‘Who Is a Taoist?’ Principal’s Job Hinged on Definition

Academic politics are often esoteric and never pretty. But in what appears to be a first, the fate of a middle-school principal in West Orange, N.J., was determined by a rabbinic debate over the definition of “who is a Taoist.”

For months, Aaron Kriegel, a pulpit rabbi in West Essex, N.J., has urged officials at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union to fire its middle school principal, Arthur Yavelberg. Kriegel pointed to Yavelberg’s participation in an Internet discussion group about the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism as an argument that the principal was unfit for duty at a school that preaches singular devotion to rabbinic law.

In response, Yavelberg insisted that his interest in Taoism was strictly academic — and a three-member rabbinic advisory panel recently ruled in his favor. The panel, made up of local rabbis, agreed that in theory it would be inappropriate for someone who claimed to be a Jew and a Taoist to serve in Yavelberg’s position. The rabbis, however, rejected the argument that Yavelberg’s Internet writings demonstrated a rejection of Judaism or a devotion to another religion.

“Certainly what I saw did not lead me to the conclusion that I was dealing with a heretic here,” said Rabbi Randall Mark, a panel member and the religious leader of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Wayne, N.J. “There are many Jews who participate in transcendental meditation and nobody sees that as a conflict.”

Seth Linfield, headmaster at the Solomon Schechter school for the past two years, told the Forward that he considers the matter closed. Some school officials noted that Kriegel only raised his complaints after Yavelberg denied tenure to Kriegel’s wife, Sarah, who teaches at the school.

The controversy comes after decades of a growing Israeli and American Jewish interest in Eastern religions, reflected in Rodger Kamenetz’s 1994 book “The Jew and The Lotus” and in the boom in Jewish retreat centers. The trend has triggered some debates over the role of spirituality in Judaism and the permissibility of adapting practices from other faiths, but rarely has it found itself in the center of such a bitter feud.

Dartmouth College assistant professor of religion Gil Raz, an Israeli, argued that studying Taoism should not be considered a religious transgression for Jews. “It is nothing like, say, Christianity, in which there is a very specific argument” about God, he said. Taoism asks “very intellectual questions about how the universe actually works [and] those questions can be in conversation with the Jewish tradition because they’re so remote from any really specific action or practice.”

Many of America’s Taoism scholars are Jewish, according to Raz. The professor said he didn’t know of any who had become Taoist.

Taoism — which originated in China along with Confucianism — is a philosophy that dates back thousands of years. Its central concept is the Tao (pronounced “dow,” and literally meaning “the way” in English). The term refers both to an unknowable force that underlies all change and a path to harmony with the universe through various steps, including ridding oneself of desires.

Over the last two years, Yavelberg has participated in the “Applied_Taoism” group on a Yahoo-hosted Internet listserv, billed as “a discussion of Taoism and its interpretation, application and practice in Western society. Kriegel, the religious leader of Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex, said he stumbled on the Web site while looking for information about Yavelberg’s background.

Yavelberg stopped posting in the beginning of April, when Kriegel complained to the school’s headmaster that the principal was participating in a foreign religious tradition.

Yavelberg’s discussions on the list were far ranging: He brought up utilitarianism, tax cuts for the rich and the movies of Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as his approach to life.

“I strive for an approach in which I go about my day-to-day business with a sense of detached diligence,” he wrote in one posting. I am “doing my best at whatever it is, but not getting emotionally involved or attached.”

Kriegel argued that Yavelberg’s writings demonstrate an attachment to another religion, not to mention exceedingly poor judgment.

Responding to a discussion about a Taoist wedding in Australia, in which “a Taoist priest conducted the service, and Taoist scriptures were used,” Yavelberg wrote, “Damn… had I only know[n] that was an option in 1977.”

In several of his posts, Yavelberg mentioned that he is a middle school principal — and described faculty politics — but he did not identify his place of employment. He never referred to himself or the school as Jewish.

“There’s nothing in the postings that suggests — other than our school is privileged — that Mr. Yavelberg is our middle school principal,” Linfield said.

The Kriegels said that on several levels they were upset by the school’s failure to act.

“I asked the headmaster, ‘How many detentions does [Yavelberg] have to get for sitting on the computer on Friday night and Saturday while he sent all the kids to synagogue?’” said Sarah Kriegel, who plans on teaching in the public school system next year.

Randall Mark, who served on the rabbinic panel, said he shared Aaron Kriegel’s view that Yavelberg had presented a bad example by posting his writings on the Internet during the Sabbath. But he said the panel rejected the argument that Yavelberg’s overall behavior represented some sort of rejection of Judaism. The other two rabbis who served on the panel were Allen Silverstein, a former president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinic Assembly and the religious leader of Caldwell, N.J.’s Congregation Agudath Israel, and Stanley Asekoff, religious leader of West Orange’s B’nai Shalom. Yavelberg declined to be interviewed, but last month he sent a letter home to parents that emphasized the need “to make sure our students understand Judaism’s place in a non-Jewish world.”

“There are some who believe that such study somehow detracts from the uniqueness of the Judaism,” Yavelberg wrote. “From a Conservative Movement perspective, however, that is simply not the case. While Judaism is certainly unique, it has never existed in a vacuum.”

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‘Who Is a Taoist?’ Principal’s Job Hinged on Definition

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