Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Non-Compromising Orthodoxy

The memoirs of former Knesset member Rabbi Shlomo Lorencz are replete with anecdotes and encounters that underscore the acuity and foresight of gedolei Yisroel. In his book, Bemechitzosom, he discusses the time an Israeli army chaplain posed a question to the Chazon Ish concerning a soldier who was engaged to be married. The army schedule precluded him from arranging any time off for a wedding, the chaplain said. The chosson was finally approaching a furlough, which would allow him to celebrate his long-awaited matrimony. However, his break fell during Sefirah, the period in the Jewish calendar when weddings are not held.

The chaplain asked if an exception could be made to make the wedding during the days of Sefirah. He argued that if the wedding couldn’t be held during Sefirah it would have to be delayed for a very long time, perhaps an exception to the general rule could be made.


The Chazon Ish responded that he could approve having the wedding during Sefirah, but with a caveat: It could be held on any date except the fifth of Iyar. Rabbi Lorencz, who witnessed the exchange, was surprised by the p’sak. He made a face, but the Chazon Ish simply smiled back at him.


The great gaon explained that the chaplain’s question wasn’t really about Sefirah. It was about Zionist legitimacy. The Chazon Ish perceived that the question was a sly attempt by the Zionist leadership to help achieve acceptance of Israel’s national Independence Day as a Yom Tov. They hit upon this question as a way to produce a “heter” from the revered rabbinic figure for weddings to be held on that day, despite the injunction of Sefirah, a de facto admission that the 5 Iyar Independence Day had halachic status of a Yom Tov.


Rabbi Lorencz recounted in his diary that the chaplain was very upset with the Chazon Ish’s ruling that the wedding may be held on any day of Sefirah except the fifth of Iyar. His sad face revealed his true intentions and the penetrating wisdom of the Chazon Ish.


Last week, Rabbi Asher Lopatin was officially installed as president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). Last month, we commented on the fact that the noteworthy aspect of his installation was a so-called rabbinic roundtable titled “Training Real Rabbis for a New Generation,” featuring the leadership of Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew College, plus a female Reform rabbi from the Wexner Foundation, along with Rabbi Lopatin.


To promote their agenda and spit in the face of Orthodox conduct and practice, they held a roundtable with clergy who don’t follow halacha. That may be their prerogative. The question is why the group that proudly veers from Orthodoxy insists on being called Orthodox.


Essentially, for all their talk about openness and progressiveness, they crave the legitimacy conferred by Orthodoxy. They cavort with the open-minded intelligentsia, yet refuse to give up the branding of the denomination of Judaism that is thriving and is destined to survive.


When Lopatin was chosen to serve as YCT’s new president, we were optimistic that under his leadership, YCT would chart a corrective course. Perhaps we erred. He might put a nicer face on the school’s agenda, but it remains the same and, if anything, is now more dangerous than ever.


Though such programming is typical of YCT and its Open Orthodox movement, to begin his presidency chatting about rabbis – religious leaders, by definition – with four heretics who deny the divinity of Torah says a lot about what can be expected from him or the institution.


Whose Orthodoxy does he see himself addressing?


Certainly not the Orthodoxy of Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky and the eleven roshei yeshiva who left no wiggle room in their 1956 landmark p’sak forbidding cooperation with non-Orthodox movements. Does he see himself as heir to the Orthodoxy of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who forbade joining with non-Orthodox movements for theological debate? Apparently not.


So which Orthodoxy is YCT so eager to be part of? Perhaps it is that they merely wish to tap into what’s right and good about Orthodoxy – its dynamism, appeal and future – but not the halachos that define it.


Responding to published concerns about the message delivered by the non-Orthodox roundtable, Lopatin told JTA, “We can’t be afraid of criticism; we have to do the right thing. Everyone’s going to criticize us anyway for everything… What does Open Orthodoxy mean? It’s first of all feeling confident enough that you’re open to entertaining questions and challenges, you’re not afraid of them.”


Obviously, by offering feel-good platitudes, Rabbi Lopatin displays that he has no substantive defense for what he did. Yet, JTA reports that “The question of how Chovevei treats non-Orthodox Jews is far more important to Lopatin than how Chovevei is treated by the Orthodox. Though Lopatin wants Chovevei connected to the Orthodox world, including haredi Jews, he says it cannot come at the cost of compromise to the yeshiva’s ideology of ‘open Orthodoxy.’”


He will do nothing to compromise the fuzzy ideals of Open Orthodoxy, yet he has no problem compromising the precepts of the Torah, mesorah and halacha. He and his school have no problem associating themselves with staff, leaders, students and alumni who have staked out positions that are diametrically opposed to Orthodox thought and tradition.


Lopatin tells the New York Jewish Week, “I do think that in any school of higher learning, men and women should be learning from each other. So we are starting an evening seder on Monday nights where we are going to partner with maharats [women rabbis]. I do think it’s a loss for men and women to be segregated. If the maharat program is successful, and it does change the dynamic, then we’ll have to look to find more ways to be studying together.”


Rabbi Lopatin’s recent defense of Rabbi Zev Farber, an Open Orthodox rabbinic leader who denies Torah Min HaShomayim, and his statements to Tablet Magazine this past summer that he would love to have YCT join with non-Orthodox seminaries into one campus, are disappointing. Even though Rabbi Lopatin stated, “I want to make sure Chovevei Torah is an integral part of the Orthodox world,” his other comments and actions indicate quite the contrary.


In the Yated, we have showcased the history of YCT and Open Orthodoxy’s extensive and growing list of deviations from Torah Judaism, such as granting semichah to women, conducting services led by women in Open Orthodox shuls, accepting and promoting lifestyles that the Torah refers to as to’eivah, conducting interfaith programs banned by all poskim, retaining people who openly deny Torah Min HaShomayim as rabbinic leaders, and changing parts of davening to conform with a pluralistic liberal agenda.


In the past, we have written that YCT and those who adhere to its philosophy should not be considered Orthodox and should not be afforded its benefits. Every public step the group takes strengthens our position. Though the Young Israel movement blocks YCT graduates from assuming pulpits in its member synagogues and the RCA doesn’t grant them membership in its rabbinic organization, YCT and Open Orthodoxy are still perceived as Orthodox and treated as such.


The question remains: After so much deviation from Torah, halacha and mesorah, why does YCT and the Open Orthodox movement insist on referring to themselves as Orthodox? Their deviations are reminiscent of the Conservative movement at its founding, when its leaders proclaimed a progressive fidelity to halacha. Addressing this phenomenon – their desperate need to be considered Orthodox – we suggest two possible factors.


Firstly, YCT’s rabbis have, in general, been careful to obtain some type of halachic sanction for their actions or ensure that their actions are halachically sound. For example, Rabbi Farber relies on the halachic rulings of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ book, Women at Prayer, to justify feminist davening rituals, and Yeshivat Maharat, the YCT affiliate that gives women semichah, relies on Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, who calls himself an Orthodox posek yet serves as the chancellor of the non-Orthodox Canadian Rabbinical School. Rabbi Farber, with his Yodin Yodin semichah from YCT, has likewise issued halachic rulings to somewhat sanction to’eivah activities and tamper with davening to serve feminist goals. Despite the fact that Open Orthodoxy’s “poskim” are radical, fringe rabbis, who do not have any halachic gravitas in the Orthodox world, Open Orthodoxy feels justified in its actions due to the blessings and heteirim of its rabbis.


Other objectionable actions of Open Orthodoxy, such as its interfaith programs and pulpit exchanges and rabbinic interactions with non-Orthodox clergy, are defended by them as non-halachic and therefore permissible.


What is so obviously missing in all they do is a sense of mesorah – that there are actions and attitudes that violate the spirit of Torah and are contrary to the way ehrliche Yidden have conducted themselves throughout the centuries. One of the very many examples is the concept of mechitzah, which is so basic to the way we daven and lead our lives and which is based on the structure of the Bais Hamikdosh, where men and women were separated.


The application of mechitzah as a halachic concept is based on mesorah, and although it does not appear in the Torah, it is as an absolute requirement for tefillah. There is a mesorah for how we daven, how we think, and how we act. The attitudinal aspects of Torah life are wholly based on mesorah, not on anyone’s whim or fancy. Mesorah doesn’t bend to conform to any zeitgeist or prevailing social theory.


Open Orthodoxy has gone down the road of Judaism without mesorah. So long as there is no technical halachic violation (according to left-wing fringe “poskim” or an unaccepted daas yochid from years past), YCT’s rabbis give the go-ahead.


In Lopatin’s mind, apparently, holding strong against deviation of a Divine script is a sign of weakness. He writes, “Think about it: Why should the huge Hareidi community fear a few women – on the women’s side of the Kotel wearing a tallit and singing and dancing once a month for an hour? Do they really think that all women will start wearing tallitot and tefillin and will start coming to the Kotel all the time and daven all the time? Do they see a revolution on the part of Hareidi women about to take off?”


The reason our sensibilities are offended when a radical fringe group engages in non-traditional behavior is not because we feel threatened that their example is about to overwhelm Orthodox practice. We take offense to defiling the holiest place in the world and using the Kosel as a backdrop for a ridiculous show. The posuk says, “Sheker soneisi vo’asaeivahI hate and despise lies and deceitful, fictitious conduct.” Distortion of our religion is something that rankles us and shakes us to our core.


They claim to be following the ways of Avrohom and Sarah, who passionately and confidently opened their tent to all, as opposed to “preservationist” chareidim who fear the non-Orthodox and their influences. Their claim that they mingle with the so-called other branches of Judaism in order to be mekareiv them, is spurious. Is that a reason to invite their clergy to address YCT students? Is it even permitted according to halacha?


Lopatin mocks chareidim, writing that there “is not true pluralism in the Hareidi world; the families don’t necessarily want to learn about Kant or feminism from their [non-religious] guests, but they do want to connect with them, and it is an encouraging first step towards the openness of Abraham and Sarah’s tent.”


If Kant’s apikorsus is of no value and meaning to us, we are lacking in the eyes of the Open Orthodox. If we don’t invite Conservative and Reform clergy to preach in our shuls and yeshivos, we are lacking in self-confidence. Lopatin advocates having Conservative, Reform and Renewal rabbis as mentors, as if we have what to learn from them. Obviously, he and the YCT crowd are unfamiliar with the halachos that forbid learning from apikorsim.


He lectures us, writing, “It is the responsibility of those in the outreach community and the pluralistic Orthodox community, who are comfortable counting Conservative, Reform or Renewal rabbis as mentors and teachers, to find a way to show other Orthodox Jews that pluralism is only going to strengthen an already strong Orthodoxy, not destroy it.”


This is a recurring theme for him. He writes, “There is no need to apologize for the Hareidi or Centrist or even Modern Orthodox community. We just need to speak from a loving and caring place. I am a pluralist: We need to learn from all Jews, and connect and relate to all Jews – Reform, Conservative, Renewal; I believe it is critical for Judaism that we engage with the greater society as well…” 


At the same time, with twisted logic, he dreams of impacting “our Orthodox brothers and sisters in Lakewood, Brooklyn and Monsey…”


They aren’t content with their small group. They seek to expand it and to transform our communities as well. We must ensure that that doesn’t happen.


For the past 13 years, we have been hearing about the radical reforms of YCT and its affiliates, yet our machaneh has been complacent. With few notable exceptions, we haven’t done much to address the growing deviant group in a concrete way. We have failed to treat this dangerous Open Orthodox movement the way we should – as non-Orthodox.


It is high time for our community to formally declare – and really mean it – that Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodoxy and that anyone involved with Open Orthodox institutions risks being ousted from leadership positions in the Orthodox community.


No longer can we look the other way and allow the deviationists to hijack the Orthodox mantle for further distortion and compromise of Judaism in the name of Orthodoxy. The privilege of calling oneself Orthodox must be reserved for those who seek, rather than undermine and reject, Torah norms, both in halacha and hashkafah. Reformers under any guise shouldn’t be granted that.


Some people ask: Why should we care?


Firstly, kol Yisroel areivim zeh bozeh. We have an obligation to offer tochachah and seek to return these people to where they belong, bevais Hashem.


Secondly, while we stand idly by, they are drawing adherents and gaining control of shuls, schools and organizations.


Today, we might say that they have little influence on what goes on in the frum world, but if things continue on the current trajectory, pretty soon it will be difficult to relegate them to a dark left corner. We have to take a strong stand and we have to take it now. That is the way we have responded to deviant movements throughout our history in order to preserve Torah Judaism. Unfortunately, that is the way we need to respond today.


Last week, as we studied Parshas Lech Lecha, we learned about the chessed of Avrohom Avinu, his tolerance and acceptance of all people, and his wide-open tent. Many of the modern-day maskilim claim to be following in the footsteps of our first forefather, embracing people who are different than them, liberal and open-minded to the extreme. Any such comparison is a false manipulation of Avrohom Avinu’s middah.


The Avrohom Avinu who we revere, study and seek to emulate was not just some nice, gentle soul who espoused love and peace. The av of chessed was the same person who took a hammer to his father’s idols and alienated himself from his family and friends in his pursuit of truth.


The posuk at the end of Parshas Noach states simply, “Haran died in the lifetime of Terach, his father, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim” (Bereishis 1:27-28). The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 38) relates that Nimrod threw Avrohom Avinu into a furnace and taunted him to pray to his G-d to save him. Haran watched the spectacle, unsure of whom to support. Unable to choose a side, he arrived at a compromise. He said that he would take a wait-and-see-position. “Im Avrohom menatzeiach, ani mishelo, im Nimrod menatzeiach, ani mishelo.” He would support the victor, quickly joining forces with whoever would triumph.


The Medrash relates that when Avrohom emerged from the furnace unscathed, Haran joined his team. Nimrod promptly threw him into the fire and he was burned to death.


The Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel (Bereishis 11:28) states that Haran was killed not by the heat of the furnace, but by a bolt of fire that came down from heaven.


Apparently, Haran incurred Hashem’s wrath because he refused to take a position on ikrei emunah. The mindset of “Im Avrohom menatzeiach, ani mishelo, im Nimrod menatzeiach, ani mishelo” was offensive. Haran lacked principles and ironclad beliefs. He embraced the right and the left, wanting to be adored by all. He wanted to be everywhere and he ended up nowhere.


The mesorah community is attached enough to the past to firmly believe in the future. We are a nation living with a three-dimensional vision: Hashem melech, Hashem moloch, and Hashem yimloch l’olam vo’ed. So while we toil for tomorrow, giving the best of our time, money and resources to chinuch in the fervent hope that our children will follow the path that stretches back to Sinai, it is with confidence and an assurance that lo yomush haTorah mipicha umipi zaracha.


Just last week, the largest funeral in Israel’s history was held for Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the nosi of Shas and towering figure of the Sefardic community in Eretz Yisroel and across the world. Chareidim, dati-leumi and chilonim, who had gathered across the country to beseech Heaven for the life of the beloved chacham, streamed to Yerushalyim from all corners of the country to bid him farewell. They connected with him, they loved him, and they felt his love for them.


YCT claims that they are selling an innovation, a rabbinate that engages the people and “teaches talmidim how to navigate the world with mentschlichkeit and a commitment to tradition and halacha,” in the words of Rabbi Lopatin.


Chacham Ovadiah, like other gedolim, roshei yeshiva and rabbonim, embodied a commitment to halacha. Brilliantly fluent in the responsa of the last thousand years, he was largely responsible for bringing a generation of Sefardic Jewry back to living halachic lives in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch. A tremendous masmid, fidelity to Torah was the hallmark of his life. Yet, the centerpiece of his leadership was his willingness to go out and speak to people, delivering shiurim and words of chizuk to Jews anywhere.


During Elul, he would travel across the country giving chizuk to wayward Jews, sharing stories and mesholim, speaking on the level necessary to inspire his listeners. In a hesped for his wife, it was recalled how she would stay up until after midnight on those Elul nights, knowing that her husband wouldn’t eat supper until his work was done. She would wait up for him to return home so that she could have the honor of serving him that late-night meal.


During the month leading up to the deadline for school registration, he would go from home to home, persuading parents to register their children in religious schools. Sometimes he was successful, sometimes not, but never for lack of trying, never for lack of hard work and concern for every Jew.


The secular Israeli media have experienced great difficulty understanding how the Sefardi chareidi rabbi merited the largest funeral in the state’s history. They are trying to explain why Ilan came from Kiryat Malachi, Erez came from Dimona, and Dudu traveled from Eilat, not to get close to the aron or even hear hespeidim, but simply to show their respect and enduring love for the chacham they viewed as their Maran.


After failing in their attempts to deny the size of the levaya, the secular media began positing that the display of support was because Rav Ovadiah was the one who gave halachic backing for the concept of trading land for peace, thus earning his place as a hero in the peace’nik camp. Others said that the settler crowds turned out because Rav Ovadiah condemned the Gush Katif expulsion and cursed Arik Sharon for his role in it.


Anything they said didn’t come close to explaining why and how somewhere between eight hundred thousand and a million people, on a moment’s notice, dropped what they were doing and headed for Porat Yosef.


The real answer is one they can’t articulate, because they themselves don’t understand it. It has to do with the Jewish soul, with a feel for authenticity, for mesorah, for Torah itself. It is what sets our leaders apart. It is what made Chacham Ovadiah not just a halachic or political leader, but a beloved father figure.


His rabbinic record, like that of so many rabbonim, provides an example for the YCT crowd to study. The enduring image of the chacham is of him sitting in his study, learning and writing, learning and writing, and learning and writing – a picture of genuine chavivus haTorah. Yet, despite his many outreach efforts and his binding love of Jews, he remained fiercely loyal to the precepts of the Shulchan Aruch and minhogim of Yahadus Seforad.


Not only him, but every one of our leaders whom YCT mocks.


Rav Aharon Kotler, the firebrand torchbearer of uncompromising Torah, founded Chinuch Atzmai to save a generation of Israelis and inspired Israeli bnei Torah under the P’eylim banner to fan out across the country and sign up children for Torah schools. He would say that the time of rishum, enrollment, is the yom hadin for thousands of children. He never rested from his mission of reaching out to all types of Jews and bringing them into the tent of Torah.


That legacy was continued by Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach, another Torah giant who brooked no compromise when it came to fidelity to Torah and mesorah. Under his leadership, the P’eylim were reconstituted under the Lev L’Achim banner. He selected Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin to head the organization and provided direction and inspiration to its yungeleit and bochurim, who dedicate time to bring Torah to tens of thousands of Jews. Their dedication and tirelessness caused a revolution of teshuvah. Today, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is their primary rabbinic guide.


The banner of Lev L’Achim was initially carried in this country by many leading roshei yeshiva, primary among them Rav Elya Svei, a talmid of Rav Aharon in so many ways, including his uncompromising, fierce dedication to halacha.


The torch of Lev L’Achim is proudly carried today by virtually every Israeli rosh yeshiva and proudly and prominently supported by bnei Torah around the world.


Yet, none of what Lev L’Achim has been able to accomplish comes at the expense of violating even an iota of halacha.


The YCT people condemn us for being selfishly insular and say we don’t care about the people they refer to as serious, Jewishly-engaged Jews who seek meaningful and inspiring lives. They claim that they engage with the non-Orthodox in order to share Orthodoxy with them. They ignore the contributions of “insular” organizations such as Lev L’Achim, Shuvu, Arachim, Ohr Somayach, Aish Hatorah, Oorah, Gateways, Acheinu, Chabad and the numerous frum people engaged in kiruv activities around the globe. They ignore the contributions of the day school movement, founded and led by old-fashioned insularists. They make no mention of the kollelim spreading Torah and kedushah, bringing people tachas kanfei haShechinah without compromising any of our ideals.


Rashi in Parshas Noach (7:7) states that Noach was “miktanei emunah,” meaning that he lacked in his belief. “Ma’amin v’eino ma’amin sheyavo haMabul.” He wasn’t entirely sure if the Flood that Hashem promised to bring to destroy the sinners of the world would materialize. He didn’t enter the teivah until the floodwaters forced him in.


Noach, we know, dedicated 120 years of his life to building the teivah. How can it be said that he didn’t really believe it would come?


In a hesped on the Steipler Gaon, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik explained that Noach believed in Hashem’s word and didn’t doubt it. However, Noach made cheshbonos and reasoned that ultimately Hashem would have mercy on his creations and not bring the flood. Therefore he didn’t enter the teivah when he was told to. For this reason, he is called a “kotton b’emunah,” because we are required to follow the word of Hashem and not make cheshbonos.


We are to follow halacha and the precepts of Chazal and the rabbinic leaders of each generation. If the halacha is to engage in a certain action, then that is the way we should conduct ourselves. One who calculates why he should act differently to achieve a greater good or rationalizes that the will of Hashem is different in this instance is “miktanei emunah.”


As we learn the parshiyos of Bereishis and study the lives of the avos, let us heed the admonitions of Chazal and follow in their ways of Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim without tempering them with deviant philosophies. Likewise, when we hear of neighbors, friends and others in trouble, let us seek to practice the chessed of Avrohom without cheshbonos. Let us daven for them and help them in every way possible.


Let us all ensure that we remain loyal to Torah, halacha and mesorah in the spirit of Avrohom Avinu and his progeny throughout the generations until this very day.






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