Jonathan Sarna, Please Call Home

Jonathan Sarna says that the RCA should know better. Writing in The Forward, Dr. Sarna, an acclaimed scholar, finds irony in the letter published a few days ago in Haaretz that responded to an earlier piece by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new president of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT). In that piece, Rabbi Lopatin decried the attempts of the “ultra-Orthodox” to read him and his colleagues out of the bounds of Orthodoxy. He announced that no one had the right to do that, and that he and his friends were in for the long haul. The letter, signed by over forty rabbis (now over sixty, and none of them particularly associated with “ultra-Orthodoxy”), demonstrated that resistance to the announced program of Open Orthodoxy (OO) and Morethodoxy was not limited to the “extremes” of the Orthodox continuum, but came primarily from the center. The letter cited the belief of the signatories (full disclosure: I was one of them) that no one was agitating to drive them out. By their actions and pronouncements they had walked out and begun essentially a new denomination of neo-Conservatism.

Because it was only a letter, it made no attempt to list all the ways in which neo-Conservatism has parted ways with accepted Orthodox practice. (Rabbi Gordimer has done that for us on these pages several times.) It did not attempt to refute Rabbi Lopatin’s points, some of which were risible. (No one can define someone out of Orthodoxy? Did he forget to reread the Rambam’s coda to this Thirteen Principles of Faith, where he says that these principles halachically define who is “in” and who is “out,” before making that claim?) Nor did it chronicle the many attempts to reach out to OO’s leadership to tone down the pace of their attempted make-over of Orthodoxy, and the marketing of their ideas in non-Orthodox forums like Haaretz and the Huffington Post.

Perhaps the non-explanation that accompanied the letter is what led Prof. Sarna to offer some illumination. He finds in this letter signed almost exclusively by RCA rabbis (representing three generations of Orthodox rabbinic leadership) “a deeper historical irony.” In its early days, the RCA was roundly condemned by the older generation of European rabbis (with the exception of one of its most influential members, it might be noted – Rav Eliezer Silver) as inadequately prepared halachic lightweights. It is only because Orthodoxy has become so successful and triumphal that it has begun to forget the lessons of the past. If the signatories had only remembered history, he implies, they would not have done this vile deed.

Abraham Maslow famously wrote, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Prof. Sarna comes to his essay with a tool that he has admirably honed to perfection. He is perhaps the preeminent authority on modern American Jewish history. It is understandable that he should look for similarities and trends in the historical record. “Like the 17th-century Puritans, who left England to escape its persecution of religious dissidents and in America promptly began to persecute dissidents of their own, so the 42 signers of the RCA manifesto now accuse Lopatin and Open Orthodoxy of the same sins once leveled against their own founders.”

This time, however, he might have been better served to also take a different tool in hand – the telephone. Had he done so, he would have quickly found alternative explanations. Rather than speculate, he might have called some of the signatories (or better yet, those who drafted the letter; it would not have been so difficult to learn who they are). He would have discovered that the “sins” are not quite the same. He would have heard some arguments demonstrating that the ideological differences between OO and mainstream Orthodoxy are not just of degree, but that the two movements no longer lie on the same continuum. A movement that refuses to repudiate some of its proudest products who have denied the Divinity of the Torah and belief in the coming of Moshiach is no longer Orthodox. If it is, then the term Orthodoxy (pause: remember what the “-dox” in Orthodox means) has lost all meaning.

Had he called, he would have quickly found out about the manhandling of halacha that has already taken place in creating heterim for kohanim to marry converts, and the planned convening of batei din to illicitly annul marriages on the basis of completely misunderstood principles of ta’us (error) and hafka’as kiddushin. Because there was opposition to the RCA once, it must never speak on halachic and hashkafic principle in the future? Prof. Sarna has enough background to recognize that these are serious issues, ones that cannot be typified, as he puts it, as “seeking to create a purer, holier and more exclusive Orthodox community.”

Had he only used that other tool, he might have recognized how unfair it is to attribute the pushback against YCT and OO to “religious policemen at home and abroad [who] push for ever more exclusive definitions of who belongs within the Orthodox fold and who should be excluded.” Ever more exclusive? Or firmly based on Torah principles accepted by the community for centuries?

Perhaps Prof. Sarna might have recalled another bit of history, the famous Mt. Clemens, Michigan case in 1955, made famous by Baruch Litvin in Sanctity of the Synagogue. Orthodoxy was not wildly successful and triumphal as it is today, but losing ground to Conservatism. But the Orthodox world stood on principle, and created an all but new touchstone of what an Orthodox synagogue must include: a mechitzah. Even as more and more American Jews insisted on mixed pews, Orthodoxy still placed principle over pragmatism. Perhaps that is why it is thriving, while Conservatism is putting the final touches on its swan song. Is it impossible that a large number of RCA rabbis are doing nothing more than remaining loyal to accepted principle?

At the time, various Torah scholars weighed in on the importance of the mechitzah. One of the most cited opinions was that of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l. He wrote that if a person has no other place to hear the sounding of the shofar other than a Conservative temple, it is better to stay home and miss shofar. His argument was that by attending a service that aped the non-Jewish practice of mixed seating, a person would violate the prohibition of chukos hagoyim, which forbids Jews to embrace non-Jewish practices. A person had no right to do that, argued Rav Soloveitchik, even to fulfill a mitzvah. When RCA rabbis read week after week of the promotion of ideas like personal autonomy, egalitarianism, embracing LGBT lifestyle, and denigration of the Avos – might these rabbis not see an even more extreme embrace of chukos hagoyim, and the elevation of new imports from the contemporary zeitgeist to a status above that of mesorah? (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch put it pithily. He took kovata itim l’Torah to mean, “Did you establish the times according to the Torah? Or did you try to make the Torah fit into the times?”)

Prof. Sarna, please call home. It is not too late for a rewrite.


[Postscript. I am sure that many of CC’s readers are going to be disappointed by my taking a strong position against YCT et al, and my belief that they are neo-Conservative. They will cite my admonition just a few days ago not to overly identify with any one group, at least not when that identification means losing one’s intellectual integrity. I hope that at least some readers will realize that there is no contradiction. Taking the good from wherever you find it does not preclude having to distance yourself (or others) from the not-so-good.

Still, it would be more prudent to accept the accolades for tolerance, and stay out of this one. Allow me to explain why I can’t.

I am a member of a conversion beis din. I am painfully aware of what happens in a community when there are no accepted, community-wide standards for conversion – or worse yet, for marriage and divorce. At our beis din, the gold standard in Southern California, we are barraged by requests for giyur misafek – a conversion rerun, if you will, just to remove any taint or doubt about a first conversion. (For a variety of reasons, our practice at the RCC is not to grant the request, unless made by a community rav.)

Why the many requests? Because of conditions not of our making, and not to our liking. Here is a typical scenario. Chava is getting involved in shidduchim. She had many years of day school or Bais Yaakov. Her mother converted decades ago, through a frum rav. That rav, however, had a questionable reputation. Not a terrible one, mind you. Of the thousands of conversions he presided over, there were a handful he let through that perhaps he shouldn’t have. Loose tongues earned him, unfortunately, an ill-deserved bad name. Try explaining that to the shadchan, or the parents of someone she wants to date. They won’t hear of it! This girl might not be halachically Jewish! Chava’s mother happened to have led an observant life-style from the time of the conversion. This will not help Chava. Her parents want her to go through her own conversion, to remove all questions. Until that happens, her possibilities in the shidduch world are diminished.

Like it or not, it is not always “real” halacha that has the final say, but the perceptions of a community. When there are different halachic voices about an issue, the community can often be quite conservative – or even over the top.

Such is the atmosphere out there – and it will get worse before it gets better. Everyone knows that the greatest demographic strength of the Orthodox community is on the right. We could write much about the causes for this mindset, but now is not the time. My point is that even small diversions from accepted practice will lead to much heartache down the line, as the children of people impacted by those diversions try to get married. Imagine the impact of major diversions on every halachic decision coming from a camp already seen as having become its own denomination. OO’s rabbis have already broken so often with accepted practice, that their weddings, gittin, conversions etc will be questioned in the future, even in cases where they are procedurally correct. There is nothing that you or I can do about this, other than to warn people that by going to practitioners of a competing halachic system, they may be setting up their children for much grief down the line. Having spoken with others among the signatories, I can say with confidence that what animates many of them is the desire not to see people hurt in the future for seeking bargain-basement halachic advice. Torah-true Judaism will survive deniers of Torah mi-Sinai and Maharats. But people’s lives will be shattered.]

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36 Responses

  1. Glatt some questions says:

    No one can define someone out of Orthodoxy? Did he forget to reread the Rambam’s coda to this Thirteen Principles of Faith, where he says that these principles halachically define who is “in” and who is “out,” before making that claim?


    Rabbi Adlerstein, I would argue that the Rambam is defining what behavior is required and what behavior is forbidden, not who is “in” and who is “out”. That is, the focus is on the behavior and not on the person.

    [YA The focus is definitely on the person, and on his beliefs. I can’t see how you can read it any other way:

    וכאשר יאמין האדם אלא היסודות כלם ונתברר בה אמונתו בהם, הרי הוא נכנס בכלל ישראל, וחובה לאהבו ולחמול עליו וכל מה שצוה ה’ אותנו זה על זה מן האהבה והאחוה, ואפילו עשה מה שיכול להיות מן העבירות מחמת תאותו והתגברות יצרו הרע, הרי הוא נענש לפי גודל מריו ויש לו חלק, והוא מפושעי ישראל. וכאשר יפקפק אדם ביסוד מאלו היסודות הרי זה יצא מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר ונקרא מין ואפיקורוס וקוצץ בנטיעות, וחובה לשנותו

  2. Rafael Guber says:

    So true… so well articulated. Thank you Rav Adlerstein. As a genealogical adviser to a number of Basei Din, I constantly see evidence of which road is paved with the “good intentions.” I know from experience, when it comes to conversions, there is simply no room for “squishyness.”

  3. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein – I love your article. However I see no need for the justification that you provide (for signing the letter) in the postscript. It actually mitigates the original point. The letter deserves to be signed for the here and now irrespective of future damage. Someone must have the guts to call out YCT and OO’s bluff. It is a stand that must be taken now for Emes and Torah True Halachik Judaism.

    [YA – It is crucial to separate the two points! Much as it is important to educate ourselves and others about the difference between authentic and ersatz Torah, we have no idea whether we can be successful in that endeavor. The second goal – warning people of the dangers in entangling themselves in batei din that will without a doubt be rejected by a large part of the Orthodox community – is eminently doable bederech hateva. Even where we have no hope of penetrating with the first message, we should attempt to convey the second.]

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    The English word ORTHODOX comes from the Greek word ORTHODOXOS.

    ORTHOS means correct and DOXA means belief.

    Therefore, ORTHODOX means correct belief.

    SOURCE: Collins English Dictionary (unabridged 10th edition), 2009 CE

  5. Moishe Potemkin says:

    coda to this Thirteen Principles of Faith, where he says that these principles halachically define who is “in” and who is “out,” before making that claim?

    Perhaps he disagrees with the assumption that there was a process analogous to the Chasimas HaTalmud that transformed the Rambam’s psak from authoritative to absolute.

    [YA He didn’t say that there are alternative positions to the Rambam. He wrote “no one has the authority or the religious standing to write someone out of Orthodoxy.” The Rambam is a posek. He has the authority of a posek. You have someone of equal statute who disagrees? Point to him! Those who disagreed with the notion of the Rambam’s thirteen principles for the most part believed that the list was not useful, because ALL parts of the Torah must be subscribed to. Who argued that Jews not believe in any matters of dogma (other than my friend Menachem Kellner), or that non-belief in dogmatic views (whatever they happen to be) is not sufficient grounds to label a person an apikorus, min, etc.?]

  6. Moishe Potemkin says:

    I did a bad job of cutting and pasting Rabbi Adlerstein’s quote.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    No reason for Jonathan to call anyone–he is spot on, as usual.

    He would actually agree with you on the whole mechitzah discussion, from a historical perspective…that this was the crucial “marker”.

    Any historian worth his or her salt would note the same. Jeffrey Gurock, another noted historian, has an ongoing theme of “Resisters versus Accommodators” to describe the history of Orthodoxy in America.

  8. Shay Leiberman says:

    It is fitting that just after this was written we heard the announcement from the IRF that they have removed R Zev Farber from his involvement with the IRF Beit Din because of his controversial views. This is the statement they released today:

    “The IRF is pleased to announce that Rabbi Yair Silverman of Zichron Yaacov, will be assuming the role of Giyur Coordinator for the IRF. In this capacity he will assist and support the IRF rabbis in the field as they engage in the sacred work of conversion. Rabbi Silverman is replacing our founding Giyyur Coordinator Rabbi Zev Farber, who has stepped down from this position. We are thankful to Rabbi Farber for the critically important work he did on behalf of the IRF over the past many years. We are thankful as well to Rabbi Dov Linzer and Rabbi Joel Tessler, the chairs of our Va’ad Haggiyur, who now will of course be working closely with Rabbi Silverman.”

    Rabbi Adlerstein, the quesiton for you now is: You are asking them to do teshuvah. It appears they have taken a step in the right direction. Will you give them a thumbs up for this, or are you committed to opposing them no matter what, regardless of the facts? Is teshuvah possible for them or have you written them off for good (which you may have done a long time ago regardless of any of the above mentioned infractions)?

    [YA – When the President reassured you that he would make Obamacare work despite the inauspicious start, did you believe him? Yehi Ratzon that you are correct! But it will take more than a shift at the helm of IRF to assure the rest of us that some sort of turn-around is in the works. Please reread R Gordimer’s essay. Zev Farber was only one of the stains on the record. I should add, though, that a turnaround for IRF will be much easier than for YCT/OO/Morethodoxy. Unless I am mistaken, the IRF is not talking about spurious Rackman batei din and hafkaas kiddushin. The IRF might contain itself to geirus done according to shitos that many of us do not think are the way to go, but cannot be dismissed as phony or ahalachic. With Farber on board, everything they touched was a non-starter.]

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    Great post !One wonders how such an eminent historian can be so confused and mistaken about the evolution of the Torah observant world from being on communal life support during the 1940s and 1950s to its present state today.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-Jeffrey Gurock’s works are NY MO centric in their orientation with MO consisting of the UWS and UES communities that comprise the Jewish Center and KJ. His writings are woefully ignorant and hostile of the role of kiruv and cbhizuk, and border on the intellectually dishonest because of his disclosure at the end of one of his books that he is a long time member of a bastion of LW MO known as HIR.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-the insistence on Mechitzah and the recognition that Shemiras Shabbos, access to Kosher food anywhere in the US, attracting the next generation of Amercican Jewry to the profundity of a life of Torah and Mitzvos, and a K-12 Torah education were the keys to Orthodox growth, as opposed to mere survival in a weak state, were what saved MO from becoming RW CJ. Historians may quibble which was the key marker, but these factors all were and remain critical factors.

  12. Jeffrey Woolf says:

    On my way home from Shabbat preparations, I kept thinking that I need to write an article in response to my friend, Jonathan Sarna’s recent Op-Ed in the Forward. My major point was going to be that Sarna errs in choosing his historical precedent. It was not the Agudas Ha-Rabbanim vs. RCA dust up (which was based on matters of style, power and policy regarding modernity), but the Mt. Clemens case in which Rav Soloveitchik zt’l drew the line between Orthodoxy and everyone else at Mehitza (the other Gedolim were less directly affected by the break). This was a controversy regarding substance, and properly delineated boundaries between the two worlds.

    I am pleased to see that Rabbi Adlerstein, in his inimitable way, has made the same essential point. ברוך שכיוונתי לדעתם של גדולים.

    I would like to demur on a few points:

    a) There are serious flaws in Rabbi Gordimer’s presentation. In particular, his elastic use of the word Masorah verges on demagogy. Massorah is a very difficult word to define, and while deference to received traditions and modes of decision making should always receive the benefit of the doubt, in the hands of those qualified Massorah is not iron clad. (E.g. my Massorah, received directly from מו”ר Rav Soloveitchik זצ”ל is that women today must receive a sophisticated Talmudic education.)

    b) Despite my deep dismay at the manner in which YCT and IRF have responded to the various controversies in which they and their graduates have become embroiled, I woulds hesitate to brand either institution globally as ‘neo-conservative’ (though, I will admit that much that get published in those circles sounds like back issues of Judaism Magazine, in the halcyon days of Robert Gordis). There are many fine, believing rabbis in the IRF who should not be tarred because of the words of a few.

    c)I fully identify with Rabbi Adlerstein’s coda about conversion and personal status issues. However, this issue presents a slippery slope to the right (for a change). What are ‘accepted, community-wide standards for conversion’? Do we need to fulfill all opinions to achieve that? Moreover, what about the tradition of collegiality among constituted Battei Din? For example, what happens if a Bes Din converts a non-Jew (who does actually practice some key mitzvos), and explicitly relies on the ruling of R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski(Ahiezer III, 23)? Does another Bes Din have the right to annul such a conversion (as Battei Din do in Israel)? א”כ, במה כח בית דין יפה? There needs to be serious thought given to the parameters that courts can accept, ex post facto, so as to preserve the integrity both of conversion and of rabbinical courts.

    In any event, Yosher Koach to Rabbi Adlerstein.

    [YA “Baruch shekivanti” works in both directions!
    a) I’m not sure that R Gordimer would disagree with you. Certainly not about the latter point, of the existence of valid, parallel masoros. As far as defining masorah, this is an issue many of us have been grappling with. I made one attempt some months ago. I’ve also tried twisting arms of people higher up on the halachic food chain to write something definitive. Yet, I don’t think that we have to shy away from using a term that we know if valid, even if our working definition is a bit sketchy. Those in the other camp reject the term. Their modus operandi is to argue at every juncture, “Prove to me that it is assur! Mekoros only! No meta-halacha will be entertained.” When arguments are conveyed to them, it is easy for them to say, “Well, we have a different reading of those sources.” Traditional Orthodoxy, by contrast, does not reject meta-halacha, even if its adherents will disagree about where to draw its limits.
    b) Yes, there may indeed be. We must be careful to look at each person separately. But we should not be blind to patterns and shitos that undergird movements and institutions. (I have written elsewhere that I believe (or hope) that the IRF will not turn out to be as deviant at OO.)
    c) Major problem. I will try to write more about it in my response to Dr Stadlan.]

  13. Reb Yid says:


    Should Gurock also state at the end of one of his books that he has taught at YU (hardly a LW bastion of anything) for umpteen years, including coaching its basketball team?

    Should Sarna state that he and his family have been longtime active members of a MO synagogue, and sent their children to the mainstream MO day school in town?

    I would hope not in either case. The scholarship speaks for itself (and Gurock is hardly as parochial as you perceive him–check out his CV). Sarna is not out to judge the merits of each particular case…indeed the historian’s retort would be that in each case in each generation, if you had a “telephone”, every one of these groups would be vociferous that “it” is upholding the integrity of Judaism.

    Historical and sociological analysis can make people uncomfortable and even defensive. But that does not make the analysis any less valuable.

  14. DF says:

    Sarna is not wrong in his central point, which is sometimes the orthodoxies of today were once the heresies of yesterday. As I commented earlier, the RCA rightly condemns Zev Farber’s ideas for Gittin, for example, yet the RCA’s own push for prenups was and still is equally condemned by the Agudah. Rabbi Adlerstein responds by distinguishing between peripheral points or customs, and bedrock matters of faith, such as the divinty of Torah. I agree with that distinction. The problem, though, is that in much of the orthodox world, no such distinction exists. By rhetoric and by action, trivial matters have been elevated to the status of principles of faith. Recall, the Gemara refers to the totality of ITSELF as a trivial matter. What can we say, then, when Gedolim in Israel declare one to be possul edus merely for voting for a different charedi party? And while that is an extreme example, it perfectly captures the reality, where absolutely all sense of proportion has been lost among most of orthodoxy. Given that, Sarna’s point is worth reflecting upon.

    [YA They speak a different rhetorical language in Israel. You won’t find that kind of behavior in the US. Yet.]

  15. S. says:

    Well-written article. Could you please elaborate on your point about kohanim marrying converts?

    [YA – There have been a number of cases in which people at YCT permitted kohanim to marry converts. Some involved YCT students; some did not. In at least one case, R Hershel Schachter spent a few minutes in shiur (recorded; I can’t tell you where to find it though. Someone sent me the clip without the rest of the shiur) tearing it apart and laying bare its ignorance. In at least one case, the psak was against what the MO community rov had paskened; OO overuled his authority and standing.]

  16. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    The mechitza wasn’t necessarily such a crucial “marker.” In the 1950s, the O-U admitted synagogues with mixed seating, and there were a handful of separate-seating synagogues which affiliated as Conservative. It took 20 years or so from Mt. Clemens until the O-U insisted on separate seating for new-member congregations (and actively pressured mixed-seating members to separate). Most of the separate-seating synagogues in Conservative movement have since either mixed or changed affiliation.

    Once could argue (and I have) that in the past, the border between “Orthodox” and “Right Wing Conservative” was very porous and in places indistinct. For this reason, it was possible for some to envision a joint bais din between the two movements in 1955-56 (the RCA halacha committee eventually rejected the idea.) It is for this reason that a large percentage of the children of the observant Conservative membership seamlessly migrated to Orthodoxy as they grew up and matured.

    In the end, the question is not what constitutes “Orthodox Judaism.” The question is what constitutes legitimate halachic Judaism, what some have called “Torah-true” Judaism. “Orthodox Judaism,” whatever that may represent may or may not fit the bill. That remains to be seen.

  17. AM Zuck says:

    It seems to me that there is a very fundamental distinction between the condemnation of the American-trained rabbis by their European counterparts and the condemnation of OO that bely Dr. Srana’s claims of hypocrisy.

    The European trained rabbis were stating that the American counterparts did not have the halachik training necessary to properly pasken halacha. The challenge was to their status as rabbis and halachik decisors. In contrast, the critique of YCT is not simply that they do not qualify as rabbis, but rather that they have taken themselves out of Klal Yisrael through apikorsus as it says in the Rambam in perek chelek.

    The distinction is cucial. For many years LWMO rabbis have promulgated halachik decisions that many RCA rabbis openly disagreed with and that some of the RCA’s most distinguished poskim have condemned, but nevertheless they have never challenged the individuals publicly as corrupting the public or publicly issued statements that these individuals are not fit to pasken (though they may have conveyed such feelings privately). The most famous example of this is the declaration against Women’s Tefilla Groups signed by a group of roshei yeshiva from YU. The RCA rabbis felt they could challenge the halachik decisions of the LWMO rabbis without challenging the halachik decisors. However, an apikorus is an apikorus and according to the Rambam such a person is no longer achicha b’mitzvos. This distinction may explain why certain RCA rabbis are only now publicly condemning as unfit and out of Orthodoxy.

  18. LI Reader says:

    Steve Brizel’s comments need translations. Are people who live outside of NYC really expected to know what he’s talking about with references to UWS, UES, KJ and HIR?

    Please ask him to spell his abbreviations out!

  19. L. Oberstein says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I have a question to you and anyone else who deals with conversion.
    I personally know of several bnai yeshivos who are raising frum families whose mother or grandmother on the mother’s side converted with an orthodox rabbi in that bygone era when many out of town rabbis did not demand strict sabbath observance. In the case of the grandmother, she never was a Shomerees Shabbos but her daughter was accepted to Bais Yaakov and has at lest a dozen frum grandchildren, many of whom are married. Teh other one only became shomer shabbos later after her chidren were born.
    These two examples are tuypical of hundreds ,if not thousands, in this country.
    At what point do we retroactively declare their progeny down to the present to be gentiles? This is a serious question and I hope you won’t just erase it.

    [YA This is a very serious issue. I don’t have any great solution to offer. We need some very clear halachic directives coming from MULTIPLE sources (so that they can become widely accepted) demarking when procedural problems with a beis din cast a colorable shadow on much of their work, and when the problems are no matters of concern at all. Please see my long response to Dr. Stadlan.]

  20. Steve Brizel says:

    Queens College is within walking distance of my block and my neighborhood. Yet,some “Jewish academics” who write about sociology and the Jewish community unfortunately display little actual familiarity with the subject that they purport to be experts in.

  21. Shay Leiberman says:

    What I would like to know is, does Rabbi Adlerstein (or anyone else for that matter) pick up the phone to call YCT before attacking them and making claims about their views, actions or motivations?

    [YA – Yes]

  22. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I understand and agree with RYA’s position that OO or whatever you call it is crossing a red line that is a true distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Calling OO neo-conservative is also correct, leaving aside the problem of confusing them with the political neocons, which is a technical issue on the level of Wikipedia disambiguation. The side point that the OO phenomenon uncovers is that there is still a market for these ideas and practices despite the steep decline of the Conservative movement. Please check out the recent Forward article titled “How Conservative Judaism Lost Me”. There the author and many commenters state that the poor handling of the best and the brightest of the once-kids of the Conservative movement drove them away in various directions, but many into MO. But the author and commenters state that they went into MO with misgivings from a POV of egalitarinism or maybe other stuff. It is not far to suspect that together with renegades from Orthodoxy there may really be a social potential for such a movement. If the RCA and other Centrist to Modern Orthodox bodies don’t keep the foot to the pedal, many MO congregants will not see the difference, just as one or two generations ago people didn’t get the distinction between MO and Conservative. People who decry hareidization and extremism on the right which makes them nervous even about RYA’s hat will walk into an OO shul as an antidote without realizing they are taking poison instead.

  23. noam stadlan says:

    I have great admiration and respect for the author, which makes the addendum about conversions all the more sad. He writes essentially that the people who are deciding who is Halachically Jewish are not the rabbis, but the shadchans- and that there is nothing that he or anyone else can do about it. This is actually quite astounding coming from a culture that believes in Daas Torah to at least some extent. If the Rabbinic leadership wanted to do something about the issue, they could make some declarations to their followers. Not the usual declarations about kowtowing to the Chief Rabbinate and their habit of annulling valid conversions. What would be required is an acknowledgement that theirs are not the only conversion standards, and that there are standards(such as Rav Druckman’s or others) that have halachic validity and need to be recognized as part of elu v’elu. Please do not misconstrue what I write as saying that there are no standards. Of course there are standards. But a large part of the problem is the failure of the rabbinic leadership to lead- thereby allowing the shadchanim and the culture to dictate standards. The right wing rabbis created this culture of chumra and now that it is being adopted and essentially run amok, they wring their hands and say they cannot do anything about it. The first step would be to recognize the problem, which there seems to be some semblance here. The next would be for those responsible to take responsibility for it and thirdly to act to correct it. The problem(as pointed out by Moshe Koppel in his article on Judaism as a second language), is that the system is set up to give power to extremists. Anyone who advocates against chumra or for moderating is seen as suspect. The rest of orthodoxy should not have to pay the price for the actions and beliefs of those who are moving rightward at an ever increasing pace. Rav Adlerstein has taken many courageous and principled stands in the past. Perhaps it is time to organize another one.

    [YA Before offering a few quibbles, let me say that I agree that we have a huge problem. I might disagree about some of the causes, and where to look for solutions. But there is no gainsaying that this is a huge problem.

    1) The blame cannot be place entirely on the culture of chumra, as you call it. Some of it has to be assigned to people who do spurious conversions. (They populate both sides of the MO/haredi aisle. For decades, there have been well-intentioned people doing substandard giyur – and there have also been money-grubbing phonies whose giyur was/is a joke. This was a well-known “secret” for decades. It is secret no longer. The Rabbanut in this regard essentially acted correctly, in insisting on standards. But that meant admitting that there were Orthodox rabbis who were ignorant, and others who were phonies. Once that got out to the general public, every well-meaning non-heavyweight rav started questioning every geirus that crossed his desk. If we had people in the US with broad enough shoulders AND who were universally accepted, we could quash the majority of the questions raised. But we don’t.
    2) One of the reasons that we don’t is that a few decades ago (as I have written before) a group of people decided that no one in American really counted any more, and all decisions in the yeshivah world need to be brought to Bnei Brak. With all the buzz about Daas Torah, no one in the American community can use it with much clout. At this point, someone would (and should!) shepherd the question to some of the poskim in Bnei Brak, because without that happening, we are probably not going to make too much progress. Meanwhile, batei din in the US DO speak with one another, and often give assurances that the vast majority of giyurim of Rabbi X were not problematic, or advise that they were OK procedurally, so if the ger demonstrated ANY halachic fealty for a while after the conversion, he/she ought to be considered a proper convert. Of course, there are rabbis for whom that cannot be stated.
    3) The psak by R Sherman that potentially raised questions about hundreds of giyurim of Rav Druckman would appear to have contributed to the problem. So did the response of the DL community, which said lots of nasty things about R Sherman, but did NOT do an adequate job of refuting some of his arguments. That was a big mistake. And it is simply not accurate to say that gerus cannot be undone. While some may disagree, there is no shortage of those who believe that gerus without the candidate accepting the ole mitzvos in his/her heart is just not gerus. R Sherman did not invent this; neither did Rav Goren. Neither can be “blamed” for the growing abuse of the argument.
    4) I don’t see a clear way out of this quagmire at the moment, especially because the genie has gotten out of the rabbinic bottle, and is in the “street.” It is going to be hard to try to stuff it back in.
    5) The batei din that I have interacted with (directly or otherwise) do show some of the flexibility that you are looking for. They may not be enthused by a particular shitah, while admitting that post facto, such a ger cannot be disqualified, if only because that would be an immense kulah! R Chaim Ozer’s psak on accepting halacha in principle, if not in practice, remains an issue. People make the argument that Rav Moshe gave out opposing vibes on the issue.
    6) I have found Rav Hershel Schachter to be one of the clearest about criteria for geirus bedieved. But don’t think for a second that he rejects the idea of invalidating a geirus in which all indications point to no intention on the part of the ger from day one to make any changes in his/her lifestyle.

    I hope some of this helps.

  24. Steve Brizel says:

    LI Reader-Here is a partial lexicon of my abbreviatons

    UES_Upper East Side
    UWS-Upper West Side
    KJ-Kehilath Jeshurun
    HIR-Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

  25. dr. bill says:

    on your comments on geirut, do you believe that rav goren’s psak vis-a-vis mamzeirut can be used in a standard case of geirut? in addition to that, rav goren had an argument beyond non-observance. i do not believe the langer case is a valid precedent.

    as to r sherman, how adequately his arguments for wholesale passeling were addressed is hardly a matter of dispute. i grant you that other issues remain somewhat debatable, at least in charedi political circles.

    RMF is a bit clearer if read by date, though he was clearly troubled. it seems clear RCOG’s psak impacted him once he read it.

  26. Chardal says:

    >neither did Rav Goren.

    R Goren only “fell back” on invalidating the conversion. His primary argument was actually that no conversion ever took place (there was no bet din or Rav in the town where the giur supposedly happened at that time)

    R Sherman’s psak could only have received one response. Since his main argument was that r Drukman is a rasha and an invalid Dayan. We had to come to his defense. The Chareidi world needs to realize the the RZ world will use, when necessary, the more lenient opinions of our past leaders, such as R Uziel. They can decide to either finish their slow departure from the Klal, or to tolerate our different approach, but don’t expect us to sit back quietly when one of our foremost rabbinic leaders is called a rasha.

    In any case, the Chareidi world should get its own house in order first. Just last week, an Ed chupah was declared invalid because he voted עץ. The amount of personal status issues that can result from this “shita” make everything else look like a cake walk.

    [YA – You are glossing over a number of issues here. 1) It doesn’t matter if Rav Goren “only” used it as a fall-back position. Once the horse is out of the barn… Once a halachic argument is employed and finds some standing – even among critics! – it takes on a life of its own. (Personally, I wouldn’t “fault” Rav Goren for developing a line of reasoning that makes perfect sense. I don’t buy the argument that conversion can’t be “undone.” I firmly buy into the approach taken by the vast majority of those who have been through the sugya that geirus is a function of kabolas mitzvos. When there is satisfactory evidence of lack of such kabbalah on the part of the ger, there is no geirus. The issue with Rav Goren’s psak was not the reasoning, but the application to the Langer case.) 2) The response by a mortified and wounded RZ community can’t be faulted. It had every right to fight back. That doesn’t change the fact that they never adequately addressed Rav Sherman’s contention, which means that it is still out there, causing confusion and doubt. To the best of my knowledge, it really bases itself on a line in the Chazon Ish. While it is true that whoever is fit to be a witness is fit to be a dayan, the CI throws in one reservation. If a person develops a reputation for improper or inadequate performance as a judge, he becomes disqualified. Like many other psakim of the CI, it is brief, and requires elaboration. In its original form, it is vague enough to allow questioning the bona fides of many people. After going through the R Sherman decision, I cornered a number of people, none of whom thought R Sherman was correct. Yet almost none would/could commit himself to spelling out just how bad the judicial malfeasance had to be to disqualify someone, as R Sherman disqualified R Druckman for adding his name to list of dayanim supervising geirus, even though he was not technically present at the mikvah. Because no one (neither in the RZ world, nor in the haredi world) stepped forward and argued or proved that the CI’s argument applied to failings far more serious, we now have a situation where geirus performed decades ago is second-guessed because the av beis din is discovered, rumored, etc. to have some infraction associated with him. Again, I don’t fault the RZ world for reacting as it did – but it missed a chance to help all of us out. ]

  27. Dr. E says:

    “Open Orthodoxy” is by definition a contrast or an alternative to a flavor of Orthodoxy which is perceived as “less open”. What indeed are the Orthodox Hashkafic beliefs and Halachic standards that are adhered to by OO and YCT? As it stands now, it appears that positions taken by YCT Rabbeim and alumni appear to laissez-faire and everything goes as it relates to Hashkafa and Halacha. I would encourage Rabbi Lopatin (and perhaps Rabbis Weiss and Linzer) to articulate precisely what YCT and OO’s red lines are. That would allow others to view how the institution maintains its posture as Orthodox. Doing this very informative to the Orthodox world in understanding where of the spectrum the movement and institution see themselves.

  28. Moishe Potemkin says:

    The Rambam is a posek. He has the authority of a posek. You have someone of equal statute who disagrees? Point to him! Those who disagreed with the notion of the Rambam’s thirteen principles for the most part believed that the list was not useful, because ALL parts of the Torah must be subscribed to. Who argued that Jews not believe in any matters of dogma (other than my friend Menachem Kellner), or that non-belief in dogmatic views (whatever they happen to be) is not sufficient grounds to label a person an apikorus, min, etc.?]

    The Raavad, on the principle of corporeality, is quite explicit that people can be wrong in their dogmatic views without being classified as minim (or apikorsim – I can’t remember which right now).

    I can’t speak for Menachem Kellner, but what I took from his book is an effective debunking of the assertion of universal acceptance of the Rambam’s ikkarim. Of course the Rambam is a (or ‘the’) posek, but that’s very different from saying that people who disagree with him are Michutz LaMachaneh.

    [YA I would call it a debunking, but effectiveness is a function of its acceptance by the audience.There is, perforce, a huge tzibur that DOES see the Rambam as a yardstick for determining who is chutz lemachaneh and who is not. (It included, a generation ago, R Yaakov zt”l.) For that tzibur, consigning someone who rejects one of the Rambam’s ikarim (and I don’t mean rejection by way of the rather minor alterations that Marc Shapiro lists in his disagreement with Menachem Kellner) as michutz lemacheneh is a tautology]

  29. Moshe Potemkin says:

    There is, perforce, a huge tzibur that DOES see the Rambam as a yardstick for determining who is chutz lemachaneh and who is not. (It included, a generation ago, R Yaakov zt”l.) For that tzibur, consigning someone who rejects one of the Rambam’s ikarim (and I don’t mean rejection by way of the rather minor alterations that Marc Shapiro lists in his disagreement with Menachem Kellner) as michutz lemacheneh is a tautology.

    I agree that this tzibbur exists, but we’re moving away from (at least my understanding of) your assertion that anyone disputing any of the ikkarim is by definition an apikorus lechol hadeios.

    [YA – One does not need to be an apikorus to be chutz lemacheneh. I’ve written as much several times.]

  30. Mike S. says:

    If every Rav who makes a few mistakes like ” Of the thousands of conversions he presided over, there were a handful he let through that perhaps he shouldn’t have.” is to be treated as though all his actions are possul, we will have to discard everything said in the name of (among others) R. Tarfon and Yose ben Yo’ezer who both record making serious erroneous judgements. I am quite sure it is true that “Like it or not, it is not always “real” halacha that has the final say, but the perceptions of a community. When there are different halachic voices about an issue, the community can often be quite conservative – or even over the top.” But does it not behoove the leadership of the community to try to correct such behavior? It seems to me leaders have far more credibility when they are focused on correcting their own flaws and those of their followers than when complaining about the flaws of their ideological opponents.

    I do think that rabbis have to be careful not to “push the boundary” on personal status issues without overriding need. However, we also have to be careful not to be second guessing decisions of prior (and for that matter contemporary) rabbis and battei din unnecessarily; that way lies chaos. There is a reason Rabbeinu Tam put a cherem on those who try to invalidate a get after it was delivered. Chasam Sofer writes that any testimony that someone is a Jew is a testimony about a ma’aseh geirus, whether at Har Sinai or later. I understand that Mrs. On ben Pelet once deliberately went out with her hair uncovered; are all her descendants in the female line non-Jews? Of course not. Rabbis also have to take responsibility in matters of personal status for all of clal yisrael, not just their own communities. And that applies equally to right and left.

    [YA My hope is that such leadership will develop. Public discussion like this, when conducted in a respectful manner, can help generate such leadership, which often responds to the “street,” at least if the street in question is in the same neighborhood. But all the hoping in the world is not going to guarantee results, nor protect those who look for gittin and conversions from genuine halachic mavericks. Their children will suffer, guaranteed.]

  31. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-lots of professors who teach in YC, or Revel would never and should never be confused with the RY of RIETS.

    Dr Stadlan-ask RHS what is his view of the teshuvah of R Uziel ZL that is cited as evidence that Kabalas Ol Mitzvos is not mandatory for a Ger.

  32. Steve Brizel says:

    Jeffrey Woolf wrote in part:

    “) There are serious flaws in Rabbi Gordimer’s presentation. In particular, his elastic use of the word Masorah verges on demagogy. Massorah is a very difficult word to define, and while deference to received traditions and modes of decision making should always receive the benefit of the doubt, in the hands of those qualified Massorah is not iron clad. (E.g. my Massorah, received directly from מו”ר Rav Soloveitchik זצ”ל is that women today must receive a sophisticated Talmudic education.)

    Don’t confuse RYBS’s views on Masorah ( which RYBS defined as the means and method of transmitting TSBP to the next generation) with RYBS’s educational views. Can anyone here vouch for whether women in Maimonides ever learned the masectos that comprise the so-called “yeshivishe masectos” such as Ksuvos, Gittin, Kiddushin Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, Bava Basra, etc?

  33. ben dov says:

    Girls in Maimonides have learned Kidushin and Bava Metzia. I spoke to a Talmud teacher at Maimonides.

  34. Noam Stadlan says:

    Steve- I have not read RHS on giur. I have read what he has written on women’s issues and definition of death. Let us just say that I follow other poskim and do not find his arguments compelling, despite his obvious incredible scholarship and erudition.

  35. Steve Brizel says:

    Ben Dov-which perakim and sugyos in Kiddushin and Bava Metzia?

  36. Shades of Gray says:

    From R. Moshe Meiselman’s review of “Community, Covenant and Commitment” in the Fall, 2005 Jewish Action:

    “The Rav’s position on the learning of Torah Shebe’al Peh by women is referred to in two letters. The halachic brief on the topic that the Rav promised to write never happened. This has given many people, unfamiliar with the Rav, license to engage in speculation as to his position and to ascribe to the Rav conclusions drawn of their speculation. The Rav did not belief in the unisex approach that claims that women and men share the same psychological make-up and roles. He wrote that it is the father’s task to instill in his child “discipline of thought as well as… discipline of action.” It is the mother’s task to teach the child to “feel the presence of God…to appreciate mitzvot and spiritual values, to enjoy the warmth of a dedicated life.” He felt that the discipline of thought that is necessary in halachic development was the male province. However, he balanced this with a different concern. He was afraid that people who viewed halachah as “random and arbitrary” would never be committed to proper halachic observance. By exposing them to Talmud, they would be appreciative of the sophistication of halachah and the halachic process. When he gave his introductory shiur in Talmud at Stern College for Women, he reiterated this position in the car on the way home. He said that the teaching of Talmud would be a “springboard to expose them (i.e., the students of Stern) to the masa u’matan of the Torah Shebe’al Peh” and that “exposure to Torah Shebe’al Peh would show them that the halachic process is not random and they would see the sophistication in Torah as in other areas.

    It is interesting to note that in the Rav’s entire advocacy of the learning of Talmud for women, he never introduced them to the study of Nashim and Nezikin, the areas that he spent most of his time teaching to men. He restricted their exposure to Moed, Berachot and Chullin. Since the goal was to develop an appreciation of the halachic process, he restricted their exposure to those areas that have practical halachic relevance. The attempt to equate men and women in the approach to the learning of Torah, and the consequent desire to produce posekot, is alien to the Rav’s goals. The Rav had definite practical goals in his introduction of women to the study of Talmud. He never meant to equate the mitzvah of Torah study for men with that for women.

    In the summer of 1968, the Rav taught masechet Nazir in Boston. A woman showed up to one of the shiurim. The Rav informed her that women were not welcome to these technical shiurim, even if they sat on the other side of the mechitzah. She told him that she had traveled all the way from New York to listen to his shiurim. He said that if she remains he would stop the shiur. On the following day, when she showed up again, she stood behind a column to remain unnoticed. The Rav noticed her in the middle of his shiur and informed her that unless she left forthwith he would stop the shiur immediately.”

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