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  • The Yeshiva University Letter That’s Riling Up the Modern Orthodox World

    by Steven I. Weiss

    The story of the almost-rabbi who’s having his rabbinic ordination, or semicha, withheld by Yeshiva University is going around social media today, thanks to this report by Gary Rosenblatt of The New York Jewish Week.

    At issue in particular is the almost-rabbi’s having led or participated in so-called “partnership minyanim,” or prayer services that are somewhat more egalitarian than the average Orthodox service, but less egalitarian than the fully-egalitarian Conservative services.

    Here is the actual letter from the dean of Yeshiva’s rabbinical seminary to the almost-rabbi:

    Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
    An Affiliate of Yeshiva University

    January 13, 2014

    Dear Shalom,

    Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS is a title of honor and authority given to students of its yeshiva who successfully complete their exams in halakhah, prove themselves as competent talmideí chakhamim and complete and a rigorous curriculum of professional training. It is also, however, an acknowledgement that goes beyond proof of the completion of the sum of the parts of its curriculum. Ordination is a “stamp of approval” through which an institution asserts that its graduates represent the principles of its Yeshiva. The language written upon the klaf of each musmakh – “Yoreh Yoreh” does not imply unlimited permission to guide others in matters of Jewish law; it assumes that the musmakh will provide such hora’ah in keeping with the principles of the granting institution. Semikha is a “leaning upon” – a transfer of authority for Jewish law passed from one generation to the next, conferred upon the graduates of RIETS as they take their place in the Jewish community.

    One of the central principles of RlETS is a fealty to halakhah and the halakhíc process. The system of halakha at the core of RIETS is one which recognizes that not all individuals given the title of “rabbi” are entitled to serve as decisors of Jewish law. 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 poskim. While graduates of RIETS are not necessarily expected to follow the dictates of one of its Roshei Yeshiva, they are certainly expected to discuss sensitive halakhic issues with their rebbeim muvhakím and look to the psak of individuals who would be recognized by their Roshei Yeshiva as legitimate poskim. Following the halakhic opinion of a scholar or rabbi who is not recognized as a posek would represent a fundamental breach in the mesorah of the establishment of normative halakhah.

    This is even more so in areas involving public worship and other public issues. While a variety of views may be espoused by graduates of RIETS, it is important that any such view to be followed in practice be championed by a recognized posek. This includes areas of established Jewish custom and public ritual where changes represent a significant deviation from time-honored practice – even when there are no purely halakhic issues at stake. Indeed, the communal authority vested in each musmakh demands that decisions, and certainly decisions in controversial areas of Jewish thought and practice, be made in consultation with the proper authorities.

    Musmakhim of RIETS, along with all learned individuals, are entitled to their personal opinions on halakhíc matters and the halakhic system as it functions today and may publicize their views as opinions that are not halakhícally binding. However, they are expected to defer, in matters of normative practice, to the opinions of recognized poskim.

    In the specific matter of “partnership minyanim,” and women’s aliyot la-Torah: As this practices are deemed prohibited by all recognized poskim, public espousal of these practices would run counter to the principles stated above. Therefore, a musmakh of RIETS would be expected to not participate in such activities nor create a public impression that he supports such activities in normative practice.

    You, Shalom, are a dear talmid of RIETS and a future leader of klal Yisrael. Though you are heading into the field of medicine, you will most certainly be looked to for guidance and leadership in whichever community or communities you choose to settle. It would be our honor, and it would be of great benefit to the community, if you could be a musmakh of RIETS.

    Rabbi Charlop, shlita, Rabbi Wieder shlita and l sincerely hope that the principles stated above are ones you can subscribe to. We understand that this is not a simple decision on your part. Please answer us in writing, affirming or denying your ability to agree to these principles. Your response can be sent via e-mail to penner@yu.edu or in the mail to Office of the Dean:
    515 West 1:35th street, suite 632, New York, NY 10033.

    Rabbi Menachem Penner
    Acting Dean, RIETS

    Update:
    Yeshiva University released the following statement on February 27th:

    Yeshiva University and its affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) today issued the following statement in response to media reports that one of our rabbinical students may be denied ordination due to his participation in a “partnership minyan”:

    To be clear, the issue at hand has never been just about partnership minyanim, nor was there consideration of condemning or punishing a student for a single misdeed. RIETS does not recognize assertions that such services are halakhically valid. The student’s participation in such a minyan, however, was the catalyst for discussion with him about the process of interpreting Jewish law and acceptable approaches to making decisions about complex halakhic issues. Those discussions raised concerns that the student’s views on the halakhic process differed sharply from those of the entire rabbinic faculty of RIETS, prompting the yeshiva to question the granting of our seal of approbation called semikhah. At the student’s request, a written summary of the principles of our institution as discussed in our meetings was provided to enable him to make his decision in good faith.

    We are proud of the young Torah scholars who study in our Batei Midrash, and all of our graduates, including this young man, are trained and equipped to respond to halakhic questions. At the same time, we maintain that some questions require consultation with more experienced authorities, whether within or beyond the walls of our yeshiva. We expect our students to guide others in matters of Jewish law in accordance with the principles of the yeshiva and its long-standing traditions.

    We are pleased to share that an agreement has been reached with the student reflective of his commitment to the principles of our institution stated above. The student will, with over 225 others, receive his ordination as part of a record class of graduates at our quadrennial Chag Hasemikhah celebration next month.

    February 26, 2014 | Read more Newsdesk posts. 23 Comments »

    Comments

    23 Comments »

    1. Given the heated context, you should openly confirm that this letter was leaked with “Shalom’s” permission, or that his name was changed. Otherwise, this seems like a major breach of privacy.

      Comment by ben — February 26, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

    2. No, I shouldn’t. Thanks for commenting.

      Comment by Steven I. Weiss — February 26, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

    3. Thanks for publishing the very problematic letter. For sure this is grounds for a major lawsuit. This vague stipulation makes little sense to me. But if you are going to require it as a condition for ordination, you must do so at the beginning of the first enrollment of the student. You cannot change the rules in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, fourth quarter with 10 seconds left on the clock. Most astonishingly you have to step back take a deep breath. Nothing terrible would occur if Orthodoxy allowed their women to be called to the Torah or count for a minyan. It would be a great thing. This is a catastrophic error by YU.

      Comment by tzvee — February 26, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

    4. I wonder if RIETS would ever consider “taking away” their semicha from a rabbinical school graduate of its institution if he was found to be participating in a partnership minyan?

      Comment by Glattsomequestions — February 26, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

    5. I emailed Penner asking him if he wants my semicha back. I’m waiting to see what he says.

      Comment by tzvee — February 26, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

    6. Heard a rumor from someone who knows the student in question who told me that RIETS has reconsidered–and has now invited this student to the Chag Hasemicha. Can anyone confirm this?

      Comment by Glattsomequestions — February 26, 2014 @ 9:41 pm

    7. Penner answered me. He won’t take my semicha back.

      Comment by tzvee — February 26, 2014 @ 11:34 pm

    8. This is terribly unfortunate and unfair to the student. It probably could have been avoided. At the very least he should get a ‘refund’ of compensation for lost time.

      However I do understand that YU needs to maintain it brand. I have been told many times that because a rabbi was ordained by YU, the actions he allowed were ok. This despite the fact that they were clearly breaking a bunch of av melachot on shabbat.

      Comment by mhe — February 27, 2014 @ 2:37 am

    9. Tzvee, I thought they already had taken it back when you quoted the Rav differently than R. Schachter remembers. This makes me glad I dropped out of YU Semicha. It was already being run idiotically ten years ago and has only gotten worse.

      Comment by Avif — February 27, 2014 @ 7:00 am

    10. Tzvee, I imagine that R’ Penner figures you’ve done a good enough job destroying your own reputation and career without YU having to help.

      Comment by Nachum — February 27, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    11. Did I ever meet you Nachum? Did I step on your toe or cut you off on the road or steal your girlfriend? Or are you obnoxious to everyone?

      Comment by tzvee — February 27, 2014 @ 10:09 am

    12. My emails to Dean of Rabbis Marc Penner.

      Would you like me to mail my semicha back to you?
      [Link to my post]

      Tzvee Zahavy
      RIETS 73

      No, I doubt that’s necessary. We do not take back semikha and are not about to start doing so.

      In an attempt to protect the dignity and confidentiality of the student, the yeshiva has kept quiet about the issues in this case. The actions of the yeshiva were not, as you present them, a punitive measure relating to a minyan that he held in his home.

      Kol tuv

      Rabbi Marc Penner
      646-660-5858
      Sent from my iPad (please excuse any mistakes)

      Thanks for your reply. I am surprised to hear [back] from you.

      I do not write news or research stories. I only comment and offer opinion after others have already published materials. In this case I relied on the account by Gary [Rosenblatt] in the Jewish Week and on the TJC story as I cited. You may want to straighten Gary out – on or off the record.

      And no. I don’t buy it. If you wanted to protect the dignity of the student you would not have written him that letter. I have no way of knowing what you are punishing a student for doing – but that letter was not the way to issue a reprimand. I’d hurry and retract it all if I were you [by saying,] “Yeshiva does not demand loyalty oaths or fealty statements from their students. It is unfortunate that I was misinterpreted.”

      Good luck.

      Tzvee

      Comment by tzvee — February 27, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    13. Tzvee, calling Nahum obnoxious is somewhat akin to the pot calling the kettle black. Do you really think anyone really cares about your silly correspondence with Rabbi Penner? I visited your websites and it appears you have no shortage of self-esteem, to put it mildly. Which is surprising, since when you were my instructor at Brown (you were studying for your PhD under Neusner) the impression you made was underwhelming to say the least.

      Comment by Steve Shoenbrun — February 27, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    14. [...] activities in normative practice,” The New York Jewish Week reported Thursday. The letter was posted on The Jewish Channel’s [...]

      Pingback by Yeshiva U. agrees to ordain student it rebuked over ‘partnership minyan’ | The Chronicles — February 27, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

    15. Tzvee, while you’re of course entitled to your own views, perhaps you should consider not publicly publishing the someone’s personal cell phone number on the internet after he graciously responded to you in a private e-mail.

      Comment by Anonymous — February 28, 2014 @ 7:28 am

    16. ” At the student’s request, a written summary of the principles of our institution as discussed in our meetings was provided ”

      I’d like to see that.

      Comment by tzvee — February 28, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

    17. Steve, If the dean at Brown changes your grade now, you might not have a degree any more. If you learned anything here, it is be careful what you say to your teachers :-)

      Comment by tzvee — February 28, 2014 @ 3:24 pm

    18. Good point. I guess I had better watch my manners or the degree I received in the seventies could be revoked. ;-) Anyway sorry if I came down a bit hard on you. I was having a bad hair day.

      Comment by Steve Shoenbrun — March 1, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

    19. I wonder if all these self-righteous firebrands would be as upset if Reform’s HUC refused to ordain a rabbi because they found out he maintained homosexuality was a mental illness and a sin.

      Comment by aron — March 1, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

    20. Tzvee, unlike you, apparently, I am proud and grateful to my alma mater and don’t believe in taking cheap shots at it. So no, you’ve never offended me personally. But your grandstanding (why write and publicize a letter that you never expected a response to) and rigidity (why bother with it if no response would change your mind), not to mention your lack of hakarat hatov (this is only the latest in your attacks on YU, some much better publicized) do, in fact, make me angry. And thus my not-so-gentle reminder about stones and glass houses.

      Comment by Nachum — March 2, 2014 @ 6:56 am

    21. Nachum, I have extolled Yeshiva University in specific terms with my glowing published accounts of my teachers Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Professors Edward Levy, Leopold Flatto and Manfred Weidhorn, and with numerous other accolades that I have bestowed upon my alma mater. Your anger is misplaced, and it is bad for your own health. Perhaps you should work on that.

      Comment by tzvee — March 5, 2014 @ 12:28 am

    22. I had Professor Weidhorn. He was great.

      Comment by Nachum — March 5, 2014 @ 4:50 am

    23. [...] a public impression that he supports such activities in normative practice,” said the letter, a copy of which was posted online by The Jewish [...]

      Pingback by Partnership minyans grow among the Orthodox grassroots, despite leaders’ condemnations « AZ Jewish Post — March 11, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

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