True and Tragic Colors

Agudath Israel of America’s recent statement regarding the ostensibly Orthodox “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah” took that institution to task for crossing a particularly bright red line by inviting non-Orthodox Jewish clergy to make presentations at a “roundtable” entitled “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation” at its installation of a new president.

The most eloquent and straightforward defense of YCT came in the form of a posting at “The Times of Israel” by a student of the institution, Dr. Ben Elton.

While graciously “respect[ing]” the “right of the Agudah to object to cross-denominational activity” (even citing Lord Jonathan Sacks in concurrence, as Rabbi Sacks has written that “pluralism and Orthodoxy are mutually exclusive”), Dr. Elton asserts that the Wurzberger Rov (Rav Yitzchok Dov Halevi Bamberger), by taking a different position from that of Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch on the secession of Orthodox Jews from the larger, government-sanctioned pan-Jewish community in Frankfort, is a model for a more inclusive attitude.

The Wurzberger Rov’s permitting of Frankfort’s Orthodox Jews to remain part of the official Jewish community of the city, Dr. Elton contends, “inevitably meant recognizing the status of [the city’s] non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions, perhaps even paying for their upkeep…”

Unfortunately for Dr. Elton’s thesis, it is utterly undermined by documented facts. Whatever the Wurzberger Rov’s reasoning may have been for his decision regarding the Orthodox Jews of Frankfort (as it happens, he supported the secession of other Orthodox communities from their local Jewish pan-community entities), he most certainly did not consider remaining part of the official community to constitute “recognizing the status” of clergy or groups that rejected the Jewish mesorah.

In fact, he clearly stipulated that fees paid by Orthodox members could not be used to support Reform activities in any way. He felt no differently from Rav Hirsch about the fact that Reform represented a heretical movement and could be provided no respect nor support from any believing Jew. And there is no evidence whatsoever that he in any way condoned the “co-operation and dialogue” with non-mesorah-accepting movements that Dr. Elton contends his example suggests.

In truth, the entire comparison is baseless. Rabbi Bamberger was pronouncing only on the permissibility of being part of a Jewish communal entity presenting itself as such in official dealings with the local government regarding limited communal matters. He was not permitting any sort of combined Orthodox-non-Orthodox rabbinical collaboration in rabbinical training like what YCT pointedly and tellingly included in its presidential installation.

Dr. Elton poignantly concludes by asking Agudath Israel to recognize that YCT and others who subscribe to its “vision” in fact “care very much about Torah and mesorah.”

We truly wish that were so. Unfortunately, however, and tragically, there is ample evidence that that YCT and the other components of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ “Open Orthodoxy” movement (its women’s institution, Yeshivat Maharat, and its rabbinical organization, the International Rabbinic Fellowship – “IRF”) care not much at all about either Torah or mesorah. There is abundant reason why even the resolutely “centrist” Rabbinical Council of America does not accept YCT’s rabbinic degrees as qualification for membership.

The evidence of “Open Orthodoxy”’s true essence has been publicly presented by others, most prominently Yated Neeman columnist Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum and Cross-Currents.com contributor Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer. It is abundant.

One of YCT’s most illustrious graduates, Zev Farber, who received the institution’s most prestigious rabbinic ordination (Yadin Yadin), is a founding board member of the IRF, the coordinator for their Va’ad Giyyur and an advisory board member of Yeshivat Maharat, has publicly contended things like: “The Deuteronomic prophet (i.e. the author of Deuteronomy) was still a human being, his scope remains limited by education and social context.”

And: “Given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical.”

And: “The idea that the twelve tribes of Israel were formed by the twelve sons of Jacob has all the appearances of a schematic attempt of Israelites to explain themselves to themselves… These Torah stories are not history, the recording of past events, they are mnemohistory, the construction of shared cultural-memory through narratives about the past.”

And “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.”

He also has called it “impossible” and “unrealistic” to ask Jews plagued by same-sex attraction to “give up on the emotionally fulfilling and vital experience of intimate partnership that heterosexual men and women take for granted” and has encouraged only “exclusivity and the forming of a loving and lasting relationship-bond as the optimal lifestyle” for Jews facing such challenges.

YCT’s Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer, was once reported in the New York Jewish Week as having asserted that the Sages of the Talmud were unconcerned with a person’s religious beliefs; that, in the article’s words, “it was Maimonides who introduced the concept that Jews must adhere to basic dogmas, and even he was not consistent in his demands for such adherence.”

He has also asked, as a “reasonable question” whether we “should we be bending the halakhah to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism.” It is, he decides, “a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer.”

YCT’s newsletter has featured a profile of an alumnus whose “most proud accomplishment” was having “created a meaningful Haggadah” for people living lives in violation of a sin the Torah characterizes as “an abomination.” The “Haggadah” was lauded because it “spoke to their understanding of what it means to be liberated.”

Such positions espoused by YCT leaders (and those are but a few of many such examples) are run-of-the-mill notions in the non-Orthodox rabbinic world. They wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in non-Orthodox circles. But how do they comport with “car[ing] very much about Torah and mesorah”? There can be only one answer: they don’t.

Which is why “Open Orthodoxy” and its institutions have felt free to ignore the Jewish religious tradition in the realms of synagogue worship and gender roles. If the mesorah is just an historical artifact of a primitive, unenlightened period, why not just “update” it?

A half-century ago, a combination of optimism and ignorance led well-intentioned Jews to believe that the Conservative movement truly respected our mesorah and was just a more “open” and “accepting” form of Orthodoxy. Today, some Jews, sadly, are making a similarly hopeful error about YCT.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik once wrote that “Too much harmony and peace can cause confusion of the minds and will erase outwardly the boundaries between [the] Orthodox and other movements.” He knew of what he spoke.

Despite the enticing phrase “Open Orthodoxy” and the protestations of YCT, Yeshivat Maharat and the International Rabbinic Fellowship that they are Orthodox institutions, their true, tragic colors are blindingly evident.

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