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entries tagged with: Rabbinical Council Of America


Orthodox rabbinical parley to address women’s leadership

Rabba Sara Hurwitz lectures to a group of junior high school students who attended the recent conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Josh Newman

With a high-profile discussion scheduled on women’s leadership and two proposed rules aimed at marginalizing rabbis who deviate leftward on hot-button issues, an upcoming Orthodox rabbinical conference is expected to draw its largest crowd in years.

The Rabbinical Council of America’s three-day conference set to begin Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y., comes just months after the near-ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

“I think it will be one of the more exciting RCA conventions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council’s first vice president, seeking to put a positive spin on what also could prove to be a highly divisive gathering of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Two amendments to the RCA convention that have been put forward are clear reactions to the controversy sparked by Rabbi Avi Weiss’ decision in January to confer the title “rabba” — a feminized version of rabbi — on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

One amendment effectively would expel from the council any member who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such as those terms are understood under the policies and positions of the RCA.”

A second amendment would bar from officer positions anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”

Weiss is one of the founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of Weiss’ rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has never taken a public position on the fellowship.

RCA insiders say adoption of the measures, neither of which would be retroactive, is unlikely. But their existence still points to a tug within the organization between those seeking to maintain the council as a broadly inclusive group and those who want to draw firmer lines.

“The RCA leadership has always been centrist,” said one RCA official involved in planning for the conference. “The rank-and-file rabbis, those on the front lines, can’t afford to be radicals on either end. But it’s getting harder and harder to promote an RCA which is led by the center, but which includes the whole range.”

Following the Weiss controversy, the RCA announced that women’s leadership would be placed on the conference agenda. A committee is in the late stages of crafting a policy on the issue.

The policy, which will have to be ratified by the membership, would express general support for women’s scholarship and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles while drawing the line at ordaining them as rabbis. But lately there has been resistance from those seeking stronger language marking certain functions as forbidden.

“The committee expects for there to be pushback and perhaps alternate language from both the right and the left,” said the RCA official.

Whether any formulation could quell the controversy is unclear. Weiss has never backed down from his view that Hurwitz is a member of the synagogue’s rabbinic staff, though he says the school he is launching to train women will bestow a title other than rabba.

Moreover, several women now serve important Modern Orthodox congregations in various capacities — some of which clearly overlap with traditional rabbinic functions.

The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting “smicha,” or ordination, to women, according to an official involved in the council’s strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”

The policy that the council is to enact on women’s leadership will likely remain vague on specifics as a result. Its drafters say that a policy of calculated ambiguity is necessary in part to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion.

“I believe that we can have clarity on the red lines and have a degree of inclusiveness in the areas that are not as clear,” said Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood. “We as an organization have to provide latitude for members within the organization to be able to follow their conscience in areas that are not black and white.”

But it is precisely that approach that has encountered some turbulence and that is leading some to push the organization toward a firmer line.

“I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA regional vice president and religious leader of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. Pruzansky said he supports the amendments in principle, adding, “What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.”



U.S. rabbis offer rare rebuke of Israeli edict

An edict signed by dozens of Israeli rabbis barring the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews in Israel has led to a rare consensus among American rabbis, who have issued a nearly unanimous condemnation of the ban.

Statements by the American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American haredi Orthodox umbrella group, all denounce the Israeli rabbis’ directive. So does an online petition signed by more than 900 rabbis, most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says that the Israeli rabbis’ statement “couldn’t be left on the record without a response.”

Controversial proclamations by Israeli rabbis are not unheard of, but this sort of broad American rabbinic response is rare. Now it appears that the collective response has reached a tipping point — so many American rabbis have spoken against the edict that others may feel compelled to concur.

“The halachic issues here are complex,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largely Modern Orthodox rabbinic group. “But a blanket statement that singles out a certain population and says ‘don’t rent to them; don’t sell to them’ in such a blanket fashion is something that struck a very raw nerve.”

The Israeli letter was drafted in support of an effort by the chief rabbi of Safed to bar home rentals to Arabs. Tensions have run high in recent months between haredi Orthodox and Arab students in that northern Israeli city.

Exactly how many rabbis signed the edict is unclear. Some right-wing Israeli news outlets reported that the letter had 300 signatories, while other news organizations pegged the number at fewer than 100.

Regardless, the edict drew attention in the Israeli and international media because dozens of those who signed it were municipal rabbis employed by the government.

Israel’s leading Lithuanian haredi leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, refused to sign the letter, as did, according to one report, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the letter.

In America, rabbinic opposition to the letter came quickly. An online petition for rabbis posted by the New Israel Fund on Dec. 10 had received 914 signatures by Dec. 15.

“Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel,” the NIF statement read. “They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing.”

Signatories of the NIF petition included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Most signatories appeared to be members of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, with a few notable exceptions including prominent New York, liberal-leaning Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school and Marc Angel of Cong. Shearith Israel.

Some Orthodox rabbis said the sponsorship of the petition by the NIF, which is identified with left-wing causes, may have discouraged the participation of rabbis who otherwise might have agreed with the petition’s sentiment.

The RCA’s statement, released Dec. 14, criticized the Israeli rabbis’ letter in somewhat gentler terms.

“We are surely sympathetic to the impulse to protect a Jewish community in the face of intermarriage, communal conflict, or unsafe neighborhoods,” the statement read. “It is our view that in spite of the concerns of the authors of the statement, it is wrong and unacceptable to advocate blanket exclusionary policies directed against minorities of other faiths or ethnic groups.”

Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said the RCA felt compelled to speak because, unlike an off-the-cuff comment by Yosef, who is known for making provocative remarks, the Israeli rabbis’ edict was a formal statement of Jewish law.

“That is what drew our attention — that once such a formal statement is issued, we felt that it couldn’t be left on the record without a response,” he said.

“It’s always easy to criticize those with whom you fundamentally disagree,” he told The Jewish Standard. “It takes greater courage … to publicly differ when someone from your own camp steps over the line. The rabbis who signed the document are zionist Orthodox rabbis with whom the members of the Rabbinical Council of America share great affinity on so many issues. Precisely because of that affinity, I am proud that the Rabbinical Council of America was willing to speak up on this matter.”

The RCA’s statement came hours after the posting of a translated version of a letter opposing the edict written by prominent centrist Orthodox Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an American living in Israel, to a widely read Orthodox blog. Some observers saw the RCA’s response as a gambit to protect the group from recriminations for not speaking out on the issue.

“They came up with it because they had no choice, because everyone else was already speaking out and they felt, ‘We better say something so people don’t think we’re in favor of this,’” said Angel, a former president of the RCA and a frequent critic of the group.

“They’re facing the reality, political realities, that this is not an issue that you want to have your name stamped on,” Mendy Ganchrow, former president of the Orthodox Union and a retired executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, said of the RCA.

In an e-mail, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the American haredi Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, said his organization concurred with Elyashiv and Yosef.

“The rabbis who signed the letter [banning the rentals] were simply misguided,” Shafran wrote.

Though the mainstream American rabbinical associations appear to oppose the Israeli rabbis’ letter, at least one prominent Orthodox rabbi was sympathetic.

“I think it’s part of a concern — and I believe a rightful one — that there’s a war going on, and we’re trying our best to maintain normalcy,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a major rabbinic arbiter.

The Forward

The Jewish Standard contributed to this report. For an opinion piece by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of the Depts. of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, go to The Rental Controversy and Halakhic Decision-Making.


Englewood rabbi takes helm of Orthodox rabbinic group

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin returns to RCA leadership as bridge-builder

If three years ago you had told Rabbi Shmuel Goldin that he would be elected president of the Rabbinical Council of America this week, he would have said you were crazy.

Goldin, who heads Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, had been an officer in the modern Orthodox rabbinical organization years ago.

But he was effectively removed from the leadership track in the 1990s, when he led an organization — Shvil Hazahav — that pushed back against Orthodox opposition to the Oslo Accords and the government of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin. Goldin argued that American Jews should not oppose the policies of the Israeli government, a policy he maintains.

So when the RCA nominating committee approached him to become vice president two years ago, Goldin was shocked. But the organization said it wanted him for his outside perspective and his ability to serve as a bridge-builder.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin addresses the annual convention of the Rabbinic Council of America at his Englewood synagogue on Sunday. courtesy RCA

Building bridges is a central part of the vision Goldin spelled out in an interview with The Jewish Standard.

“Within our own rabbinic community, our task is enhancement. Within the Orthodox community at large our task is education about our perspective and what we believe modern Orthodoxy can be. The third principle is engagement, to engage the Jewish community beyond the Orthodox community. We have a lot to say, a lot to share beyond the Orthodox community,” he said.

“I’m deeply frightened that one day God will turn to the affiliated Jewish community and say, ‘You’ve built some wonderful buildings, but what have you done for the great percentage of Jews who are unaffiliated?’”

Goldin said he and his board will spend the next few weeks setting priorities. At this stage, he has no specific plans for new initiatives.

But he knows he wants to reach out.

That includes reaching out to the non-Orthodox movements.

“There are certain things we can do with the other denominations,” he said. “We have to see where we can work together. Where we disagree, we have to do so without acrimony, without demonizing each other. I want to sit down with the leaders of the non-Orthodox community, as I have done in the past on a personal level.”

And it includes reaching out to the more liberal quarters of the modern Orthodox community. The RCA has refused to accept as members graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open Orthodox” institution founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. This led to the formation of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which includes Chovevei graduates as well as RCA members. Last year, an amendment to RCA bylaws that would have punished members who joined the fellowship was proposed but rejected.

“I’m in active discussion with the leaders of IRF, as well as with leaders on the right. We’ll see where that leads. There is no question that there are fault lines,” he said.

Goldin said the question of Chovevei graduates is an area of frequent discussion in the RCA.

“One of the possibilities would be to create a membership track based not only on the smicha, the ordination, that the candidates get, but on their track record in the field,” he said.

The RCA has recently received the imprimatur of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which has apparently decided that only Orthodox conversions that take place through the RCA’s centralized GPS system — the acronym stands for Gerus (conversion) Procedures and Standards — will be approved. In the three-year-old GPS process, the RCA set up 10 regional conversion courts (including one in Bergen County), replacing a system where conversions were handled on an ad hoc basis by individual rabbis. The Israeli rabbinate has in the past few months rejected immigration applications from 20 converts who did not go through the process, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox advocate for converts in Israel. At least some of those converts were converted by IPF members working in conjunction with RCA members.

Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi, has filed suit in Israel against the rabbinate for not recognizing those conversions.

With the rabbinate on one side endorsing only the RCA’s converts and procedures, and Farber arguing that the rabbinate has no legal right to do so, Goldin thinks Farber is right.

“The current situation that exists vis-a-vis aliyah and the acceptance of candidates for aliyah, that all candidates from Conservative and Reform movement are accepted as Jewish, but within the Orthodox community only some are accepted — that’s not acceptable,” Goldin said. “We have to work out a better system. What has happened is the Jewish Agency, which was always the organization that determined that particular status, handed that over to the [Chief] Rabbinate. The Rabbinate was looking for a central address and the RCA was the natural central address. That’s how the problem developed. I agree with Seth that we have to develop a solution to that. He is doing a wonderful job as far as I’m concerned, enhancing the ability of converts to access a difficult system in Israel, and I think we should support his work. I will consider him an ally during my tenure.”

Within the Orthodox community, he wants to increase cooperation with Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union, “strategic partners” of the RCA which are much larger.

“There’s a lot of duplication of efforts. If we come out with classes for rabbis, classes for the communities, that are sponsored by numerous organizations, we’ll be much better served. Those conversations have begun,” he said.


Opposition slate challenges Orthodox Rabbinical Council

Local rabbis involved on both sides of the ideological divide

Larry YudelsonLocal | World
Published: 06 July 2012

A year after Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, assumed the helm of the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, promising to be bridge builder, he is facing a leadership challenge unprecedented in the history of the organization — or of most Jewish organizations.

In elections that are now taking place by electronic and mail ballot, the slate of officers now serving with him is being challenged by a slate of rabbis calling for “a stronger voice and greater clarity on the important issues facing the Orthodox, greater Jewish and non-Jewish communities.”

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., is heading the opposition slate. He is running for the post of first vice president; if he wins he will be in line to succeed Goldin next year.

Goldin is not being challenged directly.

In the words (and capitalization) of a website put up by members of the challenging slate, “The Rabbinical Council of America is holding an historic election that will Determine the Future Course of Modern Orthodoxy in North America!”

“Though it has not been openly stated by the opposition board, they have in the past indicated a concern from what they perceive as a left wing drift — that we do not admit to,” Goldin said.

“Our position has been placing the RCA in the position it needs to be in the community as a whole, neither to the left nor the right, but taking a position on each issue as it arises and not having an agenda on either side.

“Some of the people running in the opposition slate are much more agenda-driven, and I think that will have deleterious effects on the organization,” he said.

Members of the opposition slate did not reply to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

The leadership challenge comes as Orthodoxy’s left wing has become louder and more self-assured in recent years. This has been seen in the founding and growth of the Yeshivat Chovevi Torah rabbinical school; the founding of “partnership” minyanim, where women are given expanded liturgical roles; the ordaining of a woman, though without the title of rabbi, by Rabbi Avi Weiss; and the public call by one liberal Orthodox rabbi to stop reciting the prayer thanking God “for not making me a woman.”

This has sparked reciprocal calls by some conservative members of the RCA for the organization to draw lines that would exclude some current members.

In their platform, the challengers call for the RCA “to lead in defining the acceptable boundaries of our vision of Orthodoxy. Specifically, we need to be a defining voice on the role of women and their involvement in liturgical and leadership roles, on the limits of acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle and of individuals drawn to it, on interfaith dialogue and services, on relations with non-Orthodox denominations, on reacting to ‘partnership’ and ‘egalitarian’ services, on various proposed changes in the liturgy.

“As the premier Orthodox rabbinic organization in North America, it is our sacred burden to provide definition and clarity.

“On so many critical issues, from the right of Jews to settle anywhere in the land of Israel, to the President of the United States embracing same-sex marriage, to the ongoing legal and societal challenges to the free practice of religion in this country, to Jerusalem remaining the unified capital of the Jewish state to Jonathan Pollard, the RCA has been too silent or too slow in responding publicly. We need to create mechanisms for the values and concerns of the Torah and the Orthodox community to be expressed broadly and publicly in the immediate aftermath of events and issues as they arise.”

For his part, Goldin cites an RCA statement on homosexuality last year as an example of the organization taking policy stands.

The statement reiterated opposition to “the practice of homosexuality” and same-sex unions.

It explicitly stated no position on the question of “reparative therapy” – the idea that people can be “cured” of same-sex attraction.

It was a consensus document, in effect an effort to find common ground between two dueling statements on homosexuality issued by different groups of modern Orthodox rabbis.

A conservative statement from some members of the RCA, some members of the charedi organization Agudath Israel of America, and many rabbis connected to Chabad-Lubavitch insisted that “We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire.”

In other words, “Change is possible and mandated by the Torah.”

This garnered the signature of one of the challengers, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck.

This contrasted with a more liberal statement, drafted by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom congregation and the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical seminary. This statement, while rejecting “practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood,” noted that “most of the mental health community, many rabbis, and most people with a homosexual orientation feel that some of these therapies are either ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically for many patients.

“We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”

Golden is among the rabbis who signed the liberal letter; he is the only member of the RCA’s current leadership to have done so. So did Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s newly appointed executive director.

A fourth statement was posted in December 2011, after Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who got smicha from Yeshiva University and still considers himself Orthodox, performed what he described as a same-sex Orthodox wedding.

“We strongly object to this desecration of Torah values and to the subsequent misleading reportage,” this statement said. “By definition, a union that is not sanctioned by Torah law is not an Orthodox wedding, and by definition a person who conducts such a ceremony is not an Orthodox rabbi.”

It was signed by only one member of the current RCA leadership, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, the Southeast vice president, and almost all of the slate of challengers signed it.

As a group, the challengers have a higher internet profile than do the incumbents they would replace.

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