The Young Israel Disenfranchisement Episode and Other Misimpressions

Last week, in an unprecedented move, Young Israel of Toco Hills, an Atlanta congregation, announced that it was disaffiliating with National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) and was changing its name to “Kehillat Ohr Hatorah,” dropping the Young Israel identifier and severing all connections with the Young Israel synagogue organization.

As reported by Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) writer Ben Sales:

“After deliberation and through an open and inclusive process, our members have decided to no longer affiliate with the National Council of Young Israel due to our organizations not being a strong fit for one another,” the statement by Rabbi Adam Starr and synagogue president Marc Sokol said.

“Three months ago, the National Council of Young Israel issued a statement defending a political deal with the Israeli far right orchestrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Critics of the deal said it legitimized a fringe extremist group.

“Starr protested the statement at the time and one of his congregants, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, quit the synagogue in protest of the National Council. The Atlanta synagogue was one of 22 Young Israels to sign a statement objecting to the National Council’s position.

“The National Council later clarified that the statement did not necessarily speak for all members.

“The National Council has been vocally supportive of the Israeli right and President Donald Trump. Its gala dinner this year featured Republican leaders as keynote speakers, as well as vocal Trump supporters. A statement Wednesday from the organization condemned Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for threatening to withdraw aid from Israel if it annexes West Bank settlements.

“Starr told JTA this year that he did not think the National Council should be opining on hot-button political issues.

“I would have liked an apology for speaking on our behalf, with divisive issues that are not representative,” Starr told JTA in March. “My approach is not about whether it’s right wing or left wing. A synagogue organization should not be making deeply divisive political statements on our behalf.”

One comes away with the impression that the now former Young Israel of Toco Hills (YITH) is a normative Orthodox shul that simply wants to be apolitical, and that National Council of Young Israel is simply too vocal in its political opinions for R. Starr & Co.

Let’s go a bit deeper, as there is more than meets the eye.

  1. Starr began his tenure at YITH after an eight-year stint at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where he served under R. Avi Weiss. During his time at YITH, Starr took some quite controversial positions.

Three years ago, the OU convened a panel of roshei yeshiva and rabbonim from Yeshiva University, along with Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz of the Beis Din of Chicago Rabbinical Council, to consider and then issue a position paper on the issue of female clergy. The panel responded in January of 2017 with a 17-page analysis, which concluded, among other things:

“(A) woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position. This restriction applies both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis – even when not accompanied by a rabbinic-type title. The spectrum of functions appropriately considered as the role of clergy can be identified by duties generally expected from, and often reserved for, a synagogue rabbi. These common functions include, but are not limited to: the ongoing practice of ruling on a full-range of halakhic matters, officiating at religiously significant life-cycle events, (e.g. brit milah, baby naming, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, weddings and funerals), the regular practice of delivering sermons from the pulpit during services, presiding over or ‘leading services’ at a minyan and formally serving as the synagogue’s primary religious mentor, teacher, and spiritual guide.”

The rabbinic panel, which included Rav Hershel Schachter, carefully presented the rationale for its decision, with a great sense of halachic gravitas and authority, and addressed the various sides of each factoring argument, providing 37 extensive footnotes of mekoros and further elucidation. The document was written in a very user-friendly style, but its points were clearly established and substantiated. Although several major poskim had already ruled that women cannot serve as clergy, the OU rabbinic panel was unique in terms of its very lengthy and comprehensive treatment of the issue, as well as the broad spectrum of rabbonim who comprised the panel. Short of a dissenting ruling by a large assembly of gedolei hador, the OU panel clearly issued the final word and closed the book on the topic.

In a surprising challenge published in Jewish Link on February 14, 2017, Rabbis Nathaniel Helfgot, Yosef Adler, Chaim Marder, Adam Mintz and Adam Starr issued a dissent and sought to at least partially discredit the OU panel’s ruling, arguing that the ruling did not consider all sides of the issues and was written too summarily, that the panel did not include a broader (read: more liberal) segment of the rabbinate, that it failed to engage in fact-finding and seek out men and women involved with female clergy for their input, and that by convening the panel, the OU was interfering with the independent halachic decisions of local rabbis.

The dissent of the above five rabbis boiled down to non-halachic buffering and reflected a misunderstanding of the halachic process.

Two weeks before Pesach of this year, YITH excitedly posted on social media about events occurring that week at YITH, including:

Tomorrow morning we we (sic) will celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of —— —— as she reads from 3 sifrei Torah at a special women’s Torah reading and gives a dvar Torah.”

In the same post, YITH also proudly published photos of a congregational bris that Erev Shabbos – in which women were serving as sandek, sitting on Kisei Shel Eliyohu and reciting the brachos and/or krias sheim from atop the bimah (!). This prompted the Igud HaRabbonim to issue a public p’sak on May 3, in which the words of the Rama (Yoreh Deah 265:11) forbidding such practice were affirmed, and in which YITH (not mentioned by name) was harshly condemned:

“No Jewish community nor individual has the right to nullify an ancient Jewish custom out of fear of an ill wind sweeping through the minds of ‘modernized’ members of a synagogue who irresponsibly proclaim that a Jewish custom of three thousand years simply does not appeal to them.”

Following the shooting at Cong. Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, YITH joined with Congregation Beit Haverim, an “alternative lifestyles”-to’eivah Reconstructionist temple, for an outdoor kumzitz of sorts, led by the clergy of both congregations, featuring “singing and swaying,” responsive readings and a personal greeting session. It is shocking that an Orthodox shul would take part in such an event.

The previous week, YITH hosted R. Shai Held as its scholar-in-residence. Held is a JTS (Conservative movement) graduate, who heads Mechon Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth, and Jewish Study. Mechon Hadar is nondenominational and pluralistic. Held is not an Orthodox rabbi, but YITH feted and learned from him.

We now get the full picture. A congregation whose affiliation is within the (Modern) Orthodox mainstream but whose practices are radical and on the edge. YITH, like the other 21 dissenting Young Israel shuls, objected to NCYI’s political positions – something these shuls had the full right to do, irrespective of which party was correct – but the issues that divided YITH from NCYI on a broader scale reflected a gaping chasm between YITH and normative Orthodoxy. YITH’s explanation that it was seceding from NCYI because the two parties were “not a strong fit for one another” was a loaded statement, for there was much, much more than Israeli politics that divided the two entities. (Readers must note that the vast majority of Young Israel shuls did not sign the letter of objection, and that none of the Young Israel shuls that did sign the letter, except YITH, disaffiliated with NCYI over the political issue.)

What does this all have to do with us? I think we can rightfully presume that Yated readers do not daven at YITH, and certainly would not be “a strong fit” there. The lesson here is nuanced, but important.

We tend to rely on people based on their affiliations and identifiers. To be overly general, if someone looks very “rabbinic” and comes from the right yeshiva and neighborhood, he is often considered wholly reliable. On the other hand, the clean-shaven guy in a light suit, who perhaps does not even wear a hat, might be looked upon as not one of “ours”; his opinions would probably be taken with great caution. All the more so with mosdos: If a place looks or sounds “very frum,” we perhaps tend rely on it, no questions asked.

This is, of course, not the proper derech. Not only should we not judge by externals, but people and institutions whose identifiers are “good” can take us by surprise. This is certainly true in the world of kashrus, in which a handful of the most heimishe-sounding hechsheirim are anything but reliable, as legitimate kashrus professionals, including the many great heimishe ones, can attest. (I once even encountered a “rav hamachshir” whose letterhead/kashrus certificate looked like that of a rosh yeshiva or a chassidishe rebbe, but this person was in reality a Conservative clergyman who certified products that were 100% treif.)

In similar vein, the rabbi of a mainstream shul in Northern California recently joined with a “Maharat” (female clergy) to establish a new kashrus organization. This rabbi has normative Orthodox credentials from A to Z – nothing controversial – but look at what he is now doing. And in Eretz Yisroel, there are people such as Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, who learned at Yeshivas Kol Torah, and Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, who learned at Gateshead – both of whom look like traditional roshei yeshiva and were once widely-respected rabbonim, but who are now involved with the ordination of women, the support of toeivah movements, and gross distortion of Torah and rejection of its traditions on multiple levels. Left-fringe “Orthodox” groups look to Cardozo as an hashkafic sage and to Sperber as a great posek. Hashem yeracheim.

Cardozo has stated that certain halachos should be nullified and that he no longer observes all of the mitzvos. For example, regarding the issur of stam yeinom, non-kosher wine, Cardozo writes:

“It was once of value but today is more or less meaningless… This law (should) be abolished… I, myself, will only drink wine made by Jews because I feel gratified when it is ‘consecrated’ by my fellow Jews for use during kiddush or havdalah, and also because I want to help Israel’s economy. But I will surely drink that wine if the bottle has been moved by fine non-Jews.”

And regarding tefillah, Cardozo writes:

“I am not a ‘Shulchan Aruch Yid,’ someone who carefully follows every detail of the celebrated codex of Halacha… The Shulchan Aruch and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah were meant for the general population, but not for people like me; not because I am better, but because I am different.

“So, I also do not always pray Mincha and Maariv. Depends on what my religious condition is… And I change parts of the Shacharit prayers, depending on how I feel about them, although I try to keep to the overall structure.”

As the Yated goes to print, Cardozo issued what is perhaps his most damaging article yet. In a June 16 Times of Israel article titled “The Jewish Rejection of Christianity’s Authenticity,” Cardozo states:

“It is because of my awareness that any religious belief can be sold that I have become so critical of mainstream Orthodox Judaism and skeptical about the way I promulgate my own Judaism, in the way I see it. Who says it’s correct?”

Cardozo appears to then entertain, from a subjective perspective, the validity of Christianity. Mind you, Cardozo is revered as a major religious philosopher by some in left-fringe “Orthodoxy,” no doubt due to his past affiliations and claims to be an Orthodox rabbi.

In addition to traveling the globe to ordain women as “Orthodox” rabbis, and serving as halachic advisor to “partnership minyanim” – prayer groups in which men and women take turns leading parts of the davening and laining the Torah – Sperber served as chancellor of a non-Orthodox seminary in Canada, the now-defunct Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School of Toronto. Sperber has opined that an “Orthodox” form of toeivah marriage is possible; as reported in the Haaretz newspaper, Sperber remarked, “The problem is with the word ‘marriage’. Perhaps they can call it something else like a ‘partnership.’”

Again, Sperber and Cardozo are treated as great rabbinic leaders in the left-fringe “Orthodox” movement.

There is a website run by a black-hatted, bearded man in a frum Northeast community whose goal is the dissemination of the Documentary Hypothesis – the denial of Torah MiSinai, propounded by German Bible critics in the 19th century. This website features articles by non-Orthodox and pseudo-Orthodox writers, rejecting Torah MiSinai and the words of Chazal.

As reported last year in the Yated, R. David Bigman, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, a leftwing (“progressive”) Israeli hesder yeshiva, wrote a series of articles for the above website in which he expressed views that are quite inconsistent with ikkarei ha’emunah. In an article titled “Reclaiming the Multi-Genre Perspective,” Bigman argues that the Torah was not dictated by Hashem to Moshe. Based on Biblical Criticism and Bigman’s reading of the Chumash, he professes that “there is no other option but to let go of the narrative of the dictation… ‘The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.’ We can understand this statement as merely a comment on the literary style of our Torah, but it can also be understood in a broader and more fundamental way.” In other words, according to Bigman, as explained further in his article, the language of the Torah was written by men, not by Hakadosh Boruch Hu and told to Moshe Rabbeinu. According to the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:8), this is outright kefirah.

In another article on the same website, titled “Refracting History through the Spiritual Experience of the Present,” Bigman argues that one need not accept the Torah’s narrative of Yetzias Mitzrayim as historical fact. And in an article on that website titled “Moderating the Stark Truth of the Written Torah,” Bigman maintains that Chazal fabricated the drashos and halachos of Torah Shebaal Peh in order to make the mitzvos of the Torah more palatable. Denying the MiSinai quality of Torah Shebaal Peh is categorized by the Rambam as kefirah (Hilchos Teshuvah, ibid., and introduction to Peirush HaMishnayos). Left-fringe “Orthodox” groups consider Bigman to be a leading theologian. Bigman previously learned under one of gedolei roshei yeshiva from Lita. So much for that…

R. Herzl Hefter likewise learned under some of the greatest roshei yeshiva of the previous generation. Hefter now heads a co-ed “progressive semicha program” in Yerushalayim, and he dabbles in kefirah, all while presenting himself as a Torah authority and as an expert in chassidus. Hefter (mis)uses quotes from Medrashim, Kabbolah and chassidishe seforim as the basis to concoct wild heresies, apparently oblivious to the fact that Chazal and the chassidishe rebbes to whom he attributes his theories would roll over in their graves upon reading such kefirah. For example, in one article, Hefter cites (or, put bluntly, hijacks) a teaching from the Zohar about the Torah’s inner depth, a statement from Rav Tzadok regarding the feelings for Hashem that reside in one’s inner heart, and a quote from Medrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah (5:2) that Hakadosh Boruch Hu is the heart of Klal Yisroel, as Hefter waywardly extrapolates and makes a major leap out of bounds, writing:

“(W)e need to refine our understanding of Divine revelationThe significance of the biblical narrative according to this tradition rests not in its historical accuracy, but in the underlying spiritual content… It is possible, then, to accept that the Torah in its current form is the product of historical circumstance and a prolonged editorial process while simultaneously stubbornly asserting the religious belief that it nonetheless enshrouds Divine revelation.”

Hefter contends, based on a mind-blowing twisting of heilige mekoros about emunah and the profundity of Torah, that Hashem did not necessarily speak to Moshe in a literal sense, but that the entirety of Torah was a non-historical development based upon Hashem placing His existence and truth in man’s heart: “G-d stirs our hearts and He stirs in our hearts; that is the revelation. The rest is interpretation.”

This concept, which is extremely close if not identical to the Conservative movement’s notion of a divinely-inspired Torah that was not orally communicated to Moshe at Sinai (and which is hence not literally binding and is subject to evolving revelation/modification), was boldly rejected and rebutted by Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch in his first comment on Sefer Vayikra:

“Scripture thus refutes those who would misrepresent and distort G-d’s revelation to Moshe, as though it were a revelation arising from within Moshe’s own heart; as though it were comparable to artificially induced ecstatic states; as though it were merely the inspiration of man’s spirit, which takes place within man; as though ‘the Jewish religion’ were like all other religious phenomena in the world – it, too, being merely a phase in the development of the human spirit.

“…For the word that is heard is not produced inside the listener; he contributes nothing to its creation – so G-d’s Word to Moshe was His Word alone. It did not derive from within Moshe but came to him from without, calling him, interrupting and rousing him from his own thoughts, so that he would concentrate on listening to what G-d wished to say to him.

“This call, which came before G-d spoke to Moshe, precludes the idea that His Word was preceded by some process taking place within Moshe… The Word came to him from without as a purely historical event – something that simply happened to him.”

Rav Hirsch quite clearly affirmed that the suggestion that the Torah emerged from a divine inspiration of sorts from within man’s heart is unacceptable. Such a suggestion, which allows for the denial of the Torah’s historicity and literalness, was central to some of the non-Orthodox theologies that Rav Hirsch battled.

Rav Hirsch wrote his holy peirushim and polemics in response to Reform clergy. It is sad that these same battles now need to be waged against self-identified Orthodox rabbis, some of whom learned at the feet of gedolim, but who now have parted sharply from their mentors’ ways.

We live in times in which nothing can be taken for granted. Those with the best apparent Torah credentials occasionally turn out to be downright kofrim, while those who might not appear to be the spitting image of Torah warriors are at times the most ardent and committed defenders of uncompromised Torah truth and observance.

With the exception of Cardozo, the above-mentioned pseudo-Orthodox leaders maintain full technical observance of halacha. They are “Orthoprax”, meaning that they have in reality forfeited their claim to represent Torah Judaism as a result of their wayward ideologies, yet they assert that they are Orthodox, based on their conduct. (Even Cardozo claims to still be Orthodox.) How did this come about? How did people who learned at the feet of gedolei Torah fall so far down and forsake their rabbeim’s teachings?

On the posuk of “And you shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart” (Devorim 6:5), Rashi invokes the interpretation of the Sifri: “’With all your heart’ – (implying) that your heart not be in disagreement with Hashem.” This means that one must espouse and embrace the Torah’s values. It is not enough to be in technical compliance with halacha; one must love and cherish the attitudes and positions of the Torah as Hakadosh Boruch Hu and the baalei hamesorah presented them.

Someone who has an agenda that differs with the ruach of the Torah and with our mesorah, as technically compliant with halacha as one might think his agenda is, violates the words of the above-cited Sifri. One whose heart is not with Hashem, but who identifies with a motive or agenda that is at odds with the Torah’s attitudes, even if it does not violate halacha, soon finds himself in a tailspin, as he exits the lofty abode of the Shechinah and enters the murky and impure waters of confusion and distortion.

We must daven for clarity and protection, exercise due caution and never make assumptions.

Hashem yo’er eineinu.