Monday, August 08, 2016

The YCT-OO Conundrum

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah President, Rabbi Asher Lopatin
It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. These words spoken by Winston Churchill about Russia is how I feel about Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). My issues with this Yeshiva and it’s Hashkafa of Open Orthodoxy (OO) remain troubling.

YCT head, Rabbi Asher Lopatin has not really done anything to change that. There is a fascinating interview with him on Dovid Lichtenstein’s radio show, Headlines. On the one hand I was gratified to hear him reaffirm YCT’s belief in the fundamental principles of Judaism. The belief that the events at Sinai actually happened is not negotiable, he said. 

He clearly rejected the position of YCT ordainee, Rabbi Zev Farber challenging his belief that lack of evidence about the people and events in the Torah means that they didn’t really exist. And asked the same question of Rabbi Farber that I would: Just because there has been no evidence found of the exodus from Egypt, does not mean it did not happen. Rabbi Lopatin also clearly stated that Rabbi Farber plays no role in his Yeshiva whatsoever.

For me, lack of belief in the fundamentals of Judaism is the ‘deal breaker’ in terms of considering OO legitimate. While there are still troubling aspects of this movement, I would not yet be ready to exclude the from the tent.

(The biggest problem of OO being their support for ordaining women as rabbis. I am strongly opposed to that for a variety of reasons I have mentioned before but are beyond the scope of this post. But I don’t think that disqualifies them as Orthodox, which for me means that you maintain our traditional belief system and are Shomer Mitzvos.)

But right after Rabbi Lopatin affirmed his (and YCT’s) commitment to belief in the fundamentals, he was challenged by a quote from YCT’s Talmud Chair, Rabbi Y’soscher Katz. Who in an April 3, 2015 Facebook post said* that the Exodus (Yitzias Mitzraim) is fictional as are the individuals mentioned in the Torah. The Torah narrative is a record of a conversation between God and fictionalized characters. The lack of any scientific and archaeological evidence makes it impossible to believe in the historicity of the entire Torah.

This is a man that is an integral part of the YCT faculty and yet he denies that Moshe, and everyone else in the Torah ever existed. Rabbi Lopatin dances around the answer in the most unsatisfying way, talking about ‘interprtation and midrashim’ and trying to re-define what fiction actually means. If something is fictional it doesn’t mean it isn’t true, he said. Really?  (How Clintonesque!)

He tried to spin Rabbi Katz’s words into meaning that since there is no evidence, let us instead dwell on the substance and truth of God’s message. Well, of course the message is the most important part of the Torah. But he did not really explain how Rabbi Katz can actually make such a definitive statement and at the same time say believe that you believe the narrative is factual and actually did happen.

It’s true that the Torah is not a historical document. But the parts of the Torah that speak about events and people cannot be seen as fictional. Tolerating and even praising (as Rabbi Lopatin did) a faculty member as important as the Talmud Chair of a Yeshiva who says that the Torah is a work of fiction flies in the face of his earlier claim that the Torah narrative is NOT fictional and it is not what YCT teaches. You can’t have it both ways, R’ Asher.

So as much as I would like to see legitimacy granted to YCT - I don’t see how such an ambiguity can allow for it.

Rabbi Lopatin’s explanation about supporting gay marriage was a little more palatable. He said that the Torah’s admonition in Sefer Bereishis (2:18) of ‘Lo Tov Hayos HaAdam Levado’ (It is not good for man to live alone) means that companionship is very important and it is better to live with someone else than to live alone. If not a member of the opposite sex, then a member of the same sex.

But he clearly stated that Mishkav Zechor (male to male anal sex) is forbidden by Torah law. And that was not what he was endorsing. He was endorsing companionship. He also clearly stated that marriage in the Halachic sense is impossible. That there is no Chupa and Kiddushin for same sex marriage.

What he meant then is a secular marriage. I disagree with him  - again - for reasons I have discussed in the past but are beyond the scope of this post . But his explanation shows he does not advocate violating a clear Torah prohibition. All he is doing is accepting people for who they are and letting them live the way they choose – as life companions… while clearly as a matter of Halacha - rejecting the forbidden sexual component.

Rabbi Loptin was again challenged by others associated with YCT who actually dealt with Mishkav Zechor saying that it is permitted in our day. Again, in my view Rabbi Lopatin tried to spin those statements in ways that are compatible with Halacha. But his explanation was completely unsatisfactory stretching it into the realm of fiction.

So at the end of the day, I remain skeptical about YCT and its Hashkafa of OO. There is just too much confusion about what they consider acceptable belief and behavior. At the same time I am also convinced that Rabbi Lopatin is completely sincere and believes in his defenses of all those controversies. And sees no incompatibility with Orthodoxy. But based on this interview, he is still going to have a hard time convincing the rest of Orthodoxy of that.

It has been established that Dovid Lichtenstein was mistaken about what Rabbi Y'Soscher Katz actually said on his Facebook page (in 2015) with respect to the Torah narrative being fictional... or that he was included among those who say that Mishkav Zechor is permitted. He does not say that. (That part has been eliminated from the post).

It was not the Torah narrative Rabbi Katz was referring to. It was the four sons of the Haggadah he was referring to. I sincerely apologize for misrepresenting Rabbi Katz's views. But that does not explain Rabbi Lopatin's strange defense of what he was told was said. Leaving me in the same state of confusion about YCT and OO.

I should add that the impression left by Dovid Lichtenstein's broadcast (and podcast) leaves listeners with false and even libelous information about Rabbi Katz. I hope it is corrected.