For all you religion wonks who can’t get enough parsing of the nuances of Modern Orthodoxy (it’s JTA style to use the capital "M," not mine), I thought I’d post some more detail (i.e. the Rashi) that I didn’t have room to shoehorn into my story on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which is transitioning from its founding president, Rabbi Avi Weiss, to Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago.
The nagging problem that hasn’t gone away for Chovevei (a.k.a. YCT) is the ongoing debate over whether the rabbinical school is kosher enough by Orthodox standards – whatever that means. That’s the crux of the thorny relationship Chovevei has with the Rabbinical Council of America and the National Council of Young Israel. Even the Orthodox Union isn’t eager to be associated with the school. (See here for why.)
When it comes to the RCA, Chovevei applied for accreditation from the rabbinic association in 2007 but withdrew its application while it was still under review, citing an arduous process. The withdrawal brought at least a temporary halt to what was becoming an ugly fight: The RCA was ambivalent about Chovevei and was making the application process difficult, and a resentful Chovevei subsequently withdrew its application. That gave both sides a face-saving way out of a confrontation.
However, as the excerpts below from my interviews make clear, the resentment and ambivalence remain.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, RCA president:
Our policy is at this point that smicha from Chovevei Torah is not an accepted smicha in the RCA. In order to be accepted in the RCA, an institution has to present its credentials, and then a study is done to determine whether or not it should be admitted to the RCA.
YCT applied many years ago… When questions developed, it agreed to withdraw its application. So at this point, that is where it stands… Graduates of that yeshiva have smicha that has not been fully vetted and not been accepted by the RCA. If a graduate of that school decided to go for a secondary smicha, and that includes a private smicha if that private smicha is acceptable to the RCA, they could be accepted… There is a Smicha Standards Committee that determines what individuals and institutions get accreditation.
Obviously, YCT presents itself as being an institution on the cutting edge of the liberal end of the Orthodox community… If the discussion came back to the fore and the application was again presented… there would have to be due diligence if the yeshiva as an institution has positions that would be antithetical or outside the spectrum that we feel acceptable.
The red lines would be what we consider to be appropriate halachic standards, and also appropriate philosophical standards… RCA took a position when the whole rabba controversy erupted that while we are very much in favor of women’s leadership roles in Jewish community, we don’t believe that a woman rabbi is a construct that’s acceptable. If YCT were to admit women, that would be a red line. They don’t at this point.
There are certain [other] standards… appropriate tefila [prayer] service. No women’s Torah reading in a mixed setting. No women chazzans in a mixed setting.
Steven Lieberman, Chovevei’s chairman of the board:
It used to be two to three years ago that people would ask what was wrong with YCT that YCT rabbis were not being accepted rabbis; now they ask what’s wrong with the RCA.
We’d like to end that breach. We’d like to work with the RCA. We would love for our rabbis to be members of the RCA, and we’d love for our members to be part of the Young Israel. But we don’t need the RCA, and we don’t need Young Israel. We’d like to have relationships with both of them. But YCT is doing just fine without having its rabbis as members of the RCA… This whole dispute is just politics… The quality of YCT grads is undeniable.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, Chovevei’s founder and outgoing president:
I wish we could be part of the RCA, but I really don’t pay any attention to that at all… What we’re finding is there are synagogues all over the country who are davka [specifically] calling and want a Chovevei rabbi… In 90 percent of Orthodox communities it’s a non-issue. We feel we are very strong partners with the OU.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Chovevei’s incoming president:
I’m not sure people are looking at national organizations like the RCA as bellwethers anymore… The people are really looking at getting the rabbi that works for them… Of course I would love the RCA to welcome Chovevei rabbis… I’m a member of the RCA. I want to work also with Young Israel to let them see what Chovevei is about.
The National Council of Young Israel has moved to thwart Chovevei rabbis from taking over Young Israel affiliates by requiring that all new pulpit rabbis be vetted by the national organization. At least one Chovevei graduate rabbi has served as an assistant rabbi at a Young Israel synagogue – Rabbi Jason Weiner, who was at the Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles before becoming the Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai hospital. (NCYI did not return a request for interview for my story.)
We’ve been approached by some Young Israel who were interested, but the problem is the National Council of Young Israel has been hostile… They have made it clear to the individual Young Israel congregations that any rabbi who is hired has to be vetted by the national organization, and the national group has not been welcoming to YCT rabbis. [Similarly,] the National Council passed a resolution saying no Young Israel shul can have a woman or a convert as president. We believe this position is halachically indefensible and absurd.
Both Lopatin and Weiss cited Chovevei’s warm relationship with the Orthodox Union, which has hundreds of member synagogues (including Young Israel affiliates). Most Chovevei pulput rabbis are at OU shuls. However, the OU’s executive vice president emeritus, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, went out of his way to note that the OU does not actually have any formal relationship with Chovevei.
We really have no formal relationships at all with the school as a school. We have all sorts of relationships with individual rabbis from the school. We have no programs that we do jointly. Certainly we’re not at war with them or anything like that, it’s not our place to do that. We have warm relationships on a personal level, but institutionally we really have no formal connection.
To conclude this overly long blogpost, I’ll give Weiss the last word — a bit of his vision for Chovevei, and for rabbis generally.
[When we started] there was a desperate need, and when we came in we were reacting to what I perceived as a rightward shift in the Orthodox community… The major change is we are no longer a reaction. We now have a proactive mission of graduating open Orthodox rabbis who can impact on all Jews regardless of affiliation or background.
Certainly rabbis have to be knowledgeable, but if you ask me what the rabbinate is about, I tell the chevre the rabbinate is about simply being there for people. Before these courses on leadership, you need a cup of love. The most important love is you have to love your people. You have to love all people, but you have to love Am Yisrael.