By Dov Fischer
NEWS ITEM: In a special news report published online by the NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK, a woman was designated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, July 30, for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Union synagogue.
First, a review of the “Key Players” associated with American Modern Orthodox (MO) Judaism: Most MO pulpit rabbonim typically have hailed from Yeshiva University (YU) in New York and its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). MO synagogues typically affiliate with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (UO) or the National Council of Young Israel (sometimes both), and the rabbis tend to be members of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Ten years ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who taught for many years at YU’s Stern College for Women and who is Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), founded Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) to provide an Orthodox seminary to the Left of RIETS. Rabbis in YCT tend to associate in their own rabbinical body, the grandly named International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), because the RCA does not admit most of them to membership. A few of RCA’s 900-plus members also join IRF and teach or work at YCT.
In the past year, there has unfolded within American Modern Orthodox Judaism the first major evidences of a pending theological schism, as a small but media-savvy minority of rabbinic activists from the YCT/ IRF camp have begun pushing the MO envelope farther to the Left than mainstream Modern Orthodoxy ever contemplated. At the center of the impending schism is Rabbi Avi Weiss. He is charismatic and dynamic, rabbi of a shul with a large membership where he can introduce any innovation he desires, and he has a rabbinical seminary and rabbinical association in place to give his agenda the aura of a legitimate “movement.” Although Young Israel synagogues do not readily accept YCT graduates as congregational rabbis and the 900-member RCA does not regard YCT ordination as carrying the legitimacy of a RIETS Semikha, Rabbi Weiss has decided that he no longer needs communal approbation to venture on his own because he has the minions.
During the past several months, Rabbi Weiss and his protégées have pushed the Modern Orthodox envelope hard three times: (i) they have granted “semikha” to Sara Hurvitz, whom they boast as the “first woman rabbi ordained” under an Orthodox rubric, and who now serves at Rabbi Weiss’s congregation; (ii) they have circulated a position paper on relaxing attitudes towards homosexuality that goes beyond anything to which the overwhelming majority of RCA rabbis can lend their names; and (iii) they have brought a woman prayer leader forward to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service attended jointly by men and women. For most Modern Orthodox rabbis, these “innovations” are beyond the pale of tradition and possibly beyond the definition of Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union comfortably has accommodated its standards to include Rabbi Weiss’s shul.
The RCA long has prided itself as comprising a “Great Tent” under whose cover all Modern Orthodox rabbis can associate in fellowship. As testament to its effort, it has more than 900 members, comprising perhaps the largest rabbinical body in the world. However, Rabbi Weiss, his followers in the IRF, and his students in YCT now are pushing public policy and practice to a point where it is appearing that the RCA no longer can easily paper over its colleagues’ differences. At its last national convention, in late April, the RCA publicly did find common ground between its normative mainstream and its “Avi Weiss Wing” pertaining to “women’s ordination.” Without addressing “What to do about Rabbi Sarah,” the RCA convention plenum passed a document that, while reaffirming Modern Orthodoxy’s historic regard for the active participation and leadership of women, nevertheless stated unequivocally that Orthodoxy will not ordain women rabbis. The resolution passed the plenum without any recorded opposition. As a result, many RCA leaders thought they had averted a rift. But the “Big Tent” would soon come under siege once again – and again – first, by IRF members posting on the IRF website assurances to their fellowship that the Day of the Woman Orthodox Rabbi yet will arrive; then, by YCT rabbis circulating a remarkably troubling position paper on homosexuality with the goal of inducing other Orthodox rabbis to sign on alongside YCT founders, staff, administrators, and alumni ; and thereafter by HIR staging the Sabbath Eve service led by a woman.
An era seems to have dawned when there no longer can be effective compromise within Modern Orthodoxy on all things because the YCT / IRF community now has made clear its intention to push one “innovation,” then their next “advance,” and then yet another. And another. It is a rapid-paced “reform” program aimed at pushing American Orthodox Judaism to adopt positions that somewhat parallel the theological innovations that have emanated during the decade from Methodist and Episcopalian churches, transitioning over to impact Reconstructionist Judaism, then Reform Judaism, then Conservative Judaism – and now the Judaism associated with rabbis within IRF and ordained by YCT.
Resistance, however, is stirring within mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. I am among those mainstream Modern Orthodox who do not like being forced to alter my rabbinical agenda and my Jewish community priorities to fit those of a small group active on Orthodoxy’s far-Left. If authoritative Torah leaders (Gedolei Yisrael) tell me that I need to re-prioritize my agenda, then I humbly re-prioritize. By contrast, it now appears that Centrist Orthodoxy is being led against its will into a maze and along a trajectory that stems, sadly, from a predictable and alien pathway: Each of these innovations historically began with the Methodist/ Episcopalian churches: women as prayer leaders, women as pastors, gay pastors, gay unions. In short time, Reform Judaism then adopted the church decisions, reasonably and truthfully explaining that the Protestant innovations also spoke to the agenda of modern Progressive Judaism. Then, between four to seven years later, Conservative Judaism (in actuality, a theologically liberal movement that carries an anachronistic misnomer pertinent to certain conservative dynamics of a century ago but no longer relevant) repeatedly has followed and adopted each Reform Judaism change. As a result, Conservative Judaism has come to lose its identity as “Masorti – Traditional” and instead seems like Reform Judaism in slow-motion replay. And now, to the degree practicable, the YCT / IRF community is trying to import these same social revolutions into American Orthodox Judaism.
Thus, for example, many of my colleagues believe that a far more urgent social-sensitivity priority facing American Orthodoxy today is the organized Orthodox Jewish community’s failure to come up with compassionate remedies for the plight of Jewish Singles and divorced people, particularly single women over 35 and 40, and men similarly affected. The status of homosexual people in congregational life is not, under any objective and detached analysis, as urgent a priority in the mainstream Orthodox community. Orthodoxy long has recognized the deep feelings of hurt and pain within the comparatively minuscule Gay community, stemming from the Torah’s historic position stated explicitly in Leviticus 18 forbidding the male homosexual act. Orthodox rabbis across the spectrum of Orthodoxy long have been sensitive and accessible to Gay individuals seeking confidential counseling and pastoral fellowship. Not is “gay-bashing” not tolerated in the Orthodox community, but it does not exist.
Nevertheless, to refocus the Orthodox agenda to deem homosexuality as a community priority is absurd because those socially impacted are so fewer in number than are orphans, widows, unmarried women, the unemployed, the physically handicapped. Rabbis of the Centrist Orthodox mainstream observe that the Torah commands us explicitly and pointedly to maintain a heightened sensitivity to the orphan, the widow, and the stranger/ ger. If we are looking to extrapolate from this a social agenda for Orthodoxy, let it be to address those in our midst who have been suffering in larger number. (We can point to the Chinuch’s understanding of the widow and orphan as those most vulnerable because they do not have the same level of “networked” support as do other people.) We do not need to have our priorities redirected by a rush to prove to others and ourselves that we can be as progressive as others.
It seems that there now has emerged from the IRF / YCT / Avi Weiss Left a formal, institutionalized agenda of heightened rabbinic activism. Some may deem this a wonderful development. But yesterday’s Modern Orthodox cohesion and community traditions, something around which Modern Orthodoxy proudly has crafted one single rabbinical organization that has welcomed a magnificent tent of 900-plus rabbis, is in jeopardy. Mainstream Modern Orthodox Rabbis have their own respectively defined agendas and priorities, built around their individual communities’ needs and their own respective years of community leadership, Torah learning and judgment. The vast majority of Centrist Orthodox rabbis in America resent efforts from their extreme Left to lead them around by the nose, trying to compel the Centrist Orthodox rabbinate to change their agendas’ priorities to conform to those of a radical school.
For example, my rabbinic priorities include working to address the loneliness of unmarried women over 35 and fellows in a similar boat, advocating the right of Jews to reside anywhere a Jew wishes to live in Judea and Samaria, the forgotten and abandoned Jews of Gush Katif, the building freeze on new Jewish construction in East Jerusalem and the need for such a freeze never to be tolerated, the need for ongoing outreach to unaffiliated Jews, the need for heightened congregational inreach to get more people within shul memberships to Torah classes and to serious Torah learning, and the extraordinary and unprecedented challenge we face in the Age of Technology to protect our teenagers in an era where they are surrounded everywhere by the hyper-sexed media and the culture of “Jersey Shore” and the ability to get their hands on the worst garbage that television offers – even when the family has no TV in the house – by downloading from hulu.com onto their laptops and streaming other schmutz through their iPhones and iPads. Against that backdrop of profoundly challenging and demanding Jewish communal and rabbinic priorities, we do not want to be forced by a small Jewish rabbinical group and school to drop or divert the focus of our agendas to address theirs. Even as I note, again, that “their” agenda is not really theirs but that of the American theological New Age, innovated by Episcopalians and Methodists and then imported and grafted onto Judaism and the Torah. Such issues, quite objectively, are not the Torah community’s compelling issues right now, right here.
I only wish there were a way for some of my YCT / IRF rabbinic friends to see and understand that, even as they think they are helping hold “egalitarians” within Orthodoxy, they more realistically are creating chaos among the vast majority of mainstream Centrist Orthodox Jews who neither demand nor yearn for such innovations – but, once introduced to them, decide that they are “cool.” Thus, by pursuing an “Open Orthodoxy” and an “Inclusive Orthodoxy” aimed at a small group whose activist demands stem from secular values and not from authentic Jewish teachings, the amalgamated IRF/ YCT group unknowingly are perpetrating severe damage to the Centrist Orthodox fabric – and in fact to the Torah Nation by dispensing lock-stock-and-barrel with Mesorah. For the IRF / YCT, if the Torah does not command something in explicit black-and-white text, then the latest ideas filtering in from the Methodist and Episcopalian churches are worth importing, particularly once adopted by Reform and then by Conservative.
When such innovations are foisted onto a satisfied Modern Orthodox community, which neither asks for them, needs them, or risks alienation from Torah without them, the tragedy becomes apparent as mainstream Orthodox young people turn to their normative Orthodox rabbis with requests for . . . “THAT.” Although they had not been pressing to unload 3,000 years of Mesorah, they hear about and see these “latest things,” and they come and ask for something cool, something fresh, something different – namely, “THAT.” My colleagues and I hear it all too often: “Rabbi, can I have THAT? Can we do THAT?”
So, if they see a wedding with a quasi-double-ring exchange — a foreign innovation aimed at copying the Christian wedding ring exchange, albeit with a romantic Judaic recital like “Ani L’dodi v’Dodi Li” — they now want “what my friend just did — THAT.” Or: “Rabbi, can the groom walk around me seven times? I heard someone did THAT, and it sounded so romantic. Can we do THAT, too?” Or: “Can I have a woman recite each brakhah under the chupah after the guy? One of my friends told me she was at an Orthodox wedding where the rabbi allowed them to do THAT, and THAT sounds so cool!”
And now – “Rabbi, can we have a Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night where a woman leads the men in public prayer? That sounds so cool! Can we have THAT?”
We all are always attracted to new things. We trade in five-year-old cars that still have 5-10 perfect years left in them because we like new and “the latest.” We like new things, things that are different, chic. Just consider the trend towards locating weddings in hard-to-find suburbs, at venues off-the-beaten-track, selected because they are “cool,” different, not the “same-old same-old” where “everyone” gets married. We may not need it, and maybe we do not want it, and maybe nothing in us ever suggested the notion. But we see someone else do it, and now we have to do it, too. So we go to a bar mitzvah, and someone screens a 20-minute video montage of the 13-year-old’s life, as though this child – G-d bless him – is Bill Gates or Abraham Lincoln or the Gaon HaRav Eliahu of Vilna zt”l, and soon enough every Bar Mitzvah Family is doing Ken Burns Videos on the Life and Times of their 12-year-old. And we, who have made a veritable American proverb of “Please – if you cherish our friendship – don’t make me sit and look at the pictures of your trip to Europe,” all are compelled to sit politely for those eternal 20 minutes, watching a predictably unremarkable first dozen years of life unfold before our eyes, from womb and umbilical cord to diaper and pacifier to falling in the mud and swinging in a playground, to sitting on a horse eating in a high chair – and then we dutifully rise and applaud this youngster as though he or she were being honored at a community’s centennial banquet for building a yeshiva or single-handedly dedicating a Holocaust Museum. Because, currently, it is the “latest thing.” It is THAT.
So now, even as they have begun releasing to the media a letter they have drafted on the issue of Homosexuality, for which they have the signatures primarily of the YCT / IRF world, remarkable primarily for the minuscule response from among RCA’s 900-plus rabbis, they promptly unveil their next innovation: a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat. And then there will be another innovation. And then another breakthrough. It creates a media tumult, even as – from coast to coast – we now have yet another whim that simply is not being demanded anywhere within 98-99% of the Orthodox mainstream . . . but that very neatly fits in the progression from Methodist/Episcopalian Christianity to Reform Judaism to Conservative Judaism to the rabbis of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and the wistfully named International Rabbinic Fellowship.
It seems time for those in the Orthodox Center’s vast mainstream to begin asking ourselves whether we really are happy with what is starting to unfold? Woman rabbis. Position Papers compelling us to sign that we promise to admit into yeshivot children who live in the custodial home of two same-gender openly Gay parents and urging that we give communal honors to Gay people who openly proclaim in our shuls their sexual orientations and preferences. Women leading the davening in shul at Kabbalat Shabbat. Is THAT what we really want?
And are we ready for the next THAT?
Rabbi Dov Fischer is an adjunct professor of law in Los Angeles, serves as the Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.