Agudah: Avi’s Shul No Longer Orthodox
03/15/2010 - 12:14
James Besser

It’s a strange thing about some liberal rabbis. They knock the concept of “Das Torah” (the unilateral and unquestioned right of sages to guide their community based upon their mastery of Torah) as “arrogant,” “elitist.” But then, when a rabbi such as Avi Weiss wants to create a woman rabbi, and he acts unilaterally, without respecting any communal consensus, based upon what he says is his own mastery and understanding of Torah, he is essentially telling the congregation, “Hey, I’m my own Das Torah.

Except the Agudah decisions are actually the result of a consensus, the coming to agreement among  the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages, more than a minyan’s worth of leadership. Rav Avi’s ordination of Sara Hurwitz was not approved by anyone — no one — within even the Modern Orthodox world, not by one other recognzed liberal halachic judge in all of North America, just Avi alone with Rabbi Sperber in Israel.

That’s fine. I just I don’t want to hear from the liberal Orthodox rabbis at Avi’s Yeshivat Chovivei Torah — which says it is an “open Orthodox” yeshiva — when they take their swipes against Agudah and the concept of Das Torah. That won’t cut it anymore. The days of those liberal attacks against Das Torah are over.

Did I say the yeshiva was “Orthodox”? Not so fast. According to the consenus of the Council of Torah Sages, Avi’s shul (which is my shul) is no longer Orthodox, and presumably neither is Avi’s yeshiva, as he is that yeshiva’s spiritual leader. The agreement between the RCA and Rabbi Weiss does not mention Sara Hurwitz, and therefore she is free to say that she’s still on the rabbinic staff of HIR. (Where she does a great job, I might add, nomenclature aside.) Nomenclature, though, is everything. Chabad Shluchos and Sara Hurwitz do as much as most rabbis — like Ginger Rogers, they do everything the guy does except backwards and in heels. Except the Shluchos don’t get called “rabbis” or “rabba.” They just do it.

We e-mailed Rabbi Weiss and a Hebrew Institute lay leader for comment. The famously self-described “Open Orthodox” were closed, no reply, not even the courtesy of responding if only to say, “Thanks for asking for our side, but we have nothing to say.”

“Open Orthodox” seems to be a slogan, a cudgel with which to whack their rivals, Yeshiva University, the RCA, the OU and the rest of Orthodoxy, rather than a promise of real openness. Funny, when I call Satmar, Agudah, the OU, Yeshiva University, and anyone else Orthodox, I find them less closed than the “open” guys.

The real story is that there are vast numbers of Chabad Shluchos and serious, thoughtful women throughout the Orthodox community engaged in advanced academic and religious communal activity. These women — without being called Maharat or Rabba — are grinding out the yardage, making the first downs, establishing facts on the ground, while Avi is throwing incomplete bombs the length of the field, for no yardage, with greater sensation but less success.

Here’s what Agudah, in consultation with its rabbinic leadership, has to say about the RCA-Weiss deal:

The leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Avi Weiss have apparently reached agreement that Rabbi Weiss would no longer confer the title of “Rabba” upon graduates of his women’s seminary, but rather the title “Maharat.” This superficial move does not in any way change the position of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah that placing women in traditional rabbinic positions departs from the Jewish mesorah, and that any congregation with a woman in such a position cannot call itself Orthodox. That the leadership of a respected rabbinical organization seems to have capitulated to Rabbi Weiss’ enterprise is deeply dismaying.  We trust that this capitulation does not represent the perspective of the principled majority of the organization’s member rabbis.

So Avi’s empire is beginning to remind me of the Holy Roman Empire which, as the joke goes, wasn’t holy, wasn’t Roman, and wasn’t an empire. Now the “Open Orthodox” — Yeshivat Chovivei Torah and Hebrew Institute — apparently are not only not “open,” they’re not even “Orthodox,” says Agudah. But I love that shul and I love Avi and I love so many in that congregation. The atmosphere that Avi has created is the closest thing to the glory of what Reb Shlomo created on 79th Street. People are complex. Rabbis, too. They have bad days. Sometimes friends and loved ones are feeling grumpy and don’t want to talk. Whatever RCA, Agudah or anyone else says about that shul and Avi, he and the shul have been too good and meaningful to me and my family (multi-generationally) for me not to continue loving them through the grumpiness and confusion. It’s important to remember: No one is bad here. Not Avi. Not Sara. Not Agudah. Not the RCA. No one’s bad. Everybody is doing what they honestly think is right. At least these are the people who are thinking and caring about the future, about community, about how best to serve God and how best to live Jewish lives. After all these years, what’s a lousy month between friends?

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