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YCT And The Cherem Game
Mon, 11/11/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

I wasn't raised in an observant home, I never attended a Jewish day school and no one else in my family has ever been observant. Despite that, I found myself drawn, starting at age ten, to Orthodox Judaism. Over the course of my journey, I have experienced the many gifts of the diverse faces of the Jewish People, all of which have impacted significantly upon me, from Chabad to Renewal, from Reform to Yeshivish, from Modern Orthodox to Post-denominational.

It is my fervent belief that we, the Jewish People, are an organism whose limbs must learn to work together in harmony. Just as every individual within each family and community is a mirror and a teacher for others in the unit, so our communities must learn to respectfully share with each other, to listen to each other and to help each other grow. It is not an exaggeration to say that the healthy functioning - indeed, the survival - of our organism, depends on it.

I discovered Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2009, and since then I have been deeply proud to be associated with it. In the two years I have so far spent at YCT's Riverdale campus, I have been challenged to grow profoundly in my learning, my observance, my understanding and my love of Torah. But just as importantly, I have been challenged to give. I was offered opportunity after opportunity to visit those in need, to be present with people to whom it made a difference, to share my learning, to teach, to advise, and to listen. Sometimes these opportunities were the result of student initiatives, sometimes they were offered by YCT's placement staff, sometimes they emerged from a conversation with one of our teachers or mentors. These opportunities presented themselves constantly and from every direction because the culture of YCT is built on one foundation: That we are here to serve.

This ethos of service, and the passion for Torah that YCT promotes, is clearly visible in the work of those who have received YCT ordination. Eighty-three of our eighty-six Musmachim are currently serving the Jewish community. Thirty-four are pulpit rabbis in Orthodox synagogues, twenty-two teach in day schools, another ten work with college students in Hillels. Seven are chaplains and the remainder work in many other educational and communal institutions that change the lives of tens of thousands of Jewish families in the US and all over the world. These organizations include Birthright NEXT, the Wexner Foundation, Kevah and the Bronfman Youth Fellowship.

Why does all this matter? It matters because actions speak louder than words. Recently, there have been many, many words written about YCT, including from those seeking to exclude YCT and the Open Orthodox community from Orthodoxy. Of course, in every generation, there are those who seek to define our tradition as excluding any innovation that appears challenging to their sector of the community. This is one easily recognizable way that a relationship with Torah expresses itself in human behavior. But it is not the only way, and it would be very much to the detriment of Torah and the Jewish People if it were. Because of this impulse towards conservatism amongst observant Jews, this game of cherem, literally excommunication, which delegitimizes anything innovative is sometimes played in situations where it would have been best avoided.

Consider some of those put in Cherem in the past: Rambam, Rav Kook, the Baal Shem Tov, the list goes on to include so many unquestionable greats whose contributions to the world of Torah have come to be not only accepted, but actually essential to it. And of course, as Jonathan Sarna has recently reminded us, the Agudath Harabonim meted out similar treatment in the 1930's to the RCA and RIETS. Where would the world of Torah be today without Rambam's teachings? What would American Orthodoxy look like without RIETS?

Despite the clamor of those playing the “Cherem Game”, the reality is that the leaders of YCT and Open Orthodoxy are widely acknowledged as leaders and scholars: Talmidei Chachamim, Ohavei Yisrael and Ba'alei Masora. They have studied closely and extensively with many of the great Jewish minds of our time at yeshivas including Yeshivat Har Etzion, Satmar, RIETS/YU, Novaradok, Gruss, Brisk and Netzach Yisrael. To claim that their teachings do not reflect Orthodoxy is a telling example of how unchallenged conservatism can distort the tradition it purports to protect.

Perhaps the “Cherem Game” is an inevitable part of the evolution of our tradition, but it is sad that we still go these divisive rituals, which waste our energy and corrode our integrity. The “Cherem Game” has no winners. A strong, healthy, and vibrant Jewish world must be defined not by negative words, but by positive actions, unifying all Jews by focusing on our many shared values and goals. In service of this vision, we invite all those who value Torah to dialogue with us about any and every subject, and to work together with us to strengthen Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.

Daniel Raphael Silverstein is a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, currently studying at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa in Israel. He is a spoken word artist and creative educator who has performed and facilitated for Jewish and other communities around the world.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

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Jon, you're 100% correct. "Orthodoxy" is not a concrete, defined entity. Torah observant Jews believe in a variety of theological premises, and the 13 ikkarei hameunah of Rambam were never accepted by all of Jewry in a dogmatic fashion (Judaism has always been defined more by deed than creed. Christians, on the contrary, primarily understand faith as entailing a series of dogmatic axioms). See Marc Shapiro's "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" for more on this. These ikkarei haemunah were never universally accepted as binding among klal yisrael, with some groups, such as Hasidim, even being opposed to their recitation or singing (the Arizal was very much opposed to singing Yigdal for theological reasons). The truth is that Judaism historically has accepte only 3 theological principles as axiomatic, according to the Sefer haIkkarim: the existence of G-d, reward and punishment, and the Torah having been revealed. And even the Rambam leaves much room for interpretation on how the Torah was revealed b'davka; he doesn't specify much, which allows for a variety of views on Revelation. YCT seems to be fostering a rigorous halakhic Judaism in line with the principles of religious pluralism and non-dogmatism, and this is much needed.

Excellent article by the author. A true ohev shalom v rodef shalom.
Intellectual honesty is critical for the future of authentic Judaism
Please see

Kol hakavod, Daniel. A very well-written article, but as you can see from most of the comments here, no matter what you folks say or do, no matter how many well-reasoned arguments Rabbis Weiss, Lopatin, Farber et. al. present, the black hats will never regard you as frum - end of story. (And the tragically ironic joke is that the conservatives appear to be more upset over the fact that you're meeting with liberal rabbis than they are over the fact that your teacher has been ordaining women.)

The long-predicted schism has occurred. We now have two distinct religions - liberal Judaism and a Haredi-commandeered Orthodoxy. The right wing Modern Orthodox are Haredi in all but name, and the so-called "centrists" aren't far behind them. You left wing MO represent the last real Modern Orthodox remaining, and you're going to have to decide, once and for all, upon which side of the great divide you wish to come down. You can either choose the liberal side, and displace UTJ as liberal Judaism's most rightward-leaning branch, or you can choose the frum side, and resign yourselves to the fact that they will never regard you as anything more than apostates at worst, seriously misguided at best.

You'll probably choose the latter, and that will be very sad as it will almost certainly be the end of your movement.

Finally. I've been waiting for someone to make this argument re: cherem. Kol hakavod to the author for not stopping to name-calling and disrespect. Let's be real here - while there are individuals (R' Farber) pushing the bounds of Orthodoxy, the actual institution of YCT is clearly, firmly Modern Orthodox. Folks who say otherwise have either never been to their shuls/shiurs (or even website) or lack a basic grasp of the Orthodox Halachik process. The real reason why some are falling all over each other to denigrate YCT is because it is the easiest way to establish kosher cred. But the author is too nice to point this out.

Every argument in this piece could NOT be made b a Reform seminarian. As pointed out here, all YCT rebbeim are orthodox Jews tainted in legitimate orthodox yeshivot. That's not true in a Reform seminary. If YCT rabbeim are not kosher, what does hat say about YU, Gush and the other places that teamed them?

I understand why it so offends you that some have written your institution out of Orthodoxy.

Would you be so kind as to share with us what YOUR boundaries would be, as to where the red line is between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy?

Do you believe that there is one?

If not, what does it mean to be "Orthodox" as opposed to not Orthodox?

That's a great point about cherem and the role it plays in history. I respect and admire your journey towards Hashem, and I personally know someone from YCT who is dedicated to learning Torah. If all you were about was what you say in this article, then great. Admittedly cherem has been applied unfairly and unnecessarily in the past.

However, the rift goes deeper in this case. Once you associate yourselves with conservative and reform rabbis, learn with them and from them on an equal platform- not just as fellow Jews but as if they were a separate, valid approach of Torah Judaism (and I've seen this in writing of YCT leaders and literally, visually in pictures of shared platforms legitimizing reform rabbis), and say things far, far out of line with the mesorah...then as much as I might like someone personally and respect your dedication to learning Torah, I cannot help but choose to defend Judaism by calling out those who go too far. Does that make sense? I don't intend to be too divisive but I do value Judaism's ideology and mesorah and intact survival according to Retzon Hashem, over a little fighting. The jewish people has survived a little infighting before. But the sects that broke off our mesorah have not survived. (Karaism, Essenes, whatever other historical examples you prefer, I don't intend to make an analogy but a general statement.)

Very interesting article. Anyone who argues that YCT and its theology is not Orthodox clearly has never stepped foot in the institution, looked at the curriculum, or met any of the rebbeim. It's about time people stop making comments that are clearly based off of "something they heard from some person somewhere" and start appreciating YCT for what is is, an Orthodox institution that is able to hold its own, while engaging in real and respectful conversations with other movements, unlike its other Orthodox counterparts who treat themselves as "super Jews" and belittles unOrthodox Jews. So many of us, in the Orthodox world, do this and its about time we learn from Chovevei.

Every argument in this piece could be honestly made by a Reform rabbi. How, if at all, is YCT different from the Reform movement?

I would be curious to know whether anyone who denounces this organization/branch you mention would be moved by your words. My guess is, no.

What a straw-man argument. No one's putting YCT grads in cherem. No one's even talking about doing that. They are saying that, hey, you shouldn't have people who espouse blatantly non-Orthodox theology in an important rabbinical positions in an Orthodox institution. Well, and maybe they could pay a little more attention to playing nice with the rest of Modern Orthodoxy, instead of going for easy accolades from Reform and Conservative leaders.

I have a lot of respect for YCT's goal of producing Jewish leaders, and hope they will continue it. But at the same time, their inability to actually throw down a boundary on what the institution stands for _theologically_ is hurting them in a lot of circles that they would otherwise be popular in. The newfound tendency to whine about how everyone's just jealous and out to get YCT is distracting that institution from its very real credibility problems _that are self-inflicted_.

I wish you luck in your studies, and hope you will be one of the graduates that improves the school's name. I've known a few, all good rabbis and teachers. But I've met a few who weren't...

You state that "But at the same time, their inability to actually throw down a boundary on what the institution stands for _theologically_ is hurting them in a lot of circles that they would otherwise be popular in." However, consider this: Perhaps they choose to not take precise theological stands so as to allow for freedom of belief, and also to allow themselves to associate with a greater variety of circles.

"Freedom of belief"is a pluralistic value, not an Orthodox one. Orthodox Jews follow the Torah, and the Torah does dictate belief. Torah-observant Jews must believe in a non-corporeal God, in an afterlife, etc. (See Rambam for the complete list.)

Any institution that deliberately chooses not to take a clear theological stance for the express reason that it wants to allow "freedom of belief" is breaking with mainstream Orthodoxy in favor of religious pluralism.