‘Your Semicha Or Your Wife’


Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school appears to be withholding ordination next month from a student who participated in a “partnership minyan,” in which women lead certain elements of the Shabbat service, The Jewish Week has learned.

On hearing of the case, several YU-ordained local rabbis said they were stunned by the move, even though they are opposed to such services.

“I think it’s an outrage,” said the rabbi of a large congregation who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s not the way to handle this situation.”

But, contrary to discussion on the Internet in recent days, a source close to the case said the issue was not about participation in the service. Rather, it hinged on whether the student was willing to acknowledge that he should consult with his rabbinic authorities before participating in a minyan that is not acceptable to traditional halachic authorities.

While YU does not revoke semicha (ordination) from its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS, graduates, the student in question is, in effect, in limbo. He has completed his five years of classes and tests, but he has not been conferred with ordination.

“Does he understand and agree that he is bound by the halachic process? That’s what this is about,” the source said.

While some observers say the decision underscores a significant shift to the right, religiously, at YU, others suggest that it reflects a heavy-handed political position that could damage the school’s image in the community.

In a letter to the RIETS student, due to receive ordination at YU’s Chag Ha Semicha ordination ceremony March 23, Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean of RIETS, asserted that “not all individuals given the title of ‘rabbi’ are entitled to serve as decisors of Jewish law.” The letter says this is “especially true when breaking new ground in areas unforeseen to earlier generations or when taking public stances on matters of Jewish law that are in opposition to all recognized aposkim [halachic decisors].”

The great majority of halachic sources prohibit the partnership minyan, a relatively new form of worship that gives roles to women that are technically allowed but, until now, not practiced. A recent article by Rabbis Dov and Aryeh Frimmer in Tradition, a scholarly Orthodox publication, makes a strong case against it; minority positions taken by Rabbi Daniel Sperber and Mendel Shapiro, respected scholars, have been accepting.

Most recently, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at RIETS, issued a responsa firmly prohibiting the practice. He also banned females praying with tefillin.

His argument is primarily based on social and political concerns and rooted in the concept that only a rabbinic decisor is qualified to rule. Deeply respected for his vast Talmudic knowledge, Rabbi Schachter has been criticized by some rabbis who question the severity of his pronouncement. One called it “Rav Schachter’s Fatwa” because of its harsh tone, suggesting that those who participate in such services amount to heretics.

But the source close to those making decisions at YU pointed out that the RIETS rabbis calling on the rabbinic student to conform to halachic standards did not include Rabbi Schachter, and their demand took place several months ago.

“This had nothing to do with Rabbi Schachter or his recent responsa,” the source said.

Partnership minyanim have become popular in some cities in recent years, notably the Shira Chadashah community in Jerusalem and Darchei Noam on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The RIETS student in question, who asked to remain anonymous at this point, told The Jewish Week that his intention had been to have a one-time partnership minyan in his home so that his wife, who had been ill, could be called to the Torah and recite a blessing of gratitude after her recovery.

He said that the letter from Rabbi Penner is “out there” on the Internet and receiving a great deal of attention in Orthodox circles. He added that he is in conversation with authorities in RIETS in an effort to resolve the standoff.

The letter from Rabbi Penner notes that graduates of RIETS “are entitled to their personal opinions on halachic matters … and may publicize their views as opinions that are not halachically binding.” But it says they are “expected to defer, in matters of normative practice, to the opinions of recognized poskim.”

One Orthodox professor of Jewish history said the decision to withhold semicha on the basis of taking part in a questionable religious service marked “the haredization of Modern Orthodoxy.”

But another knowledgeable source urged calm, saying the issue over the individual rabbinical student no doubt will be resolved soon and that “nothing of substance has changed.”

In the meantime, the rabbinic student in question said that while his intent had been to host the partnership minyan just once, at the request of his wife, he is now is unwelcome in his community’s Orthodox synagogue, and he has held subsequent services in his home. Compounding the situation: “The people who came like it,” he said.