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Orthodoxy and YCT: A reflection

While grappling with today's liberal challenges, the rabbinical school is committed to the rigors of Jewish law

As a musmach, ordained rabbi, of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, I think I have the best of both worlds: a firm anchoring in Orthodoxy, Halacha and mesorah (tradition), and also a welcoming and inclusive approach towards all Jews. To hear others tell it, however, it’s the worst of both worlds. Not Orthodox enough for some and not inclusive enough for others. So while I don’t speak for YCT as an institution, I would like to reflect on what it means to me to be a part of this important Orthodox institution.

The first mistake that one can make when thinking about YCT is that somehow if we go a little farther left we’ll turn into Conservative Judaism. JTS and YCT are not two points on the same spectrum. Debating whether to attend arguably, the foremost and flagship Conservative rabbinical school in the world in the same conversation with any Orthodox rabbinical school does a disservice to both YCT and JTS. Regardless of the qualifying term before Orthodox, the rabbeim, teachers and men who learn together at YCT are profoundly committed to an Orthodox approach of Judaism. This approach is not limited to keeping Halacha as understood by Orthodox parameters. We are not masquerading as an Orthopraxis school hoping that at some point we’ll make everyone Conservative. Nor should one think that Conservative Judaism is simply Orthodoxy lacking observance. This does a disservice to both Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism which have vibrant, alive and disparate theologies and understandings of how the halachic system works. My experience attending YCT showed me that we are committed to a Judaism that cares for all Jews, and all people, but decidedly, unabashedly through the lens of Orthodoxy.

This is why it is surprising that one can vacillate between attending a Conservative rabbinical school and an Orthodox one. Having learned at YCT, I can speak with confidence about what YCT and Orthodoxy are. However, I know far less about Conservative Judaism. I know that the ideas of one student don’t represent the institution of JTS, one with diverse opinions and, in my limited experience, people who look to build bridges for the betterment of the Jewish people and the world. I would, therefore, like to focus on YCT. Torah min hashamyim, belief in the Divine authorship, word for word, is expected, taught and felt at YCT. It affects the very character of our learning. Fidelity to Halacha is an absolute must, even when times change and the laws are inconvenient or challenge modern sensibilities. An understanding of the mesorah, the tradition, is imprinted on our souls. The Amoraim don’t argue with the Tanaim. The Geonim and Rishonim don’t argue with the Amoraim. The Achronim don’t argue with the Tanaim. Chas v’Shalom we, so far from ma’amad har Sinai, standing at Mt. Sinai, would argue with Amoraim, or attempt to excise unpopular verses of the Torah. I can’t just “go it alone”. The mesorah pulls me back, connects me to the tradition. Orthodox rabbis don’t simply make up their minds and let the chips fall where they may. Despite Orthodoxy’s insularity and the negative attacks we receive, there is a powerful protective feeling towards klal yisrael. While one might think that declaring our positions and changing with the times is a sign of strength and courage, there are grave consequences. Who does it serve when a couple who is married according to Halacha but doesn’t get divorced according to Halacha? The couple? The children from future relationships who are mamzerim and cannot marry within the fold? Who does it help when conversions are done outside of the strictures of Halacha? Certainly not the aspiring Jew who will forever be questioned. Is it truly better for the Jews that we can’t all pray in the same sanctuary, like we once were able to do? R’ Weiss articulated that rabbis should be given the opportunity to make halachic decisions for their individual communities. Who better to make them than the rabbi who knows them best? However, this is done with the whole community in mind. Yes, it is messy. Yes, mistakes are sometimes made. We, like my family in BMG, YU, JTS and HUC etc., are imperfect beings trying to do what is upright and good in the eyes of Gd and people.

Despite the many articles written, YCT and Orthodoxy do not singularly focus on what women can and can’t do according to Halacha. However, when facing this modern world with women CEO’s (though a paltry few) and when women are receiving a Jewish education like never before, we are thrown into a challenging place vis a vis gender roles. Egalitarianism is not a goal of YCT. Which role or title should women have if they become fluent with the sources and can teach others? The Orthodox community is muddling our way through this new terrain. We’re trying different approaches, attempting to stay rooted in our mesorah. It is a slow, messy and deliberate process, with one eye on the people in front of us and our other eye connected to our halachic sources. But turning everything on its head, moving away from the parameters of our halachic system is not how we Jews do it. After being blessed with children, my wife and I had a newfound appreciation for gender differences in the eyes of Halacha. How exactly do we both go the minyan, three times a day? Who’s home with the kids? Where does krias shema (reading the Shema) come in when the baby just awoke and demands to be nursed this moment?

I don’t mean to imply that we, in the Orthodox community have it all figured out. In too many Orthodox shuls we give implicit messages to women that it doesn’t matter if they show up during leyning, Torah reading, well past sof zman tefillah (last time to pray). Too many of our shuls position the women’s section as if they were spectators watching the main event going on in the men’s section. We put a disproportionate amount of our effort focusing on what our girls and women wear instead of encouraging them to love themselves, be themselves and learn more Torah.

Though no expert on the intricacies of more liberal denominations, from what I understand, I fundamentally disagree with many of the positions taken. And yet, many of my brothers and sisters find their spiritual home in the doors of Conservative, Reform and Renewal shuls. It isn’t my way, but there is a lot of good work being done. Consequently, the Orthodox movement is stretched, pushed and encouraged to think differently. Be it with social justice, women’s issues or expanding our circle of care to all the inhabitants of this earth, the Orthodox community is better because the liberal denominations challenge us to go back to our sources, to our tradition and see what was staring at us the whole time.

Finally, Orthodox women who willingly and lovingly see their Orthodox shul as their spiritual home have a right to choose that lifestyle. We don’t need men, myself included, talking about what women want or how they should think. They can speak for themselves and decide if Orthodoxy, with our connection to the mesorah and our interpretation of Halacha, is a home that they are proud to live in.

About the Author
Maurice Appelbaum grew up in Brooklyn NY and graduated from Brooklyn College. He was granted semicha, rabbinic ordination, in 2009 from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He serves at Congregation Ahavas Israel, the Greenpoint Shul, in Brooklyn NY. He is also a supervisory candidate at the Healthcare Chaplaincy and works at New York Hospital Queens as a chaplain. Maurice lives in Greenpoint with his wife and children.
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