Friday, March 02, 2007

In Defense of YCT

(I hope post titles aren't copyrighted!)

In light of Hirhurim's spirited defense of YCT, I thought it might be worthwhile to post R Nati Helfgot's letter to Gil, which for some reason is posted at a newly created blog without comments enabled.


Shalom Uverakah! The mean-spirited attack on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School as well as some of its faculty and musmachim recently printed in Yated Neeman has generated a lot of discussion. I do not have the desire to engage in a lengthy rebuttal to or discussion with people who are so antagonistic towards YCT and do not genuinely care about it or the real people (whose lives) are involved with it.

However, a number of people have asked me for some personal comment and so I feel impelled to share some disjointed thoughts. By the nature of my time constraints (teaching Torah and preparing shiurim, attempting to be a good husband and good father to my three little boys, and a grave illness in my immediate family which is sapping much of the emotional strength I have left) I will be briefer than I might have otherwise chosen to be.)

But first four disclaimers:

  1. I write as an individual, not as a representative of the Yeshiva. Only R. Avi Weiss, the President and R. Dov Linzer, the rosh ha-Yeshiva can speak for the institution as a whole. I simply write from my personal perspective. R. Weiss and R. Linzer are dear friends and colleagues who tirelessly work on behalf of Torah and the Jewish people who do not deserve the harsh critique and demonization reflected in the article.

  2. I am writing based on my knowledge and understanding of the facts. Like all human beings I may be mistaken or I may be recalling something in error. Please do not attribute any nefarious motives if I get a detail wrong. All human beings make mistakes, and a bit of generosity of spirit would help us all a long way in this difficult world in which we live.

  3. There is something profoundly disturbing and unethical and lacking in basic derekh eretz and kevod ha-beriyot in a “Torah “newspaper not doing basic fact checking nor in engaging in the simple journalistic (and ethical) protocol of calling up the subjects of one’s reportage for comment, reaction, clarification, questions before publishing a lengthy and harsh attack. I weep for us as a community that this passes for “Torah-true journalism”.

  4. The nature of quickly drafted comments intended for the blogosphere under great time and personal pressures means that the formulations may not be as robust, crisp and elegant as I might have desired.


R. Linzer’s quote about struggling with difficult mitzvot that challenge our ethical notions and our conception of a just God (a conception that emerges from many parts of the Torah) is a badge of honor. God implanted within us a moral sensibility and did not want us to be morally insensitive or obtuse. Gedolei olam from time and immemorial struggled with difficult mitzvot such as the commandment to obliterate Amalek. Read some of the writings of Rav Lichtenstein in English and in Hebrew or the recent essays by Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Rabbi Norman Lamm in the new volume on “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition” for any more citations.


The citation from Rabbi Linzer’s essay in Milin Havivin was taken out of context. An even simple reading of the entire essay debunks any notion that somehow calls for “changing” or “breaking” halakhah in any fashion. Anyone who has a sat a day in his halakhah shiur on Hilkhot Niddah or Hilkhot Shabbat knows the care and seriousness with which he, a true talmid hakham of outstanding middot and sensitivity, approaches the halakhic process.


YCT has never claimed it follows in the footsteps of the Rav zt”l as Hasidim follow a rebbe. This is simply a straw man to selectively cite some of the most polemical statements of the Rav (I would like to see the Yated cite some other statements of the Rav such as his insistence on the importance of women as well as men learning Gemara intensively or some of his critiques of the yeshivish world in Hamesh Derashot etc.)

Indeed, the idea that all Modern Orthodox rabbis, shuls or institutions (and even Yeshiva University) slavishly follow every major p’sak or public policy directive of the Rav is an illusion. Just to cite one example (amongst many), the Rav was vigorously opposed to liturgical innovation such as writing or adding Kinot for the Holocaust on Tisha be-Av. He was also opposed to the institution of Yom ha-shoah and many of the liturgical additions that have become de-rigueur in Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations. Yet, there are dozens, if not hundreds of modern-Orthodox shuls throughout North-America led by rabbis, many of whom were close talmidim of the Rav who have adopted those very elements that the Rav was opposed to. YCT takes inspiration from the teachings of the entire panoply of great rabbinic figures of previous generations as well as the current generation. We are inspired by the teachings and writings of Rav Kook, Rav Hutner, Rav Hirsch, Rav Hildesheimer, Rav Hoffman, Rav Weinberg, Rav Herzog all of them zt”l as well as many others (including a number who might be pegged as Hareidi) too numerous to list here. We have never claimed to be the bearers of the specific mesorah of any one individual gadol or leader.

Substantively on the interfaith issue:

First, let us get some facts down correctly, irrespective of reports on blogs or newspapers. As far as I understand, The World Jewish Congress asked YCT (as well as Yeshiva University) to host a visit of prominent Catholic cardinals who also wanted to see how a beit medrash functions and what hevruta learning is. YCT acceded to this request for many reasons far beyond the scope of this short post, (a decision I believe was correct and necessary) and indeed hosted the Cardinals for this event which included a very powerful speech by R. Weiss describing his inner conflict with hosting the event given the Church’s historic anti-semitism and his personal battle over the crosses at Auschwitz. Yet he also spoke of his hopes for the future and for a world where people can come together for the good of all of mankind and touched on many other themes. After a few more speeches and the singing of a niggun the program concluded with a half an hour of learning a small passage on the origin of Jewish prayer from Masechet Berakhot. (Though it has not been mentioned, Yeshiva University-Stern College for Women hosted the Cardinals the very next day and they also learned Gemara be-hevruta with some of the women in the Stern Graduate Talmud program as I recall it was reported in the YU-Stern College Observer). While this may not be every one’s cup of tea and the images are jarring to many people because of the historic and sociological experiences that we carry as Jews in relation to the Church, it did not formally cross any of the Rav’s formal public policy guidelines that he articulated in the mid 1960’s. The Rav had very specific things in mind that he felt should be restricted such as formal debate and dialogue about topics such as the Seder and the Eucharist and Jesus as the Jewish Messiah as he wrote explicitly a number of times (see Community, Covenant and Commitment, pgs. 260-261). He did not believe that any and all contact of any religious character was automatically out of bounds.

Moreover, if the writer wanted to truly discuss the application of the Rav’s guidelines written almost fifty years ago to the contemporary scene, a more serious analysis is needed. This analysis should include an honest discussion as to whether in the aftermath of the radical changes that have occurred in the last decade in the Catholic Church such as the recognition of the State of Israel, the beginning of a process of owning up to historical Christian anti-semitism and their share of responsibility for the Shoah, the change in attitudes towards Jews and Judaism that has seeped into Catholic practice and education and the rise of the radical Islam and its threat would (all things that have come on the scene after the Rav’s death in 1993), the Rav’s own assessment of the public policy issue of interfaith dialogue might have undergone a shift.

Finally, it is a fact that there are currently are (and in truth always were) substantial voices within the Orthodox community and leadership that differ with the wholesale application of the Rav’s guidelines in our current reality. Indeed since the recognition of Israel by the Vatican, many of the Chief Rabbis of Israel, including some who are recognized poskim, as well a great rabbanim such as Rav Shear Yashuv ha-Kohen and Rav Menachem Fruman have engaged in full fledged religious dialogue in many countries and in many venues. Even in the United States there have been dissenters from the Rav’s guidelines in the last three decades who remained in good standing in the Orthodox community including such well-known figures as Prof. Michael Wyschograd, who continues to teach at Yeshiva University and is a member of the editorial board of Tradition magazine. Thus, on a practical level, I do not believe that YCT should automatically restrain students or rabbis who desire to engage in that type of dialogue. It is should at least be obvious that those who do choose to engage in that dialogue do not somehow become “non-orthodox” by virtue of taking that track.


The Hareidi world and the Modern-Orthodox world differ as to whether there should be any interaction between Orthodox rabbis and clergy from the other Jewish denominations. This issue has long divided various segments of the Orthodox community and revolves around the tenuous balance between working together on programs and causes on behalf of the Jewish people and the fear that Orthodoxy is legitimizing heterodox movements and approaches to Judaism. Even within the Modern-Orthodox rabbinic which has generally taken a more liberal approach to this issue there are differences of nuance and perspective on this question. Thus, some Modern-Orthodox rabbis will not participate in joint board of rabbis, but might join together in a occasional lecture series with Reform or Conservative rabbis, while others will not even do that, while still others (especially beyond the narrow confines of the NY area) will join in on joint boards. These issues have bedeviled the community for half a century and there are and always have been various practices within the Modern-Orthodox community. For example, while some talmidim of the Rav did not sit on any joint boards, there were others, also talmidim of the Rav, who did in fact do that and rightfully remained in good standing in the Orthodox community.

YCT Rabbinical School as I understand it, while emphatically rejecting a hard pluralism that comes close to relativism, strongly feels that interaction and cooperation, without blurring distinctions can be beneficial for the greater good of the Jewish people and ultimately spreading the message of Torah to Klal Yisrael as a whole. We are driven by the Rav’s vision of a shared community of fate as well as Rav Lichtenstein’s clarion call some two decades ago which went even further:
With respect to reducing polarization, I am convinced that the best approach does not call for minimizing differences but rather for maximizing community. Basic ideological differences exist and to blur them is both irresponsible and anti-halakhic...We can , however, place greater emphasis upon the factors which without denying difference, transcend it; upon confraternity, upon historical and existential ties, upon essential components of a shared moral and spiritual vision, upon elements of a common fate and a common destiny. We should not only concede but assert that, whatever their deviations, other camps include people genuinely in search of the Ribbono shel olam. (Leaves of Faith, Vol. 2: pg. 360)
We also are animated by the teachings of Rav Kook who dialectically saw some partial truths and kernels of holiness and insight even in movements and ideologies that on the whole were in conflict with the basic world-views of fidelity to traditional Torah outlooks that he espoused. A full-blown treatment of the sof-pluralism of Rav Kook is beyond the scope of these short comments. I would also refer the reader to the excellent articles by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm “Seventy Faces” in his collection Seventy Faces Vol 1 and R. Shmuel Goldin “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along: An Orthodox Rabbi’s View on Pluralism” in the Edah Journal 1:1 which nicely articulate many of the perspectives that guide us at YCT. In short, the approach adopted by the Yeshiva has very good Orthodox pedigree and is one that while open to critique should not be caricatured or demonized.


In that spirit, there is much to be gained in the areas of pastoral counseling, leadership training, speaking skills, making life-cycle events meaningful, homiletical ideas and even in selected areas of Jewish thought from non-Orthodox speakers and clergy. While the core faculty of the Yeshiva are classical talmidei hakhamim and fully Orthodox rabbanim and professionals, we appreciate and value the insights and experiences of others beyond our immediate community when they can help us train our students to be effective, compassionate and professionally trained rabbis. In that context, in addition to inviting other Orthodox rabbis and professionals to occasionally speak to our students in various areas of the curriculum we have also opened our doors to non-Orthodox rabbis and professionals in areas where they can contribute positively to the education of our students.


Rabbi Jonathan Milgram is a first rate talmid hakham, scholar, and ehrlicher yid. The attempt to besmirch him is painful and inappropriate. R. Milgram is a fully Orthodox rabbi, a musmach of YU-RIETS, who learned for a number of years in R. Baruch Simon’s shiur at YU, before going on for his doctorate in academic Talmud. He lives in Teaneck, NJ and is an active member of R. Kenny Schiowitz’ shul.

R. Milgram does indeed teaches full-time at JTS (there are not many positions available in academic Talmud in most of the yeshivot in Brooklyn and Monsey that I know) and teaches a once a week afternoon class in the history of Talmudic literature and the history of rishonim at YCT. This is a supplemental course to the regular Gemara and halakhah learning of the Yeshiva akin to a YU-Revel course taken by RIETS students who are studying at Revel as their afternoon program while they are in the semicha program. There too they may study academic Talmud studies or even take other courses occasionally taught by professors such as Dr. Benji Gampel, who are full-time professors at JTS but sometimes are invited to teach a semester or two at Revel.

The Hareidi world and many in the Modern-Orthodox rabbinic world view academic Talmud with a very jaundiced eye. This is certainly their right. However, it is highly unfair to claim that those who integrate these methods into their learning are somehow automatically out of the pale and to be tarred as “non-orthodox”. Great gedolim such as Rav A. Hildesheimer, R. D.Z. Hoffman, the Seridei Eish and many other lesser known Orthodox rabbinic figures would certainly take strong umbrage at that accusation. Moreover, many great, fully Orthodox scholars and rabbanim continue to integrate those methodologies in their learning. To demonize the whole pursuit of academic Talmud study is ultimately to tar and feather such Orthodox rabbonim as: R. Jeremy Wieder (Rosh Yeshiva-YU), R. Ozer Glickman (Rosh Yeshiva-YU), R. Mayer Lichtenstein (Rosh Yeshiva-Yeshivat Kibbutz ha-Dati and grandson of the Rav zt”l) Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Elman (YU-Revel) and many others. The issue of the parameters and limits of integrating academic Talmud study into traditional learning of Gemara may be an important one, but it deserves a serious and measured discussion, not argument by screed and name calling.


R. Zev Farber is a wonderful young talmid hakham and musmach of YCT. The vituperative language and calumny heaped upon him was hurtful and inappropriate.

His essay analyzing some of the life choices of Yaakov Avinu raised the ire of the author of the Yated essay. I do not want to address the cogency of the specific ideas of the essay or whether I would have used this or that formulation or more nuanced language. These are all issues which one can calmly debate. The issue at hand, however, is much more fundamental. Learning and teaching about the greatness, achievements, holiness and stature of our biblical heroes such as the Avot and Imahot coupled with an honest and rich understanding of the human dimension, feelings, as well as struggles, mistakes and errors of those very characters has been discussed in many forums. It is one of the dividing lines between contemporary Hareidi (and Hardal and right wing-Modern Orthodox) parshanut and classical modern-and contemporary open Orthodox parshanut. In general terms we at YCT are animated and guided by the sentiments expressed by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:
Advocates of hagiographic parshanut, which portrays the central heroic figures of scriptural history as virtually devoid of emotion, can only regard the sharpening of psychological awareness with reference to tanakh with a jaundiced eye. But for those of us who have been steeped in midrashim, the Ramban, and the Ha’amek Davar-in a tradition, that is, which regards the patriarchal avot and their successors as very great people indeed but as people nonetheless, and which moreover sees their greatness as related to the their humanity—enhanced literary sensibility can be viewed as a significant boon. (Judaism’s Encounter With other Cultures, pg. 226)
In oral comments Rav Lichtenstein made in 1984 at a melaveh malkah he was even sharper. Asked about this general topic he pithily replied: “There are two approaches to the humanity of the Avot, that of Rav Aharon Kotler and that of Hazal!” He further went on to bemoan that the Hareidi perspective ultimately turns the Avot and Imahot into “ossified figures of petrified tzidkus”.

Below are some basic marei mekomot and essays that are worthwhile exploring for those who want to pursuer this further. What is fascinating to me is that in this issue it is really the Hareidi position which is really "modern” as Hazal and the Rishonim were much more open to these nuances than contemporary Hareidi writers. Indeed if one reads Bereishit and Shemot Rabbah systematically one sees Hazal's deep assessment of the humanity, struggles, failings, emotions of the greatest of the great. Anyway here are some very selective basic sources and readings (besides dozens of examples in Midrash that are too numerous to list here).

1. Ramban on Genesis 12-story of Avraham and Famine; Ramban on the story of Hagar's first banishment by Sarah-Gen 16
2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch-Gen 12:10;Gen 25:27;Exod 6:14
3. Rav Yitzhak Hutner- Igrot U-Ketavim- Letter #128
4. R. Aharon Lichtenstein, "Torah and General Culture" in "Judaism's Encounter With Other Cultures", pg 227
5. Joel Wolowelsky, "Kibbud Av and Kibbud Avot" Tradition 33:4 (199) pg 35-44
6. H. Angel, "Learning Faith From the Text" in "Wisdom From All My Teachers"
7. A. David, Perspectives on the Avot and Imahot", Ten -Daat 5:2 (1991)
8. Z. Grumet, "Another Perspectives on the Avot and Imahot" Ten-Daat 6:1(1992)
9. H. Dietcher, "Between Angels and Mere Mortals: Nechama Leibowitz' Approach to the Study of Biblical Characters" in Journal of Jewish Education 66:1-2 (200)
10. E. Shapiro, "Approaching the Avot" ,
11. On the “Hatzofeh” website, a few years ago there was a whole debate on this topic; Havikuach al ha-tanakh and you can access many essays including an excellent one by Rav Yoel Bin Nun


I have had the good fortune to visit many of the YCT musmachim in the field and I am constantly overwhelmed by their commitment to Torah, the Jewish people, and helping Jews grow spiritually in their connection to God. I am proud of all of the work that they are doing in teaching the devar Hashem, comforting the bereaved and the lonely, energizing their communities and touching lives and hearts throughout North America.

All of us are human and occasionally a young musmach can and does make a mistake in p’sak or in a d’var Torah or in dealing with a difficult text or attempting to formulate a theological concept. I know that in the 18 years since I received semicha, I (as well as many of my colleagues) have made mistakes in all of those areas. Today, of course, mistakes are instantly magnified by the power of the Internet and world-wide communication. In addition, sometimes, in a desire to present an idea in a meaningful and arresting way young musmachim and students do not judiciously choose careful language. Moreover, sometimes radical ideas are actually rooted in kabbalistic or hassidic sources, (such as the writings of the Ishbitzer, Rav Zadok or Rav Kook) but are not familiar to mainstream traditional Orthodox audiences. It is important for writers in those contexts to properly source and explain where they are coming from. It is clear to me that in our history a musmach or a student has occasionally made a mistake (out of sincere conviction) in a number of the areas that I listed above.

Here and there, there have also been formulations that I would consider have crossed some lines. Whether, when and how an institution should respond to such phenomena is a difficult issue touching on serious issues that include a whole panoply of considerations. One thing I am sure of, the forum for such a discussion is not a mean-spirited attack article that reflects no generosity of spirit nor understanding of the real people involved, the work and context in which they operate and the world-views and perspectives that they come from.


The attempt to somehow tar YCT and some of its faculty with the taint of being anti-Israel is beneath contempt. YCT is a proudly religious-Zionist yeshiva whose faculty and student body affirm both the historical and religious significance of the State of Israel. On every Monday and Thursday in its Beit Medrash, the mi-shebeirach prayer for the welfare of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces is movingly recited after Keriat ha-Torah (highly doubt that this is the custom of the minyanim attended by the authors and editors or readership of the Yated!). The president and dean of the Yeshiva, R. Avi Weiss was and is one of the heroes of pro-Israel activism in the United States. The Yeshiva pulsates with connection and love for Israel, its people and the IDF (indeed a number of our students have proudly served in the IDF and have seen combat).

Guilt by association is not an honorable tactic and in America is usually associated with the specter of McCarthyism. It is a fact that some of the faculty of YCT spoke last year at a conference on human rights abuses in the United States at the invitation of the North American Rabbis For Human Rights. The conference was to focus on the American front and not on issues related to Israel (that being the condition that the YCT faculty agreed to participate in the first place). The fact that this group is also allied with a group in Israel that has harshly critiqued the IDF and the Israeli government does not in any mean that everyone whoever has anything to do with the North American branch magically agrees with every or anything posited by the Israeli organization (That is guilt by association squared!) Furthermore, the fact that one or two students in our history participated in a left-wing rally or signed on to a petition five years ago critical of the tactics of the IDF (positions, that despite my personal opposition to them, are part of the legitimate discourse that takes place amongst committed Zionist and supporters of Israel both and in the Israel) no more means that this is the position espoused by a majority or even a significant minority of students at YCT. This is no more cogent than saying that most students in RIETS are supporters of the Shira-Hadashah partnership type minyanim because one of the founders of the Darkei Noam Minyan on Manhattan’s upper West Side was student at RIETS when the minyan was founded!

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