Thursday, Jun 13, 2024

Israeli Chief Rabbinate Slams The Door On Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

In a document that was just obtained and leaked by ITIM, the pluralistic Yerushalayim-based organization whose purported goal is to assure fair treatment by the Chief Rabbinate for those who interact with it, it was disclosed that the Rabbanut rejected a letter from a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Open Orthodox seminary in Riverdale, NY, attesting to the Jewish status of a woman who made aliyah and wanted to marry an Israeli Jew. The incident has received major attention in the secular Jewish media.



This past March, Rabbi Asher Ehrentrau, a senior Rabbanut bais din official, rejected the letter of attestation of Jewish status issued by YCT graduate Akiva Herzfeld, who served as rabbi of Cong. Shaarey Tpiloh of Portland, Maine, before making aliyah three years ago.

In response, Herzfeld has hired an attorney, Assaf Benmelech of the fringe-”Orthodox” Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization. Benmelech issued a statement:

The scandalous letter found in the rabbinical court file shows that the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinic courts rejected Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld’s testimony about the Jewishness of his community because of his affiliation with ‘modern Orthodoxy.’ This is a position that reflects ignorance and abandonment. It also refutes the attempts of the Chief Rabbinate to ignore the fact that it is a coincidence that rabbis affiliated with the moderate Orthodox circles in the United States are rejected by it over and over again. This is the result of abandoning the religious system in Israel to haredi hands: arbitrary decisions, and a severe blow to the delicate fabric of relations with Diaspora Jewry.”

Contrary to Benmelech’s assertion, it is he and his client, not the Rabbanut, who are acting scandalously. Benmelech seeks to portray this case as an attack by the Rabbanut on Modern Orthodox and Diaspora rabbis. But truth demonstrates something quite different, as will be shown.

Before we proceed, we must note that despite Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah identifying itself as a mere Religious Zionist educational organization, Ne’emanei Torah Va-Avodah is a radical advocacy and lobbying organ that seeks to change the face of Orthodoxy in Eretz Yisroel. Its board of governors includes Avi Weiss, Shlomo Riskin, and others, such as Benny Lau, Daniel Sperber and Tamar Ross, who join them in reforming Orthodoxy by ordaining women, lobbying for to’eivah marriage, diluting geirus standards and much more. ITIM’s Seth Farber, who has previously defamed and censured the Rabbanut for rejecting Reform conversions, also sits on the Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah board.

The current scenario is in part a replay of the events of 2014, when the Chief Rabbinate initially rejected a similar letter by Avi Weiss, with Benmelech representing Weiss. That case was resolved in favor of Weiss. However, the current case has one major difference, as unlike Avi Weiss, who was at the time a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and who was singled out by the Rabbanut as an individual, the document rejecting Herzfeld’s letter specifies that the rejection is based on his being a graduate of YCT, whose graduates “call themselves Orthodox,” and “are not recognized by the Rabbinate of Israel,” as per Rabbi Ehrentrau.


The Truth

The Rabbanut has great reason for concern. The Yated is unaware as to whether or not the Rabbanut knows the following information, but it is of extreme importance:

Aside from being a graduate of YCT, whose track record of unOrthodox belief and conduct has been boldly documented by the Yated during the course of the past decade, Herzfeld was a vocal voice of support for to’eivah marriage. In what can be described as nothing less than a massive chillul Hashem and outrageous ziyuf haTorah, Herzfeld wrote a December 12, 2012 column in the Portland Press Herald, comparing the nes Chanukah to to’eivah marriage:

We light Hanukkah candles each year to remember the ancient miracle. The menorah of Hanukkah shows that G-d’s miraculous light can shine in the world.

This Hanukkah, I celebrate the past and the present. With my very own eyes, I have seen a great miracle this year right here in Maine.

 “Those who fought for equal rights in marriage did not win a military victory. They did not kill anyone, even though some nasty opponents stood in the way of their dreams. Rather, they won by establishing friendships and connecting their cause to our hearts.

“The battle has transformed all of us, so that we can now see their marriages as blessed by our democratic society. We can see now that their marriage unions should not be subject to discrimination.

“My conversations with friends in Maine helped convince me of the rightness of the same-marriage cause. I signed a letter in support of “Yes on 1” together with other rabbis in the state, including Rabbi Jared Saks of Congregation Bet Ha’am, the Reform temple in South Portland, and Conservative Rabbi Rachel Isaacs of Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville.

“The truth of their hearts helped me overcome my wall of religious textual evidence that helped justify arguments for the other side…

I am an ordained Orthodox rabbi. Orthodox Jews strictly observe the commandments of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. Still, we should not impose our belief system on others and certainly should not discriminate against other human beings.

“I have called and written letters to other Orthodox rabbis, asking them to support same- marriage rights in America...”

The following year, Herzfeld invited local Reform rabbi Alice Goldfinger to lead Kabbolas Shabbos in his shul. Goldfinger had suffered a brain injury, and Herzfeld felt that his gesture was proper. Upon hearing about Herzfeld’s welcoming of Goldfinger to lead davening, Avi Weiss stated, “As you speak, I am filled with pride and tears. You have given me one of my proudest moments. Judaism is not just a system of the head, but a system of the heart. It’s a balance, and Akiva gets it.”

Assaf Benmelech portrayed the Rabbanut’s concern with Herzfeld as biased and ignorant. Now that the truth about Herzfeld’s unOrthodox bona fides have come out, it can be argued that the Rabbanut’s language was quite mild given the circumstances. In any case, the concern about Herzfeld is clearly more than warranted.

ITIM director Seth Farber, with the enthusiastic support of the left-wing secular Jewish media and heterodox/pluralistic Jewish organizations, must be taken to task once and for all. Farber stated regarding the Herzfeld episode:

“The Chief Rabbinate has repeatedly claimed that there are no blacklists. However, the testimony of an Orthodox rabbi was rejected only because he belonged to an institution that the Rabbinate does not like. The Rabbis’ behavior in this case is, first and foremost, dishonest. They make all kinds of statements in order to eliminate harsh criticism, but, ultimately, under the sway of the more extremist elements among them, they do not rule in line with their statements.”

 These words are pure falsehood. Farber has repeated at every opportunity that the Rabbanut maintains a “blacklist” with which it unfairly and capriciously rejects rabbis from chutz la’aretz, whereas in reality, the Rabbanut rejected Herzfeld for very substantive concerns. Farber accuses the Rabbanut of being dishonest, whereas he is in reality the dishonest and shameful party.

In July of 2017, Farber engaged in similar antics, telling the secular press that the Rabbanut was blacklisting rabbis, asserting: “As an Orthodox rabbi, I want to state categorically that rejecting people’s Jewishness is anti-halakhic. The halakhah is clear: Jews are to be believed if they say they are Jewish.”

It then turned out that the rabbis about whom Farber made this claim were primarily Reform and Conservative clergy, whose geirus is obviously invalid.

Farber was then taken to task by Orthodox journalist David Benkof, who proved that the basis for Farber’s allegation of a Rabbanut “blacklist” was an ad-hoc collection of letters from the Rabbanut rejecting various affirmations by mostly non-Orthodox clergy. There was no list of any sort; Farber was fabricating it all. Benkof wrote:

“I hesitate to use a 2017 cliché like ‘fake news,’ but this is an entirely manufactured controversy, and we know who manufactured it: Rabbi Farber. In an essay published earlier today in the Jewish Journal, he used the issue of proof-of-Judaism letters to renew his longstanding antagonism toward the rabbinate, and that’s his right.”

 In response, Farber was forced to back down, emending his allegation to, “They’re effectively creating a blacklist.”

Then, in a freshly-released July 2017 Jerusalem Post video interview with Farber, it became even clearer that there was no blacklist and that the entire matter was a total lie. During the interview, Farber is seen holding what he describes as the actual blacklist. The list is titled “Reshimat te’udot she’lo ushruList of certification letters that were not authenticated/accepted.” It is not a list of rabbis deemed to be invalid, but a list of individual letters that were rejected for a variety of reasons.

Farber proceeded to label the document in the course of the interview as a blacklist, after which he declared that the letters – which he never even saw or investigated – “were just rejected out of hand.” Farber grossly mischaracterized the data, bandied about false allegations and condemned the Rabbanut for not accepting non-Orthodox clergy to determine halachic personal status. Sheker and hypocrisy of the highest order. And Farber, along with the secular Jewish media and non-Orthodox supporters, is playing this same dishonest card yet again.


Other Personal Status Issues

Last June, a handful of YCT graduates expressed an openness to intermarriage. In an article in The Jewish Week titled “Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage,” a popular YCT graduate advocated for adoption of the Reform approach in dealing with intermarriage. This same Open Orthodox clergyman, when challenged on his position, refused to rule out the appropriateness of intermarriage.

Shortly thereafter, another popular YCT graduate penned a controversial articled titled “Intermarriage Isn’t Good, or Bad,” in which he wrote:

“I’ve become much less interested in the question of whether one should date or marry Jewish. By focusing on the act of intermarriage, we ignore the far more significant questions: what role does Judaism play in your life, and what do you want your Judaism to look like in a romantic relationship?”

And two years prior, YCT celebrity graduate Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote a Jewish Week article titled “Orthodoxy Should Embrace Interfaith Families.”

The danger of these “rabbis” to yuchsin is immense, as they conduct themselves like wrecking balls in that regard. But this is far from the worst thing these clergymen have done in the area of yichus, for two of them actually oversee and certify geirus on a regular basis (!). Yanklowitz wrote this winter that he, joined by Open Orthodox rabbi Haim Ovadia, had just spent the day performing over a dozen conversions. The writer of the first article cited above, who is open to intermarriage, just last week sat on a bais din to oversee one of several conversions under his auspices, and other Open Orthodox clergymen throughout the globe also boast of their conversion endeavors.

A team of Open Orthodox clergy spent a week in Mexico this past fall, performing dozens of conversions. The team consisted of the president of YCT, Yanklowitz, and a local Mexican clergyman who has embraced Open Orthodoxy. Here is how this Mexican clergyman described his emunah, in a recent article in the Forward:

One of the most challenging moments of my life was when I realized that my practice as an Orthodox Jew has little to do with belief in G-d. In a surreal experience, I have found myself wondering if Orthodoxy is what G-d really wants from us and if the Torah is really the ultimate truth. But I concluded that it doesn’t matter since I’m happy with this way of life independent of whether or not there is such a thing as Divine revelation or covenant.”

Thus, a full-blown kofer, who is possul for eidus and dayanus, is serving on a beis din for geirus. What could be worse? If this is not a michshol for Klal Yisroel, then what is?

Does the Rabbanut not have ample reason for concern? Who can appreciate the grave danger to yichus that these “rabbis” pose?

This past Shavuos, the Torat Chayim Open Orthodox clergy organization issued a compendium of five of its senior members regarding the truth of the Torah. One of these members rejected the “dogma of the Torah’s dictation,” arguing that Hashem did not present the words of the Torah to Moshe. Another member wrote likewise, and a third opined that the Torah is not always historically true and was influenced by outside sources. These articles appear on a heretical/Biblical criticism website at which YCT graduate Zev Farber, who denies Torah miSinai, is a senior fellow.

These Torat Chayim senior members – Herzl Hefter, Nathan Lopez Cardozo and David Bigman – are highly esteemed rabbeim for Open Orthodox clergy. Such is the churban that is being created.

A May 5 Forward article titled “Liberal Orthodox Rabbis Seeking Pulpits Struggle with Stigma Against Seminary” depicted a very negative employment situation for YCT graduates, writing that shuls are extremely hesitant to hire them. While there are some YCT graduates who are true tinokos shenishbu, real korbanos, who simply wanted to become rabbis and had no intent on doing anything controversial, the ugly truth is that the leadership of this movement and so many of its graduates have set out to destroy Torah Judaism.

The Rabbanut is more than justified in its concern about Herzfeld and his colleagues. This new incident is the tip of the iceberg, for below the surface lies a massive mountain of warped and dangerous ideas and initiatives, which threaten to defile Torah life and to uproot yichus and all that is sacred to us.

Few have spoken out, with the Yated being an exception. Now is the time to speak out and exercise unprecedented caution.



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