Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

A Tale of Two Worlds

A New Farcical Denomination and an Old Authentic Movement Moment Magazine recently published somewhat of a puff piece highlighting the escapades of Rabbi Avi Weiss: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Open Orthodoxy, The International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), Sarah Hurwitz, and women leading Kabbalat Shabbat in a so-called Orthodox synagogue. To this writer's mind, the article was somewhat biased in favor of the above innovations. Nevertheless, I am pleased. Why? Because the writer of that article, Sarah Berger, finally said it. She said that Weiss, together with the IRF, could well be on the way to establishing a new Jewish denomination - and it isn't Orthodox. The article's sub-headline says it all: “Do 1 Rabba, 2 Rabbis and 1 Yeshiva = a New Denomination?” Ms. Berger goes on to write, “…They have formed their own groups, yeshivas and most recently a rabbinical council under the banner ‘Open Orthodoxy.' Their insistence on placing women in leadership positions, making conversion less onerous and being more inclusive in general leads to the question: Will the strands of Orthodoxy dedicated to these causes remain part of the Orthodox community or become a separate movement, joining the panoply of denominations making up American Jewry?”

So why are we pleased? We do not desire splits within Orthodoxy. As believing Jews, we deeply desire peace among Jews and the “largest tent” halachically possible to embody the words of Chazal that ‘Kol Yisroel re’uyim leisheiv b’sukkah achas – All of Israel is fitting to sit in one sukkah(Sukkah 27b).”




In this case, we are pleased, because, tragically, the split has already taken place. Avi Weiss, YCT and IRF, through their actions, have already departed from Orthodoxy. We are thus gratified that a non-denominational magazine such as Moment has finally raised this issue and said it outright. We have been saying as much in these pages for the last few years. It was an article by the editor of this newspaper, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, that was the first to drop the ball and declare what Rabbi Weiss was espousing as a new denomination that could not be called Orthodox. It was this newspaper that felt the weight of the achrayus, the responsibility for the preservation of the authenticity of the mesorah. This warranted exposing the troubling aberrations of Weiss and YCT, and so this newspaper has devoted thousands of words and untold pages of newsprint over the past few years doing so.


Ms. Berger couldn’t have put it any better than what she so aptly coined “strands of Orthodoxy.” For what Weiss has done is remove the core of Orthodoxy, or halachic Judaism, from his new denomination, and all that remains are strands of Orthodoxy, things that give it an “Orthodox style,” much like “kosher style” eateries that serve Jewish ethnic foods but are certainly far from being halachically kosher. The corned beef on rye, sour pickles and kishke in those eateries may look or even taste kosher, but they are treif




This brings us to a related issue. Repercussions from Weiss and the IRF continuously pushing the envelope and trying to force Orthodoxy to conform to secular Western societal norms of egalitarianism have placed one of Orthodoxy’s most important, venerable institutions in a difficult position. That organization is the National Council of Young Israel.


A little background is in order. Young Israel was created in 1912. At the time, American Orthodoxy was experiencing a crisis of mammoth proportions. Although there were thousands of shuls dotting the landscape of America, virtually all young Jews were leaving Orthodoxy and the observance and heritage of their fathers. Even worse, the small percentage of Jewish youth who possessed the backbone, conviction and desire to remain Torah observant found themselves feeling like foreigners in the truly frum shuls of that time. During the first decades of the 20th century, the frum shuls were Yiddish-speaking and largely catered to Jews of the Eastern European mold. Kids born and bred in America just didn’t fit in.


Thus, Young Israel was born. The role that Young Israel fulfilled in preserving Yiddishkeit for young people during those years is incalculable. The reader is invited to read the books authored by Mr. Irving Bunim and ybl”c Lt. Meyer Birnbaum for two personal accounts of how Young Israel impacted their lives.




Although Young Israel was “a new vessel,” it possessed age-old Torah and fidelity to halacha in a way that appealed to the youth. Indeed, it was an important force in stemming the tide of assimilation. Halachic standards in Young Israel were scrupulously observed and were clearly spelled out as Orthodox.


One of the important bylaws that the early leadership of Young Israel put into its constitution was that if a branch was expelled or dissolved or resigned, all its assets would revert to the National Council of Young Israel. The purpose of the by-law was not to enrich the coffers of Young Israel, but rather to enable the organization to maintain the Orthodox shul and keep a certain standard. One of the important reasons for this was that at the time, shuls were leaving Orthodoxy and becoming Conservative. Some shuls located in changing neighborhoods were selling their buildings to churches and keeping the assets. The bylaw made that impossible, enforcing that shuls could only be sold in a halachically permitted way, and encouraging them, when possible, to maintain an Orthodox presence in the neighborhood. Every shul that joined Young Israel knew and accepted that clause – a clause that is almost 100 years old, as old as Young Israel.


Another important concern was ensuring that a shul could not just decide that a certain standard of observance or lack of observance was acceptable if it did not conform to what the National Council and its vaad halachah termed to be Orthodox. For example, let’s say that a branch decided that they did not want to have a mechitzah. They would not be able to retain their membership with Young Israel, and if they took down the mechitzah, that would be grounds for the National Council to expel it and seize its assets, redirecting them in a way that would preserve Orthodoxy in that community.




It is this bylaw that is under assault by those who, in the name of gender equality and progressive left-wing modernism, seek to change the character of Young Israel-affiliated shuls. The Yated has obtained a copy of a letter circulated to Young Israel rabbis. The letter, written by Rabbi Herschel Berger, rabbi of the Young Israel of Northbrook, a Chicago suburb, addresses these issues. He writes:


“My rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, was fond of quoting an American cliché: ’Call the baby by its name.’ In this vein, let us mention a reality. Much of the turmoil regarding the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) Constitution has to do with the requirement of a branch president to be a male shomer Shabbos. Please allow me to mention a halacha. The Rambam in Hilchos Melachim, Perek Alef, halachah 5, mentions explicitly that a woman cannot have a role of leadership in Klal Yisroel. Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses this position of the Rambam in Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deiah chelek bais, siman 45. There he writes that even though there are those who disagree with the Rambam, the position of the Rambam is to be maintained. Furthermore, he says that there is no problem with regard to women attaining leadership positions in shuls in America, since the ehrliche rabbonim would never permit such a thing. Therefore, he says, the position of the Rambam will be upheld anyway. We understand the pressures that can be brought upon rabbonim and that the courage to withstand them is sometimes difficult to summon up. The good news is that for a Young Israel rabbi, that isn’t necessary. The National Constitution is against it and that is the end of the matter. Pressure to lower a mechitzah? No issue. The National Constitution doesn’t allow it.”




In a letter on behalf of the board of directors of Young Israel to its members, the leadership of Young Israel stated, “Yes, we uphold minimum standards – as we must. The president of Young Israel of San Diego, California, stated it very well in a recent letter: ‘We did not want to be aligned with an organization that placed political correctness above halacha… We believe that Young Israel is a great brand and adherence to their standards has been a selling point for our new and prospective members…


The letter continues: “Don’t you believe that you should have such a voice? If a synagogue is violating our beliefs – or if some synagogue engaged in behavior you found embarrassing – shouldn’t the delegates – your representatives – be able to act to protect the integrity of the Young Israel name and all it stands for?” Indeed, if the constitution is amended, the national organization will not have the ability to enforce the rules – and that ability to enforce is what separates Young Israel from other organizations.”


The Young Israel should be commended for being an Orthodox institution that appeals to modern Orthodox Jews with minimum standards and that has the safeguards in place to ensure that its members will be able to benefit from a shul that appeals to them, while simultaneously not giving in to political correctness buoyed by am ha’aratzus. Due to the foresight of the early founders of Young Israel and the tenacity of its current leadership, am ha’aratzim with no deep religious sense of the authenticity of Yiddishkeit and mesorah, and a lack of responsibility to their fellow Jews, will never be able to implement an agenda driven innovation that does not conform with halachah as espoused by the gedolei haposkim in a Young Israel shul.


As for Avi Weiss and the IRF, we urge them to prove the Moment article right and make themselves a new denomination. Call yourself anything but Orthodox or halachically observant.




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