For many years, I met poskim (Jewish legal authorities) who were brilliant but I felt lacked a sensitivity to the modern human condition. I met others who I felt were deeply sensitive but were more narrow in their approach to Jewish texts. In recent years, however, I spent a great deal of time learning with Rabbi Dov Linzer, the Rosh Yeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and found his erudition to be unmatched and his deep human sensitivity to be awe-inspiring. The Rosh Yeshiva is under 50 years old but his talmudic scholarship, brilliant insights, and menschlikeit are unmatched.
Rav Linzer has often expressed his desire that the Modern Orthodox community should interact with other denominations and be open to new knowledge while maintaining core traditional values. When he was named an Avi Chai Fellow in January 2008, he said that Jewish schools not only needed rabbis who were learned, but also who were “professionally trained as educators, and who embody modern and inclusive values.” He decried the tendency of some to avoid actions promoting tikkun olam because it was stressed by other denominations:
…it’s a shame that because something is so deeply part of non-Orthodox Judaism, like social justice work, it becomes not so kosher for Orthodox people. This is an area that is clearly mandated both halakhically—as part of the mitzvah of walking in God’s path—and in terms of core Jewish values.
While Rav Linzer is one of the most influential rabbis in America today, with hundreds of students and followers here and around the world, he carries himself with tremendous modesty and humility and is very approachable, all essential characteristics of a great posek. When the yeshiva students volunteer, he is also rolling up his sleeves. When the students go for a spiritual bonding day at the park, he is also in jeans sharing spriritual insights. The Rosh Yeshiva has taken important public stands on women’s issues, end-of-life issues, the principles of Open Orthodoxy, and much more.
Many of us are keenly aware of the criticism that other denominations are more open to an expanded role for women in Judaism. In 2003, Rav Linzer and Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote in Sh’ma that their students would be trained as future “rabbis and leaders who will work to expand and enhance the role of women in religious leadership, the halakhic process, and ritual.” In 2006, he acted on this belief by being the only Orthodox rabbi to endorse Dina Najman as Rosh Kehila (Head of Community) of Kehilat Orach Eliezer in Manhattan. In addition, Rav Linzer originated a two-ring wedding ceremony in which the bride presented a ring to the groom, but within halakhic bounds:
…the bride is not doing an act of kiddushin, but rather initiating the groom’s acceptance of the ketubah obligations. It allows for the bride’s giving of the ring to take place immediately after the kiddushin, to be done with significant ceremony (witnesses and the signing of the ketubah) and to play a central halakhic role.
The ketubah was originally instituted to make the woman more of an equal in the marriage, so using the ketubah to create a two-ring ceremony is particularly apt and in keeping with the spirit of the halakhah.”
As a teacher and halakhic leader, Rabbi Linzer challenges others who approach him to think more critically, feel more deeply, and take more personal responsibility. He does not naturally lean toward being overly cautious or stringent but toward what is true and good. I can recall challenging the foundations and boundaries on a number of halakhic issues as a rabbinical student; while Rav Linzer saw them differently, he was still able and willing to enter my epistemic reality to honor my reasoning and understand my thinking from the inside. Rav Linzer sees the dignity of all, inside the beit midrash and out. Many great halakhic educators demand that their students enter the teacher’s thinking and go no further. Rav Linzer, on the other hand, also strives and manages to enter his student’s ideas as well. This is not only an honor to students to participate in such collaborative learning; it is also educationally transformative. The Rosh Yeshiva is gentle and not judgmental in a way that inspires deeper inquiry.
To be an excellent posek in the 21st century, one must have a mastery of the Jewish talmudic and halakhic tradition, embrace the complexity of our evolving society, be open to new interpretations of complicated texts, engage students on their own level, maintain complete intellectual and spiritual integrity, feel the pain of others who are alienated or oppressed, speak sensitively with language for the other, and honor the other side of the argument, while undergoing productive discomfort and struggle in the process. Rav Linzer, who I feel blessed to call my rebbe, is this model posek.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”