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Orthodox rabbis address the ethics of kashrut

The ethical side of the kashrut industry has been under a microscope in the wake of the 2008 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant, which led to a fraud conviction for the company’s former CEO.

Now, a task force within the Rabbinical Council of America has issued its Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines to “promote and safeguard ethical corporate policies and behavior, and encourage socially responsible activities in kosher food production,” according to the organization. The task force, headed by Rabbi Asher Meir, research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, included rabbinical experts in business ethics, law, and kosher supervision.

“Recent events, and the deliberations of our task force, made it clear to us that expectations were not in alignment among the three major stakeholders in the kosher food industry: producers, supervisors, and consumers,” Meir e-mailed The Jewish Standard on Wednesday. “The supervising agencies had certain standards but they were not consistently defined or applied, and the producers were not always of aware of them; the consumers had expectations the agencies had not really understood. Most of all, we wanted to create a set of standards that would be acceptable to all the participants.”

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Rabbi Menachem Genack

The guidelines will help repair the damage caused to the image of the kosher industry since the Agri incident, according to Meir. The guidelines maintain that “agencies should explicitly inform clients that they require lawful conduct, and agencies should distance themselves from any producer whose conduct constitutes a gross affront to the ethical demands of Jewish law and tradition.”

Among the areas supervisors should monitor are employee and animal safety.

Jewish organizations welcomed the guidelines, while the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kashrut supervisory organization, has endorsed them and has begun to direct its inspectors to monitor for violations. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s kashrut division CEO and an Englewood resident, served on the RCA’s task force.

“We’re not expecting kashrus inspectors to ferret out issues beyond their expertise, but in the process of the plant, if they become aware of something, they should report it,” he said.

Following the Agri raid, a group of rabbinical students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah created Uri L’Tzedek, dedicated to promoting social justice in the Orthodox world. In a phone interview with the Standard earlier this week, Uri L’Tzedek founder Shmuly Yanklowitz said there has to be a “grassroots” shift in consumer habits.

“It’s clear that the Orthodox constituency, as well as the establishments, are rapidly changing in their perspectives of consumerism, kashrut, and social justice,” Yanklowitz said.

Until now, the Orthodox community has been more reactive about ethical standards in kashrut, Yanklowitz said.

“There’s an understanding now that the whole country is watching to see how will we clean up this mess,” he said. “But also on the positive side there’s an expanded notion of kashrut as a spiritual and emotional force in the country. That’s creating a great pressure in the Orthodox establishment to put forward solutions.”

Rabbi Morris Allen, founder of the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek — formerly Hekhsher Tzedek — ethical kashrut seal, said the new focus on ethical issues in the kashrut industry is a “victory for the Jewish people.” He credited his organization for spurring the change in attitude toward kashrut.

“Three years ago there was no consensus in the Jewish community about ethical issues in kosher food,” he said. “Now there is clear consensus.”

The role of the rabbi in monitoring ethical concerns remains a matter of debate. Yanklowitz said that, “Rabbis ought to be an inspiring force in helping to guide these values and laws.”

Genack argued that rabbis cannot be expected to take the place of trained government inspectors.

“They shouldn’t substitute themselves for governmental agencies that are by law and experience able to handle these issues more effectively,” he said. “But if they become aware of these issues, they shouldn’t ignore it.”

The RCA guidelines recognize rabbis’ limited knowledge of federal regulations. Rather than begin their own investigations, they are directed to bring their suspicions to the attention of the company in question or federal inspectors.

Once a supervising agency becomes convinced of wrongdoing, according to the guidelines, it “should act promptly and not remain, or even appear to remain, indifferent to such misconduct.” Actions may include removing its supervision; also the RCA may publicly condemn the violations.

“The bottom line,” Allen said, “is that what we’re seeing is a coalescing in the Jewish community around the shared notion that in the production of kosher food, ethical issues that impact a Jewish community are important.”

 
 

Orthodox rabbinical parley to address women’s leadership

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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.”

JTA

 
 

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.

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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.

 
 

Moshe Tendler thinks you’re wrong, and he isn’t afraid to say so

Ben HarrisWorld
Published: 18 February 2011
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Rabbi Moshe Tendler believes that critics of his view that brain stem death is a valid criterion for death under Jewish law eventually will see the error of their ways. Ben Harris

After the January shootings in Arizona and the resultant calls for greater civility and moderation in the national discourse; after an acrimonious back-and-forth over the Jewish legal approach to death and organ donation; and after still more calls for a gentler, more civil public discourse, Rabbi Moshe Tendler stood up in a Jerusalem synagogue and accused his fellow Orthodox rabbis of perpetrating one of the worst desecrations of God’s name in American Jewish history.

The rabbis in question — authors of a four-year study on the Jewish legal criteria for death and members of the halacha, or religious law, committee of the chief Modern Orthodox rabbinic group — have “not the slightest idea of what we’re talking about,” Tendler told his audience.

“I want to call your attention to what has been one of the most dramatic chilul hashem [desecration of God’s name] incidents in [the] American Jewish community,” he said.

Tendler wasn’t done: The paper was “pages of drivel” and “as close to a blood libel as you can come,” he said.

Even the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had endorsed the position that the paper’s authors appeared to favor, did not escape opprobrium. On the issue of halachic death, Tendler charged, Sacks also was ignorant of the relevant science.

Tendler’s remarks were presaged by the disclosure in December of a paper by the Rabbinical Council of America’s committee on religious law asserting the legitimacy of the view that death occurs with the cessation of heartbeat and respiration — a position apparently rebuking one long championed by Tendler.

Tendler for some time has been the leading proponent of the view that death occurs with the cessation of brain stem activity — a criterion that permits vital organs such as the heart and lungs to become available for harvest and transplant.

It is a position for which he has argued passionately and unapologetically for more than two decades.

As one of the deans of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a leading Modern Orthodox authority on medical ethics, Tendler is an authoritative figure in the Orthodox world, but also a polarizing one. And when it comes to questions on which he is rightly considered an expert, he has neither patience nor respect for the views of those he deems less than competent to render an opinion.

Several insiders say it is precisely that trait which has made it more difficult to achieve common ground on this issue and personalized a debate that should remain scholarly and dispassionate. Tendler insists that the battle mostly is substantive not personal, though given some of his quotes in the media, it’s not hard to see why his foes sometimes fail to appreciate the distinction.

“You say a thing, I believe you’re ignorant on this topic,” Tendler told JTA. “That’s not an insult. It’s a fact.”

Tendler’s willingness to publicly call out rabbis with whom he disagrees is unusual within Modern Orthodox circles, where internal disagreements on sensitive issues are resolved more typically behind closed doors, often with vague language that allows everyone to declare victory.

Tendler’s style could not be more different, and over the years he has developed a reputation as something of a go-to guy for an incendiary quote.

“I have no doubt that R. Tendler’s comments will generate much discussion and likely criticism and ridicule,” wrote one Orthodox rabbi on his blog. “I can also predict that R. Tendler will not care one bit.”

If Tendler, who just turned 84, is unusually outspoken, it may owe something to his background. He was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at a time when most Jews in the area were recent immigrants whose children were studiously going about the business of assimilation.

Tendler, though, was a native, and has grandparents who were born in America. His mother, the grandchild of a man Tendler describes as a “rabid chasid,” was a law school graduate and Tendler’s first Talmud teacher. His father was the longtime head of the prominent Rabbi Jacob Joseph yeshiva in New York.

The Tendlers lived on Henry Street a few blocks from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading Orthodox legal decisor in the United States, whose daughter would become Tendler’s wife. The couple met at a public library on East Broadway when Shifra Feinstein approached Tendler — already gaining a reputation for scientific acuity — to ask a question about chemistry.

“After that, somehow I managed to come more often to the library to study,” Tendler said.

Tendler went on to graduate from New York University and earn his doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University in 1957. For a time he worked in cancer research, developing a drug he dubbed Refuin — a play on the Hebrew word for healing — that earned him a mention in a 1963 Time magazine article.

In the early 1990s, the RCA tapped Tendler to draft a health-care proxy statement reflecting Orthodox sensibilities. In a section on organ donation, the document — citing the authority of both Feinstein and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate — asserts that “brain stem death, together with other accepted neurological criteria, fully meets the standards of halacha for determining death.”

The proxy was drafted by the RCA’s medical ethics commission, which Tendler chaired, and endorsed by the council’s executive committee. Four members of the RCA’s law committee, of which Tendler also was a member, subsequently issued a statement rejecting the brain death criterion. And there the issue rested until the study paper surfaced late last year.

Much of the ensuing fracas resulted not from the many errors of scientific fact that Tendler claims are contained in the 110-page study, but from the verbal dynamite he set off in the press. He accused the authors of promoting anti-Semitism and perpetrating a blood libel for appearing to sanction the receipt of organs by Orthodox Jews, but not their donation.

In a recent interview at his home north of New York City, he said his critics have blood on their hands.

“When a Jew’s life is at stake, you have to use strong language,” Tendler told JTA. “You can’t let someone die. But they’re letting people die because of this. I want them to back off.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Moshe Tendler to address brain-stem death

_JStandardLocal
Published: 13 May 2011

“May God grant us the wisdom to determine His will in this frighteningly important area of Jewish law,” concludes a statement on the website of the Rabbinical Council of America. The issue under discussion is “Brain Stem Death and Jewish Law,” and the Jan. 7, 2011, statement was meant to serve as clarification of a more than 100-page controversial document on that topic released by the RCA’s Vaad Halacha (Council on Jewish Law) in 2010.

“The RCA showed nerve and verve on this issue and now they are wavering and recanting,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the recent RCA document, which articulated the opposition of some rabbis to using brain- stem death as a criterion for death. This has stirred great controversy in the ranks of the RCA, as well as in the greater Jewish community. The issue is compelling; in fact it is a matter of life and death, since those who have been declared dead by the criteria of brain-stem death can serve as organ donors, enabling the saving of many lives.

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Rabbi Moshe Tendler courtesy Yeshiva University

Zierler, who is rabbi at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, is deeply interested in this issue, in part because of his studies in bioethics at Case Western Reserve and a practicum he completed at University Hospital in Cleveland and the Cleveland Clinic. “I sat as an observer on the liver transplant team and had the opportunity to hear how pressing this whole issue is,” he said. Zierler, rabbinic consultant to the Hospice of New Jersey, serves on the ethics committee of Holy Name Hospital. “I know as a hospital chaplain that a brain-dead person is difficult to acknowledge. It’s very weighty, but there are ways to ascertain that a person is brain dead.”

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler will address these issues at the JCT on Monday, May 16. “He’s my rebbe and my mentor in bioethics,” said Zierler of Tendler. Chair of the department of biology at Yeshiva University and rabbi of the Community Synagogue of Monsey, Tendler will lecture on “The Interface of Science and Halacha (Jewish Law),” with a focus on brain death as the determining factor in establishing death.

“I’m a devotee of Rabbi Tendler. This is a man with tremendous practical sensibilities, who makes difficult decisions in the trenches,” said Zierler. “Through Rabbi Tendler I have come to understand … that the power of permissibility is preferable.”

The Jewish Standard spoke by phone with Rabbi Tendler on the topic of Jewish law and brain-stem death.

J.S.: The RCA, which claims a membership of close to 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in 14 countries, represents differing views on the issue. Can you explain the controversy?

M.T.: For more than 30 years the RCA sent out health-care proxies recommending organ donations after brain death. Then they came out with a more than 100-page report that raised questions that were devastating, suggesting that brain death is not final and that some recover after brain death.

J.S.: Your late father-in-law, the renowned rabbinic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as well as the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, had come out in support of brain-stem death as a criterion for death. What led to this change of heart by the RCA?

M.T.: The Rabbanus Harashis [Chief Rabbinate of Israel] supported brain stem death as the only irrefutable indication of death. This was followed until two years ago, when under pressure of [Rabbi J. David] Bleich and [Rabbi Mordechai] Willig in the RCA, they tried to reverse it. They didn’t have the slightest idea of what brain-stem death means. There were attempts to obfuscate Rabbi Feinstein’s position. Rabbi Willig said that polio patients who were paralyzed and can’t breathe were brain-stem dead according to Rabbi Feinstein. He published that kind of nonsense. How could they make such errors? These are issues that touch upon intellectual integrity. The 100-page document is not a p’sak [rabbinic ruling], it’s just information.

J.S.: The document suggests that although they do not subscribe to the notion that brain stem death is death, they believe that it is permissible to get an organ from a non-Jew who is brain-stem dead.

M.T.: That’s already a blood libel. It [encourages] anti-Semitic reactions — “I am a non-Jew. Do you mean you can take my organs even though I am still alive?”

J.S.: The rabbis who oppose these principles are colleagues of yours at Yeshiva University. Those are strong criticisms of your colleagues. Is that a problem for you?

M.T.: They are colleagues… who are ignorant or are biased and allow themselves to say things without careful investigation. I’ve been criticized for using strong words. When dealing with pikuakh nefesh [saving lives], there is nothing wrong with using strong words if you think it will accomplish saving a life.

Lecture

What: Lecture by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler on “The Interface of Science and Halacha (Jewish Law)” as part of the Seventy Sterling Community Lecture Series

Where: The Jewish Center of Teaneck

When: Monday, May 16, 8 p.m.

Cost: Free and open to the public.

Information: (201) 833-0515

J.S.: What is the status of the issue now?

M.T.: It’s back to where it was. The RCA retirees in Eretz Yisrael [Israel], and senior rabbanim [rabbis] in the RCA, want to make clear that they didn’t rule against brain death. They simply wanted to provide information for people to think about the topic. The overwhelming response of the RCA membership — hundreds of members — [was a reaction] against this document.

J.S.: What is the situation in Israel? The hospitals there are known to have sophisticated and highly successful organ transplant units.

M.T.: In Israel the Zionist Rabbanim support brain-stem death. The lungs and heart can only be taken from brain-stem dead people. Hadassah [Medical Center in Jerusalem] is known for heart transplantation, and Rambam Hospital [in Haifa] specializes in lung transplants. They have very successful innovations. In the U.S., if a hospital does not do at least nine transplants per month, the mortality rates go up. In Israel they don’t do nine transplants per year and their mortality rate is just as good.

J.S.: Are there any disadvantages to being Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s son-in-law?

M.T.: They expect me to defend all his responsa. I only agreed to marry his daughter, but not to defend all his responsa, although he had a wonderful track record and was almost never wrong. He did his homework.

J.S.: Do you have any other comments for our readers?

M.T.: [I will be pleased to] have someone in the audience present the opposing view. It will permit me to clarify the issue. Generally the audience always contains someone who is committed to a position that interferes with intellectual integrity.

 
 

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.

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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.

 
 

Orthodox group fights back

RCA demands Jonah remove recommendation letter from website

Joanne PalmerLocal
Published: 07 December 2012

Science and religion are by no means irreconcilable, but science’s ever-deepening look into the structure of things and religion’s understanding of truths as God-given and therefore unchanging often require each to do a delicate dance around the other.

Some things change, others remain the same, and our human brains scramble to keep up.

Our understanding of same-sex attraction has changed enormously over the last few decades. The precise relationship of nature to nurture in human sexuality in general is not at all clear. The biblical proscription against at least one form of male same-sex behavior is clear; it is called an “abomination” in Leviticus 18:22. Society in general has become much more accepting of openly gay men and lesbians. Religious organizations have had to confront the increasingly pressing need to reach out to them and welcome them, even though, in many parts of the Jewish world, they must continue to make clear that they disapprove of their sexuality.

Jonah, a Jersey-City based organization that claims to help men and women “struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions to journey out of homosexuality,” uses a form of treatment it calls “gender-affirming processes” and its opponents call aversion therapy.

Jonah finds itself beleaguered of late. It is being sued by four gay men and their mothers, who say that the therapy it offers does not work and has harmed them. In a novel move, the men and their mothers are suing for fraud.

The Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis, wrote a message to Jonah in 2004, and Jonah posted the note on its website, http://www.jonahweb.org. That message suggests that rabbis should consider getting in touch with Jonah if they have congregants “dealing with unwanted same sex attractions, or any families who have a member thereof facing such an attraction.”

However, the RCA says, its 2004 pro-Jonah message no longer reflects its position with any accuracy. That is why the RCA sent out a press release on Thursday, Nov. 29, saying that its members could no longer endorse Jonah’s methods.

Moreover, according to the press release, in 2011 the group decided “to withdraw its original letter referencing Jonah. Despite numerous attempts by the RCA to have mention of that original letter removed from the Jonah website, our calls, letters, and emails remain unanswered.

“We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients,” the press release continued. “The RCA believes that responsible therapists, in partnership with amenable clients, should be able to work on whatever issues those clients voluntarily bring to the session. Allegations made against Jonah lead us to question whether Jonah meets those standards.”

Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, is the RCA’s president. The email was sent out now, he said, because, with the lawsuit pending, the RCA feels “that it’s important that our position be properly understood.”

Goldin said he finds the situation frustrating. “Jonah doesn’t refuse outright” to remove the letter, he said. Instead, “they don’t answer. We’re looking into legal action.

“The letter preceded most of us who are active in the RCA now,” he continued. “It came at a time when Jonah was new. It was being touted as a positive development.”

Members of the RCA no longer are convinced that the development is positive, as was made clear by an email it sent in 2011 and posted on its website, http://www.rabbis.org. “On the subject of reparative therapy, it is our view that, as rabbis, we can neither endorse nor reject any therapy or method that is intended to assist those who are struggling with same-sex attraction,” it read, adding that all therapy must be done by licensed, trained practitioners, and only for willing participants.

“Any therapy has to have clear safeguards and be done properly,” Goldin said. “It cannot be abusive, or off the charts in any way. If the therapy is abusive, then it should be shut down.

“We clearly heard reports about Jonah that concern us,” he continued. “We are looking for the truth to come out, and until it does, we cannot and will not recommend people to a therapy that is under question.”

That is not any kind of endorsement of homosexuality, he added. The balance between human compassion and halachah — Jewish law — is a tightrope, but it is necessary to walk it without toppling.

“We respect all endeavors to learn what can be done to make people happier,” he said. “At the same time, we hold to our religious posture about what behaviors are or are not acceptable within the context of a religious life.”

According to Jonah’s co-director, Arthur Goldberg, there is no reason to take down the RCA’s letter. His lawyer told him “that it’s a historical record, and there is nothing wrong with keeping a historical record,” Goldberg said. As for the lawsuit, “basically we think it’s without merit. It’s a politically motivated event.

“We’ll see them in court.”

Goldberg, who is not a psychologist or therapist and does not practice therapy himself, said, “we never use the words ‘aversion therapy.’ We use ‘gender-affirming process.’

“It’s not abusive in any shape, matter, or form,” he continued. Instead, both the lawsuit and the RCA’s request that its message be removed are motivated differently. “It’s a political maneuver.”

In fact, he suggested, all the attacks on Jonah are fueled by political correctness.

 
 

Local rabbis speak out on U.N. Vote

Lois GoldrichLocal | World
Published: 07 December 2012

Last Thursday, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to confer Non-Member Observer State status on the Palestinian Authority.

While the effects of this decision remain to be seen, many local rabbis fear that the move will not lead to peace but rather will embolden the Palestinian Authority to sidestep bilateral negotiations. Others, however, say this might be an important opportunity — with the ball now in Israel’s court.

Rabbi Benjamin Shull of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, head of the New Jersey Board of Rabbis, said that “It feels like tightening a noose around Israel. I don’t think it’s a good thing.

“What is most troubling is that Hamas felt empowered” after recent hostilities in Gaza, he said, and the U.N. vote, in turn, “gives further public credibility to Fatah.

“Most troubling is the chutzpah, in the sense that the Palestinian and Arab community rejected the very same opportunity to create a state [in 1947]. They killed the baby in the crib and now they’re crying out for justice when they’re the ones who committed the murder. It’s like the guy who kills both his parents and then asks the judge for mercy because he’s an orphan.”

Shull said it is also troubling that “the narrative put before the world is that Israel’s founding is illegitimate and was at the expense of other people, not mentioning [the Arab] response. That narrative seems to be accepted by the world community. The vote was an official confirmation of that.”

Shull said he wished that the decision would lead the Arab nations to be more flexible, “but the world supports their lying, as if they have no responsibility for their own failure. What would lead to peace is more flexibility. This leads to more intransigence.”

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center/Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park (and this newspaper’s executive editor) said that “Peace cannot be achieved unilaterally. It cannot be forced down anyone’s throat. Statehood cannot be used as a Damoclean sword to hang over the heads of the other side, as if to say, ‘Concede our points or we’ll go to the International Court and have you charged with war crimes.’”

No, he said, “Peace takes two sides talking with each other, engaging in confidence-building measures together, and making painful concessions for the sake of ‘no more war,’ to use Anwar al-Sadat’s words. All the Palestinians and the foolish diplomats at the Glass Palace have achieved, sadly, is to delay peace even longer than the intransigent attitudes on both sides have already done.”

Whatever anyone thinks of the move to gain recognition at the U.N., “let us hope that maybe, just maybe, this move will bring the Palestinian Authority back to negotiations with the State of Israel without preconditions, as some Palestinian officials have been hinting at the last few weeks,” Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck said. “At the same time, it with great disappointment that I must note that Mahmood Abbas’ speech at the U.N. was full of calumny and invective against the State of Israel that was false, infuriating, and unhelpful to the cause of peace and reconciliation.”

Another Teaneck rabbi, Lawrence Zierler, said he is “disappointed when the U.N. does things like this.”

“It’s not unprecedented,” said Zierler, rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, adding that the world body has “always marginalized Israel.” Still, he said, “They called us racist before and we’re still here. I don’t believe it ‘stuck,’ and I don’t think this will be more than a diplomatic fiction.”

Zierler said he doesn’t think Thursday’s vote will change facts on the ground. If anything, he said, it may “exacerbate tensions.” The rabbi added that the vote was an “affront to history,” taking place on Nov. 29. (On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. voted to end the British mandate over Palestine, adopting a partition plan meant to foster the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states.)

“They had their state once before and they missed their opportunity,” Zierler said.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge said that Israel has been seeking peace for 65 years and continues to seek it today.

Borovitz, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, spoke at the Frisch School on Thursday evening at a meeting called to express solidarity with Israel. (The meeting had been scheduled before the U.N. vote.)

Borovitz said we can draw a lesson from the story of Jacob and Esau, who “decide to live in peace with each other as neighboring communities rather than as ‘one big happy family.’

“Is there not a lesson here for the modern Middle East?” Borovitz asked. “Are Israel and the Palestinians destined to remain entwined in a wrestling match, or is the applicable lesson of this story, a call to Israel and the Palestinians to each make the hard choices that will create a territorial compromise by which they can live side by side?”

Borovitz continued, “Let us pray that Mr. Abbas … will recognize that like Esau and Jacob, [he] needs to face his brother and with the elected leaders of Israel create a sukkah of peace where the modern children of Israel and the modern children of Esau can dwell side by side, each in their own encampment, in peace.”

He also called upon American Jews — like their counterparts in 1947 — to pledge both financial and political support for the people and the state of Israel.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah thinks that “the ball is in Israel’s court. I want Israel to write the narrative.”

Israel “has a choice about what comes next,” he continued. “Peace will take outstretched hands in both directions.” While he is not suggesting that Israel is solely responsible for making or not making peace, “This is a moment for Israel to decide how it is going to respond. Israel — which I love so much — has a moment to either act in a punitive way or to seize this as an opportunity to move the dialogue in a way that brings things closer to negotiations.

“I’m not sure what will happen,” he said. “I do think that Israel has the chance to respond and write the next chapter.”

Mosbacher, who was in Israel during the recent rocket attacks from Gaza, said his “heart bleeds for the people there, suffering under constant attacks.” While he worries about Israel taking a hard line, he said, “The world has proven that maybe that’s the only stance she can take.” Still, he added, “I don’t see how that is a tenable stance for the long term for the future of the people in our land.”

Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus said he does not believe the U.N. decision “will contribute at all to the cause of peace, and may make peace efforts that much harder.”

The vote, he said, undermined previous agreements signed by the Palestinians that there would be no unilateral action. He pointed out that last year a similar effort at the U.N. had been defeated, with the United States and its allies preventing a vote from taking place.

“It’s a stunning setback for the goal of the U.S. to prevent unilateral actions and foster negotiations,” he said. “It undermines the road map and the positions of the Quartet, and it will alienate the Israeli public — which wants and is ready for hard choices and a two-state solution — by proving that negotiations and agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority are ultimately worthless. Since the day the Oslo Accords were signed 1993, the tactic of the Palestinian Authority has been to go outside direct negotiations.”

“This won’t further peace efforts at all,” he said. “It will serve to embolden them to continue to seek their goals outside the negotiations process.”

Asked how the U.N. vote might affect the peace process, Rabbi Lawrence Troster, rabbinic director for the political action committee J Street, said that rather than dwell on the vote itself, “I think it will really depend on what happens afterward.”

A statement issued by his organization said the group is “focusing on the day after the vote — because it is the actions of the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians following the vote that will determine whether we are moving toward or away from a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

“We really oppose any retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority,” Troster said. “It wouldn’t be useful. We’re hoping that the responses will be measured by the U.S. and Israel.” Some will call for retaliation, he said, “but the majority will want to see something positive come about even if they’re troubled by timing and tone.”

Troster suggested also that “this will be an important time to begin a new diplomatic effort. We’re calling on President Obama to launch a renewed initiative for a two-state solution.”

He hopes that this will become an opportunity to renew the diplomatic mission. If, instead, it becomes a time for retaliation and shutting down of the peace process, “it will turn out to be no good.”

Troster, who works with 700 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical students publicly affiliated with the group through its rabbinic cabinet, said that virtually nothing has been done on the diplomatic front over the past 18 months. “Only Obama can do this,” he added.

He pointed to a J Street poll conducted after the U.S. presidential election showing that a majority of American Jews favor a new diplomatic initiative and strongly support a two-state solution.

“I am deeply grateful to the United States for its continuing support,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood said.

“I believe that it something that we should never take for granted. Having a powerful friend at a time of such deep isolation in the world is something that should be appreciated. Obviously my position is the position being taken by most Jewish leaders and organizations — that this is not a productive step. It is an attempt to take an end run around the serious negotations and discussions that have to take place.

“What happened at the UN is posturing. As long as the Palestinian Authority is unwilling to sit down, without preconditions, to disucss all the things that need to be discussed I can’t imagine that there will be a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

Goldin visited Israel in November, during the skirmish with Gaza. One thing he noticed there, he said, is “It’s so sad that no one is speaking in terms of a solution any more. They’re just speaking in terms of buying time.”

 
 
 
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