Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Truth about YCT

Zev Farber, clearly labeled an Apikores by YCT
Zev Farber is an Apikores, a heretic. This unambiguous statement by YCT Talmud Chair, Rabbi Y’soscher Katz, is a welcome clarification of YCT’s acceptable parameters of Jewish theology.  Zev Farber is an Apikores because of his characterization of our biblical patriarchs as fictional – never having existed.)

I for one was very gratified to hear one of YCT’s top faculty members say this. It similar to an earlier statement made by YCT President, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. How to deal with heretics in our midst is where I might differ with YCT. But at least the theology itself is clear.

For me at least, that makes YCT’s theology - Orthodox. If one believes in that theology and is observant, they are Orthodox. However, I still have major issues with some of the things YCT does, has said, or supported. (For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.)

I believe that Rabbi Katz is a Yorei Shomayim - a God fearing Jew. This is what I got from an interview with him by Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein on his radio show ‘Headlines’.

And yet, he says things which are problematic. That he does so L’Shma (which I believe to be the case) does not mean that his approach is OK. The fact is much of what he says and advocates is not accepted at all by mainstream Orthodoxy. 

But it helps to understand what his rationale is for doing things the way he does. There is one word for it. Kiruv. That’s right. The sole purpose of YCT is Kiruv. Reaching out to a segment of Jewry that would otherwise reject observance.

These are bright, educated Jews that have little to no religious background but may be drawn to the beauty of an observant lifestyle. And yet they have been heavily influenced by the culture, morals, and ethics of our time. Which in many cases contradicts some of the things written in the Torah (and its interpretation by rabbis throughout the generations).

These Jews cannot reconcile their values with those of the Torah. For them issues like egalitarianism or gay rights are seen as positive values and the Torah’s condemnation of them is seen as archaic, unethical, unfair, and immoral.  They might also value modern scholarship of the bible that rejects  the belief in a ‘Single Author’ in favor of multiple authors at different times. Rabbi Katz maintains that if we do not validate their feelings in some way, they will be lost. Since 90% of Jewry is not observant, we need to make some changes in the way we reach out to them. It’s hard to argue with that.

Where I part company with him is in how we do that. Using shock value to get their attention may work. Like when he said in a Facebook post that a conversation about the events at Sinai by the ‘4 sons’ in the Hagadah never happened. That he clarified it by saying that the conversation never happened; that the 4 sons are mythical; but that the events actually did - can still lead to a misunderstanding that implies the events themselves never happened. 

Another example which is dwelt upon in that interview is in how he says we should approach gay rights. First he qualifies his approach by considering it appropriate to speak with two faces. One to the outside world. And one to ourselves .

When speaking to those of us that are believers and practitioners of Halacha, we are clear about the forbidden nature of homosexual relations. It is in the Torah and there is no question about that. But when speaking in public to non Jews or secular Jews, we put a positive spin on it by approving of things like gay marriage. What  we should be saying, he says, is that opposition to gay rights is a denial of human rights.

This, he continues, is not contradictory to the Torah because it is not advocating or approving forbidden homosexual acts. All it does is approve formalizing in secular ways the companionship between members of the same sex.

In other words we are just looking at the reality of our world today and expressing a way to treat gay people humanely. Rabbi Katz adds that of course we would never speak that way to religious Jews. Nor would he perform a gay marriage himself. He was once asked to do that by a gay couple. He told them he would not do it because it there is no such thing as a gay marriage in Halacha.

The problem with an attitude like this is that it is extremely misleading. A prominent rabbi telling the secular world that Judaism supports gay marriage implies that we accept all facets of it – including the forbidden act itself. That he might explain it as supporting only formally legalizing companionship and not endorsing the actual homosexual act is not what people hear. 

We cannot reach out to Jews by leaving the false impression that modern ethics and morals trump what the Torah clearly says. It is dishonest. One must tell the truth about what the Torah says. We can’t be two faced. We can’t fudge it. Observance based on a lie is not observance at all.  It would be like keeping Kosher for health reasons.  If you don’t eat a cheeseburger because you don’t think it’s healthy, you have not observed Kashrus.

Telling one group of people what they want to hear while telling another group of people what they want to hear is doublespeak and not an ethical way to reach out to people.

Still, I lament the fact that the left wing of Orthodoxy has gone to lengths that have caused it to be rejected as legitimate by virtually all of mainstream Orthodoxy in America. We do need to do what Rabbi Katz says and reach out to this type of Jew. But you can’t do that by rejecting traditional values that have been accepted for centuries, just because they don’t fit the times. Nor should it be done by fudging the truth about Halacha.

How sad it is that YCT Musmachim cannot be accepted. YCT does an excellent job in actually training their students how to minister to their congregations. I understand that their practical rabbinics courses are superb! Something that all Semicha programs would do well to emulate.
But YCT has crossed too many lines.  

I only wish Rabbi Lopatin would have done what I thought he would when he accepted his position as YCT president. To pull back on the reins of its leftward move; and even pull it back a bit the right. But he has done the opposite – which makes its acceptability by mainstream Orthodoxy less likely than ever.