Sunday, March 23, 2008

Going Too Far – Again!

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is the associate Dean for Student Life at The Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She received her ordination from The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Reconstructionist theology - developed by its founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan - is unique among the denominations of Judaism. It is the only denomination whose concept about God is a 2nd cousin to atheism.

Rabbi Kaplan believed that God is not personal and is merely the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled. Though his views have been subject to various interpretations, "Classical" Reconstructionist Jews reject traditional forms of theism. This is their mainstream view. And this is Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld’s denomination, the one that gave her ‘Semicha’.

I don’t think there can be any doubt about her identification with this movement. Even in the event that she is one of the few who interpret Rabbi Kaplan’s theology as a form of Deism - there is little doubt about her association with this most unusual group whose views are mostly akin to atheism.

One can - indeed one must - ask how Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld could be invited in any capacity by an Orthodox Yeshiva to address a group of Jews about prayer and religious leadership. Yet this is precisely what has happened. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) had a Yom Iyun - a day devoted to the study of prayer and Jewish leadership. And they invited the participation of The Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, a self described transdenominational institution. And one of their associate deans, Reconstructionist Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld spoke as did her boss, Rabbi Arthur Green, Dean of Hebrew College. Rabbi Green is also a former dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1987 to 1993).

Even though I disagree with the idea of joint participation with non Orthodox movements I can understand their reasons for doing so. The idea is inclusion. The thinking is that as long as there is nothing said that contradicts Halacha, it is acceptable - even laudable - to have such gatherings in an effort to include all Jews. These movements and their members are therefore to be considered under the umbrella of Klal Yisroel. They thereby hope to influence its members by their tolerance to become more interested in Orthodoxy.

I understand it but I disagree with it. I agree instead with every single Gadol of the previous generation, including both Rabbis Joseph B. and Aaron Soloveichik. They strongly objected and protested against participating with heterodox movements. Sharing the same podium in a religious context even under very carefully crafted circumstances that do not allow discussions of non Orthodox views nevertheless legitimizes these movements. How can it not?! One cannot have leaders of ‘transdenominational movements’ speaking about prayer and Jewish leadership in the context of the rabbinate, which is what YCT is all about. By default this grants them legitimacy.

But in this case what YCT did is far worse, in my view.

They not only invited participation of heterodox groups, but invited rabbis - authority figures - that are very likely near atheists to address the participants! What possible justification can there be for that - even if they don’t mention that little detail about themselves?

How can a Talmid Chacahm like YCT Rosh Hayeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer, condone it let alone participate? He spoke following Rabbi Green! And then there was a panel discussion on the subject of prayer which included participation by Rabbi Green, Rabbi David Silber, founder and dean of Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, and Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder and Dean of YCT.

Can there be any clearer indication that YCT has lost its way? I don’t think so. This goes way too far. Even further than inviting a group of distinguished Catholic Cardinals to learn Gemarah and discuss theology one on one with their students in their Beis Hamedrash a while back.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has recently decided not to recognize YCT ordinations. That has been seen as a very controversial move which probably did not sit well with some of the more liberal members of the RCA. But in light of this type of event, I don’t blame the RCA one bit.

And that’s really too bad. Because in theory I have no objection to a Yeshiva whose primary purpose is to ordain Rabbis who can serve Modern Orthodoxy even in its most liberal incarnations. With their strong emphasis on pastoral care and professional development which offers programs spanning the entire four year curriculum it can only add to the knowledge and abilities of their students.

YCT has leading psychiatric professionals teaching future rabbis practical rabbinical applications of their expertise. The curriculum includes clinical experience and mentored field work. They train their students how to deal with subjects like: religious doubt; substance abuse, marital and family problems, sexual function and dysfunction, homosexuality, and many other subjects. All good. These are areas where all rabbis should have formal training.

That there is a Yeshiva producing rabbis with this kind of training is a good thing. But veering in the direction they have makes it all an exercise in futility. If you do not have recognition by your peers, then your legitimacy as an Orthodox rabbi is questionable. And there should be little doubt about the reasons the RCA has rejected them. And that’s too bad.