Community Orthodoxy and Chovevei Torah: A Rejoinder to R. Avi Shafran

R. Avi Shafran has written a new piece attacking Yeshivat Chovevei Torah ( It does not contain much new material, and his points have been well answered in the past by myself and others. However, he begins with a response to my post on the Times of Israel blog of October 2 (

I argued there, that those who advocate co-operation with non-Orthodox movements have a precedent in the community Orthodoxy rabbis of pre-War Germany. They opposed Rav Hirsch’s separatist Orthodoxy and worked with non-Orthodox Jews and clergy. Furthermore, they did so with the support of the greatest German halakhic authority of his day, Rav Bamberger, the Wurzberger Rav. I wrote:

“It is no secret that R. Seligman Baer Bamberger, the Wurzberger Rav and the greatest halachic authority in Germany of his day, disagreed with Hirsch. He believed that if Orthodox interests were protected there was no need to secede from the general community. That inevitably meant recognising the status of non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions, perhaps even paying for their upkeep and sitting on boards and committees that included all denominations. In Bamberger’s opinion this did not necessarily involve endorsement or approval.”

R. Shafran has disputed my contention, and writes:

“Unfortunately for Dr. Elton’s thesis, it is utterly undermined by documented facts. Whatever the Wurzberger Rov’s reasoning may have been for his decision regarding the Orthodox Jews of Frankfort (as it happens, he supported the secession of other Orthodox communities from their local Jewish pan-community entities), he most certainly did not consider remaining part of the official community to constitute “recognizing the status” of clergy or groups that rejected the Jewish mesorah.

“In fact, he clearly stipulated that fees paid by Orthodox members could not be used to support Reform activities in any way. He felt no differently from Rav Hirsch about the fact that Reform represented a heretical movement and could be provided no respect nor support from any believing Jew. And there is no evidence whatsoever that he in any way condoned the “co-operation and dialogue” with non-mesorah-accepting movements that Dr. Elton contends his example suggests.

“In truth, the entire comparison is baseless. Rabbi Bamberger was pronouncing only on the permissibility of being part of a Jewish communal entity presenting itself as such in official dealings with the local government regarding limited communal matters. He was not permitting any sort of combined Orthodox-non-Orthodox rabbinical collaboration in rabbinical training like what YCT pointedly and tellingly included in its presidential installation.”

I am bemused by R. Shafran’s critique. The circumstances of the dispute between Rav Hirsch and Rav Bamberger have been well documented, not least in volume 6 of the Collected Writings of Rav Hirsch (New York 1990), pages 153-317. Rav Hirsch wrote that it was forbidden for a person to remain part of the general Jewish community of Frankfurt because (page 196):

“He thereby remains a member of the Reform community. He thereby gives formal recognition to the legitimacy of Reform. He does not cease, but continually obligates himself anew, to commit his assets and his contributions to the support of the religious and educational programs of Reform.”

Rabbi Marcus Horowitz
Rabbi Marcus Horowitz

That is why Rav Hirsch advocated total separation. And we should be in no doubt about the realities of the context he and Rav Bamberger confronted. In Frankfurt, there was a central governing body, it received money from all Jews, regardless of denomination, and paid it out to all institutions, both Orthodox and Reform. The Orthodox had their own religious board to ensure complete freedom of action in halakhic affairs, but Orthodox and Reform laity and clergy sat together on other committees. For example, R, Marcus Horowitz sat on the body  which oversaw the construction of the new Frankfurt Reform Temple – and used his influence to prevent building taking place on Shabbat.

In full knowledge of these circumstances, Rav Bamberger ruled that secession was not necessary and co-operation was permitted. I doubt he would have advocated theological dialogue, and in my original post I made no such claim. Rav Bamberger did support continued institutional affiliation, joint decision making on some matters of internal self-government and co-ordinated financial arrangements, as long as Orthodox Jews could live as they thought fit. As Rav Bamberger wrote to Rav Hirsch, although he wanted to make clear ‘we reject and detest the belief system of Reform with all our hearts…this should not break the ties of personal friendship which bind us’ (page 248) and that consideration allowed membership of a single community.

Rav Bamberger could distinguish between legitimising ideas and respecting the people who held them. He did not believe that co-operation implied validation and he would only cut links with other Jews as a last resort. For these views he was subject to the forceful critique of Rav Hirsch. YCT is simply enduring the same critique today. We can take pride in our company.

About the Author
Ben Elton is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and Rabbinic Intern at the Lincoln Square Synagogue.