Liberal Orthodox Rabbis Starting New ‘fellowship’ to Counter Rightward Shift

To its architects, the agreement reached between the Rabbinical Council of America and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate offers a way out of a long-running dispute over the recognition of conversions performed by American Orthodox rabbis.

But a small group of liberal Orthodox rabbis are unhappy with the deal, which was formally announced Tuesday. They say it represents a broader pattern of what they describe as surrender on the part of the RCA, the primary association of Orthodox rabbis in the United States, to the dictates of a religious establishment in Israel increasingly under the right-wing sway of fervently Orthodox, or haredi, authorities.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Chief Rabbinate approved a list of about 15 RCA rabbinic courts and approximately 40 rabbinic judges whose conversions would be recognized by state authorities in Israel. Courts wishing to be added to the list would need the final approval of Rabbis Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig, two leading rabbis at Yeshiva University who some liberal Orthodox figures blame for the school’s alleged rightward drift.

“Conversion is just symptomatic of the increasing haredization of the establishment of the Orthodox community,” said Marc Angel, the rabbi emeritus of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. “It’s like building higher and higher walls between the Orthodox world and the rest of the world.”

It is that belief which, in part, has led Angel and another New York rabbi, Avi Weiss, to move toward the creation of an alternative network of rabbinic courts that would operate on “non-haredi standards.” The courts would be associated with a new rabbinic organization that Angel and Weiss are establishing to be known as the Rabbinic Fellowship.

Rabbi Basil Herring, the executive vice president of the RCA, told JTA his organization has not taken a formal position on the fellowship. However, he characterized as “false and misleading” Angel’s characterization of the Orthodox rabbinate.

“The standards that have been adopted overwhelmingly by the rank and file and the leadership of the RCA are certainly very mainstream,” Herring said. “They reflect standards that have existed not only over the last decades but indeed for centuries. The RCA, if anything, has been very moderate in terms of its expectations of converts.”

Motivated by similar concerns about the rightward drift of American Orthodoxy, others have tried — and failed — over the past decade to create more liberal Orthodox institutions, including attempts to establish alternate rabbinic courts. But the Angel-Weiss effort is the first to unite a grass-roots association of rabbis with an alternative network of courts and a kind of think tank, the Jewish Institute for Ideas and Ideals.

In October, the fellowship hosted an initial gathering of 33 rabbis — among them Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a former New York rabbi and now the spiritual leader of the West Bank town of Efrat, and at least two members of the RCA’s executive committee. An inaugural conference is slated for April in West Palm Beach, Fla., that Angel hopes will attract 100 rabbis.

Participants in the October meeting cite a number of motivating factors behind the fellowship. Among them are the desire to resist what Angel calls the “authoritarianism” of the Orthodox rabbinate; to create a “safe space” where rabbis can speak their minds freely; to empower local rabbis to make independent halachic decisions; and to provide some organizational umbrella for graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Weiss’ liberal Orthodox seminary.

Chovevei graduates have not been granted membership in the RCA, and Weiss told JTA the seminary withdrew its membership request over a year ago, citing the “arduous” process.

But it is the establishment of the new courts that is likely to generate the most controversy.

Though Weiss and Angel stress that the fellowship is not meant to replace or compete with the RCA — a body in which both continue to retain membership — creating new courts most directly infringes on an area where the RCA has long held sway.

“On the issue of the alternative batei din, that does seem to me like more of a direct conflict than fellowship alone,” said Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Conn., and a participant in the October meeting. “That’s something that’s evolving to be honest. It’s unclear where that’s going to go.”

For its part, the RCA stresses that for innovative legal changes to have any credibility, they must be endorsed by a recognized living halachic luminary, a position Angel derides as a “classic statement of the authoritarianism in Orthodoxy.”

Herring also warned that establishing alternate courts can have a negative impact on the very people they are seeking to help — particularly if, in the case of so-called “chained women” whose husbands refuse them a religious bill of divorce, the woman in question goes on to remarry and bear children.

“What happens if a beit din is not a recognized beit din, without wide acceptance in the Orthodox rabbinic community?” Herring asked. “Has the new beit din helped these women or not helped these women? There is absolutely no question that they have grievously harmed these women.”

Weiss and Angel are not the first rabbis to recoil against the perceived rightward drift of Orthodoxy.

In 1997, a group of Orthodox rabbis and laypeople founded Edah, an organization to advance a liberal Orthodox view under the slogan “The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox.” The organization folded in 2006 and its director, Rabbi Saul Berman, took a position at Chovevei Torah.

Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, established in 2005 at the initiative of President Richard Joel, also was seen by some as an attempt to balance the perceived shif of Orthodoxy and the university to the right.

More recently, a group of religious Zionist rabbis in Israel, Tzohar, faced off against the Chief Rabbinate over the use of a religious loophole allowing farmers to work their land during the sabbatical year.

“We’re not starting at the end of the process. We’re starting with a grass-roots movement,” Angel said. “And we’re going to do it slowly, methodically, and on very solid halachic grounds.

“We’re not interested in making headlines. We’re interested in doing that which is correct for the Jewish people.”

NEXT STORY