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April 16, 2004

Diatribe Against Y.U. Robs Students’ Night

Amid reporting on the chaos engendered by Howard Jonas’ comments at the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah annual dinner, the Forward neglected to focus on the real celebration of the evening: a group of six young men who have committed themselves to serve the Jewish community selflessly (“Philanthropist Attacks University for Right Turn,” April 2).

The Forward neglected to focus on the fact that Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, has always taught that one builds, not by criticizing others but by sharing a dream and working tirelessly to make it into reality.

For me, the sweetest moment of the night should have been enjoying the honor bestowed upon my congregants and close friends, Stewart and Gloria Harris. Instead, the sweetest moment was at Ma’ariv, after the event, when students of Chovevei Torah were visibly upset by Jonas’ disparaging remarks. In his address he not only attacked Yeshiva University but the Lubabvitch movement, and the government of Israel. The students’ distaste for his remarks was the best indication that the Chovevei Torah staff, many of whom are dear friends, have touched their students’ mind and the soul.

If Jonas thinks that Modern Orthodoxy has its challenges in New York, I invite him to spend some time in New York’s sixth borough — South Florida. Rabbis Norman Lamm, Herschel Schachter and Mordechai Willig, and their colleagues at Yeshiva University, have taught many of us to be totally committed to the ideals of centrist orthodoxy, to disagree agreeably with colleagues but never to surrender the ideals of tolerance, openness and creativity.

I will always admire Jonas for his support and leadership in the Jewish community. What he has done few will do in this generation. However, I believe that the students of Chovevei Torah were robbed of a wonderful moment. Y.U. and its leadership were challenged in an inappropriate forum and the Jewish people were once again embroiled in unfortunate rhetoric.

Am Yisrael has enough challenges. We need the graduates of RIETS and Chovevei Torah to work for our people with an uncompromising commitment to Ahavat Chinam — unconditional love for all Jews whatever path they embrace.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander


Weinbaum Yeshiva High School & Boca Raton Community Kollel

Boca Raton, Fla.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah claims it was founded in order to offer an Orthodoxy that is “more open and tolerant,” nonjudgemental and more respectful of others. At the yeshiva’s annual dinner, however, Howard Jonas took the occasion to call the Yeshiva University rabbinic and university leadership “gutless and spineless,” as well as “mindless and senseless.”

Jonas is a wonderful philanthropist. But it seems that if the principals of Chovevei Torah wanted to confront the forces of intolerance in Orthodoxy, they could have better started by taking a hard look at themselves.

Daniel Barenholtz

Riverdale, N.Y

The vile remarks of Howard Jonas were sad to me. No one who has ever interacted with Jonas could have been surprised by these remarks — he has said them many other times in many other places. What saddened me was the silence of Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Dov Linzer, Chovevei Torah’s rabbinic leadership, in the face of his remarks. Neither one of them rebuked or distanced themselves from these remarks at all.

Let me suggest two deeply troubling explanations. One is that Weiss and Linzer agree with these remarks, and are just troubled that they were voiced in this context. That would be sad as we ought not allow competition among our yeshivas to be so personal and ill tempered. Since I know both of the rabbis well, I find that explanation hard to accept.

The second possibility is that Weiss and Linzer disagree with these remarks and are afraid to speak out so as to avoid antagonizing the largest donor to their yeshiva. If that is so, the silence of the rabbinic leadership of Chovevei Torah can be purchased with a big check. Chovevei Torah would then be an institution that believes in the American version of the golden rule — he who has the gold, makes the rules.

Although I think there is a need for more modern Orthodox yeshivas in America, and my heart is with the religious mission of Chovevei Torah, the last thing we need is a Modern Orthodox yeshiva that is run by rabbis who are afraid to speak the truth due to the financial consequences of speaking the truth to wealthy people — that is, simply put, not a model worthy of support by the Orthodox community.

I would rather support a slightly more rightward institution run by people of integrity — Yeshiva University, for example.

Steven Yam

Riverdale, N.Y.

Columnist’s Culture War Bias Thinly Disguised

And now another piece of liberal bashing, only this one stretches some 2100 years back to the Maccabees to create a far-fetched and convoluted attack on liberalism and secularism (“Culture Wars, Take Two,” March 26).

Opinion columnist David Klinghoffer would have us believe that the contemporary contretemps between liberals and conservatives over sexual politics and more specifically gay marriage is a mere reflection of the struggle of an earlier era where sex-consumed Jewish liberals and their excesses caused Antiochus IV’s desecration of the Temple. He suggests that the Hellenists were so extreme that they “did everything but institute gay marriage.”

Klinghoffer writes that then, as now, they (the liberals) were so focused on their libido that for the Hellenists and their contemporary progressive and secular fellow travelers, sex is “the central issue.”

For Klinghoffer, liberals are just social climbers, unprincipled and lacking moral, ethical or ideological standards who are so embarrassed in their social standing that they will go to any lengths just to prove themselves better then anyone else regardless of the consequences.

Finally, he contrasts these liberal social climbers with the heroic, religious, traditionalist Maccabees, who stood their principled ground with passion and commitment and eventually prevailed against these effete, comfort-seeking seducers.

So, Chanukah is the story of how the Maccabees saved Judaism from liberal sex fiends. Sounds like talk radio trash to me.

According to Klinghoffer, the Maccabees won because they were more sincere and were even prepared to die for their views and that their liberal opponents didn’t have the stomach for the fight. Klinghoffer fails to mention critical economic and political issues.

This was a revolt of the masses against the classes. The rebellion would never have succeeded without the widespread support from the urban lower classes and the peasants, who however religiously committed were strongly opposed to the merchants and landowners.

Klinghoffer says that he is watching the contemporary ideological battle from the sidelines and is curious to see how it turns out.

It sounds to this reader like he is not at all on the outside but rather a tendentious, passionate partisan of a very well-defined ideology, which is not very difficult to discover.

Edward Orbach

Long Island City, N.Y.

Call to Open Hearts Roots Yoga in Liturgy

In a February 27 letter to the editor, a Forward reader suggests that, by treating the Shema prayer as a call to openheartedness, I have stripped this sacred part of the Jewish liturgy of all meaning (“Yoga Service Empties Judaism of Content”).

The letter writer is mistaken on two counts. First, he insinuates that to associate the Shema with openheartedness is to discard the prayer’s myriad symbols and meanings. Second, he fails to recognize the idea of openheartedness as an important aspect of Jewish faith and prayer, not only for Jewish yoga practitioners, but for Jewish worshippers of every stripe.

The Shema and the blessing that follows, known as the V’ahavta, signify an acceptance of the yoke of God’s kingdom and commandments.

Jewish prayer, however, is not strictly a contractual exercise, but a daily act designed to help us internalize ideas about our relationship with God and God’s creation and to recognize God’s immanent presence in our lives.

In traditional Jewish prayer, we recite the words in the prayer book while using symbols such as the prayer shawl, music, and choreographed bowing to nurture our connection to God. The Yoga Minyan simply employs a broader range of choreographed body movements to add another dimension to the spiritual intention of our prayer.

The prayers that precede and follow the Shema speak of God’s love for us and of our love for God. The postures that we assume for these prayers are an embodiment of these emotions.

Ideally, prayer should move us to act more in consonance with God’s will. To that end, in the Yoga Minyan we use our bodies in addition to our hearts and minds in an effort to bind ourselves closer to God.

In this way, we can stand, bow and stretch out our arms in praise of the Creator of our bodies, whom we refer to in our morning prayers as the Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of Life.

Rabbi Andrea London

Beth Emet The Free Synagogue

Evanston, Ill.

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