Avi Weiss and Neo-Conservative Judaism

On July 11, 1883 a dinner honoring the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College (the rabbinical seminary of Reform Judaism), was held in Cincinnati. Several of the invited Rabbis, who were of a much more traditional bent, stormed out of the banquet in outrage when shrimp – a non-kosher seafood – was served as the first course. As it turned out the entire menu consisted of treife [non-kosher] food. One of the generally accepted theories is that this was done purposely as a not-so-subtle declaration by the Reform movement that they were moving sharply away from “traditionalism.” Be that as it may, it became known in American-Jewish History as “The Treife Banquet.” It marked the final, irrevocable break between Reform Judaism and what was to become the Conservative movement in the United States.

An event that parallels The Treife Banquet in its implications  took place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on June 16, 2013. Although there were no questions raised about the kashrut of the food being served, there were very serious questions raised about the kashrut of the ceremony being conducted that evening. We are, of course talking about the ordination of three female rabbis by Yeshivat Maharat (YM) of Riverdale, New York. It is an event that marks the irrevocable split between the Orthodox community in the United States and a brand new movement on the American scene.

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale

The event has been unequivocally condemned by both the “centrist” Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which is the largest organization of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States and the “right wing”Agudath Israel. Both agree that it is a radical violation of the sacred Mesorah [Traditions of Jewish Law going back to Moses at Mt. Sinai] of the Jewish People. The RCA stated that “this event is a violation of our Mesorah” and that YM has “chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.” Agudath Israel proclaimed that the event is “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the Mesoras HaTorah…any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” Rabbi Moshe Kletenick – a close disciple of the late Rav Ahron Solovetchik, former Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University – who was President of the RCA in 2010 when the controversy first erupted with Sara Hurwitz being granted the title “Rabbah” by YM, condemned it at the time as “a breach of our Mesorah” and declared that it “is unacceptable for an Orthodox synagogue to have a woman on its rabbinical staff.”

Rabbi Leonard Matanky, a prominent figure in the Chicago Orthodox rabbinate, is the newly elected President of the RCA, the largest organization of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States

The man at the center of this controversy, Avi Weiss, is the activist rabbi of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (Bronx, NY), and founder of Yeshivat Maharat and Yeshivat Chovevai Torah (YCT). The ordination of women is not the only issue at stake in this heated clash. The positions taken by Rabbi Weiss and YCT rabbis on homosexuality, inter-faith and inter-denominational relations, abortion, the authorship of the Torah, and the very integrity of Talmudic teachings have also been the subject of intense scrutiny and condemnation.

In 2010, Weiss backed down under intense pressure from the RCA. Since then he has bided his time, gathered more followers and garnered support for his agenda. Now that he has chosen to thumb his nose at the RCA and Agudath Israel by publicly celebrating the ordination of three new female rabbis and announcing plans to “change the communal landscape by actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders,” Rabbi Weiss is clearly destined to enter the history books along with such figures as Isaac Mayer Wise and Solomon Schechter (founders of Reform and Conservative Judaism in the United States), as founder of the newest movement in the Jewish world. Weiss’ movement, a form of Judaism that enthusiastically embraces the ideologies of feminism and liberal-progressive-modernism while coating it with a strong Orthodox flavor, could accurately be labeled as Ortho-Feminist Progressive Judaism. However, as that appellation is a bit cumbersome, from this point on I will use the term coined by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun (Teaneck, NJ): Neo-Conservative Judaism. It has managed to fit neatly into the slot to the left of Orthodox Judaism and to the right of Conservative Judaism.

Avi Weiss and his protege, Rabbi Sara Hurwitz, the first female Neo-Conservative Rabbi

Truth be told, Weiss’ Neo-Conservatism has moved farther to the left than the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ) led by Professor David Weiss Halivni, which is usually described as the far-right wing of the Conservative movement. UTJ does not ordain women – UTJ formed as a breakaway from the main body of Conservative Judaism over the issue of egalitarianism – and to the best of my knowledge does not accept or condone homosexual relationships in any way whatsoever. On the other hand, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, (the new Director of YCT), along with other high profile YCT rabbis have joined with Reform and Conservative clergy in publicly endorsing same-sex marriage legislation and have even given their blessings to the homosexual relationships of their congregants. Rabbi Hyim Shafner who aligns himself with YCT, described the home of two of his congregants living in an open lesbian relationship as a bayis ne’eman b’yisroel [exemplary Jewish home]. In support of this radical position he marshals some very authoritative evidence….such as an out of context remark by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. A blogger, under the banner of “Progressive Orthodox Judaism” agrees with my analysis: “In many aspects, UTJ falls to the right of the YCT/Open Orthodox crowd. UTJ was formed to counter egalitarianism, while the Open Orthodox movement, under the guise of “Yeshivat Maharat,” conferring semicha upon Sara Hurwitz, etc., has moved towards this paradigm.”

Neo-Conservatism began as “Open Orthodoxy”

In a seminal essay entitled “Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed,” (Judaism, Fall/1997), Rabbi Weiss first announced the formation of what was eventually to become Neo-Conservative Judaism. In the opening sentence of Open Orthodoxy he declared,

“As a Modern Orthodox Rabbi, I profess an unequivocal commitment to the truth, validity and eternal applicability of the Halakhic system. No less than my brethren of the Orthodox Right, I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the law given by God at Sinai, to which the Jewish people committed itself. Torah mi-Sinai is a form of heteronomous law, a structure of law that operates independent of any individual, imposing its standards and guidelines.”

Isaac Mayer Wise

Weiss repeated this theme a number of times. As he conspicuously identified himself as “Modern Orthodox,” then “Open Orthodox” while repeatedly distinguishing himself from the “Orthodox Right,” he clearly felt the need to reassure the reader of his unshakeable pledge to the halakhic (Jewish Law) tradition:

  • “It is for this reason that I believe that the term that best describes this vision of orthodoxy, is “Open Orthodox.” It is open, in that our ideology acknowledges, considers, and takes into account in varying ways a wide spectrum of voices. It is Orthodox, in that our commitment to Halakha is fervent and demanding.”
  • “The key to strengthening Open Orthodoxy is the reconciling of more rigid halakhic practices, which I believe are positive, with our open ideological agenda.”
  • “Hence, the challenge today is for Open Orthodox parents and institutions to be ideologically open, while intensely committed to halakha. It is in these settings where, I believe, spiritual striving can best thrive.”
  • “Standing between the Orthodox Right and Conservative Judaism is our Open Orthodoxy, a distinctive movement, with its own ideology, although sharing fundamental halakhic commitments with the Orthodox Right.”

In Open Orthodoxy Weiss not only labored to reassure us of his basic commitment to halakha, he also attempted to quell fears that his fealty to modernity and openness would interfere with his acceptance of the authority of the great Torah sages who have ultimate jurisdiction in matters of Jewish law and practice (particularly in decisions that affect entire communities); a fundamental precept of Torah and Orthodox Judaism:

  • “In the same framework, all those who hold to Orthodoxy contend that “new Halakha,” which emerges constantly from the wellspring of the halakhic process, must always be based on the highest caliber of religio-legal authority. There must be an exceptional halakhic personality who affirms the new ruling on the grounds of sound halakhic reasoning.”
  • “Likewise, we adhere and turn to the wisdom of the most distinguished religio-legal authorities in making halakhic determinations.”

As we will point out, the aforementioned guarantees that he would seek out “exceptional halakhic personalities” and the “most distinguished religio-legal authorities in making halakhic determinations” became the first fatal casualties in the creation of Neo-Conservative Judaism.

The actual original menu from the historic “Treife Banquet.” It included crabs, shrimp, frog legs, and dairy ice-cream as dessert

Did Rabbi Weiss always intend to break from Orthodoxy?

Although it certainly could be argued, and may very well be true, that Weiss had never originally intended to break from Orthodoxy – but rather stake his claim to its far left borders – when I first read the essay a number of years ago my spontaneous reaction to all these statements (there are more) about his commitment to the halakhic process was: “the lady doth protest too much methinks.” Hindsight would indicate that this bordered on the prophetic. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that even in 1997 he felt that his “Open Orthodoxy” was being viewed with suspicion and that broadcasting his commitment to fundamental Orthodox principles was critical in maintaining credibility with that segment of the Jewish community in which he was rooted. No matter how one evaluates his actual intentions, there is no question that in 1997 he was not prepared to enter into a battle-royal with the rest of the Orthodox world.

A careful reading of the essay – particularly in view of the present situation – clearly indicates the ever-building internal tension and pressure created by his attachment to traditional Jewish halakha (Jewish law) on the one hand and his desire on the other hand, to break free and formulate an expression of “Jewishness” more in consonance with his natural inclination towards a liberal/progressive ideology. In this paragraph, Rabbi Weiss explicitly acknowledged the dilemma:

“The key to strengthening Open Orthodoxy is the reconciling of more rigid halakhic practices, which I believe are positive, with our open ideological agenda. It is this tension that is difficult to live with…The Orthodox Right deals in absolutes – their closed ideological agenda is a natural offshoot of their halakhic fervor. Open Orthodoxy does not see this offshoot as necessary. For the Open Orthodox Jew, true and profound religio-legal creativity and spiritual striving emerges from the tension between the poles of strict halakhic adherence and open ideological pursuits. They appear to be opposites when in fact they are one.”

Solomon Schechter, architect of Conservative Judaism in the United States. The Conservative Day School System is named after him.

Weiss understood that choosing to walk this tightrope was an exercise fraught with difficulty and danger. In what was to be a harbinger of things to come he writes:

“Additionally, in halakhic observance the Modern Orthodox community is more open to halakhically-grounded innovation…while the Orthodox Right is wary of virtually all innovation, fearful that it will lead to a breakdown of halakhic norms.”

It is outside of our scope here to analyze the accuracy of Rabbi Weiss’ assertion that “the Orthodox Right is wary of virtually all innovation,” but sadly, the fears of the “Orthodox Right” that Weiss’ subsequent “innovations” would lead to a “breakdown of halakhic norms” turned out to be spot-on.

Perhaps the most revealing allusion to the distressing sense of deadlock experienced by Rabbi Weiss is to be found in the only passage which mentions the man who ordained him as an Orthodox Rabbi, that great Torah giant of the previous generation, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z”l (1903-1993), who was Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary (RIETS) for nearly five decades. Weiss expressed admiration for Rav Soloveitchik while at the same time laying the groundwork for the future severing of any inconvenient or annoying ideological and even halakhic entanglements which that admiration might entail:

“Even in purely halakhic areas, we part company in our understanding of [the concept of] da’at-Torah [maintaining a proper Torah outlook]. For the Orthodox Right, da’at-Torah means that decisions made by the rabbis close off all discussion; in Modern Orthodoxy it sets the foundation from which discussion ensues. In sum: for we Modern Orthodox, if da’at-Torah means to revere the wisdom of the great rabbinic authorities, like Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, we believe in it. If, however, it means to follow blindly the great rabbinic authorities in non-halakhic areas or to close off discussion in purely halakhic areas, we disagree. We respect Rav Soloveitchik’s da’at-Torah precisely because he was a person of enormous human wisdom and insight. He understood that da’at-Torah was not to be imposed; that it was to be persuasive rather than authoritarian.”

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, one of the giants of Orthodox Jewry in America

As an aside, I seriously question whether Rabbi Weiss sought out Rav Soloveitchik’s approval before definitively asserting what Rav Soloveitchik understood or did not understand about the concept of da’at-Torah. Be that as it may, Rav Soloveitchik was, without question, the greatest Torah authority, halakhic and otherwise, for those who identify themselves as Modern Orthodox in the United States. There is no one else who comes close. If Avi Weiss, as a Modern Orthodox rabbi (in fact a very modern, Modern Orthodox rabbi), has granted himself the license to decide whether or not Rav Soloveitchik’s wisdom, directives, and halakhic decisions are “persuasive,” he has, in effect, rejected the authority of any Gadol b’Torah (Rabbinic Torah authority) of the Jewish People. (He certainly has made it clear that he is not prepared to accept the authority of those to the “right” of Rav Soloveitchik.) This is a clear rejection of a fundamental precept of the Torah and our Mesorah.

If a psak halakha [decision of Jewish law in a particular matter], especially those that affect the direction of an entire segment of the community, from someone of the stature of Rav Soloveitchik accomplishes nothing more than to “set the foundation from which discussion ensues,” then clearly, for Avi Weiss, authority in psak halakha is non-existent. That is to say, if one’s starting point in halakhic expertise in modern orthodoxy is Rav Soloveitchik, anyone else that Weiss would turn to could only be a giant step down. It would be like asking the Supreme Court of the United States for a decision and then taking it backwards to the lower courts to hear their opinion. Although Rabbi Weiss himself is without question learned, has many admirable accomplishments to his name and is an enviably successful pulpit rabbi; it would be laughable to suggest that he – or myself for that matter – has achieved the type of authority and mastery of Talmud and Jewish law that would put him in a category even remotely approaching that of Rav Yosef Dov Solovetchik z”l.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his younger years

It is worth noting that both Rav Soloveitchik’s successor as Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, his younger brother Rav Ahron Soloveitchik z”l (1917-2001) – who was a world class Talmudic scholar/genius in his own right – and the current Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Herschel Schachter, a close disciple of Rav Soloveitchik, were and are adamantly opposed to Rabbi Weiss’ and YCT’s “innovations” in Jewish halakha, particularly regarding ordination of female clergy, inter-faith and inter-denominational relations, and same-sex marriage.

The slide to Neo-Conservatism

The slide from Open Orthodox to Neo-Conservative then, is a consequence of several factors. First, of course, is Weiss’ infatuation with Modernism, Feminism, and Liberalism. This is the proverbial hand relentlessly tightening the coiled spring that finally must be loosened somehow or violently snap apart. That alone, however, would not necessitate a break from the Orthodox world.

The second and most decisive factor is Rabbi Weiss’ position in rejecting any ultimate authority in the determination of Jewish Law. As we saw above, he made the decision that even in the most controversial and far-reaching halakhic issues, his authority was just as valid as that of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Nothing and No one had the power to “close off” discussions in matters of Jewish Law. In Weiss’ eyes there is no authoritative voice. In effect, Rabbi Weiss had decided to create his own Mesorah, or Rabbinic Tradition, starting with himself or those that agreed with him, regardless of their stature.

Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, the saintly Talmudic genius who succeeded his brother as Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS. He was also the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Brisk, Chicago

The final factor which rendered the break with Orthodoxy inevitable was a misplaced sense of moral and ethical sensitivity. If the term “misplaced” is not accurate, then at least: a moral and ethical sensitivity which is incompatible with Torah/Orthodox Judaism. From Open Orthodoxy:

“One of the challenges of halakha is to understand its ethical message, i.e., how does the law contribute to the repairing of the world (tikkun olam).”

In order to fully grasp the underlying message and long-term implications of this statement, it is necessary to take a moment and discuss the contemporary meaning and usage of the term tikkun olam. “Tikkun Olam” (literally “repairing or perfecting the world”), is a phrase found in the Aleynu prayer (recited at the end of each of the three daily prayer services) composed by Joshua as he stood ready to cross the Jordan River and begin the conquest and settlement of the land of Israel. He was then embarking on the revolutionary Jewish mission of “perfecting the world,” i.e., ridding the world of pagan worship and teaching mankind about the existence and service of the One God of the universe. It is also used in the Talmud to connote Rabbinic enactments that dealt with issues of public policy.

Rav Ahron Soloveitchik in a lighter moment

Although there is a quality of nebulousness in its modern use, tikkun olam is essentially a Jewish/progressive-liberal buzz-word for “social action” and “social justice.”  The official youth group of the Conservative movement, USY (United Synagogue Youth), puts it this way: “Social Action/Tikun Olam can mean so many things to so many different people. It can mean making someone’s day brighter by just smiling as you pass them in the hallway to raising thousands of dollars with your region for Tikun Olam.”  Some of the suggested Social Action/Tikkun Olam projects on the site are: Feed a Needy Neighbor, River/Beach Clean-Up, Nature Hike, Humane Society, Tutoring, AIDS/Drunk Driving Awareness, Helping Your Synagogue Kosher their kitchen for Passover, etc.

Temple Isaiah (Reform) in Los Angleles: “The phrase Tikkun Olam literally means “world repair.” Join us in our efforts to heal a broken world. Contact Ronna Berlin, Vice-President of Social Action for Temple Isaiah.” Projects include, Green Team, Congregation-based Community Organizing, Food Bank, Big Sunday: “Join hundreds of Angelenos for this one day of city-wide volunteerism,” etc.

Social worker Jennifer Noparstak, in her essay “Tikkun Olam” on the Learning to Give website under the heading “Important People Related to the Topic,” lists Emil Fackenheim- the well known Conservative (Judaism) philosopher; Lawrence Kushner – Reform Rabbi and author; Leonard Fein – Far left-wing journalist and activist; Ismar Schorsch – one-time chancellor of JTS, the flagship seminary of the Conservative movement, and Rabbi Isaac Luria – the great 16th century kabbalist, whose relevance to the topic most definitely does not include his strict Orthodox/Hareidi observance of Jewish law, but rather his “kabbalistic” use of the term tikkun olam.

Rav Herschel Schachter, disciple of Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik and current Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS

In summation: With few exceptions the use of tikkun olam is exclusively associated with left-leaning, liberal/progressive groups, organizations, and ideologies. It would be a formidable task indeed to find a Jewish group that uses the term tikkun olam in conjunction with a prayer vigil outside an abortion clinic, advocating for traditional marriage and family values, or raising money for an organization that offers therapy for homosexuals who desire to change their sexual orientation.

(Of course, gemilut chassadim [roughly translated: emulation of God’s love and kindness to his creatures and devotion to the needs of others], must be an integral part of the life of any committed Orthodox Jew, left or right. The Talmudic sages teach us that along with Torah Study and Prayer, Gemilut Chassadim is one of the three pillars upon which rest the existence of the universe. As bizarre as it sounds, I have actually met people who subscribe to the notion that empathy, compassion, kindness, and devotion and sensitivity to the needs of others are the exclusive domains of those to the left.)

Although Weiss’ association of tikkun olam and “ethical messages” with halakha certainly does not in and of itself imply a break from Orthodox observance, in the overall picture it is another indication of the powerful allure that the “liberal left” holds for Rabbi Weiss. It also sets the stage for his and his disciples current practice of determining and evaluating halakhic practice in light of the “ethical” consequences, particularly those consequences which are of paramount concern to feminist/liberal/progressive ideologues. Evaluating halakha and Jewish living this way is a clear break from Orthodox Judaism (Weiss understood this and therefore in his 1997 essay he took pains to assure us it would never happen).We evaluate the truth and moral fitness of any action, idea, or ideology, including a Feminist/Progressive agenda, by the yardstick of God’s Torah and our Mesorah, not the other way around.

Betty Friedan, early feminist leader and author of “The Feminine Mystique”

Although there are significant complexities and nuances to this subject that are well beyond the scope of this article, the bottom line is that we are obligated to follow God’s commandments, as expressed by the halakha, even when it seems to some to be incomprehensible or even cruel. Ultimately we are not in any position to question or evaluate the moral robustness of a definitive expression of halakha or a direct commandment from God, which in Orthodox Judaism are one and the same. For a human being to think they are able to fully understand the “mind” of God and that we have the ability to “outsmart” him morally or otherwise, would be as foolish as thinking that a donkey is fully able to understand the mind of a human being; in fact, inasmuch as the gap between a donkey and human is infinitely smaller than the gap between a human and God, it would be extraordinarily more foolish. Abraham pleaded for mercy and justice when the Almighty informed him of the impending destruction of S’dom and Amorrah, but when commanded by God to offer up his son, he complied without a murmur of protest. Our sages tell us that King Saul was deeply troubled by the moral implications of the commandment to destroy the entire nation of Amalek; from Scripture and Talmudic tradition we know that his hesitation and second-guessing of God’s commandment had disastrous consequences.

The notion that one’s personal, subjective view of ethics and morality – which, of course, are heavily and decisively influenced by the zeitgeist and the norms of the surrounding society – should determine halakha is not a new idea; it is a classic, fundamental philosophical pillar of Conservative Judaism and allowed that movement to change whatever they saw fit in Jewish law and practice. Rabbi Seymour Siegel (1927-1988) Professor of Ethics and Theology at JTS and a chairman of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly wrote the following in an essay called “The Meaning of Jewish Law” from the JTS publication Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law:

“Most important in Conservative Judaism’s view of the interpretation of Jewish Law is the introduction of the aggadic and ethical component. Since the Law is the expression of the covenant, and a basic aim of the covenantal obligation is the practice of justice and compassion, we cannot sustain the authority of any norm which results in unethical outcomes. When the halacha cannot adequately express the aggadah, it must be modified…we accept the marriage of a divorcee and a kohen because we feel [that the Torah’s explicit prohibition against such a marriage] does not square with our notions of what is right and wrong.

Seymour Siegel, of the Jewish Theological Seminary

In other words, we use our own standards of “ethics” to validate or invalidate halakha and the commandments of the Torah instead of using the halakha and commandments to determine how we behave and as the basis of forming proper moral outlooks and standards of conduct. In short, instead of using God’s Torah to create ourselves in its image, we re-create the Torah (and God) in our own image. As we shall see below this is exactly the path that Rabbi Weiss and his followers have chosen to follow.

Neo-Conservatism and the Rejection of Orthodox Mesorah

Rav Moshe Feinstein z”l (1895-1986) was the unquestioned posek hador [pre-eminent halakhic authority of his generation], if not in the entire world, then certainly in the United States. His personal integrity, genius, righteousness and saintliness, and encyclopedic mastery of the entire corpus of Talmudic and halakhic literature were legendary. His authority and expertise in halakha were recognized by the entire Jewish world and his collection of Rabbinic responsa, Iggrot Moshe, are classics in the field. Rabbi Zev Farber, on the other hand, is a young rabbi who has been conferred with the title of dayan [Rabbinical Judge] by YCT. He has no reputation at all as an halakhic authority outside of YCT circles. In a “responsa” on the issue of homosexual relationships entitled “Homosexuals in the Orthodox Community,” Rabbi Farber glibly dismisses Rav Feinstein as a homophobe from the old country who reflects outdated, “contemptuous” and “belligerent” attitudes about homosexuality. With a simple wave of the hand, the authority of the Torah and its greatest sages are replaced by the zeitgeist and the American Psychological Association. (In truth, Rabbi Farber does not even pretend to subscribe to the principles of Orthodox Judaism, he openly declares his belief in some form of the Documentary Hypothesis, that the Torah was not written by Moses as dictated by God, but was written by different authors at different times and was mysteriously redacted by some unknown editor at some unknown point in Jewish history. This is the Rabbinical Judge who is in charge of “Orthodox” conversions for the YCT congregation.)

Rav Soloveitchik with another of the great Torah luminaries, Rav Ahron Kotlar (center)

Another prominent YCT rabbi, currently the rabbi of a congregation in Maine, described how his Reform and Conservative rabbinic colleagues helped him overcome his “wall of religious textual evidence” (i.e. the Torah and Rabbinic literature) that opposed homosexual marriage and convinced him to support legislation for same-sex marriage in Maine. He went on to compare the struggle for same-sex marriage to the miracle of Hannukka when the Jewish people went to war against the Syrian-Greek empire and Hellenist Jews for their right to study and live by the commandments of the Torah. I will leave it for the reader to decide which side in this conflict more closely resembles Matisyahu and his sons – the heroic leaders of the rebellion – and which side is almost identical to the Hellenized Jews who fought alongside the Syrian-Greeks.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a congregational rabbi in Los Angeles aligned with Avi Weiss and YCT, in an article entitled “Adieu to “For Thou Hast Not Made Me a Woman,” engages in what, from an Orthodox point of view, can only described as blasphemy. He describes the practice of separating men and women in Orthodox synagogues as forcing women to “daven [pray] in a cage,” and considers it to be “shameful treatment of women.” He accuses the Rabbinic sages of reinforcing “the inherent prejudice that holds that women possess less innate dignity than men” and considers reciting the blessings that they composed as a “desecration of God’s name.”

Fred Flinstone and Barney Rubble in their “Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo” hats

Rabbi Zev Farber, the aforementioned, very young YCT dayan concurs, although less vitriolic in expressing his opinion. Rabbi Farber informs us that the entire structure of the Orthodox synagogue and the prayer services send a “pernicious message” to women that their presence is irrelevant. In a rather novel manner he compares the synagogue to a male-only club like the “Loyal Order of the Water Buffaloes” on the old Flintstones cartoon show; the epiphanous revelation of the metaphor coming while “watching the Flintstones with my children one day.” [I must confess, some of Rabbi Farber’s “halakhic reasoning” leads me to believe he should stick to cartoons.]  He does graciously concede that Orthodox synagogues are “one step advanced from a stone-age lodge” because at least “we let the women watch.” He asserts that women’s 2nd class position in the synagogue is “hard-wired into the halakhic system” and that it is difficult to “navigate the many tensions that exist between traditional practices [i.e. those based on the Torah, Talmud, and halakhic authorities] and modern egalitarian values.” I guess it is a tough call for a “Rabbinical Judge” like Rabbi Farber to adjudicate whose voice represents authentic Jewish worship and service of the Almighty: (A) Rabbi Akiva, Maimonidies , Rav Yosef Karo, and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik?, or (B) Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Betty Friedan, and Hillary Clinton? Kanefsky and Farber have clearly made their choices.

Jane Fonda, perhaps a talented actress; but an authentic voice on Jewish worship?!

For one to conclude that the separation of men and women in the synagogue, women not leading the prayer services, and not granting women rabbinical ordination, etc., implies the relegation of women to 2nd class status, is as absurd as concluding that Corey Crawford’s position as goalie – for the Chicago Black Hawks, the 2013 Stanley Cup Champions – is a “2nd class position” because in his entire career he – along with every other goalie in the NHL – will never score a goal, never even be credited with an assist for a goal, and if he even attempted to skate down the ice and score a goal he would bring down the wrath of the entire coaching staff and all of his teammates. Those subscribing to such a notion would only be revealing their spectacular ignorance of the game of hockey. Similarly, those who think that the Torah teaches that “women possess less innate dignity than men” because they cannot serve as Rabbis and Rabbinical Judges or that the separation of men and women in the synagogue constitutes “forcing women to daven in a cage” display spectacular ignorance of Torah/Orthodox Jewish tradition, philosophy, and halakha.

Modern day “Water Buffaloes” – funny, they don’t LOOK Jewish!

If the “chauvinistic-male” Rabbis held women in such contempt, why then did they scrutinize the behavior of Channah, the mother of Samuel, to create our entire model of proper prayer before God? Why do they inform us that Sarah achieved a greater level of prophecy than Avraham? Why do they extol the heroic virtues of Rachel and Leah in raising the 12 tribes of the Israelite nation and that their merit stands by Am Yisroel throughout the generations? Why do they obligate a man to “honor his wife more than himself?” Why do they teach that “the Divine Presence only rests in the home because of the woman?” Why did they teach us that the entire redemption from Egypt – the seminal event in Jewish history – was due only to the righteous women of that generation? Why was the Torah offered first to the women and only then to the men? Why do the sages teach us that women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf nor that of the Spies? Where is there the slightest indication in our mesorah or in the teachings of our Sages that a woman cannot achieve the greatest levels of righteousness, holiness, and closeness to God, by fulfilling the obligations and commandments the Torah has placed upon her?

Rav Moshe Feinstein

In fact, it is regarding this very issue, namely: achieving greater levels of righteousness, holiness, and closeness to God, where Jewish feminists like Cynthia Ozick and Blu Greenberg, and Neo-Conservatives like Weiss, Farber, Kanefsky, and Hurwitz go off the rails. In order to understand Neo-Conservatism it is crucial to understand the nature and history of the feminist ideology that drives it.…

A brief history, and underlying principles of the Feminist movement in American Society

In American society and culture, who is important? Who do we honor? Who do we stand up for and admire? Who do we “oooh” and “ahhh” over? Who creates a stir at a party or gathering? It is the wealthy, the famous, the successful, and the powerful. Anyone who does not fit into one of these categories is at best, second-tier, a hanger-on, a drone, and if we are more uncharitable, a nobody, and perhaps even a loser. Up until the mid-60’s the overwhelming majority of American women could not possibly fit into any of these groupings. After all, a woman who spent most of her day running a household, raising children, and being a loyal and devoted wife, did not have much time left over to acquire wealth, fame, success, or power. Women were shut out from doing and achieving everything that the surrounding culture deemed significant. In this sense they were relegated to second class citizenship. Riding on the ideological waves created by Betty Friedan and other feminist ideologues, women asserted their right to enter into the “important” world of the men.

It becomes eminently clear that the underlying principle which drove the feminist movement was the notion that what men did was significant and meaningful; conversely, that which was feminine was to be considered inferior. This, of course, is a classic illustration of the particular type of brainwashing known as the Stockholm-syndrome. The oppressed individual ends up identifying with the oppressor. This was the reason why black men would enthusiastically subject themselves to the painful process of straightening their hair. Straight hair was “white,” and good, kinky hair was “black,” and inferior. It is clear then, that to describe the women’s movement as “feminist” is highly misleading. It would be as misleading as describing black men’s desire to straighten their hair as a “Black Pride” movement. It was just the opposite, the compulsion to look like white people stemmed from a feeling of inferiority of their “blackness.” The women’s movement was, in fact, a “masculinist” movement; to be good, you must imitate what the men do.

The part that feminists got right was that women were, to a large extent, shut out from achieving wealth, fame, and power, while they were relegated to home, family, and children. The tragic mistake was their solution. What they failed to realize was that the essential problem in American society was not what the women were doing; it was what the men were doing.

Is the primary goal of a human being to amass wealth, to achieve fame and success, to acquire power? Is the goal of a human being to be “king of the hill?” If I am not in the spotlight on center stage does that mean I am a failure? – Devotion and loyalty to one’s spouse? Building intimate relationships? Creating a nurturing and loving home environment? Raising and educating children? Bringing new life into the world? These are inferior?! These are the activities that form the core of our humanity. The ways in which we engage in these activities are what distinguishes us from the beasts of the jungle.

What American women needed to “roar” about was that men had lost themselves in the world of blind ambition and the relentless quest for “success” while relegating to second class status, the core values that make human life worth living. Instead of creating a “revolution” to restore the soul of American society by demanding that men realign their priorities and values, women deserted their posts and recklessly jumped into the world of male foolishness, which consists of two basic categories: (a) the endless pursuit of sex, which is the natural course of the male nature unless educated and disciplined otherwise, and (b) the endless pursuit of wealth, fame, and power; or as males of every age proclaim in locker rooms all over this great country of ours –  please forgive my indelicacy – “It’s all about money and *******.”  If only these women had realized that a society which has lost the understanding that it must be built around the inner/feminine aspect of our existence, is a society that has literally lost its soul.

The destructiveness of the feminist movement is childishly camouflaged by using noble-sounding euphemisms for what actually has occurred. One of those terms that is always bandied about when talking about the cultural upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s is The Sexual Revolution. A typical liberal/progressive description of this phenomenon is the one found in Wikipedia:

“The sexual revolution (also known as a time of “sexual liberation”) was a social movement that challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout the Western world from the 1960s to the 1980s. Sexual liberation included increased acceptance of sex outside of traditional heterosexual, monogamous relationships (primarily marriage). Contraception and the pill, the normalization of premarital sex, alternative forms of sexuality, and the legalization of abortion all followed.”

The 60’s, a time of social upheaval in the United States. Can you feel the love?

All of this is a cover-up of the simple truth that it was not a “social movement” at all. It was the inevitable result of the feminist call-to-arms that women are entitled to “sleep around” just like men. That is to say, “If the men can do it, why can’t we?” Feminism promoted promiscuity because it is a naturally masculine trait. Therefore, it is superior to the feminine tendency to view physical intimacy as part of a committed, loving relationship. It was not a revolution of the society. It was a revolution of women to discard their natural virtue and embrace promiscuity. It goes without saying that men were only too happy to go along with this part of the feminist agenda. Let’s face it, there was nothing revolutionary about that. In short the rampant promiscuity that exploded in the 60’s; the shredded hearts and souls of countless women who allowed themselves to be used by men for their sexual indulgence while being told by feminist ideologues that they were now “liberated women;” the plague of single-motherhood that creates an underclass of young men raised without fathers (70% in the black community, over 60% in the Latino community)  who become the drug addicts, rapists, and violent criminals in our society, all are direct outgrowths of feminist ideology.

The promotion of physical indulgence destroys the moral fiber of a society. To use Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s designation: It creates a nation of “takers” and not “givers.” It should not surprise anyone, therefore, that violent crime per-capita quadrupled in the US during the years 1964-1994. The violent crime rate in the United States is still double what it was in 1964.

The most tragic legacy of the female “masculinist” movement

The inherent stumbling block for a woman who is driven to seek wealth, fame, success, and power is the discovery of a baby growing inside her uterus. Therefore, it becomes obvious that a fundamental dogma of feminism must be unrestricted access to birth control, including the destruction of a conceived baby. Ironically, in order to feel empowered, women ruthlessly attacked that very aspect which made them uniquely female; the inherent and exclusive ability to nurture and produce life itself. Along with this was the denigration of devotion to motherhood and family. These are all feminine qualities and had to be discarded if a woman truly wanted to make it. As talk-radio host, Dennis Prager so aptly put it, “Whatever feminists may say about their only advocating choices, everyone knows the truth. Feminism regards work outside the home as more elevating, honorable, and personally productive than full-time mothering and homemaking.”

As a result, the freedom to destroy unborn children became the most sacred dogma of a feminist society. It is a society that dumps its freshly killed, perfectly formed unborn babies in plastic garbage bags while bestowing heroic status on the “doctor” who became a millionaire by dumping them there. It is a society that will lionize and idolize a drunken, misogynistic, womanizing Senator – who by his own admission used over a thousand women in his lifetime – simply because he gave his unconditional support to unrestricted abortion. This same Senator, if not for his last name, would have ended up in jail for negligent homicide of a young girl – one of his potential partners – who died when he drove off a bridge in a drunken stupor. Of course, no one wants to “butcher unborn children,” it is all in the name of the noble cause of “Women’s Reproductive Rights.” The frenzy to destroy unborn children culminated in the recent revelation of Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s “house of horrors” abortion clinic in Pennsylvania and his conviction on several counts of first degree murder. Hundreds of babies were killed by having their necks snipped with scissors after being born alive during the abortion process. The soulless response from feminist activists to these atrocities and to the similar brutally enforced “one child only” policies in China has been a deafening silence.

Promiscuity, disintegration of the sanctity of marriage and family, the killing of unborn children, and the ensuing collateral damage to society are the most significant legacies of the feminist movement. One would hope that at least the killing of unborn babies would be a policy that is emphatically rejected by the “Orthodox, halakhically committed” male and female rabbinical students of YCT and YM. While it may be true that the Torah’s view on abortion is not identical with that of the Catholic Church and Evangelical pro-life advocates, there is no question that many of the abortions performed today are considered by the Torah to be murder or something akin to such an offense.

The prohibition against abortion is also included in the Seven Noahide Laws that are the universal laws of morality for all mankind. What Orthodox Jews clearly share with all pro-life advocates is a profound revulsion towards the concept of abortion on demand. It is not a woman’s unrestricted right to decide the fate of the baby growing inside her, like some Roman Emperor in the Coliseum contemplating the thumbs-up or thumbs-down in a gladiatorial contest. She has been granted a sacred gift and trust from the Almighty to carry life inside her body – she is the guardian and protector of that life, not the owner. Alas, even in this area the Feminist/Progressive agenda trumps the Torah. Future female Rabbi, Dasi Fruchter of YM tells us:

“Here we go again, excluding women from the process…I looked up and was reminded that Rabbinic Judaism wasn’t the only place where a women’s voice was amplified through a man’s…it was the evening when Texas State Senator Wendy Davis embarked on an incredibly long and historic filibuster journey to aid the defeat of a bill that sought to cut access to abortion services in Texas…this dramatic moment in the political struggle for abortion rights came to symbolize just what I had been thinking about – allowing women to speak for themselves, instead of others speaking for them.” [I’m curious how Fruchter feels about allowing unborn babies to speak for themselves.]

Tikkun Olam – “perfecting the world” – now means fighting for abortion rights even though the Torah’s prohibition against abortion is even more restrictive and severe for gentiles than it is for Jews. Of course there is an upside to the feminist revolution: We have more female Doctors, personal injury attorneys, and many female TV news anchors like Katie Couric. It was a pyrrhic victory. Imagine what could have been if the woman’s revolution was one that had fought to reclaim light and life for society and not darkness and death. This is the movement that inspires Avi Weiss and his disciples.

Synagogue Cantor, the “man” in the spotlight

Once we understand these things, it becomes clear why “modern” women clamored for more visible and public roles in the prayer service and in the synagogue. They were swept away by the zeitgeist. They aped the anti-Jewish values of the surrounding society. The more visible and “famous” you are, the more important and significant you are. The most important players are the male “Rabbis” and “Cantors” who get to stand in front of the crowd. Those who never get in the spotlight are nobodies. Private devotion without public recognition is for losers. Scriptural verses like “Walk privately and modestly with your God” and “All the honor of the daughter of the King is inner and private” were the opiates thrown to women to keep them as 2nd class citizens at the back of the bus! After all, the modern TV show was called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” not “Lifestyles of  Low-Income, Unobtrusive Ones who Serve God Without Public Recognition.”

What is significant for the Torah Jew?

If, in fact, the purpose of existence is wealth, glory, and self-indulgence, there is no good reason why women should be not be given a piece of the pie. If standing in the spotlight at the podium is what it’s all about, why shouldn’t women be given their fair shot? As Jews, however, we know that these are antithetical to everything that the Torah stands for! The purpose of existence is not wealth, power, fame and glory. The purpose of existence is Tziddkus – Righteousness; Kedushah – Holiness; Avodas Hashem – Passionate loyalty to, and service of, the Almighty; Gemillut Chasadim – Emulating God’s love and kindness towards his creatures, Talmud Torah – The study of the eternal wisdom, and the commandments of God’s Torah. In a Torah-oriented community, it is the Holy, the Righteous, the Kind and Compassionate, the Servant of God, and the Talmid Chacham [Torah Scholar], who create a stir, who are revered and admired, and  who receive honor; not the “Rich and Famous.”

A Jewish woman who is devoting the majority of her time to building a home, educating and raising her children, and being a loyal and devoted spouse has limitless opportunities to achieve holiness, service of God, Acts of Loving-kindness, Righteousness, and closeness to God. She also must find time to study and increase her knowledge in Torah, which is the source of divine wisdom. A Jewish man who ignores his marriage and family to amass wealth and to advance his career goals has completely  lost touch with the sacred  duties and obligations that God has commanded him in his Torah.

“Now O Israel, what does God  your Lord ask of you? Only to fear God  your Lord, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve God your Lord, with all your heart and with all your soul. To observe God’s commandments and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit.” (Deuteronomy 10:12)

The greatest leader of the Jewish People – and perhaps the greatest human being in the history of mankind – Moshe Rabbeinu, was perfectly content to tend the sheep of his father-in-law, he shunned publicity and strongly resisted even the urging of God himself to step into the spotlight as a leader. Our sages teach us that he felt his older brother Aaron should be the leader of the nation. No Jew, male or female should be fighting to be on center-stage. It is a perversion of everything that the Torah stands for to think that unless you are in a public position of authority you languish in inferior or 2nd class status, and yet this is the central theme of Avi Weiss’ movement and YM. The one theme that is glaringly absent from Rabbi-to-be Dasi Fruchter’s article is “what does God want from me as a Jew and as a woman?”

Male and Female are radically different

A fundamental truth in the Torah’s description of reality – as evidenced by not only the first two chapters of Genesis, but by the entire book of Genesis and countless other sources – is that men and women have been created and endowed by God with profoundly different natures; physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. (Actually, one does not need the Torah to point out this patently self-evident fact; it only becomes necessary to discuss due to the widespread acceptance of feminist/liberal propaganda to the contrary.)

The Red Carpet at the Oscars, iconic symbols of the pursuit of fame and glory, antithetical to Torah ideals

One of the most obvious differences is the manner in which the sexual drive is expressed. To put it crudely, if all men stopped looking at pornography, the entire industry would collapse overnight; if all women stopped reading romance novels, the entire romance-novel industry would collapse overnight. If men stopped going to strip clubs and prostitutes there would be no strip clubs and prostitutes (male or female). Neither of these institutions holds much interest for women. Bars have “Ladies Nights” where women get cheap drinks, because it is a way to lure in more full-paying male customers; bars do not have “Men’s Nights” where men get cheap drinks because all it would do is bring in hordes of men and most likely drive the women away. The male sex-drive is impulsive, urgent, and immediate; women naturally associate physical intimacy with emotional intimacy, love and a committed relationship. Male homosexuals are notoriously promiscuous because they are males; conversely, female homosexuals tend towards monogamous relationships. The radical difference in the way men tend to view women (as objects of sexual desire) as opposed to the way women tend to view men is so self-apparent that one does not know whether to laugh or cry upon contemplating that in 21st century western society one must actually remind many people of this obvious truth.

Strictly for Women; Most men would not be caught dead reading a romance novel

Why God created men and women this way is not our subject; that he did is obvious. It is for this reason that the exercise of, and emphasis on, female virtue and tznius [modesty] is such a critical factor in the Jewish People’s fulfillment of their destiny as a “holy nation” and “a kingdom of priests.” It is for the same reason that men are exhorted by the Torah to “guard their eyes” and not indulge in the pursuit of licentiousness and fantasizing about women. The Torah demands that we behave with extreme caution in all areas where the potential for sexual temptation is present. While true that there is a limited flexibility in the halakhic paradigms of these issues depending on the cultural norms, the underlying attitude is as stated by our Sages, “The God of Israel hates licentiousness,” and “Wherever you find barriers against sexual immorality you find holiness.” The creation of a public policy backed by ideological principles, such as promoted by Avi Weiss and YM, of putting women on display in front of men – while strictly ho-hum in our hyper-sexualized, “Swimsuit Issue-society,” where women are encouraged to present themselves as sexually-desirable objects and pornography is a constitutional right – is an anathema to Torah-dedicated Jews and absolutely cannot be reconciled with any authentic expression of Orthodox Judaism. It is, among other problems, a plain and simple violation of the fundamental notions of tznius and creating barriers against sexual temptation.

While noble, admirable, and obligatory for our holy women to teach and inspire other daughters of Israel, it is the opposite of holiness and service of God for women to routinely present themselves as spiritual leaders and teachers of men. Our Sages teach us that when our father Abraham embarked on his mission to teach people the revolutionary concept of Monotheism and its system of Godly morality, that “Abraham taught the men and Sarah taught the women.” While this attitude may be mocked and derided by those with liberal/progressive leanings and be described as prudish, Victorian, and “unhealthy repression of sexuality,” we unapologetically assert that our Mesorah in this area is the only Godly path for a committed Jew. Any attempts to meddle with the Torah’s prescription of male-female relationships and their different roles in a Torah-society, can only have disastrous consequences. An honest assessment of our surrounding culture confirms this beyond any reasonable doubt. This is not a self-righteous, finger pointing sermon. Anyone who has his eyes open knows the deleterious and demoralizing effect the current attitudes of borderless sexual freedom has on the Torah/Orthodox community. The struggles, conflicts, and damage inflicted, have challenged all of us, men and women.

Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, son-in-law of Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har-Etzion, Alon Shvut, Israel

One simple true-life example will suffice to illustrate the point. While I was living in Israel, a friend of mine told me he was looking forward to attending a Friday night service at a particular synagogue in the Nachlaot section of Jerusalem. He had heard wonderful things about the Rabbi and the ecstatic and uplifting nature of the prayers. When I inquired about his experience at this synagogue the disappointment was all over his face. He said that the first half of the service, Kabbalat Shabbat [Welcoming the Sabbath], was incredibly uplifting. Then suddenly, before the beginning of the Evening Service, a beautiful young woman – modestly dressed with her hair covered in the custom of married Orthodox women – stood up in front of the congregation at the podium and started reading a chapter of Psalms out loud while everyone listened silently. At the conclusion of this reading she returned to her seat on the women’s side and the Evening Service continued. It seems this is a regular occurrence on Friday night. He said, “That was the end of the spiritual experience. I simply could not get the image of this strikingly beautiful young woman out of my mind for the rest of the evening. Many of the other men told me the same thing.” There is nothing strange or shocking about this story. His reaction was perfectly natural and normal. What would have been shocking is if he did not react that way.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Orange County-Irivine, Ca., and Adjunct Professor of Law, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles

To sum up: It is axiomatic in Torah/Orthodox Judaism that the divine service of a woman is as precious to God as that of a man although the two forms of service are far from identical. That Torah/Orthodox Jews must defend themselves against vicious accusations by shallow individuals like Yosef Kanefsky, Zev Farber, Dasi Fruchter, or old-time feminists like Blu Greenberg is a testimony to the deep susceptibility of the human intellect to corruption and distortion; particularly by non-Jewish ideologies.

Fundamental changes in Jewish practice such as those advocated by Avi Weiss can only be instituted with the approval of the greatest Rabbinic/halakhic minds of the generation; those having the stature of such luminaries as Rav Moshe Feinstein or Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik. Weiss himself acknowledged this in his 1997 essay, he simply abandoned it when it became a hindrance to his agenda. For those interested in a response to Rabbi Kanefsky’s screed by a genuine Orthodox rabbi, see “Who has not made me a Liberal Rabbi,” by Rabbi Dov Fischer. For an authentic Orthodox Jewish view on homosexuality written by a true Torah sage, I refer the reader to: “A Letter to a Gay Baal Teshuva” and “A Torah View on Homosexuality,” both authored by Rav Ahron Feldman, Dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland, and a world-renowned Talmudic scholar. For those wishing to investigate the unambiguous halakhic reasoning behind the prohibition of the ordination of female Rabbis see Rav Herschel Schachter’s (the current Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS) article entitled “Women Rabbis?” and “The View of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l on the Ordination of Women.” Also highly recommended is Rabbi Dr. Moshe Meiselman’s Jewish Women in Jewish Law. It goes without saying that these are not intended as an exhaustive list of source material.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Meiselman, Rosh Yeshiva of Toras Moshe. The author studied under Rav Meiselman at Yeshivas Brisk, Chicago.

The Perversion of the Halakhic Process

However, there is much more at stake here than the determination of what some might view as purely halakhic technicalities. Rabbi Dr.Moshe Meiselman, a nephew of Rav Soloveitchik’s and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Toras Moshe in Jerusalem, once remarked that many people have a warped view of the halakhic process; they view halakha as some sort of obstacle course. In other words, they decide beforehand that they are determined to arrive at Point B starting from Point A, and then run, twist, jump, and do summersaults in order to avoid injuring themselves on the razor-wire and land-mines that are the halakhic “obstacles.” Victory is achieved by capturing whatever flag it is they are after – in this case a feminist-progressive one – raising it aloft and proclaiming, “You see Rabbi, I didn’t cut myself on one halakha!” This is a terrible distortion of what Torah is all about. The nation of Israel sealed their covenant with the Almighty not by  pursuing their personal agendas while at the same time exhibiting great skill at avoiding halakhic sand traps, but by proclaiming, “Na’aseh V’Nishma!”[literally: we will do and then we will understand]we first commit ourselves body and soul to fulfilling whatever it is you ask from us, irrespective of any and all personal, subjective feelings and judgments and only then begin the process of learning your Torah and its commandments. The committed Jew asks him/herself, “What path does God show me in his Torah?” not “What path do I want to go on and how can I best manipulate Torah and halakha to justify myself?”

All of what we have described above stems from the rejection of the sacred nature of our mesorah and using completely non-Jewish paradigms as the standard by which to judge the Torah; likewise, the convoluted logic and flimsy halakhic reasoning presented by YCT rabbinic figures regarding the aforementioned issues..

The “Rabbah” and “Maharat” Sham

There is one aspect of this tragic drama that I find annoying on a personal level. Please forgive me, but it is the duplicity and cowardice displayed by Rabbi Avi Weiss in the way he went about the business of ordaining female rabbis. A true man of principle (even if in my opinion they are mistaken principles) would simply have come straight out and said “I have decided to ordain women as rabbis and let the chips fall where they may!” Instead, like a conniving politician, Weiss first tested the waters by conferring Sara Hurwitz with the title of “Maharat,” then he got bolder and dubbed her “Rabbah.” When this elicited a violent pushback from the Orthodox establishment he backed off and contented himself with laying low for awhile and then ordaining female rabbis using the less controversial title “Maharat.” Weiss, of course, is fooling no one. The Maharat ordination document reads exactly like any other semicha [rabbinic ordination] document and despite the surreptitious and conspiratorial smiles and winks, everyone knows that these women – no matter what they are called – are considered to be full-fledged rabbis by Weiss and his followers. Rabbi Weiss continues to play this childish game. Sara Hurwitz, on the other hand, displays much more honesty and candor than her mentor. She made the following remarks in 2010, at a conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, shortly after the “Rabbah” controversy erupted:

“You may have noticed that throughout my comments, I’ve shied away from terms that have become lightning rods in the community; like “Rabbi,” “ordination,” “semicha.” It’s not that I don’t associate my own journey with these terms, I do, but if it’s these words that will prevent greater acceptance within the community…we must not give up. Perhaps now is the time to create and shape language that is more in tune with the political realities: “Rabbi” is ordained as a male religious leader, women are conferred with the title “Rabbah” or “Maharat.”

If much of the community is going to object to words like “semicha” or “Rabbah,” rather than abandoning the cause of advancing women, we must keep moving forward…and place women in communities around the country.

You go, girl! To add insult to injury, Rabbi Weiss disingenuously and fraudulently defended his position in a radio interview by pointing out that while it is true that one major rabbinic organization, the RCA, objects to his policies, another one, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) approves. What he did not tell the interviewer is that the IRF was founded by Avi Weiss himself! When the RCA refused to admit graduates of YCT’s rabbinic program as members because their commitment to Orthodox Jewish principles was in question, Weiss founded a rival organization where they could join. In other words: Avi Weiss’ rabbinical organization approves of Avi Weiss’ policies. Thank you for your transparency and integrity, Rabbi Weiss!

I have no problem at all calling Sara Hurwitz by her true title, Rabbi Sara Hurwitz, and neither should any Orthodox Jew. Out of civility and politeness we also address Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist clergy as “Rabbi.” The same applies to the new Neo-Conservative clergy.

A rose by any other name is a rose. Neo-Conservative Judaism by any other name, be it “Open Orthodoxy,” “Ultra-Modern Orthodoxy,” “Post-Orthodoxy,” or “Ortho-Feminist Progressivism,” is still Neo-Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Sara Hurwitz’s place in history as the first female rabbi of the new movement is assured. Rabbi Weiss, your place in the history books is also assured. Like Korach and Yerovam ben N’vat before you, you have split the community and like Isaac Mayer Wise and Solomon Schechter you have launched a new movement on the American-Jewish landscape. Be a man about it; you have made your bed, now sleep in it.

Moshe Averick is author of “Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist,” available on Amazon and Kindle. He can be reached via his website. If you wish to be informed when new articles appear, send an email to with the email address and the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.

About the Author
Moshe Averick is an Orthodox Rabbi who has taught theology and spirituality for nearly 30 years. Many of his students have gone on to become educators and rabbinic leaders in North America, England, and Israel. He is known for his singular ability to explain complex topics in clear, understandable language and - to borrow the description of one University of Chicago-trained philosopher of science – his "wicked" sense of humor.