Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Birth of a New Denomination, and Secession at the RCA

The Yated has been one of the few organs in our community to have tracked the dangerous development of Open Orthodoxy and has had the guts to call this dangerous movement on the carpet and confront it head-on.

Unfortunately, as Open Orthodoxy grew, took over mosdos, and challenged halachah with more outrageous innovations and reforms, most others kept preaching, “Ignore them and they will fizzle out. If you give them attention, they will grow. They seek notoriety and like being popular martyrs. Silence is the best way to deal with them.”

Well, after a decade of this being the path taken by most people in our camp, as calls by the Yated and a few others were consistently ignored, Open Orthodoxy has ordained over 100 men (at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah – YCT), opened a semichah program for women (Yeshivat Maharat) which thus far ordained a dozen female rabbis, and has successfully launched two rabbinical organizations, both of which perform geirus and one of which provides kashrus certification. Open Orthodoxy has furthermore developed new geirus standards, and its clergy have become principals, assistant principals and rabbeim at Modern Orthodox day schools in New York, Maryland and elsewhere, and have taken over pulpits at large and small Modern Orthodox shuls across the country. Several local vaadei rabbonim have been forced to shut down due to Open Orthodox involvement. In short, much damage has been done.

Open Orthodoxy took the abject lack of pushback by the Orthodox establishment as a green light, and it therefore grew and breached halachic fences without resistance.

Now that Open Orthodoxy is large enough to stand on its own, and its populist appeal to those elements within Orthodoxy who do not know enough to realize its danger has increased, the Open Orthodox rabbinate has formally declared its movement to be a new denomination and has begun to sever official ties with the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, exactly as the Conservative movement did a century ago. The similarities are absolutely striking.

Last week, the three top rabbinic leaders of Open Orthodoxy announced their immediate resignation from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Although Rabbi Avi Weiss actually has not been an RCA member for a long time, his non-membership was not public knowledge, and in a public relations stunt he announced the following:

As an act of protest, I have not paid my dues to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and have now allowed my membership to lapse. I have chosen to leave the RCA foremost because of its attitude towards Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rabbinical school I founded years ago.

“If YCT rabbis — with YCT semikha only — cannot join the RCA, neither can I be part of this rabbinical group.

“In recent years…I have struggled with many positions the RCA has taken. To name several: its centralization of rabbinic authority vis-a-vis conversion; its opposition to women’s semicha; its failure to issue a public statement on behalf of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his recent brouhaha with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

“The vast majority of institutional semicha programs approved by the RCA are haredi and non-Zionist… It seems that the RCA tent is wide enough for the haredi right, but there is no place for the only rabbinic school that proudly identifies itself as modern Orthodox — YCT.”

Why Weiss deceptively made it look as though he only now was leaving the RCA is anyone’s guess, but it is suspected that he did it to coincide with the RCA convention and serve the role as a spoiler. The RCA’s annual convention began the day of his announcement.

The RCA does not admit YCT graduates due both to the inadequate halachic training that YCT provided when it originally applied to the RCA, as well as due to YCT’s deviation from halachic and hashkafic norms, as became apparent later.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, former assistant rabbi to Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and now a rabbi of a shul in Washington, D.C., that has a maharat-female rabbi on staff, resigned from the RCA that same day, in a very public manner as well. (Herzfeld is also a member of the YCT Rabbinic Advisory Board and is a senior member of International Rabbinic Fellowship, IRF, the Open Orthodox rabbinical organization whose vice president is a female rabbi ordained by Weiss.)

Then, the following day, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new president of YCT, announced that he, too, was resigning from the RCA:

“Yesterday, Rabbi Weiss officially declared his exit from the Rabbinical Council of America. Upon hearing of Rabbi Weiss’s announcement, I asked the leadership of the RCA to publicly address his concerns. They have refused.

“By the end of this week, I plan to officially resign from the Rabbinical Council of America, having served in the past on the Executive Committee and having been a member for nearly 20 years.

“I had been contemplating leaving the RCA for over a year. The RCA’s refusal to admit YCT musmakhim, with close to 100 rabbis serving in the field, almost all of whom are engaged in avodat hakodesh, is reason enough for my decision, but it is only a symptom of a much larger problem. Despite efforts by some members and leaders of the RCA, in recent years the organization has focused on finding ways to exclude rather than include…”

The common denominator of the resignation statements of Weiss, Herzfeld and Lopatin is dishonesty and shifting the blame. These rabbis lead a movement that deviated so far out of field that their actions and disciples were not deemed to be within acceptable boundaries. However, rather than acknowledge this, these three rabbis blame the RCA for its intolerance and narrowness. These rabbis led a movement astray and were thus rejected, yet they blame others for failing to accept them.

Furthermore, taking this matter to the Jewish Week and Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), where Weiss provided interviews about his resignation and gave a juicy story, is dishonorable. Why lambast the RCA to secular media outlets? However, this is nothing new, as Weiss and Herzfeld have previously bashed the RCA and the Rabbanut in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and elsewhere.

It is evident that this break with the RCA was the start of a new denomination. Weiss posted immediately after “resigning” from the RCA last week (despite being out of the RCA for several months already prior, as noted):

Since the founding of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), and some years later, Yeshivat Maharat (YM), I and others have been asked whether we are creating a new movement within Orthodoxy. Movements are generally not announced; they evolve. They are not proclaimed; they emerge, sometimes gradually, other times swiftly. Their growth is usually painstaking, surfacing here and there. While they meet opposition, if they are strong and viable, they coalesce to become a powerful voice. It’s only years later that one can assess whether a movement has taken root.

“But of one matter I am certain: Since the early ‘90s, Orthodoxy has undergone a number of great shifts. Responding to a precipitous move to the right within Modern Orthodoxy, a plethora of institutions and organizations have emerged. These include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Edah, YCT and YM, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). In Israel, too, Beit Morasha, Beit Hillel, Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah and others were founded, and today women are being ordained (receiving semikha) from Yeshivat Maharat as well as Yeshivat Har’el…

“Debate has surfaced over what this reassertion should be called. In the end, names are secondary to the substantive changes that have been put in place. Still, names matter as they are descriptive of what we are, our mission and values, taking into account the changes and challenges of the times…

“With the advent of YCT, YM, the IRF, JOFA, and others, honest and respectful discussion is taking place concerning what terms should be used to describe these new phenomena in Orthodoxy.

“Some suggest the continued use of the term ‘Modern Orthodoxy.’ Modern Orthodoxy is a trademark term. Bearing in mind that it has been abandoned by RIETS and the RCA, a vacuum has been created. Why not fill that vacuum by reclaiming it and infusing it with new ideas and new perspectives while holding on to the term with which people feel comfortable?

“Other, like myself, prefer a new term: ‘Open Orthodoxy.’

“‘Modern’ issues of 40 and 50 years ago are no longer modern. We are, in fact, in the postmodern era, as we face new issues and challenges…

“This is Open Orthodoxy. While insisting on the foundational divinity of Torah and observance of halakha, this Orthodoxy is not rigid. It is open to a wider spectrum.

“In my travels through America, I have found that people – the amcha – have become alienated from such ossified terms as ‘Modern Orthodoxy.’ This term no longer reflects vibrancy; it is dried up. People are looking for something new that speaks more directly to their inner convictions and passions. They are looking for an Orthodoxy that is inclusive, non-judgmental, and open.”

After this announcement and the secession of Weiss, Herzfeld and Lopatin from the RCA, Weiss, Herzfeld and Etan Mintz, a YCT rabbi who leads a Modern Orthodox shul in Maryland, went to Charleston, South Carolina, to show solidarity with the church where a massacre occurred several weeks ago. But being Open Orthodox, these rabbis went much further, as Herzfeld proudly reported:

“We asked if we could attend the bible study that afternoon at 6 p.m. It was the same bible study group at which the 9 were murdered. They said, ‘Of course. Everyone is welcome.’

“As we walked into the social hall of the church, we introduced ourselves as rabbis and we were uplifted to see that two other rabbis, a husband and wife rabbinic team, rabbis Meir and Tara Feldman of Temple Beth El of Great Neck, were also present at the bible study.

“At the beginning of the bible study, the instructor, Reverend Dr. Lawrence Gordon, warmly welcomed us and asked us to stand and introduce ourselves.

“The session was devoted to ‘healing’ and he said it would be ‘footnotes free.’

“Dr. Gordon encouraged an interactive discussion and two themes of the session became the focus of conversation…

“May we all live our faith as purely as members of this church. In these days of darkness, may we all gain strength from each other. May we reunite again, not in sadness, but in joy.”

Weiss, Herzfeld and Mintz, draped in their talleisim in the church, then joined hands with the pastor and church members and led them in this song: “This is the House of the L-rd, I wish the best for you.” It is a new song that Weiss taught the church, Herzfeld reports. Yes, these Open Orthodox rabbis referred to a church as the “House of the L-rd.”

Of course, we agree that a great tragedy happened at the church and that sympathy is in order, but there are theological boundaries that were breached by attending the church’s Bible study class.

Two days later, Rabbi Dov Linzer, the rosh yeshiva at YCT, paskened that one should donate to rebuild churches, following a spate of fires on Southern churches:


“Given the recent horrific attack in Charleston and the terrible burnings of churches that has occurred in the last few days, I encourage all of you to show your support for those who have been attacked, and to act in a way of kiddush shem Shamayim to counteract these terrible hate crimes.

“One way you can do this is by donating money to help in the rebuilding of these churches. While there are poskim who rule otherwise (see Melamed Lihoyil 188:2), a number of recent poskim have dealt with this issue on a halakhic basis and ruled that it is totally permissible and at times even obligatory. This is based on the widely accepted ruling that Christianity is not avoda zara for non-Jews. Thus, helping non-Jews in their permissible worship of G-d can in no way be considered mesayeiah ledvar aveira, a form of aiding transgressive behavior. Some of these teshuvot have pointed out that church buildings are often repurposed as synagogues, and this again points to the non-halakhically problematic status of these buildings. Relatedly, Rav Moshe (YD 1:68) ruled that an architect can draw up the plans for the construction of a church, and that mi’ikar ha’din it is permitted to actually participate in the building of a church (and this is even without the argument that it is not avoda zara for them!).

“There are some halakhic issues when giving to avoda zara directly implicates the giver in the avoda itself (see YD 149:4 and 143), but that is not relevant to this case.

“I am attaching 3 contemporary teshuvot, all thanks to Marc Shapiro, who is the shoel of the teshuva of Rav Meshash, and who make the argument as outlined above.

“I would like to quote in particular from the teshuva of the Mateh Levi, both the question and a section from the beginning and end of the answer…”

Thus, the Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva was machri’a on his own, against normative p’sak, to donate to build churches. Again, the motivation to show sympathy was there, but it went too far, as Open Orthodoxy, rather than seeking the counsel of poskim and gedolei Torah, decided on its own what to do.

Rabbi Adam Mintz, Talmud instructor at Yeshivat Maharat, predicts that before we know it, there will be 100 or more female Open Orthodox rabbis in America, and they will be leading shuls all over the place. Since YCT pays a large chunk of the salaries of its graduates, there is every reason to believe that dozens more Orthodox shuls, especially in smaller cities that only have one Orthodox synagogue, will be taken over by Open Orthodox rabbis. This has already happened in Nashville, New Orleans, Austin and elsewhere, and the trend will continue unless efforts are made to stop it.

Let us not close our eyes and wish the problem away. Real, concrete action is critical.

The time is now. And it is almost too late.



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