Thursday, December 18, 2008

Is YCT Orthodox?

The question that is currently being hotly debated on an e-mail list I belong to is whether Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) is considered Orthodox. I’m sorry to report that there are people whose opinion I respect that do not think it is.

I am in profound disagreement with them. Let me be clear. In my view Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is an Orthodox institution. Period. They are clearly observant of Halacha. Their fundamental beliefs are consistent with Orthodox requirements and are not in any way Heresy. There is absolutely no question in my mind about that.

Unfortunately some people think that in order to be an Orthodox Jew there must be additional Hashkafic requirements. But if that were true then each segment of Orthodoxy would consider every other one non Orthodox. So for example the Lithuanian style rabbinic leaders might consider Chasidim to be non Orthodox because of certain philosophical Chasidic concepts. Chasidim might - on the other hand - reject Lithuanian style Yeshivaleit because they do not accept certain Chumros that Chasidim consider Halacha. Obviously that is not the case. Nor should it be.

I have been very critical of YCT in the past. And most of those criticisms remain. But they are criticisms of Hashkafa, not of Halacha or Emunah. They are criticisms having to do with a slippery slope argument. There are also areas where they have departed from tradition such as their approach to interaction with heterodox movements and clergy of other faiths. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was firmly opposed to these types of activities.

YCT whose founders were students of the Rav - Rabbi Soloveithik - conceded they have departed from the views of the mentor. But are they violating Halacha by doing so? No. They believe that the Rav may have modified his views in today’s world. I personally tend to doubt that. But they have a right to believe he would have.

But even if he wouldn’t have, I do not see this as violating Psak Halacha. But even if would - does that make them any less Orthodox than those of other Hashkafos who reject the Psak of their Gadol? If for example a Chasidic woman from Satmar does not cover her wig with an additional covering or wears seamless stockings - is she no longer Orthodox?

So while I believe YCT is wrong on certain issues I still believe they are Orthodox. I also believe their motives are pure - even as I think they have been unduly influenced by certain winds of social change in our culture.

On can differ with an institution on policy – even strongly as I do. But we should not be too quick to condemn are brethren for doing what they believe is the right thing if they are not heretical and do not violate Halacha.

The fact is YCT has provided a needed service for the Orthodox world. They are training people for practical rabbinics. It is a rabbinical college and its purpose is graduating American trained rabbis. That is their exclusive mission.

There are rabbinic skills being taught there which are not as focused upon by other Yeshivos - even in those like Yeshiva University. In fact - if I am not mistaken - I recall an interview where YU president Richard Joel all but admitted that and said that he has tried to improve YU’s rabbinic ordination courses – the Semicha program - along those lines.

Additionally YU, while having a great Semicha program does not exclusively produce practicing rabbis. Many graduates do not go into the rabbinate but choose a more financially rewarding career instead.

YCT is filling a void. There is a whole left wing of Orthodoxy which needs that kind of leadership. They could easily gravitate to the Conservative movement without it. Here is how a poster on that list I spoke of earlier put it:

Whether or not we like it, there is in real life a continuum between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, with a good number of people in the middle who could go either way. By holding some of that middle ground for Orthodoxy - albeit left-wing Orthodoxy - YCT and its rabbis and affiliates are creating a comfortable space within Orthodoxy for people who would otherwise opt for Conservative.

For example: I think it is quite hard to justify halachically the widespread practice in some sectors of MO of married women going completely bareheaded. But I would rather that such women - bareheaded and wearing jeans and sleeveless tops, if necessary - have an O community in which they feel comfortable and accepted, than that they feel that O as a whole as "moved to the right" and rejected them.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

So the bottom line is that even though I am strong supporter of YU and would prefer that YCT change its troubling policies, I nonetheless understand where they are coming from and see that there is a void that they fill.

To write them out of Orthodoxy at this point would be as wrong as writing any other segment out. No matter what their particular problem is - as long as they do not accept heretical beliefs and follow Halacha they are Orthodox.