Monday, September 05, 2016

Another Perspective on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Guest Contribution by Rabbi David Berger

Rabbi Dr. David Berger
A couple of weeks ago, I commented on an interview of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Talmud Chair, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz. Therein I lauded Rabbi Katz’s clarity about the acceptable parameters of Orthodox Jewish theology. Even though I remained troubled by some of YCT’s other issues, clearing that up was a big deal for me – in the right direction.

I recently received an e-mail from Rabbi Dr. David Berger, expressing his concerns about the matter as well as his concerns on some of those other issues. As someone I truly respect for a variety of reasons – and in particular his courage to ‘tell it like it is’ - I asked him if I could feature that e-mail as a post.  He has graciously consented. His words follow.

Dear R. Harry,

Let me comment on your post regarding R. Ysoscher Katz’s radio interview in which he called R. Zev Farber a heretic because of his views on the historicity and/or content of the revelation at Sinai.   

You had reported earlier on the statement by eleven musmakhim of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah affirming the centrality of the traditional belief in Torah mi-Sinai as well as their opposition to partnership minyanim.  YCT responded with a vigorous affirmation of their commitment to Torah mi-Sinai and with a defense of the legitimacy of partnership minyanim, which, they added, some of the students and rebbeim attend. 

The assertion about Torah mi-Sinai, which is underscored by R. Katz’s assertion in the interview, is certainly an important move on the part of the Yeshiva, and it should decidedly be welcomed.  
The major problem on this front was R. Asher Lopatin’s assertion that R. Farber’s position was at the outer reaches of Orthodoxy.  

When I wrote an article addressing this matter in the Jewish Link of New Jersey in response to letters by R. Avi Weiss and R. Lopatin announcing their resignation from the RCA, R. Katz wrote a purported response riddled with such startling misrepresentations of my article that reading it was a surreal experience.  (Readers can assess the fairness of this strong formulation by reading the two pieces consecutively.  My article can be found at the Jewish Link ; R. Katz’s response can be found at this linkMy rejoinder is here.)  

The one relevant point to emerge from R. Katz’s piece was its manifest avoidance of any indication that R. Lopatin’s remark needed to be retracted.  

The current position of both R. Katz and the Yeshiva stands, then, in welcome contrast to R. Lopatin’s earlier statement as well as what appears to have been his own earlier stance.  Nonetheless, there is a simple but perhaps difficult step that needs to be taken if the new stance is to be convincing. 

I have felt for some time that even those Orthodox Jews who are sympathetic to the innovation that lies at the heart of Yeshivat Maharat cannot accept its Orthodox credentials as long as R. Farber remains on its Advisory Board.  R. Herzl Hefter is a member of the YCT Advisory Board, which is clearly a rabbinic--or in the case of some of the women, a rabbinic-equivalent--body.   

R. Hefter has affirmed the legitimacy--really the validity--of Pentateuchal criticism in an article on Morethodoxy . In a recent interview in Makor Rishon, he speaks of having gone "wild" when he saw American Orthodox Jews affirm that it is an obligation to believe in Torah mi-Sinai (my entirely legitimate paraphrase).  He was no doubt referring to the R. Farber controversy.  

If he remains on the board, then YCT signals unmistakably that it does not in fact regard the traditional understanding of Torah mi-Sinai as a sine qua non of Orthodoxy.  One hopes that a friendly parting of the ways will be possible. 

On the other element of YCT’s response to the eleven rabbis, i.e., partnership minyanim, I wrote the following to a friend who is a person of stature and, like YCT, a defender of this innovation. (He wrote me in this context and related ones that people who draw new red lines are causing schism and that partnership minyanim will not be going away.) 

“Partnership minyanim constitute the primary recent innovation in the realm of practice rather than ideology that I see as genuinely disqualifying with respect to Orthodox status.  I don’t say this about individuals who attend such minyanim.  They have been told by people they respect that this is compatible with Orthodoxy.  But I do say this about the minyanim themselves.  

As I wrote you earlier, such minyanim are a prima facie violation of an explicit statement in the Talmud and the codes; the argument that the restriction no longer applies and that one may act on this conviction has been made by precisely one rabbi of stature against the opposition of every other such rabbi in the world.  (I set aside the fact that he has subsequently taken steps—including the conferring of semichah in partnership with R. Hefter-- that compromise his standing.)   

In a matter of such moment, genuine Orthodox Jewry does not act on such an isolated opinion.  This move involves a monumental, highly visible change in the central ritual environment of Judaism and leads to the inability of relatives to attend simchas.  To classify people who do not recognize this as a legitimate innovation within Orthodoxy as intolerant schismatics creating new red lines is an utter reversal of reality and flies in the face of elementary fairness.  The schismatics are unequivocally the innovators.  

Will this go away?  Probably not.  Will it continue to be seen by most Modern Orthodox authorities as beyond the pale?  I hope so.  Keep in mind that Orthodox shuls without mechitzas were more common at one point than partnership minyanim are now, and the process was reversed.  In my view, a strong case can be made that such minyanim constitute a clearer violation of halakhah than a shul without a mechitzah.” 

Rabbi Dr. David Berger is an American academic, dean of Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, as well as chair of Yeshiva College's Jewish Studies department. He is the author of various books and essays on medieval Jewish apologetics and polemics, as well as having edited the modern critical edition of the medieval polemic text Nizzahon Vetus