Genuine Concerns Over YCT
by Rabbi Arie Folger
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, newly installed president of the “Open Orthodox” rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, recently complained in Haaretz about criticism aimed at him and his school. Surprisingly, his response was along the lines of “Can’t we just all get along?” and “Who is to judge who is or isn’t Orthodox?” Failing to address serious concerns that have been raised, he instead portrayed the growing chorus of opposition he faces as a kind of witch hunt, thereby missing the boat entirely.
I, and a number of my colleagues, responded to this misguided rebuttal with an open letter in Haaretz, declaring that our concerns are real. Unlike what Rabbi Lopatin claims, we are not motivated by a desire to circle the wagons and write people out of Orthodoxy. Instead, we are very concerned about the transmission of our most deeply held beliefs, values, and traditions to our lay constituents and to our future leaders. And so, here is my explanation of why I signed that open letter.
What arouses my concerns is the saddening realization that evidently, leading lights of YCT and Open Orthodoxy either do not appreciate the centrality and necessity of certain basic tenets of Orthodoxy, or willfully ignore them in the name of an excessive, unbridled, and therefore philosophically perverse openness. This expression may strike the modern reader as odd. After all, the word “open” has a positive aura, so how could it be “philosophically perverse”?
Every ideology has its purpose and its boundaries. The purpose is its driving force, its raison d’être; the boundaries are its laws. The two concepts are intimately linked, as the laws and boundaries give a concrete form to the ideology: what is in and what is out, what may be tolerated within and what can no longer be considered conscionable. Orthodoxy is no different, and when push comes to shove, Open Orthodoxy, too, has limits. But what are those limits? Are those limits within what can be considered conscionable by the Orthodox mainstream? And are Open Orthodox leaders willing to talk about those boundaries?
Seventeen years ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss prepared the grounds for the emergence of Open Orthodoxy with a program for supplementary education for rabbinical students at Yeshiva University, called Meorot. In 1997, he expanded the groundwork with a program for women called Torat Miriam, and that same year he published his manifesto, entitled Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed. In that article, he laid out a vision for his enthusiastic religious vision full of compassion and devotion to traditional Judaism. Back then, no one imagined how, or even whether, Open Orthodoxy would develop. In fact, some of Rabbi Weiss’s statements were positively reassuring:
“As a Modern Orthodox rabbi, I profess an unequivocal commitment to the truth, validity and eternal applicability of the Halakhic system. . . . I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the law given by G‑d at Sinai, to which the Jewish people committed itself. . . . Human thinking tends to be relative. What is unethical to one person is ethical to another. If, however, the law at its foundation comes from G‑d, it becomes inviolate. No human being can declare it null and void. . . . All those who hold to Orthodoxy contend that ‘new Halakha,’ which emerges constantly from the wellspring of the halakhic process, must always be based on the highest caliber of religio-legal authority. There must be an exceptional halakhic personality who affirms the new ruling on the grounds of sound halakhic reasoning.”
The above statements convey important shared notions that were meant to ensure that his Open Orthodox vision, resting on the six pillars of openness, always remained within the boundaries of classical Orthodoxy. Those six pillars are (a) seeing value in secular knowledge, (b) seeing religious value in involvement in general society, (c) seeing religious and even messianic significance in the emergence of the modern state of Israel, (d) commitment to expanding women’s roles and involvement in Jewish institutional life, (e) strengthening the ties to all Jews, even across denominational boundaries, and (f) favoring visible action and including public protest as part of the Jewish political toolbox.
Unfortunately, while in 1997 Rabbi Weiss could confidently profess belief in and adherence to Torah mi-Sinai and the inviolate nature of the halakhic process, where every innovation needed vetting by a prominent exceptional scholar, the same can no longer be said of several rising stars within Open Orthodoxy. Arguably, Rabbi Weiss himself has subsequently veered from at least one of his stipulations, at least as his audience would have understood them back in the 1990s: that innovations be vetted by an exceptional scholar.
In 1999, no longer content with influencing a select group of young future leaders, Rabbi Weiss founded YCT as a yeshiva mainly consisting of male undergraduates at Columbia University and Barnard College. Were he to consider that his crowning achievement, few would have protested Open Orthodoxy, for what is not admirable about offering an Orthodox haven to study Torah at an Ivy League school with a significant Jewish population? However, soon after, he turned YCT into a rabbinical school, now a fledgling flagship institution of Open Orthodoxy, where he could implement his vision resting on six pillars.
Ever since, Open Orthodoxy has maintained a remarkable track record. During those ensuing years, there have been several controversies within the Modern Orthodox community, and in every single case, YCT or its students predictably and repeatedly chose the liberal politically correct creed over traditional custom. While liberal policies do not necessarily violate the Torah, this statistic raises suspicion. If, as Rabbi Weiss once affirmed, “Human thinking tends to be relative. What is unethical to one person is ethical to another. If, however, the law at its foundation comes from G‑d, it becomes inviolate,” shouldn’t we presume that occasionally, Divine Law will conflict with what’s trendy, and practitioners will be forced to take a stand against prevailing mores, in favor of tradition? In light of Rabbi Weiss’ sixth pillar, the willingness to engage in public protest, we should have expected YCT and its graduates occasionally berating people on their left, but that has rarely if ever been the case.
Instead, we were treated to a steady stream of innovations, some of which, in the eyes of even many Modern Orthodox rabbis, were still lacking the kind of exceptional halakhic support Rabbi Weiss had once professed adherence to. Other innovations were even more worrisome, as they undermined the other basic tenet, of Torah mi-Sinai.
In rapid succession, YCT and Open Orthodoxy have plowed ahead with, among others, the following innovations. They have not only endeavored to deepen the love for all Jews regardless of stated denomination (which is generally admirable), but also turned to non-Orthodox rabbis as teachers, a phenomenon that became most pronounced when non-Orthodox rabbis were the star speakers at Rabbi Lopatin’s recent investiture as YCT’s new president.
Open Orthodox leaders have proclaimed support for conversions which do not meet the minimal requirements of most halakhic decisors, that converts sincerely accept upon themselves to live by the Torah’s commandments, thus also doing many sincere converts a disservice, as they are insufficiently prepared for a life of full halakhic observance and their conversion is not widely recognized.
Rabbi Weiss then ordained a woman as rabbi, against millennia of practice that Jewish religious leaders were exclusively male. Though he did invent a new title so as to claim she wasn’t becoming a woman rabbi, this was but a play on words, and indeed, the following year, he adjusted her title, in a very public ceremony, to Rabba.
Rabbi Weiss also organized a Friday-evening service led largely by a female cantor, which would be considered by most Orthodox rabbis to overstep the boundaries of halakha.
Amidst the ensuing massive controversy, the rabba promptly became the founding dean of a new rabbinical school to ordain women, Yeshivat Maharat.
Another source of controversy related to the attitudes towards homosexuals and same-gender marriage. While the Torah unequivocally condemns homosexual behavior, and while a great many rabbis are nonetheless sympathetic to the plight of those self-avowed homosexuals who struggle with their feelings and their desire to live according to Jewish law, representatives of Open Orthodoxy were not content with that. As legislatures across the Western world are grappling with marriage of and adoption by homosexual couples, numerous Open Orthodox leaders and YCT graduates have publicly argued in favor of permissive legislation. A number of leaders and graduates have gone further and are actively involved on behalf of LGBT.
Open Orthodox leaders have suggesting rewriting some prayers because they clash with modern sensibilities; have sought ways to celebrate homosexual marriage and adoption; have reinterpreted basic religious concepts, like the belief in the coming of the messiah; and have penned numerous other texts that attack other Orthodox Jews, attack prevalent traditions, or push competing ideological principles over prevalent Jewish practice.
Interviews with Open Orthodoxy’s leaders and graduates, particularly from Yeshivat Maharat, have been very revealing. They do not see themselves as Sarah Schenirers who come to rescue Jewish girls who would otherwise be lost to observance, but rather as Rosa Parkses and Gloria Steinems, who fight against an unjust system. The problem is, that system which they consider unjust and old-fashioned is Jewish Orthodoxy with its hallowed traditions.
It is not really useful to point out that the usage of the term Orthodoxy stems, within Judaism, from the 19th century, because on all counts above, there has been continuity between the 1st and the 20th centuries.
At the apex of Open Orthodoxy’s “issues” stands surely YCT’s star student and only yadin yadin ordainee (religious judge), Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber. He recently went public professing acceptance of the conclusions of higher Biblical criticism, denying the patriarchs and matriarchs were real people, that the Exodus ever happened, or that G‑d spoke to man in prophecy and revealed Himself to all of Israel at Sinai.
To YCT’s credit, it should be mentioned that they did once dissociate from the action of a student, when the latter sat on a conversion beit din with non-Orthodox rabbis. Sadly, their reaction upon seeing Farber’s profession of faith has been tepid, considering that Farber does hold an important administrative position in the International Rabbinic Fellowship, the rabbinic association of Open Orthodoxy, founded for the sake of YCT graduates who would not be accepted into the RCA.
Of late, Farber has upped the ante and argued for a redefinition of practical marriage-and-divorce halakha, in the noble goal of minimizing cases of agunot (“chained women” whose husbands won’t agree to a divorce), but in the process once again showing how little patience Open Orthodox opinion leaders have for either submitting their ideas for peer review across the Orthodox spectrum, or for any reverence toward centuries of rabbinic legislation.
The upshot of all the above is that a schism is developing within the Modern Orthodox community. Lopatin and his mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss are quick to try to manipulate the facts and arrogate Modern Orthodox support for themselves, claiming that the opponents are just antediluvian Haredim. Weiss already employed that technique in his seminal 1997 article, labeling all those who disagree with him “the Orthodox Right,” as if no normal Modern Orthodox rabbi could ever disagree, unless he were to forfeit his modern credentials—a circular argument.
However, in reality, it is precisely in the Modern Orthodox community where many people are very concerned.
At the core of the matter is the definition of Orthodoxy and how to keep it vibrant. Open Orthodoxy doesn’t seem to appreciate that Orthodox practice is not just a set of dry legal expectations, but rests upon a construct that gives meaning to its legal system. If halakha is there to be circumvented, then halakha is not seen as either normative or desirable, and over time, perforce, interest in halakha will wane. Likewise, to put it crudely, if we accept higher Biblical criticism and claim that we do not descend from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that Moses did not ascend Mount Sinai, and that G‑d did not reveal Himself to all of Israel then and to successive prophets during the centuries that followed—as Farber indeed concludes—then why feel bound by a human Torah that is at most vaguely inspired by some people who felt a sense of divinity well up in them? How could we demand that people sacrifice the fulfillment of some of their desires for the sake of ideals that are no more imbued with sanctity than Harry Potter, Shakespeare, or, if you prefer older texts, Homer and Gilgamesh?
Of course, Farber’s is an extreme case, and surely most Open Orthodox leaders are not all that extreme in their beliefs. People do occasionally doubt and grapple with certain issues. However, those doubts should not be seen as legitimate expression of a healthy Orthodoxy. The future of Orthodoxy is not in accepting Bible criticism. Yet for Tablet Magazine, Farber’s musings are the sign that we have finally arrived, finally recognized the Big Truth. And Open Orthodox leaders legitimize this, while Farber takes not the briefest leave of absence.
This is why many people are concerned about where YCT and Open Orthodoxy are going.
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik emphasized that religion, the service of G‑d, involves a measure of submission or surrender. His example was what to do when a sincere couple comes for advice and it turns out he is a kohen and she is one who may not marry a kohen (a convert, a divorcee, someone who has been in an intermarriage, etc.). In such cases, one lifts hands up to Heaven and submits.
That submission is not apparent in the statements and writings coming out of Open Orthodoxy. In fact, recent rumor has it that some Open Orthodox rabbis are doing the exact opposite in the precise case through which Rabbi Soloveitchik had illustrated the needed submission, and arrange the wedding of a kohen to a convert anyway.
Nobody cares to read Rabbi Lopatin, Rabbi Weiss, or even Rabbi Farber out of Orthodoxy, but this isn’t about their souls (though friends do care about that, too). It is about how to educate tomorrow’s leaders and laity, and how to remain loyal to G‑d’s Torah and mitzvot even in our turbulent, demanding times. This is about how to inspire the next generation to remain within or return to Orthodoxy in deed and spirit, in heart and soul, to study Torah and live according to her everlasting values.
Can something be done? When it was announced that Rabbi Lopatin, a gentle, very knowledgeable person, would become the new YCT president, opinions were divided. On the one hand were those who saw it as a fig leaf, and that with his charm, Rabbi Lopatin would call for friendly contacts while continuing business as usual. Others, me included, were hopeful that he could and would have the courage to take a few steps back and turn back toward tradition, towards Sinai.
Sadly, recent years have seen an upsurge of controversies emanating from YCT and Open Orthodoxy. So far, it looks like the naysayers were right. But it is not too late to prove them wrong. YCT and Open Orthodoxy can still turn back, and Rabbi Asher Lopatin can make this happen. But for that, words do not suffice; actions are needed. Open Orthodoxy must recognize the boundaries of Orthodoxy and become more passionate about observance and tradition than about change. And they should hold back from instituting or continuing de facto innovations until the mainstream of Orthodoxy approves, at least begrudgingly, those changes. v
Rabbi Arie Folger is a member of the RCA’s Executive Committee, of the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis, and of the advisory board of the Conference of Orthodox Rabbis of Germany. For more, see ariefolger.wordpress.com.