Why Is Orthodoxy Packing Up Big Tent?

Decades of Inclusivity Laid Foundation for Growth

courtesy of YCT

By Jonathan Sarna

Published November 06, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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Readers of Israel’s Haaretz.com, many of them liberal and secular, must have been surprised to read, in late October, a public manifesto, signed by 42 members of the Rabbinical Council of America castigating “Open Orthodox rabbis and leaders” in the United States.

The signatories — none of them, it should be noted, an officer of the RCA — charged their own colleague, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, and other leaders of Open Orthodoxy, with “unilaterally violating normative Orthodox laws, customs and traditions,” and with plunging ahead “again and again, across the border that divides Orthodoxy from neo-Conservatism.” If the Open Orthodox “feel some distance developing between themselves and mainstream Orthodoxy,” the manifesto concluded, they had only themselves to blame.

As readers of the Forward know, Lopatin, the new president of the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, had already been feeling a little “roughed up” from attacks on him by the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel and the right-wing Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne’eman. In an earlier article in Haaretz.com, Lopatin argued in defense of his institution that “no one has the authority or the religious standing to write someone out of Orthodoxy.” Recalling the disastrous effects of previous heresy-hunting efforts in Judaism, such as the persecution of the Sadducees and the Hasidim, he called upon his Orthodox colleagues to “respect each other’s understanding of what Orthodoxy is.”

The public manifesto in Haaretz represented some of those colleagues’ less-than-respectful response to Lopatin’s plea. The manifesto carried the headline “Violating Orthodox Law and Custom, Dividing Our Community.”

Beyond the irony that an internal debate among American Orthodox rabbis was published in a secular newspaper that many Israeli Orthodox rabbis refuse even to read lay a deeper historical irony. When the RCA was established in 1935, its own members had to defend themselves against charges that they were violating Orthodox law and custom and dividing the community.

The men who leveled those charges were members of the Agudath Harabonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis), founded in 1902 by European-trained rabbis who represented Judaism’s right wing. They believed that only those ordained in traditional European talmudic academies and personally ordained by an Eastern European rabbinic luminary had the right to carry the title “rabbi.” Most of those rabbis who were ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the seminary of what was then known as Yeshiva College, were barred from the organization. European-trained rabbis harbored many doubts concerning the secular studies taught at the college. One well-known rabbi, Elchanan Wasserman privately described the institution as “a center of apikursus [heresy] and shmad [apostasy].”

As the number of American-trained Orthodox rabbis swelled, it became necessary, since the Agudath Harabonim would not admit them, to create a new rabbinic organization for English-speaking rabbis trained in America. That organization, the product of a merger among several smaller ones, became the Rabbinical Council of America. One of its earliest public statements, according to its longtime member and historian, Rabbi Louis Bernstein, looked to refute an article written by a leader of the Agudath Harabonim declaring that only its members “were really rabbis while all others were deceiving the public.”


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