Yated: For a bit of background, why did you join the RCA and why are you currently a member?
RCA Member (hereafter referred to as “RCAM”): Like most members, I joined the RCA for its rabbinic placement services and pension plan. Although I no longer need placement, having served my decades in the rabbinate, I feel that the RCA serves an important role in setting standards, especially in the areas of geirus and shul practices. The RCA’s Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS) program, which is a coordinated effort between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the RCA poskim, provides a crucial system that assures geirus with the highest standards. This way, Rabbanut acceptance of the conversion is guaranteed and all botei din worldwide recognize the geirus.
The RCA only endorses a geirus sponsored by its members when it was performed by a GPS bais din meeting the approval of both the Rabbanut and RCA poskim. The RCA has also issued piskei halacha against the ordination of women and against so-called “partnership minyanim,” consisting of mixed davening groups partially led by women.
The RCA only accepts members with semichah from specific yeshivos. Talmidim from controversial and questionable semichah programs and yeshivos cannot join. So, basically, the RCA has set certain standards in major areas of halacha and religious policy. That is what I feel makes it so important.
Yated: Is the RCA revisiting geirus practices?
RCAM: Although GPS is a stellar success and a model for other serious geirus programs (for example, the dayanim are not paid for any geirus, the geirim need to be determined to be stable people who have committed to full kabbolas mitzvos, and GPS verifies this in many ways), and the process is very methodical and never done in haste, there were concerns that the system could be abused.
The RCA formed a committee to look into the GPS program and make recommendations for improvements. We have been assured, after concerns were expressed, that the committee will not deal with any halachic issues of GPS geirus, but that it will deal with other aspects of the system. To the surprise of many, a few of the committee members are people who opposed the GPS system from the start. The committee is about half men and half women.
Yated: Has there been any protest of the move?
RCAM: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky wrote a column on his personal blog to announce his resignation from heading the GPS bais din in Bergen County. Rabbi Pruzansky felt that the new committee would threaten the independence and the rabbinic and procedural integrity of GPS. He decided to leave before it reached a point at which the system was being negatively affected.
The Jewish Week then posted an article stating that Rabbi Pruzansky was leaving due to the fact that women were on the committee. (The Jewish Week wrote, “US Rabbi Leaves Conversion Court over Women’s Role.”) This was one of the Jewish Week’s many efforts to criticize Orthodox Judaism and paint Orthodox rabbis as bigoted and anti-women.
I can assure you that despite all this, the RCA will not change GPS standards or geirus procedures. It is clear that Rabbi Pruzansky’s resignation and the tension surrounding it have assured everyone that no changes will be made to GPS that could affect anything halachically or procedurally in terms of geirus and its standards.
Yated: What can you tell us about a Chovevei Torah leader being invited to join the board of Beth Din of America? Did the RCA actually approve this? Aren’t YCT members not eligible for the RCA?
RCAM: Here is what I have heard: The BDA was planning for a while already to invite Dr. Michelle Friedman, head of pastoral counseling at Chovevei, to join the BDA board. Dr. Friedman is an expert in assessing and counseling abuse and other mental health issues, and BDA felt that her expertise would help in non-halachic areas. BDA also explained that board members’ main roles are fundraising for BDA and promoting BDA, and that having Dr. Friedman on the board would encourage her community to use BDA. I really don’t know more than this.
Yated: Can you tell us if RCA members support this move? To many of us, it looks like the RCA is embracing Chovevei.
RCAM: The RCA president seems to strongly support the appointment of Dr. Friedman to the BDA board, but he said that BDA is not part of the RCA, as BDA is an independent bais din and the timing of this was inopportune. Many RCA members are very upset about the appointment of Dr. Friedman, not because she is not a renowned and accomplished expert, but because it looks like BDA and its RCA affiliate are now accepting of Chovevei. This is a very major thing, and I don’t understand how it was overlooked or why other considerations override it. The liberal Jewish media is spinning this as a story of Chovevei coming in to save the BDA, or of the successful integration of Chovevei into a main RCA affiliate, to whatever degree. It really bothers many of us, and despite whatever good rationalizations are given, it makes the RCA look like a politically correct, spineless organ associated with extreme liberal Orthodoxy.
Yated: Did the dayonim of BDA approve this appointment?
RCAM: I don’t know.
Yated: You stated that the RCA has categorically rejected the idea of semichah for women, but why isn’t Avi Weiss, who gives women semichah and has a female rabbi at his shul, also censured?
RCAM: I am not an insider, but many members ask your question, and I have been told that the RCA is afraid that Avi Weiss and other similar members will try to sue the RCA and bring it down entirely if they are expelled, just like Avi Weiss threatened to sue the Rabbanut last year until he got his way. He actually got Knesset members thinking seriously about changing geirus standards. We now see the disastrous results.
I have heard that the “hands-off” policy for these wayward RCA members was also out of concern for the fact that they love to be able to be portrayed as victims, and they use this victim image in garnering sympathy and emboldened support from the irreligious to fight against the Orthodox institutions that have tried to oust them. In fact, I was told by a few fellow members that when a group of Executive Committee members wanted to vote to consider taking action against one of these rogues last year after he did some new sort of “Open Orthodox innovation,” the RCA president convinced the committee not to move forward with that, explaining that he asked the RCA’s poskim and they said not to do it, because it will only bring more attention, sympathy and so on to that rabbi, helping his cause and ability to push further as a “victim.” I was told that the committee heeded this p’sak, as the president apparently presented it. In my opinion, despite the rationalizations, these rogue members continue to push the envelope and to shame the organization and Orthodoxy in general. Our lack of public response, despite having been justified, looks to many out there as very limp and lame, as if we are playing into the hands of political correctness and pluralism of the worst type.
Yated: Where do you see the RCA heading?
RCAM: Good question. It is really up to the RCA. Formerly, Rav Soloveitchik would grace the RCA conventions and deliver fiery, inspiring drashos and shiurim. He headed the RCA Halacha Commission and ensured that the organization took clear and firm stands on mechitzah and other issues of the day. If not for him, much of Orthodoxy in America would not have remained frum, as there would not have been clear standards and an organization to stand up for them, as the RCA did. And even today, the GPS program and RCA admission standards have contributed immeasurably to Orthodox Judaism throughout the world. People have no idea. The RCA has the ability to move this legacy forward, and I hope it will – or it can embrace political correctness and join hands with far-left organizations and people, leading to dilution of what we represent.
We have to daven well, do our best, and be aware that the incoming generation of RCA members is made up of solid young rabbis, and I trust that they will lead the RCA on the correct path.
Yated: Did you see the article by Shmuly Yanklowitz in the New York Times this week bashing the RCA for adhering to the Rabbanut standards in conversions?
RCAM: Yes, it is very distressing.
Yated: Do you see this article as part of the Open Orthodoxy mission to collapse halachic geirus?
Yated: Can you please elaborate?
RCAM: Yanklowitz, as is the norm for that group and its founders, is again turning to the secular media in an effort to make the rabbonim look evil and coarse, with the hope that the secular world will exert pressure on the RCA and the Rabbanut to liberalize geirus policy. It is a very disingenuous strategy, and they do it quite often.
Yated: What is their motivation to relax standards of geirus?
RCAM: It is part of an overall theme of “opening up” Judaism, empowering those who are not halachic experts to make major halachic decisions, and so on. That group just cannot accept the fact that halacha has rules and hierarchy. It is against their pluralistic, secular mindset. They do not accept Torah objectively, and they are trying to bend it into their liberal vision of what they would want Torah to be.
Yated: Do you agree that this is further proof that the Open Orthodox movement is really not Orthodox and should be exposed for what they are?
RCAM: Of course. It is poshut.
Yated: People wonder why the Yated continues to battle and expose the likes of Avi Weiss and Yanklowitz. They contend that what they do has no effect on us. Do you agree?
RCAM: That is a very shortsighted view of things. When that chevrah is invalidly megayeir people who then identify as Orthodox, and when that group insists that its rabbis should be part of local vaadim and botei din, as it has been doing, and when that group tries to tear down Rabbanut authority over personal status, it is impacting us all. When they assume rabbinic positions in established Orthodox shuls around the country and in schools and cause those institutions to veer from halacha and mesorah, their actions have national impact. Their influence is spreading and will come to our world as well by osmosis if we do not arrest and isolate them. This is not to mention that we have an achrayus to the individual members of Klal Yisroel who are influenced by their emotional messages.
Yated: What do you think will be the effect of their continuing drumbeat in secular venues to do to geirus like, lehavdil, what Obama is trying to do to immigration law?
RCAM: The effect will probably be to force us to take an open stand and declare that that group is not committed to halacha and has no Orthodox bona fides. Sooner or later, the pressure that group exerts is bound to touch our camp and force a very public response, and we will need to courageously call them out on it and declare them for what they are.
Yated: Thank you.