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The heresy hunt comes to Europe

    Two years after a brave young American rabbi published an online essay, the row it provoked continues to rumble.

    You could not say that Rabbi Zev Farber’s thoughts were revolutionary. Others had expressed similar ideas before. But he opened the lid on a box that the Orthodox establishment in the States as well as elsewhere has tried to keep well and firmly shut for many years.

    He could no longer accept the classical Orthodox belief that the Torah was simply dictated intact from heaven to Moses during the Israelites’ years in the wilderness; its text was edited over time by divinely inspired prophets, he argued. The sanctity of Torah still remained for him; it was just that his interpretation of Torah miSinai, Torah from Sinai, differed from the norm.

    Rabbi Farber was a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a relatively new institution to train modern Orthodox rabbis in New York which is less than 20 years old. And not just any graduate. He qualified as a dayan.

    YCT is seen as one of the core institutions which represent a new tendency within the Orthodox world known as Open Orthodoxy – modern Orthodoxy’s left-wing, you could say. Other institutions associated with it are the International Rabbinic Fellowship and Yeshivat Maharat in New York, the first American seminary to train Orthodox women spiritual leaders. None of them espouse “Open Orthodoxy” as an ideology as such – but they have come to be identified with it.

    Rabbi Farber is now involved with a website thetorah.com (co-founded by a Gateshead graduate from Manchester, Rabbi David Steinberg) which tries to bring together Torah and academic scholarship. Until the furore over his essay, he co-ordinated the conversion programme of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He is still listed as a member of the advisory board of Yeshivat Maharat. But he does not have a teaching post at YCT.

    The attack on Open Orthodoxy has become more vocal in recent weeks. The central Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America denounced the ordination of women, while the Charedi Agudath Israel of America branded Open Orthodoxy a dissident movement which rejects “the basic tenets of our faith”.

    Now the campaign has spread to Europe. At its meeting in Greece last week, the Conference of European Rabbis passed a resolution saying it would not recognise graduates of YCT as rabbis.

    Here’s the text of it in English (the Hebrew version specifically mentions YCT):

    “The Conference of European Rabbis will only accept rabbis who are ordained according to halachah; rabbis who hold true to fundamental, traditional Jewish values and who lead their communities according to Jewish traditions as derived from Mount Sinai which are passed on by the poskei hador [halachic decision-makers of each generation]. Since our foundation we have never accepted any individual who does not fulfil these criteria.

    “With regret, the CER has decided that the religious foundations within ‘Open Orthodoxy’ deviates from this tradition and hereby declares that those rabbis who act and teach according to its principles will not be recognised as rabbis.”

    CER president Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt has said that the question of women’s ordination is not the main problem for Europe. What prompted the resolution, he contended, was that some of the teachers of YCT have doubted some of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith– among them, belief in the divine origins of the Torah.

    According to the eighth principle, “the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him”.

    Rabbi Goldschmidt told me that “since teachers from the rabbinical seminary have deviated from halachah, it puts every graduate from this institution under question.”

    As for YCT graduates serving in the rabbinate, he said, “We are going to have to speak to the rabbi who received the ordination from that institution. We are going to check if they practise halachah in the fullest sense, and if the synagogue is halachic. We are going to demand affirmation of belief in the Thirteen Principles of Faith.”

    So why are the traditionalists worried? They might point to the origins of Conservative Judaism which began with a challenge to the idea that the Torah simply dropped into Moses’s lap but ended up a couple of centuries later, in America, allowing the use of cars to drive to synagogue on Shabbat and introducing ceremonies for same-sex couples. It’s a slippery slope, the guardians of Orthodoxy say, and they do not want Open Orthodoxy to get a foothold on the continent.

    YCT president Rabbi Asher Lopatin has, however, rejected the accusations of religious deviancy, saying that all its rabbinic faculty and students are “fully committed” to Orthodoxy and the Thirteen Principles.

    So where does that leave YCT alumni? The resolution is clearly designed to discourage the appointment of its graduates to European pulpits – unless, it appears, they are willing to subject themselves to some kind of faith test.

    But then, the practical repercussions could be limited. One of YCT’s two British rabbinic graduates, Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton, was recently appointed senior rabbi of Sydney’s premier congregation, The Great Synagogue, and he has stressed that he was congratulated by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (who is associate president of the CER.

    As far as I can recall, only one YCT graduate has actually served in the UK – as a university chaplain.

    Even so, the CER resolution could have a “chill” effect, perhaps dissuading some congregations from inviting visiting rabbis linked to Open Orthodoxy to speak. And for those among the synagogue-going public who want a modern Orthodoxy that is more modern, that would be alarming enough.

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