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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Jewish Link, on July 2, published letters from Rabbis Avi Weiss and Asher Lopatin, the former and current Presidents of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), announcing their respective resignations from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Both letters provide as their primary reason the RCA’s refusal to accept semichah from YCT as a satisfactory credential for membership. Rabbi Weiss continues by urging that the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) rather than the RCA be seen as the proper address for seeking out the positions of a modern and open Orthodoxy. Rabbi Lopatin, for his part, continues by asserting that the RCA has in recent years abandoned its historic legacy by focusing “on finding ways to exclude rather than include.”

The letters are brief, and one cannot fault Rabbis Weiss and Lopatin for failing to supply any substantive reason for the RCA’s position in this venue; nonetheless, a decent respect for the opinions of Jewry requires at least some discussion so that we are not left with the impression that the RCA is motivated by sheer narrowness and obscurantism. I emphasize immediately that I speak for myself only. No one in the RCA has been shown this article or was apprised of the fact that I wrote it, nor, to the best of my knowledge, has the RCA ever issued a statement explaining its stand.

In the early years of YCT, the RCA was asked to recognize the yeshiva’s semicha for purposes of admission to the organization. As an RCA member, I indicated that I leaned toward a positive response, though I did not make the most vigorous argument for this position. As time passed, developments ranging from YCT’s reaction following controversial actions and statements by its alumni to avant-garde positions taken by Rabbi Weiss generated an array of vehement attacks by critics in both the haredi world and the RCA. This is not the forum for providing a laundry list of particulars. I will say only that I disagreed entirely with some of those criticisms, was ambivalent about others, agreed with still others but did not consider them disqualifying, and eventually came to regard several as deeply disturbing.

What I want to focus on here is the issue that cast me over the edge. In 2013, Rabbi Zev Farber, a particularly accomplished alumnus of YCT, published an article vigorously endorsing the assertion of Bible critics that the Torah was written by several hands over a period of centuries after the time of Moses. Though he affirmed that all the authors wrote with divine inspiration, it was evident from his presentation that he believes that the Torah contains numerous genuine contradictions, anachronisms and other errors resulting from the fallibility of these human authors. In a follow-up piece, he spoke of the impact of “the Sinaitic moment” upon him, but the original article describes that moment as follows: “The story of the revelation at Sinai in the Torah I understand as a narrative depiction of a deeper truth—the Torah is God’s book and the divine blueprint for Israel and Jewish life.” Thus, it remains unclear whether or not he thinks that anything significant actually happened at Sinai. What is clear is the unambiguous message that God did not reveal to Moses anything that even comes close to the Torah text that we possess.

YCT issued a statement declaring that Rabbi Farber’s position is not the one taught at the yeshiva, which affirms traditional views about the revelation at Sinai. Rabbi Lopatin put the matter as follows:

Some talmidim [students] are in the midst of theological work to uphold Orthodoxy in a way they find intellectually honest. One recent example is Rav Zev Farber, whose journey has taken him to the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject. Rav Zev is thinking honestly and personally, but his ideas are different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT….. Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham [rabbinic scholar] to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We support his honesty and speaking his mind, but he speaks for himself, not YCT. His beliefs on this matter are his own and far from the broad classical views of Torah Min Hashamayim [Torah from Heaven] that we at the Yeshiva believe in.

Thus, Rabbi Lopatin asserts that denial that the Torah in its present form bears any significant resemblance to anything that may or may not have been revealed at Sinai is compatible with Orthodox Judaism. Whatever passages one may find in Jewish texts about post-Mosaic material in the Torah, nothing comes close to legitimating the position that Rabbi Farber affirmed and that Rabbi Lopatin describes as situated at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking” and eminently defensible as an Orthodox position.

Several months later, Rabbi Lopatin wrote an article in Haaretz asserting that “no one has the authority or the religious standing to write someone out of Orthodoxy” (“Orthodox and Here to Stay,” http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.553902). He goes on to make an argument that has particular resonance for me: “Shall we model ourselves after those who condemn today’s Lubavitch Hasidim who venerate their deceased rebbe zt”l? Who shall be condemned and chased out of the Torah camp next? Should Open Orthodoxy be expelled because it believes in learning Torah from all Jews, with all Jews and from the broader world?”

The question about Lubavitch is directed against a position with which I am prominently associated. To put the matter with exquisite sensitivity, Rabbi Lopatin’s formulation is designed to obscure the real point. As he well knows, the proper formulation is as follows: “Shall we exclude from the Orthodox rabbinate people who assert that the Messiah appeared, indicated unmistakably that he is the Messiah, repeatedly affirmed to masses of followers that his generation is that of the ultimate redemption, died or appeared to die in an unredeemed world, and will return from the dead or apparent dead to complete the redemption?”

To my deep regret, it is in fact the case that large swaths of the Orthodox community from the Modern Orthodox to the haredim do treat such individuals as Orthodox rabbis in good standing. The spectrum extends from Rabbi Lopatin to OU Kashrut, which issues joint hechsherim for wine and meat with assertive messianists who have signed a public ruling that one must believe as a matter of Jewish law that the Rebbe is the Messiah, all the way to some disciples of the late Rabbi Schach of Bnei Brak, who was an arch-critic of Chabad. To cite two examples, the Israeli newspaper published by this group’s larger faction published an appreciative article regarding the recently deceased rabbi of Kfar Chabad, who was an original signatory on that ruling, and the website matzav referred this month to a passionate messianist, who was killed in a tragic accident, with the abbreviation zt”l, a term reserved for the exceptionally righteous. The RCA, to its great credit, continues to protect the historic parameters of the messianic faith of Judaism by rejecting messianist applicants, and there is still significant resistance in some sectors of the haredi world. However this ultimately plays out, it is a matter of no small interest that this example was used by Rabbi Lopatin to justify the virtual abolition of any theological boundaries in Judaism.

The final sentence of Rabbi Lopatin’s paragraph is also deeply misleading. The most vehement critics of YCT and Open Orthodoxy have indeed objected to studying Torah with non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews, but this has hardly been their only or even primary concern, and for other critics it is a marginal issue at most. Setting all other matters aside (without by any means dismissing them), it is in my view Rabbi Lopatin’s affirmations about theological limits or their absence that call YCT’s credentials into the most serious question. I do not believe that everyone in YCT’s rabbinic leadership agrees with him, and I am certain that a significant number of YCT students and alumni do not. Among them are many individuals who decidedly deserve to be seen as Orthodox Jews and Orthodox rabbis. I emphatically do not question the Orthodoxy of Rabbi Lopatin’s own beliefs. Nonetheless, his statements severely compromise the status of the institution that he heads.

One arguably has the right to redefine the core beliefs of a religious community while still clinging to its standard designation. But there is something unseemly, even ethically objectionable, about expressing righteous indignation when those who maintain traditional standards and practices are unwilling to embrace that redefinition.

David Berger is the Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.  The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his institution.

By David Berger