By I. Schwartz
A few years ago, the Yated presented what for many was an eye-opening view into Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (“YCT”) and “Open Orthodoxy,” the new brand of Orthodoxy coined and promoted by Rabbi Avi Weiss, dean of YCT. Open Orthodoxy, which preaches egalitarianism, religious pluralism and religious innovation to meet modern secular trends (such as feminism), is the breed of Orthodoxy of YCT and its affiliates, Yeshivat Maharat (Rabbi Weiss’ rabbinical school for women) and International Rabbinic Fellowship (“IRF”), the rabbinic organization created by Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Marc Angel.
YCT and Open Orthodoxy entered the Orthodox scene with great controversy and have continued to blaze the trails of religious innovation with some hair-raising fanfare:
- The participation of the heads of the Reform and Conservative rabbinical schools at the first YCT semichah ceremony, where these non-Orthodox rabbinical leaders “danced together with students, faculty and other guests” (YCT Newsletter).
- YCT highlights the work of one of its graduates, serving as a campus rabbi, in creating a Haggadah modified for the interests of same-gender marriage advocates (YCT Newsletter). This same YCT graduate has done other campus work promoting and celebrating same-gender expression (http://www.hillel.org/about/news/2005/apr/20050404_coming.htm).
- YCT employs non-Orthodox rabbis, male and female, on its teaching staff, granting them full rabbinic credentials (YCT staff roster).
- YCT sponsors joint training and theological programs and prayer with Reform and Conservative rabbinical students and clergy (YCT Newsletter and website). Similar programs with seminary students of other religions have also occurred under YCT auspices and are documented in the YCT Newsletter and on these students’ blogs.
- YCT welcomed Catholic clergy to its bet midrash for a day of chavruta study with YCT rabbinical students, followed by a hand-in-hand circle dance and song with the Catholic clergy and YCT staff and students (http://yctchevre.blogspot.com/2006/03/cardinals-and-bishops-visit.html).
- YCT pluralistic rosh yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer, in his article about perceived inequities in the Gemara toward non-Jews, shows that although some opinions in Chazal can be read to give non-Jews more equitable standing in the limited area of the article’s discussion, “the halakha follows the interpretation that the Gemara gives to the statements of the Tana’im and Amora’im. Nevertheless, many committed Jews are often left feeling that even when halachic solutions are being found, they run counter to the ethos of the system, and are to some degree disingenuous and lacking in integrity. ‘Should we be bending the halakha to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism?’ is a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer. An honest answer requires finding within the Talmud those voices that articulate those same values that are driving us” (Milin Havivin journal, vol. 1, p. 36).
- The 2009 rabbinic ordination of Sara Hurwitz, who serves as “Rabba” Hurwitz at Rabbi Weiss’ shul, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) and as dean of Yeshivat Maharat. “At the Hebrew Institute, she is a full member of the rabbinic staff, where she fulfills all functions of a rabbi, including teaching, speaking from the pulpit, officiating at life-cycle events, including funerals and weddings, and addressing congregants’ halachic questions… ‘I understood the desire and drive of others to serve in this capacity. I knew that with God’s help and the help of the many people who also supported the Orthodox ordination of women'” (http://yeshivatmaharat.org/saras-story).
- A 2010 Kabbalat Shabbat service at HIR was led by a woman (http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/breaking_news/riverdale_orthodox_shul_have_woman_lead_kabbalat_shabbat_tonight). (It should be noted that HIR has an official women’s service with “Kriat Ha-Torah and Haftarah” read by women, along with female “Gabbayot” (http://www.hir.org/women.html). HIR also hosts an annual Martin Luther King Jr. concert, where the male-female choir of Green Pastures Baptist Church, in full church robbing, sings religious and gospel songs in the HIR synagogue sanctuary, from the bimah, together with Rabbi Weiss. (See http://www.shalomriverdale.org/page.aspx?id=78142, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLNtPLvZ87I, http://www.hir.org/forms_2009/MKL%202010%20flyer.pdf.
- A 2010 “Statement of Principles” which redefines the Orthodox attitude toward same-gender marriage, signed by YCT and IRF rabbis and their allies (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com). One IRF vice president went so far as to write that he would endorse having a special cake at a Kiddush in his shul to mark the engagement of two male members (http://morethodoxy.org/2009/06/26/welcoming-gay-jews-in-the-orthodox-community-by-rabbi-hyim-shafner/#more-130).
YCT RABBINIC TRAINING
Rabbinic training at YCT reflects mediocrity at best. Regular Gemara study is only undertaken by first- and second-year students, whereas third- and fourth-year students study halacha. Learning sessions in these topics are only four and a half mornings per week, with required “bekiut seder” only two partial afternoons per week. Required night seder is for only two hours per week (!), plus three additional hours per month (!) (http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/39/47/). YCT claims that its graduates pass Israeli Rabbanut semichah exams. This may be so, but such exams do not reflect on mastery of Gemara or learning skills.
It should be further noted that the vast majority of YCT graduates do not come to YCT with any prior significant yeshiva experience. Most YCT rabbinical students have no previous yeshiva education, and nearly all of them attended full-time secular universities, with no simultaneous learning program. Some of the entering YCT rabbinical students previously completed a study program at an Israeli egalitarian Jewish studies institute, and a minority enters YCT after a year of study in Israeli yeshiva programs (http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/44/84/). This, coupled with very scanty seder time, does not send an encouraging message about the knowledge base of YCT’s semichah program and its requirements. (The rest of the time at YCT is spent on pastoral counseling seminars, training for lifecycle events, public speaking classes, fieldwork, and so forth.)
YCT is on a major campaign to sanitize its image and gain acceptance of its graduates into the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA, where YCT’s application for acceptance of its semichah was rejected (“withdrawn,” according to the official word). YCT seeks to become accepted by mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. It would like for its graduates to obtain top large-city pulpit positions and be a very major force in American Modern Orthodoxy.
How is YCT doing this? Through a concerted and coordinated effort involving partnering with more mainstream institutions and speakers, and purging its literature and website of all radical material – even though the core mission and quest to change the face of Torah Jewry has not been abandoned in the slightest by YCT and its Open Orthodox affiliates and constituency.
Rabbi Linzer, the YCT rosh yeshiva, has blogged about a Chassidic rabbi, who is an expert on certain Acharonim, coming to YCT recently to speak about one Acharon, and about a New York area heimishe kashrus consultant who gave a kashrus class at YCT (http://rabbidovlinzer.blogspot.com/). These actions clearly arm YCT with the appearance of legitimacy.
Furthermore, YCT presents regular Tanach symposiums which feature a mixture of lecturers – some from YCT, Yeshivat Maharat, and fringe-left Israeli institutions, and some from Yeshiva University and other schools (see e.g. http://library.constantcontact.com/download/get/file/1101152783508-500/Yemei+Iyun+2011+Final+Brochure.PDF). These symposiums are held in large modern Orthodox neighborhoods and are hosted by large Modern Orthodox shuls and schools in these communities, so that YCT can showcase what it claims are its mainstream credentials.
In addition to purging its website and that of Yeshivat Maharat of radical material, YCT retains on staff two rabbis who were formerly part of the mainstream yeshiva and Chassidic world. These rabbis, who are no longer part of those worlds, nonetheless have the yeshiva résumés to appeal to yeshiva circles and mainstream Modern Orthodox populaces. YCT has been playing up these two rabbis as part of a major public relations campaign, in an effort to show (literally) a more “frum” face of YCT, covering up the essential reality of YCT and Open Orthodoxy.
The readership must also note that although IRF is the rabbinical organization which YCT graduates may join, IRF was primarily created to fight for an agenda relating to geirus. In 2006, the RCA, in an agreement with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, established a geirus program, in which only certain botei din of RCA members and affiliates, approved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and RCA halachic authorities, have automatic Chief Rabbinate recognition for geirus. Aside from potentially excluding the average “local Orthodox rabbi” from automatic geirus acceptance by the Israeli rabbinate, the Rabbanut-RCA program has a firm requirement of kabbolas ol mitzvos – that the prospective convert must commit to total adherence to the mitzvos in order for his conversion to be valid, in accordance with the mainstream p’sak. Furthermore, all prospective converts must undergo elaborate training and demonstrate that their Jewish lifestyles will be in conformity with full Torah living. Rabbi Angel asserts that these standards are incorrect, and he has assailed the RCA’s agreement with the Rabbanut (http://www.jewishideas.org/minhamuvhar/conversion-crisis). IRF was created to justify and empower the local rabbi to make his own decisions about geirus and not be bound by the parameters of the Rabbanut-RCA program. Dissembling or opposing the Rabbanut-RCA geirus protocol is very much part of what the IRF represents, and it is the IRF leadership’s chief goal (http://jhvonline.com/liberal-orthodox-rabbis-starting-new-fellowship-p4207-164.htm).
Recently, IRF adopted a formal set of standards for its “Vaad Ha’Giyur” (http://rabbidovlinzer.blogspot.com/2011/05/happenings-at-yeshiva_20.html). These standards are sure to conflict with the mainstream Rabbanut-RCA standards, yet the IRF has not released its new standards, despite unanimous adoption at the IRF convention. Why the delay? It is anyone’s guess, but it would seem that this delay is part of the coordinated campaign to sanitize Open Orthodoxy, stress its apparent normalcy and cover up its fringe-radical innovations and conflicts with mainstream Orthodoxy. IRF will likely only disclose its new Vaad Ha’Giyur standards once YCT and Open Orthodoxy have garnered enough support to be accepted into the mainstream.
WHAT IS HAPPENING AT THE RCA?
Although there is no indication of any active momentum to admit YCT graduates into the RCA, the RCA’s new president, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, stated in his initial address as RCA president that the RCA should reassess its membership admission process and requirements. This was taken by some as a sign of eventual YCT acceptance into the RCA: “That crack in the wall, if it is one, could be a sign that a yeshiva that was once seen by many as an experiment has now become an established institution” (http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new_york/open_orthodox_yeshiva_moves_toward_acceptance).
As the Yated goes to print, we have learned that a group of RCA members, who oppose admittance of YCT graduates and who fear that Open Orthodoxy’s organs and spokesmen may gain significant power in the RCA, have formed their own listserv discussion forum and have begun to take steps to form their own rabbinic organization. Details about this were not available, but this all points to the division and the tenuous situation which the discussion of “mainstreaming” YCT/Open Orthodoxy into the RCA and Modern Orthodox life has engendered.
Will the RCA and the Modern Orthodox establishment call a spade a spade and have the courage to “just say no,” or will YCT and Open Orthodoxy continue to make inroads, filling rabbinic positions in prime Modern Orthodox institutions, eventually gaining some control in the RCA and more?
Although a few of the roshei yeshiva at RIETS have spoken about their concerns with YCT, and the OU condemned the female-led Kabbalat Shabbat service at Rabbi Weiss’ shul, there is an overall deafening silence from Modern Orthodoxy to a challenge which threatens to take it over and radically change its rabbinate, shuls, schools and organizations, taking halachic innovation and hashkafic compromise to the brink of Conservative “Judaism” and then some. The early Reform movement featured innovations in mesorah and minhag that were argued by Reform leaders of the time to have halachic sanction, such as playing an organ on Shabbos in shul, as it was “letzorech mitzvah,” or abolishing the mechitzah and mixing shul seating, as there was no formal codified rule against this, according to the Reform halachists. That dilution of Yahadus, which was a frontal assault on mesorah, led to the Reform movement of today, and the Conservative movement’s background is essentially not very different.
It is time for Modern Orthodoxy to wake up and take a stand or it itself may not be left standing when the smoke clears.
Reprinted with permission from Yated Ne’eman USA, Monsey, NY.