideline of rabbinic commentary.

    I think over time we will start to see the reform jews assimilated and implode on its self, the conservative the more traditional will either go modern orthodox or Torah Judaism or the more liberal ones will end up assimilating, and the haradeim I think over time will still Be a large minority but I trust that the dominant factors will likely be a centralized modern orthodox movement that may return to what modern orthodox used to be, and true Torah Judaism with various movements like the karaites etc, I am confident.

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