May 30, 2024
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A YCT Graduate Responds to Dr. Berger

In his July 9 op-ed (“The Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: A Response to Rabbis Avi Weiss and Asher Lopatin”), Dr. David Berger defends the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) decision to exclude graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) from its ranks. He asserts that YCT has sought to redefine the core beliefs of Orthodoxy, and the RCA is simply maintaining traditional standards. He bases this assertion on a statement from Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the president of YCT, which he wrote in response to an article by Rabbi Zev Farber. Rabbi Farber’s article denied the historicity of the revelation at Sinai, a belief that would almost certainly have been traditionally considered heretical by the Orthodox community. While some critics of YCT have used Rabbi Farber’s article to try to implicate all of YCT in secretly agreeing with this belief, Dr. Berger does not fall into this trap. After all, many great yeshivas have had graduates who have made heretical statements, from the great European yeshiva in Volozhin, to Dr. Berger’s own Yeshiva University, to my other alma mater, Yeshivat Har Etzion. No serious thinker would question the Orthodox bona fides of these institutions, of their other students and faculty, because a few graduates had unorthodox theological views. In fact, Dr. Berger writes, “I emphatically do not question the Orthodoxy of Rabbi Lopatin’s own beliefs.” What bothers Dr. Berger is that in his statement disagreeing with Rabbi Farber, Rabbi Lopatin referred to Rabbi Farber’s views as “at the outer boundary of Orthodox thinking,” as opposed to completely outside of Orthodox thinking.

I personally disagree with Rabbi Lopatin and would place Rabbi Farber’s views outside of Orthodox thought. The question, for me, is how should I relate to Rabbi Lopatin. Dr. Berger would assert that despite his personal belief in a traditional understanding of revelation, Rabbi Lopatin’s refusal to view contrary beliefs as inherently heretical places him, and the institution he heads, outside of Orthodoxy as well. The fundamental question here seems to be this: Is belief that something is a tenet of faith itself a tenet of faith? Let us use the Rambam as an example, since his 13 tenets of Jewish faith are the most famous, and widely accepted, list. We know the Rambam would consider someone who denies one of these 13 principles to be a heretic. The question is what would the Rambam say about someone who believed in all 13 principles but did not believe one of them was a fundamental tenet of the faith, who believed that one could deny that principle and not be a heretic. To make this example more concrete, let us look at one specific principle. The Rambam’s third principle of faith is that one must believe in the complete non-corporeality of God. He reiterates in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuva 3:7) that one who believes God has any physical image would be considered a heretic. The Ra’avad objects, but not to the substance of the belief. There is no indication that the Ra’avad himself believed in a corporeal God. Rather, the Ra’avad objects to the Rambam’s assertion that one with such a belief would be considered a heretic. He asserts that there were many good Jews, some even greater than the Rambam, who believed this. While they may have been wrong, he is unwilling to call them heretics. Would the Rambam have considered the Ra’avad a heretic? On the one hand, he maintained the belief in the non-corporeality of God. On the other hand, he did not believe it to be a fundamental tenet of the faith. I have no idea how the Rambam himself would answer this question, but I can say with confidence that centuries of Jewish tradition following the Rambam have not considered the Ra’avad a heretic. He is undoubtedly a member in good standing of our canon of Rishonim. If Rabbi Lopatin is in the same boat as the Ra’avad, that is certainly a boat I would be happy to cast my fate with. Of course, the fact that something has been traditionally accepted does not make it right, and Dr. Berger is free to disagree. He should be aware, though, that in doing so, he is the one seeking to redefine traditional belief, not YCT.

Dr. Berger additionally compares Rabbi Farber’s heresy with another group he has long spoken out against: Chabad messianism. He criticizes many mainstream Orthodox organizations, such as OU Kashrut, for not being willing to condemn Chabad messianism as heretical and declare its adherents as outside of Orthodoxy. He praises the RCA for holding the traditional line, and being unwilling to admit Chabad messianists to its ranks. Of course, if he applied the same standard to Chabad messianism that he does to YCT, the RCA should deny admission not only to the Chabad messianists, but to every member of OU Kashrut who refuses to declare them heretical and outside of Orthodoxy. If YCT is as Orthodox as OU Kashrut, that too is a mantle I would be happy to bear.

Dr. Berger is right that the RCA has every right to maintain traditional standards on Orthodox beliefs and deny membership, on an individual basis, to a graduate of any institution who has espoused beliefs traditionally considered heretical. However, to exclude an entire institution because its president has not condemned as heretical a particular belief he disagrees with is not maintaining traditional standards. It is instituting an entirely unprecedented new standard. Furthermore, there is something “unseemly, even ethically objectionable” to applying this new standard only to YCT.

Rabbi David Fried

Instructor of Talmud

Frankel Jewish Academy

West Bloomfield, MI

Federation Does Not Speak for Me

I am very disturbed that the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey is opposing the Iran nuclear agreement (“Federation Issues Statement on Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” August 20, 2015). You do not speak for me and many others that I know.

Permit me to remind you that the Soviet Union was a much greater nuclear threat to the world and vowed “to bury us.” Nonetheless, we successfully negotiated various arms control agreements with them and avoided war. How can the status quo, where Iran could obtain a nuclear bomb in the near future, be better than the removal of almost all their enriched uranium, the removal of the great majority of their centrifuges, and the destruction of their plutonium facility? You object to the “immediate release of sanctions,” but the sanctions are not to be immediately released. The sanctions are not to be lifted until Iran’s ability to make a bomb is ended and an intrusive inspection process is instituted. You also fear that the funds released to Iran will be used to fund terrorism. Terrorism is a serious concern, but Iran doesn’t seem to have had much trouble sponsoring terrorism wherever it wished without these funds.

If the agreement is aborted, my children and grandchildren, who live in Israel in Modii,. will be at great risk, and not just from Iran, together with the rest of Israel. If Iran gets a bomb there will be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the Arab countries will also obtain bombs. Would that state of affairs serve “…to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel”?  Would such a state of affairs serve to ensure the security of the American people? There is no better alternative to this agreement and you and the other opponents have not suggested one. Indeed, rejection of the agreement, which you support, would result in exactly what the agreement seeks to prevent, a nuclear­armed Iran, which would be free from sanctions, which could lead to war.

Sincerely,

Norman H. Rosen

Englewood

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