By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
What makes one Jewish person Orthodox, another Conservative, and a third Reform? What is it that has defined Orthodoxy ever since that term was formulated to describe our way of life?
When the Reform movement began, its proponents claimed that they were simply interested in reorganizing davening to make it more orderly and beautiful. They shortened the tefillah by removing parts that they claimed were no longer understood, relevant or necessary. There was absolutely no attempt to tamper with the fundamental underpinnings of Yiddishkeit or make any readjustment to the doctrines which are at the foundation of our religion. Nor did they amend any halachos or observances.
That all came later. It was in 1885 that the Reform rabbis, meeting in Pittsburgh, issued their proclamation to do away with all the “rituals” that they deemed to be “relative” and “dispensable.” They discarded the Torah and removed it as an influence in their lives. They did away with awaiting a return to Eretz Yisroel and established, for all intents and purposes, a new secular religion.
The Conservatives also began as a seemingly harmless group devoted to maintaining halacha but concerned with tweaking a few observances here and there so that they would conform with the times. Everything else came later. At their founding, they referred to themselves as “Historical Judaism,” as they sought to counter the radical inroads of the Reform.
Conservatives sought to implement certain minor changes and amendments, and promoted them all as being consistent with biblical and rabbinic precedent. They maintained fidelity to the traditional form and precepts of Judaism and did not deviate by changing any of the laws, not even the language of prayer.
Eventually, the Conservative movement also degenerated and became a religion without a God, constantly seeking to amend its observances and conforming with the prevailing notions in style at the moment. To them, the mitzvos of the Torah, which we cherish and observe as the word of Hashem, as we seek to draw closer to Him, are the stuff of legend which are followed in order to feel good and feel part of some glorious ancient tribe with fabulous customs and recipes.
The Conservative yeshivos and rabbinic organizations became tools of the secularists. Although they may have been founded with good intentions and employed Talmudic scholars, they became pedestrian-level institutes of sophistry, doing little more than providing a cynical religious cover to a meandering, secular, assimilationist organization.
Orthodoxy was the term given by the Maskilim to those who remained loyal to the Torah,halacha and minhagim as handed down through the generations. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Orthodoxy looks upon attempts to adjust Judaism to the ‘spirit of the time’ as utterly incompatible with the entire thrust of normative Judaism which holds that the revealed word of G-d rather than the values of any given age are the ultimate standard.
“The Orthodox community, institutively realizing that liturgical reforms were only the beginning of a long-range process designed to change the tenets and practices of Judaism… reacted with an all-out effort to preserve the status quo.”
Orthodoxy regards with great alarm even the slightest tampering of any part of the tradition. It refuses to recognize or participate in any united collective religious organization that deviates from – or reforms in any way – traditional halachic Judaism, which is based upon observance of the Shulchan Aruch.
We have repeatedly written about Rabbi Avi Weiss and his innovations. We have written exposés about his yeshiva, Chovevei Torah, and its graduates. He is at it again and authentic halachic Orthodoxy is once again sleeping at the wheel. We feel that it is about time that he be considered outside of Orthodoxy. Once and for all, the collective bodies of Orthodoxy should declare that he has driven himself out of the camp.
One can’t help but detect the gleeful tone of The Jewish Week’s report last week, that opened with the breathless lead, “The Orthodox world is one letter – the letter “i” – away from calling a woman ‘rabbi.'”
The report continues:
“Sara Hurwitz, who has for almost a year filled rabbinic roles at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale alongside the Orthodox shul’s longtime rabbi, Avi Weiss, recently took on the new title ‘Rabbah'(pronounced ra-BAH).”
A similar report on the same matter was issued by the JTA: “Sara Hurwitz, who has been performing rabbinical duties at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City, last year had been given the title of Maharat – a Hebrew acronym that stands for a leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters.”
The report goes on to state that, “Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute and Hurwitz’s mentor, said the acronym had failed to take hold and that Hurwitz would henceforth be called ‘rabbah,’ a feminized version of the title ‘rabbi.’
“‘This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice,’ said the statement issued by Weiss’ office.
“Hurwitz, who has served at the Hebrew Institute for nearly seven years, has completed the same course of training and examination as male Orthodox rabbinical students.”
Her curriculum was modeled after that of the male students at the liberal rabbinical school Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) in Riverdale, which Weiss founded and leads.
It must be noted that the rabbinic training program that this woman and her male colleagues undergo at YCT is not close to the level of scholarship required to become anything that even resembles a rabbi who is a competent religious leader and halachic decisor. Chovevei Torah students learn an approximate average of 67 minutes of Gemara per day. Contrast that with Yeshiva University’s Undergraduate Yeshiva College Mazer Yeshiva Program, which requires a minimum of approximately 4.5 hours per day of Gemara, or a yeshiva like Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, which has a minimum of some 8 hours a day, and you start to realize what the extent of Ms. Hurwitz’s “same…training and examination as male Orthodox rabbinical students” really is.
What is really important is that even if she would truly be qualified, the title is an oxymoron. The word “Orthodox” cannot possibly be joined with the terms “female rabbi,” “rabbah,” “maharat,” or whatever one chooses to call the position, because authentic halacha does not permit such an arrangement, period.
The concept of an “Orthodox female rabbi,” which both Rabbi Weiss and Ms. Hurwitz claim to be legitimate within Orthodoxy, is actually anything but Orthodox. Indeed, it follows that not only is Ms. Hurwitz not an Orthodox rabbi or rabbah, but Weiss himself, by setting her forward, behaves in a clearly un-Orthodox manner and should no longer be called an Orthodox rabbi.
The sad truth is that we are not surprised by this new development, and, if things continue with little reaction from authentic Orthodoxy, we will not be surprised when Weiss releases his future press release saying that they have decided to do away with the “rabbah” title and have chosen to make things simpler by calling her “rabbi.”
Avi Weiss has a long history. He kept on pushing the envelope as far as he could and waited to see if anyone pushed back. When there was none, he took the next step, and the next and the next. By now he has clearly stepped off the cliff of Orthodoxy and descended into a different realm.
His establishment of his so-called “Open Orthodox yeshiva,” Chovevei Torah, and the “maharat” title are ways of testing the waters. He waited to see if anyone would cry out and protest. No one did, so he advanced to the next step.
The truth is that there was one solitary cry of protest – by this newspaper. Over the years, Yated Ne’eman has been consistently chronicling Weiss’ aberrations and raising its voice in protest, but it has been a lone voice in the wilderness. Orthodoxy in general – right, left and center – has been deafeningly silent on all of this. Weiss has heard the silence as one hears a thunderbolt. He has determined that if the only one who really cares is the Yated, then certainly he can move forward with his agenda. And he has.
We cannot allow someone whose guide is 20th century feminism, rather than halacha as codified by Chazal and practiced by religious Jews throughout the ages, to continue to hijack and attempt to redefine Orthodoxy. The rabbinic ordination of Sara Hurwitz was the culmination of a clever campaign which surreptitiously sought to synthesize feminism with normative Judaism through a series of incremental steps.
Weiss’ actions are even more brazen than those of the original reformers, yet he has succeeded in evading the eye of scrutiny and is permitted to parade as an Orthodox rabbi.
Why should we care? For the same reason Jews cared for the past three hundred years when reformers of all stripes advanced their agendas. We fought back and repelled them out of the normative community. There is no reason that Weiss should be permitted to speak in our name. There is no reason that students of his rabbinic institute should be allowed to label themselves as Orthodox and compete against frum candidates for open pulpits in synagogues across the country.
Having learnt from the Maskilim of previous centuries, the students of that movement in this century demonstrate that they have learned from the mistakes of the former. Without seeking to entrap the masses on an individual level and convert them to their beliefs, they concentrate their efforts on a communal level, aiming to conquer pulpits in communities across the United States and Canada in their bid to corrupt Orthodoxy.
Zacharias Frankel, referred to as the Conservative movement’s intellectual ancestor, wrote that, “The means [of transformation] must be grasped with such care, thought through with such discretion, created always with such awareness of the moment in time, that the goal will be reached unnoticed, that the forward progress will seem inconsequential to the average eye.”
If Weiss is not condemned, he will not stop with “maharat,” or “rabbah,” or whatever other silly name he comes up with. Pretty soon it won’t be considered silly, and there will be more and more aberrations, if the phenomenon is permitted to take hold.
Yes, it is late. We should have dealt with this earlier. But it is not too late.
This is not a time to remain silent.
Weiss is succeeding in trampling, with impunity, on our most prized possession. We can not just stand on the sidelines and watch.