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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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.