Looting the Kodesh
by Avrohom Gordimer
Looters have invaded sacred space; the plane in crisis has been hijacked.
Obviously, the Orthodox community must act with extreme care, meticulousness and scrutiny pursuant to the recent startling allegations of highly immoral crimes involving mikveh and conversion on the part of a well-known Modern Orthodox rabbi. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) took immediate action, and so have mikveh associations and synagogues. Undoubtedly, the entire scope of necessary responsive actions that may be needed remains to be seen and would have to be implemented comprehensively and with thorough deliberation.
All steps taken need to be done with the goal of securing the system, protecting all users, and restoring a sense of utmost safety and privacy, rather than with an eye toward dismantling the system and redefining it. Sadly, this has not fully been the case.
Moreover, and seldom discussed, is the need to fortify the atmosphere of sanctity that pertains to mikveh and conversion such that these two holy institutions are not associated with anything base or crass. When a reputation has been unjustifiably sullied, it needs to be restored; when a mitzvah has been publicly associated with lewdness, the import and sacred image of the mitzvah needs to be elevated.
Unfortunately, the recent grave allegations of immoral crimes relating to mikveh and conversion have been used by the Left Fringe as a means to further an agenda that debases rather than safeguards these sanctified institutions.
One leading Open Orthodox rabbi has used the mikveh and conversion allegations to call for the ordination and acceptance of women rabbis [i]; other top brass rabbis of Open Orthodoxy [ii] have used this crisis as an opportunity to lobby for the dismantling of conversion standards, arguing against unified conversion oversight and protocol in favor of every individual rabbi being able to conduct conversions as he sees fit – and this can include employing standards that are considered invalid by virtually every beis din and legitimate rabbinic body, including the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. (Proponents of this “conversion autonomy” approach often adopt the position, contrary to the consensus of the greatest of poskim of today and yesteryear, that conversion does not require Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos/Acceptance of the Mitzvos by the prospective convert. Rather than requiring that a conversion candidate demonstrably commit to lead a life of complete halachic observance, many proponents of the conversion autonomy approach seek for the rabbi overseeing the conversion to decide on his own whether or not Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos will be part or the protocol. One of the founders of the Open Orthodox rabbinate, who is also one of the primary spokesmen for the conversion autonomy approach, has lobbied fiercely for the discarding of centralized conversion standards and in favor of conversion without Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos [iii]. Imagine the havoc that this would wreak for converts and for Orthodoxy as a whole.)
Aside from the above Open Orthodox endeavors endangering the integrity of conversion on a comprehensive scale, there is a radical view of mikveh and of modesty in general which has become embedded in Open Orthodoxy and which threatens to compromise the sanctity of mikveh and further erode matters of personal privacy. This seems very strange, and it is indeed incredibly odd, but this phenomenon must be addressed, as it can damage that which we seek to and must protect.
On September 3 of this year, Yeshivat Maharat, along with Drisha Institute and ImmerseNYC, held a symposium about mikveh [iv]. The event was billed as an effort on the part of the new “mikveh movement” to “reclaim and reframe” mikveh use, including tevillah (immersion) for non-traditional purposes, such as to mark school graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, the completion of medical treatments, and all sorts of personal milestones. Many graduates and students of Yeshivat Maharat are actively involved in promoting unconventional mikveh use, and the September 3 event was the natural manifestation of a goal already common to that group.
One of the featured speaks was “Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, director Mikveh Shmaya: An educational and ritual mikveh in Israel”. Dr. Ner-David operates an independent mikveh in an Israeli community, where all types of immersions are authorized and conducted, including invalid ones (such as tevillah by women in the middle of menstruation and tevillah for the conversion of children adopted by active homosexual partners). Dr. Ner-David endorses daytime immersion for women, vociferously opposing nighttime-only immersion regulations (and misconstruing them as modesty strictures), and she has a focus on non-gendered and transgendered immersion. [v] Her appearance at the September 3 event, co-paneled by the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat and a Yeshivat Maharat student who works for ImmerseNYC, should send the red flags shooting up.
ImmerseNYC, led by a female Reform rabbi [vi], promotes unconventional mikveh use. The organization has no halachic standards or Orthodox affiliation, and its presence at the September 3 event raises further questions about Open Orthodoxy’s claim to Orthodox status. The ImmerseNYC mandate includes:
Our mikveh will be a place where gay men can immerse for their wedding anniversary [vii].
Aside from the new “mikveh movement” abandoning Halacha and Mesorah (tradition), its promotion of tevillah by all people for all sorts of occasions means that single people, both male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, will be ever present at mikva’os; the sense of privacy and modesty at mikveh that married women seek and require is sure to be thereby undermined (even with separate mikveh use hours for men and women).
The Vaad Ha-Giyur (Conversion Committee) of International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) is comprised of several individuals who have been featured in these articles due to their notably unOrthodox positions and actions [viii]. (One such person is the chancellor of a non-Orthodox rabbinical school [ix] and ordains women as rabbis [x], and another one is the founder of Open Orthodoxy, who likewise ordains women [xi] and who called a woman to the Torah in a makeshift men’s minyan this past Simchas Torah [xii]. Judging by the composition of the IRF Vaad Ha-Giyur, it is no wonder why IRF conversions are deemed to be of concern to so many halachic authorities.) One particular member of the IRF Vaad Ha-Giyur serves as the chairman of the Department of Halacha at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). This same rabbi is the rav ha-machshir (kosher certifier) and posek (halachic decisor) for the mikva’os of Mayyim Hayyim, a Boston-based operation of the new “mikveh movement”. The mikva’os affiliated with Mayyim Hayyim were constructed under the direction of a Conservative rabbi, and a YCT graduate who leads a liberal Orthodox congregation in the Boston area serves as the local supervisor for these mikva’os [xiii]. Several Yeshivat Maharat leaders serve as Mayyim Hayyim faculty [xiv].
Given the high-level YCT/Yeshivat Maharat involvement with Mayyim Hayyim, one would expect it to maintain Orthodox standards. Well:
Mikveh Guides at Mayyim Hayyim are initially selected by a team of social workers and psychologists. They attend a seven-week course taught by Jewish educators from Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative backgrounds using a curriculum reviewed and edited by community rabbis, mikveh experts and Jewish educators [xv].
Mayyim Hayyim, which boasts no formal Orthodox affiliations (although dozens of non-Orthodox congregations and organizations extend their endorsement thereto) [xvi], hosts conversions of all denominations, and it recommends use of its mikveh system for all personal milestone events, including coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. [xvii]
Mayyim Hayyim has retained a Reform female cantor for musical accompaniment upon tevillah as desired [xviii], and its educational programming is likewise non-Orthodox:
Come learn from Rabbis Barbara Penzner of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah and David Lerner of Temple Emunah [xix].
– yet the ongoing kashrus of the mikva’os of Mayyim Hayyim is certified and actively maintained by the YCT rabbinate, and several Yeshivat Maharat leaders serve on the Mayyim Hayyim faculty.
Common halachic consensus calls for the converting beis din (rabbinic court) to be present for the tevillah of all converts, including female ones; the beis din certainly does not view the female convert exposed for tevillah. (See Yoreh Deah 268:2.) According to common halachic consensus, lack of the presence of an on-site beis din can render the conversion invalid. Despite this halachic consensus in this most weighty area of Jewish personal status, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat has announced that he is writing a teshuva (halachic responsum) that will allow tevillah in the absence of an on-site beis din, as “A power hierarchy (favoring men) exists. Our goal is to shift that hierarchy.” [xx] This maverick halachic practice would challenge the norm, split the community, and result in untold cases of questionable Jewish status, but Open Orthodoxy has no problem with that. Is performing a conversion that will be rejected by mainstream Orthodoxy a service to the convert? The rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat ought to think hard about this one.
Open Orthodox “mikveh movement” endeavors grossly undermine the sanctity and privacy of mikveh and fly in the face of current efforts to protect and fortify such; the Open Orthodox responses to the recent Geirus (conversion) issue likewise jeopardize the stability of conversions worldwide. Mikveh and Geirus have been looted and hijacked to further the Open Orthodox agenda, despite the extreme damage thereby caused.
A Cross-Currents article published this past July [xxi] noted that the boundaries of modesty and traditional values were being trampled upon by Open Orthodox rabbinical education, as Open Orthodox rabbinical students were taught about marital sex by a female sex therapist, and the students entertained topics such as “Saying Kaddish for a Gay Partner” in other rabbinical school classes. Prior to Yom Kippur of this year, the YCT rosh yeshiva delivered an incredibly provocative lecture:
Listen to Rabbi Dov Linzer’s shiur exploring the topic of the erotic imagery surrounding the Kohen’s Gadol’s entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, with a brief look at the encounter God has with the Temple on Sukkot [xxii].
In this lecture, we are told that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) performed a symbolic act of sexual intercourse upon entering the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim (Holy of Holies) on Yom Kippur, that the Paroches (Curtain of the Holy of Holies) represented the curtains of a bedroom relating to the sexual act, and that the Ketores (Incense) burned in the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim was associated with an aura of sexual seduction. While it is true that the metaphoric physical connection between Hashem and the Jewish People as depicted in some Torah sources is representative of an immense chibah (endearment) between Hashem and His People, with the sources applying physical references in order to make this chibah relationship understandable to man and appreciated for its intensity (and such is the foundation of Shir Ha-Shirim/Song of Songs), the YCT rosh yeshiva, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction, with his focus and language more interested in a suggestive, physical, graphic erotic act than in the chibah. In his lecture, the YCT rosh yeshiva debases the subject and entertains his audience with the bold implication that, “Guess what? There is a lot of sexual stuff in the Yom Kippur Avodah (Service). Let’s talk about this erotica and get into the graphic imagery of it. It is ‘kosher sex’…” The referenced recording of this lecture speaks for itself. [xxiii]
When religion degenerates into nivul peh (sexually suggestive discussion), debasing that which is spiritually sublime and desecrating that which is holy, all begins to erode and lose its sense of sanctity and venerability. Religion becomes a heathen orgy, directed to the service of self rather than being a form of submission to the Divine. And respect for the Divine is also thereby fatally compromised.
Case in point: Explaining God’s message to the Jewish People on Shemini Atzeres of “Kashah alay p’raidaschem” – “Your departure from Me at the conclusion of Sukkos is difficult; please remain with Me for one extra day for a private celebration,” [xxiv] one well-known Open Orthodox rabbi from Riverdale, who refers to himself as non-denominational and who serves on the Yeshivat Maharat advisory board, described why the Creator seeks for B’nei Yisroel to remain with Him to celebrate a final day of Yom Tov:
It’s funny to talk about God’s wants and needs… But that’s clearly what we want to say as a community about God: God has issues, like all of us.…There’s something very compelling about God having issues. Yes, we need God on these holidays, but God needs us, too [xxv].
Yes, shockingly, this Open Orthodox rabbi assigns emotional impairment to Hashem (!). Not only is this highly blasphemous and utterly nonsensical, but it reveals Open Orthodoxy’s cavalier stance toward that which is Most Holy: play loose with it and feel free to bring it down, for everything goes and the Kodesh can be debased.
No, Open Orthodox attitudes had nothing to do with the recent stunning alleged crimes of immorality, but yes, Open Orthodox attitudes and actions seriously impede the community’s attempt and need to restore a palpable sense of sanctity and sacred dignity to the Torah’s most private institutions.
As we depart from Parshas Noach, in which “ki hishchis kol basar es darko al ha-aretz” – “all forms of life defiled their ways on the earth” through deviation from their holy and natural charge [xxvi] – let us move forward and embody the example of Avrohom Avinu (Abraham our Forefather), whom Rav Soloveitchik explained represented total and unqualified submission to the Divine charge, and through whose holy path was the world redeemed.
[ii] Oct. 21 Facebook post by senior YCT administrator and http://morethodoxy.org/2014/10/29/the-torah-value-of-decentralized-power-by-rabbi-hyim-shafner/ The author of the latter argues that Geirus should be decentralized, following the lead of the Biblical prophetic system, in which each prophet was independent, and Shmuel the Prophet chastised the Jewish People for seeking a king, who would be vested with centralized powers. This example forms the author’s case against a centralized Geirus system. However, the author’s argument is sorely lacking, for while it is true that the prophetic system is largely “decentralized”, the legal- judicial system in Judaism is anything but. The three-tiered legal-judicial system, comprised of Beis Din Ha-Gadol, Sanhedrin Ketanah and Beis Din shel Sheloshah Semuchim (Supreme Rabbinic Court, Large-Scale Rabbinic Court and Lower Rabbinic Court), with the first of the three the ultimate arbiter and final authority and each of the prior maintaining a hierarchy over each of the latter, consists of total centralization. This is how legal systems need to operate, and Geirus is indeed a legal procedure that far better fits into the beis din example than into the prophetic one (although obviously the personal/spiritual aspect of Geirus is at core of a true convert’s motivation and drive). Open Orthodoxy has spoken out on countless occasions in favor of rabbinic autonomy in Geirus (see, e.g., http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/end-the-chief-rabbinates-monopoly/ and http://www.jewishideas.org/minhamuvhar/conversion-crisis), yet it has failed to speak out in favor of maintaining Geirus standards that assure the concert’s acceptance as Jewish.
[x] http://www.jidaily.com/LPd , http://www.jta.org/2013/06/17/default/what-does-an-orthodox-ordination-certificate-look-like
[xxii] https://www.facebook.com/YCTRabbinicalSchool, https://www.facebook.com/YCTRabbinicalSchool
[xxiii] In another pre-Yom Kippur discussion, an Open Orthodox rabbi from Riverdale argued against the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, as it is used to promote “homophobia”:
“I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
“As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.” http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/the-canteen/2014/10/02/promises-for-my-gay-children-reflections-of-an-orthodox-rabbi-for-yom-kippur/
It should be noted that this rabbi, who was one of the first people ordained at YCT, is married to a cantor (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/the-canteen/author/aviorlow/page/2/), and that a current YCT rabbinical student is married to a student enrolled in Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (http://www.mishkanhaam.org/beresheit/about/leadership/rabbieducation-director/). As noted in an earlier article (http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2014/07/27/open-orthodoxy-and-the-rebirth-of-the-conservative-movement/), a recent YCT graduate, who is now a rebbe there, is married to a Conservative rabbi.
[xxiv] V. Rashi on Vayikra 23:36
[xxvi] Bereshis 6:12 with Midrash and Commentaries
Rabbi Gordimer is a kashrus professional, a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.