By I. Schwartz
For years since and preceding the inception of Open Orthodoxy, the neo-Conservative movement started by Rabbi Avi Weiss, and the creation of its institutions, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), Yeshivat Maharat (which gives semichah to women), and International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), liberal Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel have been clamoring for relaxed geirus standards. Lessened kabbolas mitzvos requirements was Angel’s clarion call, while Weiss demanded that geirus procedures not be standardized, so that any rabbi can run his own geirus system and apply his own standards. Weiss and Angel consistently attacked the Rabbanut and the RCA for insisting on uniform standards, and Weiss went so far as to demand last year that even non-Orthodox clergy be licensed to perform geirus in Eretz Yisroel.
Even though the Yated exposed these and so many other dangers of Open Orthodoxy, much of the broader Orthodox community has opted to ignore Open Orthodoxy and its innovations and reforms in the name of “Orthodoxy,” reasoning that Open Orthodoxy will soon fade away and that it is not affecting the frum community in any way. The Yated strongly disagrees, seeing the dangers that lurk and threaten all of Klal Yisroel.
Now, Open Orthodoxy has moved to the next step, a move that can affect Klal Yisroel very dramatically.
Looking for an opportunity to move forward in its quest to change geirus, Open Orthodoxy cashed in on the backdrop of allegations of inappropriate conduct by a Modern Orthodox rabbi who was chairman of the RCA’s geirus program. Using this event as a basis to lobby for sweeping changes in geirus, Open Orthodox “poskim” have issued “teshuvos” that authorize and encourage major changes in geirus, which, if followed, would invalidate the conversions. Here is what happened.
Shmuel Herzfeld, close disciple of Avi Weiss and rabbi of the National Synagogue in Washington, DC (a shul that has all types of feminist practices, such as female cantors and baalot tekiah), along with his shul’s female rabbi (ordained by Avi Weiss), turned for a p’sak on future geirus procedures to Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat. Fox issued a ruling based on many faulty assumptions and controversial heteirim, as will be explained.
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, chairman of the department of Talmud at YCT, then published his own “teshuvah” on the subject, having been asked by Fox for his opinion. Katz’s teshuvah, like Fox’s, chooses between two teshuvos on geirus in Igros Moshe (Yoreh Deiah 2:127 and 3:112), adopting the more lenient teshuvah over the more stringent one. Even though the more lenient one was about a bedieved case that already occurred, Katz and Fox apply the lenient ruling lechatchilah in order to create new, looser geirus rules. No effort is made to explain how the two teshuvos are consistent, nor were Rav Moshe Feinstein’s talmidim consulted to help interpret what appears to Katz and Fox to be a stirah in his works. Fox and Katz instead chose the teshuvah they liked and extrapolated it into new geirus procedures – procedures that Rav Moshe and other major poskim never permitted. (In fact, Rav Moshe clearly disqualifies the approach of Katz and Fox in the first of the two teshuvos.)
Furthermore, Katz, realizing that his teshuvah is contradicted by Rav Ovadiah Yosef, writes that Rav Ovadiah’s teshuvah was likely based on the Rishon L’Tziyon, not having seen one of Katz’s sources, a Ramban. Katz alleges that Rav Ovadiah missed a basic source and is thus wrong. Katz also opines that both of Rav Moshe’s teshuvos would agree with his position and that Rav Moshe’s stringent teshuvah was strict because of one differing factor. (Rav Moshe clearly did not base his teshuvah on that factor, and we thus find Katz further fabricating a basis for his own teshuvah.)
Fox concedes that his teshuvah is against a p’sak of Rav Moshe Shternbuch, but Fox writes that he feels that Rav Shternbuch, given the circumstances, would agree with him. Both of the “teshuvos” of Katz and Fox are built upon numerous other such assumptions, and both use p’sakim for bedieved situations to create lechatchilah heteirim. Both teshuvos also adopt the lenient bedieved positions in the nosei keilim on Yoreh Deiah 268:2 as lechatchilah. This is halachic distortion of the highest order.
Worse yet is that Fox and Katz write that geirus procedures need to change because of the clear lack of tznius involved. This is a blatant lie and an excuse to further an agenda.
Katz then issued a shocking set of comments about his “teshuvah,” suggesting that the entire method of p’sak be overturned and that parts of halachah are not moral and ethical. Here is what Katz wrote:
…The issue (geirus) raises larger philosophical questions:
1) How do we deal with a halakhic requirement that no longer conforms with contemporary notions of ethics and morality?
2) What are the rules for reinterpreting halakhic idioms (terms like be’dieved and the like)?
3) What is the role of the Talmud in MO pesika; does it have legal weight and halakhic authority, or did chasimas ha’talmud rob it of halakhic significance?
Yes, Katz suggests that we need to reconsider how to address a mitzvah that does not match modern approaches of morality and ethics. He suggests that halachos that are for bedieved situations can perhaps be reinterpreted for lechatchilah use. He suggests that we can take rejected positions in the Gemara that were not codified as halachah by Ravina and Rav Ashi and adopt these positions instead of those that were codified as halachah by Ravina and Rav Ashi.
Two years ago, the Yated documented how the major young intellectual star of Open Orthodoxy, who served as the coordinator of its geirus program (the International Rabbinic Fellowship’s Vaad Ha-Giyur) and who is the only person to have been ordained as a dayan at YCT, published essays denying Torah min haShomayim. Apparently sensing the need to present new faces who can serve as Open Orthodoxy’s halachic authorities, the writers of the above two teshuvos were selected.
One thing we know for sure: Rather than turn to known poskim, Open Orthodoxy has placed one of the weightiest issues in all of halachah into the hands of two people who have no previous authority in p’sak. Two Open Orthodox rabbis who are unknowns in the world of the poskim, and who never wrote a single sefer or headed a bais din, had the audacity to issue their own “p’sakim” that turn geirus on its head, argue with every major posek, and distort halachah to an extreme.
As much as we can fault the two Open Orthodox rabbis who issued these “teshuvos” about geirus for taking into their hands something reserved for the jurisdiction of the most senior of poskim, we must realize that Open Orthodoxy’s lower echelons are equally at fault for charging these two rabbis to render p’sAkim on something way out of their league. In fact, that is what Open Orthodoxy is all about. Instead of submitting to halachic authority and hierarchy, it is a movement of taking halachah into one’s own hands and cooking up what may very well be a lethal and unlawful concoction.
We are witnessing the recreation of the Conservative movement: rigged “piskei halachah” that overturn the system, reject the rulings of all accepted poskim, and question the binding quality of the Gemara.
For years, people called us shrill and criticized us for not judging YCT and Open Orthodoxy lekaf zechus. We now see that this movement is issuing rulings that are no different than those of JTS-Conservative “rabbis” of half a century ago, which overturned the halachic system, permitted driving on Shabbos and marriage of kohanim to converts and divorcees, and changed geirus standards. Two years back, another Open Orthodox “posek” permitted kohanim to marry converts based on halachic gymnastics that contradicted all poskim, and now more Open Orthodox “poskim” are issuing rulings that do away with other areas of halachah. There is no room to judge lekaf zechus in the face of mockery of halachah and rabbonim, and a duplicitous effort to bring gentiles into the community based on flawed, amateur and dishonest “teshuvos” by people who have no place issuing them.
The Yated again calls on the broader Orthodox community to speak out. Before we know it, our own children may chas veshalom be unwittingly offered shidduchim from the offspring of people who were invalidly converted according to Open Orthodox procedures, yet were accepted as Orthodox. Then the travesty of Open Orthodoxy will really hit home, but by then it will be too late.
This article first appeared at Yated Ne’eman.