The Union for Traditional Judaism and the Orthodox: A Case Study in Religious Turf Wars

26 Jan

One Jewish institution whose approach to halakha and Jewish life and observance I am most in agreement with is the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ). Right-wing Orthodoxy, in both its “Centrist”/YU/RCA and Haredi/Habad/Yeshivish/Hasidic incarnations, has largely attempted to write UTJ out of the community and bounds of Torah Judaism, despite the fact that the UTJ has never stood for or advocated anything contra-halakha or traditional hashqafa. UTJ has been given the same treatment, largely, as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its affiliated musmahim, who are barred from membership in the Rabbinical Council of America, giving sufficient support to my claim that the RCA does not represent authentic, Modern Orthodox Judaism, but instead represents a Haredi-lite approach to Judaism that affirms Zionism and “kemah” (ie. college education and working for a living to meet the expenses associated with a frum lifestyle and the demands of communal mosdot and tzedakot) for pragmatic purposes. While the RCA has not (yet) revoked the membership of its few members who also affiliate with the YCT-linked International Rabbinic Fellowship, it has made its antipathy to any potential competitors on the Modern Orthodox scene well-known, including UTJ, who offer halakhic Judaism sans daas torah, politics, and outrageous stnadards which violate the explicit meaning of our meqorot.

The concern of any Jew who considers themselves halakhic and traditional in belief and practice should not be with denominational labels. The term “Orthodox” is a pejorative, first applied to the Torah-observant community by the Reformers in 18th century Germany. Historically and halakhically, the term “Orthodox” has absolutely no meaning. It is, primarily, a sociological designation, used to apply to those Jews who adhere to traditional Judaism. For obvious reasons, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism all fail to meet the standards of traditional Jewish practice and belief. While the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism once included a significant group of individual members who were halakhically-minded, this has been a largely non-existent phenomenon for at least the past thirty years, as the movement adopted measures contra-halakha, including the infamous teshuva permitting driving on Shabbat for the purpose of having a mikra kodesh, teshuvot effectively dissolving the traditional ranks of kohen, levi, and yisrael, allowing egalitarian prayer services, allowing women to serve as edim, and overturning d’oraita prohibitions on male homosexual sexual activity (even allowing homosexuals and females to serve as rabbis). The case simply cannot be made that the Conservative Movement is halakhic. Every major decision the movement has taken in recent years clearly indicates it is far removed from halakha- accepting Reform conversions as valid, allowing women to serve as eidim and lead public worship (egalitarianism; tradition reserves for men and women distinct religious roles of equal importance, and any woman to serve as shaliah tzibbur, baalat koreh, etc. in a mixed-gender environment is acting in direct opposition to the Talmudic rule (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7, Bavli 29a) exempting Jewish women from positive time-bound commandments. This rule – and its few legitimate exceptions – are codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 12:3) and while women may assume commandments from which they are exempt, voluntary obligations never rise to the level of legal obligations. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:8, Bavli 29a) rules that only a legally obligated Jew may discharge ritual obligations for the public. Thus, even women who assume the obligation of public worship thrice daily are ineligible to serve as prayer leaders of men. The Codes concur (Maimonides Hilkhot Shofar 2:2, Tur/Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 589:1-2), ignoring the ritual prohibitions incumbent upon kohanim, revising the siddur (ie. insertion of the Imahot), redefining boundaries of sexual relationships, and many other practices place it outside the pale of acceptable Jewish praxis.

One of the favorite underhanded, intelectually dishonest, and offensive tactics utilized by the right-wing elements of the Torah-observant community is to draw an equivalency between the Conservative Movement and Progressive Orthodoxy. A particularly damning and vitriolic condemnation of the Open Orthodox movement, for instance, was recently featured in the right-wing weekly Yated Ne’eman. The author, identifying themselves only as “I. Schwartz,” proceeds to misrepresent the positions of our community, while grossly mishandling the relevant meqorot and prooftexts in question, and asks the outrageous rhetorical query, “Going back to the development of Reform Judaism 200 years ago and looking at the recent development of Open Orthodoxy, do we detect a common pattern?” What makes this solipsism particularly unique for the pages of the Yated is its appeal to the author’s perception of “true” Modern Orthodoxy and the shitot of R. Yosef Soloveitchik, zt’l, the same gadol who was maligned and despised by the same Haredi world (the infamous “eulogy” published in Agudat Yisrael’s now-defunct “Jewish Observer,” in which numerous potshots were taken, and the standard zt’l ommitted, is but one example of this) now exploiting his shitot for the sake of political expediency, sinat hinam, and the biased lynching of an entire movement of committed observant, Torah Jews.

In the same manner, so too has UTJ been subject to vicious attack from institutional Orthodoxy. Many in the Orthodox world are quick to make the spurious claim that UTJ is merely a “right-wing Conservative” organization, attributing undue weight to arbitrary denominational labels and thereby imparting halakhic status upon Jewish denominationalism. The halakha distinguishes merely between those who operate within standards of normative Jewish belief and practice (the latter especially entails shmirat shabbat) and those who do not. UTJ is a halakhic movement comprised of individuals who have previously maintained associations not with the internal structure of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, but who previously served as Jewish Theological Seminary faculty, as well as individuals who hail from the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy. According to its Statement of Principles, the only major distinguishing characteristic between UTJ and today’s institutional Orthodoxy is UTJ’s embrace of academic methodologies in the pursuit of limmud be iyyun (academic methodologies were a pivotal element of the derekh ha limmud of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, whose Orthodox status had only been challenged by those ideological opponents of Torah Im Derekh Eretz and the other hashqafot associated with  German Neo-Orthodoxy). (The UTJ also believes that its approach to kiruv differs from that of much of Orthodoxy, as its goal is to lead the non-observant to a non-politicized shmirat hamitzvot, independent of other, tangenital concerns; the goal is not to draw the non-observant to narrow, Haredi life, as is frequenty the case with Habad, Aish haTorah, and other kiruv groups, but instead, to draw individuals to Torah u’ mitzvot in all their purity and kedusha.)

I, therefore, chosse to affiliate with UTJ because I am a progressive, halakhic Jew, committed to traditional Jewish belief and practice. UTJ advocates belief in Torah min hashamayim (“G-d revealed the Torah to Israel, both oral and written, as transmitted and interpreted by our sages, from Sinai down through the generations, and Torah, written and oral. authoritatively expresses the will of God for the Jewish People”) and based on this belief, advocates total and complete allegiance to the halakhic system (derekh halakha v’ samkhuta- “Both as it pertains to our relationship with God and to our relationships with others, Halakhah is binding upon us even when it conflicts with popular trends in contemporary society. Torah must also guide our actions when we face new situations in which the law is not clear. Such matters must be decided by scholars who are distinguished by their depth of Torah knowledge and piety. In making these decisions, these scholars use their judgment in applying Torah values and Halakhic principles to the cases before them. Though new discoveries in other fields of human knowledge are relevant factors in Halakhic decision-making, Jewish law alone is the final arbiter of Jewish practice. Response to today’s challenges should be compassionate and may be creative but must always take place within the parameters of the Halakhic system. This process functions effectively only in the context of a community that is committed to observing Halakhah and that abides by the decisions of its recognized Halakhic authorities.) There is nothing in these beliefs or in this appraoch to halakha that contradicts traditional Jewish thought or belief, and I would challenge any self-identified Orthodox Jew, Modern or otherwise, to provide any textual evidence in favor of the claim that this represents an approach somehow at variance with traditional, Torah Judaism.

The claim that UTJ is “right-wing Conservative Judaism” is fundamentally incorrect. Individuals formerly connected with that stream of Jewish denominational life, along with those left-wing Modern Orthodox Jews concerned with the rightward shift of the Orthodox community (Modern Orthodoxy has shifted away from a model of rabbinic authority in which the mara d’atra’s pivotal role in halakhic decision making has been supplanted by the authority of roshei yeshiva, a concern shared by both the UTJ and Rabbi Marc Angel’s Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals), coalesced to form the Union for Traditional Judaism in response to both of these phenomena, for the sake of maintaining a “shvil hazahav” in halakhic observance (the Torah, in Devarim 5:28, advocates the same dynamic, warning us neither to deviate to the right or the left from objective Torah practice/halakha). Personally Orthodox gedolei hatorah formerly associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary (including R’ Louis Finkelstein, R’ Saul Lieberman- see Marc Shapiro’s Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox for more on his status and reception within Orthodox culture, and R’ David Weiss haLivni), none of whom bear any culpability for the anti-halakhic decisions undertaken by the Conservative Movement, were instrumental in forming UTJ and its approach to halakhic Judaism. R’ Avi Weiss, R’ Yitz Greenberg, and R’ Saul Berman have headlined UTJ symposia, and the former (R’ Weiss) had been instrumental in organizing the Fellowship of Traditional Orthodox Rabbis, in many ways the precursor to the International Rabbinic Fellowship (a left-wing, Modern Orthodox alternative to the RCA), which had been a crucial component of UTJ’s rabbinic constituency in the 1990s (see Jeffrey Gurock’s Orthodox Jews in America, pp. 292-93, for more on this).

R’ Weiss addressed the UTJ’s 1989 conference in Highland Park, and gave the keynote address entitled, “Is An Alliance between the Traditional Conservative and Modern or Centrist Orthodox Movement possible?” In his dissertation on the history of the UTJ, Jonathan Ament notes that R’ Weiss determined that there is little, if anything other than labels, which divides the two camps, and he envisioned a purely unified movement of “Halakhic Judaism.” Orthodox figures Rivka Haut and Rabbi H. Norman Strickland also spoke at the conference, notes Ament, and Weiss was nearly expelled from the RCA, along with Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis, for his involvement. Rabbi Price noted that both Modern Orthodox and right-wing, halakhic, formerly-Conservative Jews affiliated with the UTJ/ITJ, including both R’ Eliezer Berkovits and Professor Nahum Sarna, and briefly, Professor Marvin Fox of Brandeis University, an Orthodox Jew, also endorsed the Metivta. Rabbi Saul Berman addressed the UTJ’s 1991 Rabbi’s Kallah, speaking on “A Traditional Jewish Approach to the Modern World.” R’ Weiss also hired ITJ alumni Adam Frank and Bradley Hirschfield as congregational interns. In addition, Rabbi Steven Golden, an ITJ musmah, was appointed rabbi of an Orthodox shul in Kingston, Ontario that had previously ordained only YU musmahim. (Ament, “The Union for Traditional Judaism: A Case Study of Contemporary Challenges to a New Religious Movement,” Brandeis University, 2004).

Furthermore, musmahim of the UTJ’s Metivta L’ Limud haTorah (the Institute for Traditional Judaism, in Teaneck, NJ), who are exclusively male (in line with Orthodox practice), complete an intense course of study which inlcudes the study of Hilkhot Basar v’ Halav, Ta’aruvot, and Meliha, also known as Issur v’ Heter, the traditional Orthodox semicha curriculum (many Haredi yeshivot will issue their talmidim “Rav u’ Manhig” teudot, which do not confer this ability to pasqen, nor conform to the traditional semicha standards), along with Shabbat, Niddah, and Orah Hayyim with the Mishnah Berurah and Aruch haShulchan,  and in many aspects, UTJ falls to the right of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah/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. Brandeis Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman (a UTJ Board Member, who formerly sat 0n the board 0f Edah and is described as Orthodox in the April 4, 2012 edition of the Haredi Mishpacha Magazine in an article on Velvel Pasternak), writes in A Breath of Fresh Air: Feminism in the American Jewish Community, that “One element standing in the way of a formal alliance between many on the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy and UTJ is the fact that many left wing Modern Orthodox Jews are liberal on feminist issues. The issue on which its birth was precipitated (opposition to egalitarianism) is precisely the issue upon which some potential Orthodox allies might wish the UTJ to be more flexible,” p. 214, emphasis mine). In a similar vein, Dana Evan Kaplan notes that “many UTJ members are far more stricter halachically than some Modern Orthodox,” Contemporary American Judaism:Transformation and Renewal, p. 132. It is noteworthy that the UTJ, having experienced the effects of unabashed feminism, in its first volume of teshuvot, Tomeikh kaHalakha, discouraged, in most cases, women’s prayer groups, women leading kabbalat shabbat, and bat mitzvah girls receiving maftir aliyah, while the left-wing Orthodox JOFA/YCT axis readily embraces these practices. Consider also the fact that Orthodox-affiliated partnership minyanim permit women to lead pezukei d’zimrah, whereas Rabbi Wayne Allen forbids this in his own teshuvot. Likewise, the UTJ Panel of Halakhic Inquiry paskened in that same volume of teshuvot that davening from the Conservative Sim Shalom siddur is assur, and one who does so does not fulfill their obligation to daven. In addition, while R’ Benzion Uzziel matired the use of a Shabbat bus in Bombay in 1940, R’ Novak, in Tomeikh kaHalakha, was mahmir, to demonstrate the approach taken by UTJ posqim, and disallowed the practice immediately, whereas Rav Uziel, zt’l, first matired it and later reversed his psaq.

Indeed, many Metivta musmahim have accepted pulpits in Modern Orthodox shuls, and UTJ even earned the haskama and approval of R’ Dr. Eliezer Berkovits. Indeed, leading rabbis in UTJ include Hakham Isaac Sassoon (who is widely regarded as an Orthodox rabbi, after years of study at the Gateshead Yeshiva), Rabbi Gershon Bacon (a pro0fessor at Bar Ilan University and a leading expert in Orthodox Jewish history), Rabbi Richard Wolpoe (a Yeshiva University musmach who directs the popular Orthodox Nishma blog, and who delivers a Mishna Berura shiur at Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck, NJ), Rabbi Jory Lang (a musmach of Talmudic University- Yeshiva Beis Moshe v’Chaim, in Miami), Rabbi Pinchas Klein (a musmach of Rabbi Pinchas Hisrchsprung, zt’l, the former Chief Rabbi of Montreal), Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Weisblum (a musmach of Yeshivat ITRI and the Rabbanut haReishit), Rabbi Steven Saks (a musmach of Kollel Ayshel Avraham, led by Haredi Rabbi Yaakov Spivak in Monsey, who also serves as the rav hamachshir of the Vaad haKashrut of Delaware), Rabbi Eliot Pearlson (a musmach of the Diaspora Yeshiva), Rabbi Lawrence Zierler (a musmach of YU, and rav of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, which hosts many UTJ events), Rabbi Yaakov Siegel (who also holds semicha from the Rabbanut haReishit, R’ Yaakov Kassin, and other gedolim), Rabbi Leonard Levy (who delivers a Mishna Berura shiur at the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills, NY, a shul led by a musmach of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore), Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis (a musmach of Yeshiva University), Rabbi Ephraim Zimand (a YU musmach), Rabbi Ira Grussgott (a YU musmach and rabbi at the Orthodox Congregation Ezras Israel of West Rogers Park), Rabbi Ronald Price (who was the rav of Teaneck’s Modern Orthodox Netivot Shalom shul), Rabbi Adam Starr (a former HIR intern and YU musmach who graduated from the Metivta’s MPA program), and Rabbi Dr. Alan Yuter, rabbi of the Orthodox Bnai Israel shul in downtown Baltimore, MD (a musmach of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, zt’l, and Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler).  Furthermore, Orthodox rabbis Aaron Frank, Ross Singer, and Bradley Hirschfield (affiliated with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s CLAL) are all musmahim of the Metivta, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has been known to send its students to the Metivta for mekhina pre-semikha education  (the right-wing Rabbi Harry Maryles of Chicago notes that he sees no significant ideological differences between YCT and UTJ). Interestingly, as well, Morasha member Rabbi Rallis Wiesenthal is authoring a Yekkishe siddur, Siddur Bnei Ashkenaz, earning the aid and haskama of Haredi Rav Binyamin Shlomo Hamberger of Machon Moreshet Ashkenaz, and UTJ-affiliated shul Shaaray Tfillah in Vancouver counts among its former rabbis R’ Shachar Orenstein, a musmach of R’ Nota Greenblatt. Efforts to cast UTJ outside the realm of acceptable, traditional Jewish practice and belief are therefore motivated not by any objective concerns, but by political concerns and anxieties over “turf.” Furthermore, Professor Marc Shapiro, a keen and widely-regarded historian and theologian, observes that the future of UTJ is firmly within the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy. Orthodox sociologist Chaim I. Waxman notes that UTJ membersship “primarily comes from the Orthodox Left,” in an effort to curb denominational parochialism, and Orthodox sociologists William Helmreich and Reuel Shinnar note that UTJ “members are fully observant and adhere to a philosophy which closely resembles modern Orthodoxy.” It is also important to note that R’ Dr. David Weiss haLivni, who confers Yoreh Yoreh semicha upon ITJ musmahim, is himself a Holocaust survivor who studied for 13 years with the saintly Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, and whose scholarship and shmirat hamitzvot are impeccable (he was awarded the Israel Prize for his groundbreaking Mekorot u’ Mesorot, and the shul he led, Kehillat Orach Eliezer, was staunch in its use of the mechitza, and is now under the leadership of Machon Drisha scholar Dina Najman). It is also worthy to mention that the newly-formed Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School, which is proud to count Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber as its head, is essentially an ITJ-style institution; its faculty includes many of the original founders of the UTJ, who proudly educate rabbinical students towards the goal of receiving semicha from Rabbi Sperber, who is also a recipient of the Israel Prize for his groundbreaking Minhagei Yisrael. Noteworthy as well is the fact that Orthodox blogger Gil Student, in his review of Rabbi Wayne Allen’s teshuvot, notes that Rabbi Allen is sometimes more mahmir than himself on several issues. Rabbi Dr. David Novak, one of the founders of the UTJ, additionally served as chief rabbi of Cong. Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore, Maryland from 1972-1977, and Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat, a UTJ board member, served as rabbi of Montreal’s Orthodox Shaar HaShomayim shul (his sefer on Bereshit Rabbah was published by the Orthodox Devora Publishers). Prominent Orthodox feminists Adena Berkowitz and Bat Sheva Marcus served on the UTJ Board, the latter as Executive Director in the 1990s, and the Orthodox Young Israel of White Plains sponsors a lecture series in honor of Miriam Klein Shapiro, z”l, the daughter of the late renowned poseq R’ Isaac Klein, a founding board member of the UTJ, who is recognized as “our scholar, teacher, and friend” by the Young Israel, where she frequently lectured, in addition to the Hebrew Institute of White Plains. Likewise, former UTJ Director Steven Greenberg was awarded by both the Orthodox Ma’ayanot Yeshiva for Girls and Bergen County Friends of Lubavitch. Orthodox Cantor Eliezer Kepecs lists the UTJ as among his organizational affiliations, Orthodox Rabbi Sanford Shudnow includes the UTJ among other Modern Orthodox organizations, and Rabbi Edward Gershfield, who formerly coordinated JTS gittin efforts in the 1960s, and is now a UTJ board member, was deemed to be kosher for this purpose by none other than the Igrot Moshe.

It is truly a sad state of affairs when those who embrace halakhic Judaism are delegitimized because they refuse to defer to the “proper” authorites and their extra-textual, extra-halakhic standards. There is absolutely no halakhic reason or justification whatsoever to cast UTJ outside the realm of “acceptable” Judaism. Giyur, kiddushin, gittin, and other bet din functions carried out by a bet din of UTJ-member rabbanim are fully halakhically valid and authoritative, just as these functions are valid and authoritative as long as they’re carried out according to halakhic norms (halakha never once mandates that these functions be carried out by a bet din “acceptable” to those forces which hegemonically claim religious authenticity for themselves, as these are political, rather than halakhic considerations. It merely demands that its own requirements be carried out). Sadly, sociological considerations have once again displaced Torah considerations among contemporary Orthodoxy, as in the case of the delegitimization of the UTJ and YCT among other allegedly “Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews” (the YU/RCA community).


One Response to “The Union for Traditional Judaism and the Orthodox: A Case Study in Religious Turf Wars”

  1. Jeff March 5, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    The problem, as I said on Failed Messiah (I assume it was you who left the comment) is that these are almost exclusively New York phenomena. Avi Weiss’ community is restricted to Riverdale, and while I understand there are UTJ synagogues outside of NYC, they’re few and far between.

    If you live in New York or Los Angeles, there’s a variety of offerings from which to choose (including many of which you’d disapprove, but we don’t need to argue about that). If you live elsewhere, you’re pretty much out of luck. It’s one of the liberal denominations, “Modern” Orthodoxy (which has degenerated largely into Haredism Lite) or Chabad – or one can give up altogether and port over to another religion, or to secular humanism, depending upon one’s convictions..

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