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“The divisions and politics of the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox world are important – but only to a point”

As a rabbi, I spend most of my time reading writing, talking, discussing and arguing about Jewish things. There is a lot to argue about, a lot to talk about. From our perspective, these issues can seem not just important, but overwhelming, more important than anything else could possibly be. The divisions and politics of the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox world are important – but only to a point. The question of the differences between Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, between this group and that group, this rabbi’s statement and that rabbi’s counter statement – these are all important issues. But, for too many of us, for me, personally, they are given far more prominence than could possibly be justified.

Rabbi Shaul Robinson, “Priorities: Inside the Tent and Outside“, Lincoln Square Synagogue Blog (11 November 2013).

“Rabbi Avi Weiss can be a bit of a controversial figure that very few people, I think, take seriously…”

Rabbi Avi Weiss can be a bit of a controversial figure that very few people, I think, take seriously, for two major reasons, that I think may be related.

The first is by reputation. He’s not known for being a למדן – he’s not known for being a learner; not known for being a תלמיד חכם, which I find very unfortunate. Having heard him numerous times – my grandparents go to his synagogue in Riverdale often – and other interactions, I can tell you that Rabbi Weiss is a lot more knowledgeable and a lot smarter than just about everyone gives him credit for. It might not come across because he might act like a Carlebachian hippie, but there’s a great deal of substance under there that’s very easy to overlook.

The other issue that I think comes up is that leads people to make either irresponsible or just flat-out wrong assessments is they focus too much on conclusions; by which I mean What is the conclusion? What is the statement that Rabbi Weiss says?  If you agree with it, you agree with what he’s trying to accomplish: “Oh, how great, how courageous he is”.  And if you’re predisposed to not liking what he says: “The guy’s a כופר – he’s a heretic, and he’s not really Orthodox”.  And neither one of these responses addresses the issue of method; meaning, you could be right, but for wrong reasons,  you could also be right for wrong reasons.  But no one actually addresses the arguments on their merits. People get so worked up in the emotional reaction of “Do we like what he says or do we dislike what he says?”  And I think that, too, is unfortunate, because I think there is a system here and I think it’s worth unpacking.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, “Halakhic Process 25: Open Orthodoxy“, Yutopia Podcast #119 (27 October 2013).

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“Just like the idea of Chovevei has grown out of a specific need, the mission of YCT struck a cord with a unique set of students”

Just like the idea of Chovevei has grown out of a specific need, the mission of YCT struck a cord with a unique set of students. The students applying to our rabbinical school feel a calling to serve. They are caring and learned, each a leader in his own way. They are our centerpiece, wishing to change the very face of the Jewish community and world. So refreshing is YCT’s approach that many of our trainees would not be in any rabbinical school were it not for Chovevei.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, “A Message from Our Founder and President,” Fourth Annual Gala (New York: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2007), 13.

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YCT has “fanatically adhered to the Maimonidean rule forbidding responding negatively toward others”

YCT has, to date, consistently and, perhaps, fanatically adhered to the Maimonidean rule forbidding responding negatively toward others. YCT’s curriculum is not only a course of professional study; the quality, quantity, subject selection, and orientations of its instructors provide the discerning reader with a quantifiable and unified ideological self-definition of the kind of Orthodox Judaism that it fosters and offers. As a self-consciously modern (YCT prefers the adjective “Open”) Orthodox Yeshiva, it requires commitment to Jewish law in both theory and practice as a pre-condition for acceptance as a student. But, as an Open Orthodox institution, YCT is open to the insights of non-Orthodox rabbis who can make what it believes to be serious contributions. Academic Talmud is taught by an observant Orthodox rabbi who happens also to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, revealing an openness that violates no rule in the classical canon but does deviate from the insular political discipline demanded by Haredi religion. Critical methodology actually empowers the student with the tools to make an autonomous reading of the canon. Since, in Haredi religion, the communal rabbi is authorized only to echo the views of the official “rabbonim and poskim” but not to render an autonomous opinion, however reasoned or defensible within the canons of talmudic hermeneutics, the democratization of independent learning is fraught with danger and is, therefore, off-limits to all but the Haredi gedolim elite. For this reason, academic Talmud undermines “the sanctity of Torah,” precisely because it affords its practitioners the power to render defensible readings and judgments – the original sense of “criticism” – of the canon with unfettered autonomy. Furthermore, Haredi rabbis are, by habit, conditioning, and education, disinclined to speak to the concerns of Conservative synagogues. By founding an institution that trains virtuosi who do not regard the Haredi elite as the ultimate source of rabbinic authority, YCT cannot be deemed to be legitimate to the Haredi elite.

Rabbi Alan J. Yuter, “The Two Contemporary Varieties of Orthodox Judaism,” in Mishpetei Shalom: A Jubilee Volume In Honor of Rabbi Saul (Shalom) Berman, ed. Rabbi Yamin Levy (New York: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2010), 583-585.