Sunday, April 1, 2007

A Personal Response to Rabbi Michael Broyde

By R. Nati Helfgot

Dear Michael:

Shalom U-verakah! I hope this note finds you and the family well and in good health.

It is hard in the hustle and bustle of preparing for Pesah and doing the day to day teaching that we all do to fully respond to the essay that you posted a little bit over a week on Hirhurim. We are old and dear friends and you know that I respect much of your work and the important contributions that you are making to our community. However, my soul and conscience did not give me pause since I read the statement that you chose to publish in the public arena. I, thus, feel an obligation to write you these quick words.

There is nothing here in my words that I have not shared with you privately over the last year during the myriad of conversations that we have held about these matters at great length. As you chose to make your missive a public one, I am sure you will not be offended if I likewise publicize these comments as well. I apologize for their length but I do not have your lawyerly facility for brevity and felicity with language.


  1. First, before some comments on the specific points you raise in your letter let me make two general points in relation to this whole matter. I gravely fear that in these ongoing public discussions we are diverting our time, efforts and energies from the very real and pressing issues that face the Jewish community generally and the Modern-Orthodox community specifically. These are the bread and butter issues that both you and I, YCT, YU and all the institutions that we are both affiliated with should be ensuring are the focus of our energies, time and efforts. I refer, of course, to combating the rampant assimilation and ignorance, and alienation that is the lot of the general Jewish community. In the Modern-Orthodox community specifically these include helping our congregants and young people grow in their avodat hashem and commitment to mitzvot and Talmud Torah, creating spiritually vivifying tefillah experiences that will transform the spiritually sterile services that are unfortunately all too common throughout our synagogues, helping address the tuition crisis that is squeezing so many of our families and threatening the viability of Jewish day school education and helping people find meaning and connection to God in their practice of halakha and living of Judaism. In addition, to these elements we both are committed to creating le-hatkhila Modern-Orthodox communities and helping address the serious personnel crisis in our day schools, shuls and Hillels throughout the country. I fear that too much of our energies are being sucked up by all this "exciting" back and forth as Rome is burning.

  2. Unfortunately, partially as a result of YCT’s own mistakes of emphasis in its public relations material, partly as a result of the media and blog driven culture that looks for sensationalism and cutting-edge topics as well as partly as a result of some mean-spirited individuals, the image of YCT and its work has been skewed somewhat in the eyes of the traditional Orthodox community. Reading some of the media and blogs and commentators one might get the erroneous impression that all that YCT students, faculty and alumni do all day is sit around and engage in planning some radical departure from traditional Orthodoxy or sit around singing kumbaya with non-orthodox clergy or Catholic cardinals! Nothing could be further from the truth. 99 percent of what goes on in our beit medrash on a daily and weekly basis (as you can attest to from your frequent visits) is the hard but energizing work of learning Gemera, Halakhah (this year Hilkhot Niddah be-iyun), supplemental shiurim in classical mahshavah and Tanakh, coupled with a rigorous and serious pastoral counseling and leadership training program. However, I guess it is not “sexy” or newsworthy for a newspaper or blog to report and honestly portray the daily work of avodat Hashem and training of young rabbis and the shiurim of Rav Linzer on vestot-deorita or derabban, Rav Katz's shiurim on shibuda de-rabi nasan or my shiurim on Sefer Shoftim or Hilkhot Tzedakah.

    In addition, the groundbreaking yemei iyun we have held on issues of Mental Health and the Orthodox Community, the bi-monthly community shiurim, our highly successful yemei iyun on Bible and Jewish thought and the many, many other community programs do not seem to get the same airtime in the media and blog world. The same holds true for the overwhelming majority of work and efforts of our alumni out in the field. Thus, the media and blogs don’t report on the dozens of rabbis throughout the country such as Rabbi Jason Wiener in LA , R. Jack Nahmod in Baltimore, Rabbi Jeff Fox in Tenafly, Rabbi Adam Schier in Montreal, Rabbi Marc Gitler in NYC, Rabbi Saul Strossberg in Nashville, Rabbi Yonatan Cohen in Berkeley, Rabbi Jason Herman in NY, Rabbi Yaakov Simon in Philadelphia, Rabbi Nissan Antine in Potomac and Rabbi Aryeh Leifert in San Antonio amongst many others who are leading Modern-Orthodox congregations, Hillels and teaching in day schools, teaching shiurim, visiting the sick, inspiring adults and young people, interacting with the broader Jewish community all in the spirit of a profound commitment to halakhah and real authentic, le-hatkhila Modern-Orthodoxy. We only hear of the few controversial statements, or questionable decisions that have been made by two or three alumni.

    As I stated above, a good part of the onus for this must rest on our shoulders here at the Yeshiva and how in our infancy we sometimes over-highlighted cutting edge or innovative approaches in order to distinguish ourselves and make our mark. However, and here I do speak fully in the name of the Yeshiva, YCT’s vision should not be pigeonholed and distorted, either unintentionally or willfully. YCT’s mission statement, posted on its website is very clear about it core commitments and vision. This vision is not about pushing a specific agenda on one or two pressing halakhic or hashkafic issues, whether it be issues related to women’s role in Jewish ritual life or interdenominational activities, important as these issues may be in their own right. YCT is an educational institution committed to a much broader canvas than the caricature and pigeon holes that so many want to place it in. It is, in a word, a Yeshiva and rabbinical school fully committed to punctilious observance of halakha that works to professionally train rabbis in a spirit of open and modern-Orthodoxy. It goal is to train rabbis to serve in leadership positions and help lead and create caring and loving spiritual communities committed to halakha, learning Torah, hesed, and spiritual service but open and welcoming and inspiring to all Jews.


Turning specifically to your comments allow me to make the following remarks:

  1. I fully concur with your assessment of Rabbi Zev Farber as a wonderful young talmid chacham and yerei shamayim who has a great future ahead of him. I will not address your comments vis-a-vis R. Zev Farber’s essay on Yaakov Avinu as I have addressed this issue at length in the post that I wrote in response to the original Yated Neeman attack on YCT Rabbinical School and readers are referred to that portion of the post which was kindly put up by Gil in a separate blog.

  2. I discussed the issue of YCT's approach to inter-denominational and,le-havdil, inter-faith work in the previous post mentioned above. While it is not a fully worked out position paper it does contain a full and direct presentation of what I believe are the perspectives of YCT as an institution on these issues. When I wrote my original post I indicated that I could not speak for YCT as an institution. In great measure that was due to the fact that I had not vetted my essay by R. Weiss at the time as I was feverishly trying to put it out before my sister z"l entered her final days on this earth. Subsequent to the shiva, R. Weiss and I spoke a number of times and he indicated to me that he appreciated my comments and that it accurately reflected the perspectives of YCT on these matters. If my read of your letter is correct these are indeed two of the areas that you indicated: “I am comfortable with YCT’s conduct” so there is not much dispute between us.

    The only thing I would add at this point is that we in the Orthodox community are often too quick to confuse the idea of inviting someone to share ideas issue x with some form of full endorsement with their lifestyle or total world-view. I understand that some in our community believe that interaction or giving someone a podium immediately connotes acceptance or legitimacy for their entire world-view and lifestyle. I believe that we in the modern-Orthodox community (and certainly many of my teachers and I) have not and do not traditionally hold to such an exacting standard. For example, a few years ago Tradition published an essay by a Conservative rabbi on the topic of reparative therapy for homosexuals and recently the OU West Coast region invited Dennis Prager to speak at its convention on the problems of Orthodoxy.

    On the real-life level let me also note that YCT's full-time rebeeim or teachers (teaching once a week or more) in areas of halakha, gemara. Tanakh, mahshava, are all fully-Orthodox, talmidei hakahamim, yerei shamayim and anshei emet. Our full-time pastoral counseling faculty are all fully Orthodox expert mental health professionals well known in our community. In addition 98% of the speakers that we have had visit and speak to our students and alumni numerous times in the last six years that I have been affiliated with YCT have been leading roshei yeshiva, rabbanim, and thinkers such as Rav Yehuda Amital, Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Rav Chaim Rapoport, Rav Herzl Hefter, Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, Rav Mayer Lichtenstein, Rav Baruch Gigi, Rav Yonah Reiss, yourself, Rav David Bigman, Rav Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Jack Bieler, Rabbi Mark Dratch, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Rav Menachem Leibtag, Rav Daniel Sperber, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, Dr. David Shatz, and many many others of a similar ilk. Spekers who have spoken with less frequency, but have added to our beit medrash inlcude Rav Shear yashuv ha-Kohen, Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz, Rav Chaim Bravender, Rabbi Kenny Brander and many others. ( I painfully must also note that while numerous YU rashei yeshiva have been invited over the years to deliver shiurim these shiruim did not materialize. A number of them directly told me that they would have loved to come a give a shiur and felt they should give a shiur, but were concerned as to the "political" ramifications from their colleagues or adminstration if they had accepted such an invitation.)

    In short, it the rabbis and rebbeim mentioned above who are the usual guest speakers (alongside many prominent scholars, academcians, philososphers, pastoral clinicians and therapists),who dominate the discourse of the Yeshiva beit medrash. It is thus a bit of red herring to critique the yeshiva because there are occasional guest speakers from other movements who address our students in areas of pastoral counseling and leadership training and even an occasional homiletical, historical or Jewish thought topic. Moreover, just to get the facts straight, the non-Orthodox faculty listed in our website are all involved in occasional (non-full-time) pastoral and leadership training work that is essential for rabbis going out into the field.

  3. YCT affirms and educates towards yesodot ha-emunah including beliefs in the perfection of the ribbono shel olam and that the Almighty is a loving and just God. (of course as you well know there are nuanced differences amongst the gedolei ha-rishonim, baalei mahshavah of the modern period, kabbalists and Hasidic thinkers about the exact parameters of these concepts in relation to God, but that is beyond the scope of the space of this letter.) Moreover, YCT, as anyone who has even spent one minute in our beit medrash, educates towards a strong and passionate affirmation of the un-revoked chosenness of the Jewish people as the am segulah. (I am proud to affirm that we tend to educate much more to the mission-driven and purpose-driven notions of am segulah as articulated in many portions of Tanakh, the writings of the Rambam, Rav Hirsch, Rabbi Lamm and others rather than the more essentialist notions of am segulah that emerge from the writings of the Kuzari, the Maharal, Rav Kook, or the more extreme, and frankly disturbing notions that emerge from the writings of the Baal ha-Tanya.)

    As Rabbi Kleinberg himself noted in the note he sent to Gil, he does not speak on behalf of the Yeshiva nor were his comments presented as representing the position of the yeshiva. Moreover, the public relations material highlighting Rabbi Kleinberg and the good work he has done (and he has done some really outstanding things in Phoneix) was prepared and published weeks before he published his controversial piece. As I wrote in my previous post “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.” Not every discussion with a student or alumnus needs or should be broadcast in the public arena.

  4. It should be beyond obvious, that YCT as an open Modern-Orthodox institution does not advocate or support homosexual behavior or the gay lifestyle nor sees it as an ideal of any kind. And as such YCT has not and would not sponsor a Gay or Lesbian themed Haggadah. Orthodox rabbis, graduates of many varied yeshivot, serving in the position of Hillel rabbi are not employees of their alma mater but are called upon to serve the spiritual and religious needs of the Jewish students on campus many of them far from the world-view of traditional Judaism. As such they are often called upon to help student groups accomplish projects and goals that are not reflective of their personal beliefs. At the same time they can and should take great pride in helping Jews, especially Jews often painfully alienated from their tradition to find portals of connection to the Jewish people, to Jewish tradition and ultimately to God. I believe the young Hillel rabbi in this instance making a tough call did just that and if I am not mistaken you yourself indicated in private conversation that you were comfortable with what he had done for that group on campus.

    YCT erred in publicizing the specific remarks about that episode in its newsletter, without some caveat, as it gave some readers (especially our less charitable ones and our persistent critics) the impression that we as an institution somehow identified with that type of haggadah as an ideal model of liturgy or to somehow seem to support the concept of "liberation" from halakah, God forbid. As I wrote above, nothing could be further from the truth. If I may, I would state that, in general terms, YCT perspective on this important but painful issue is the halakhically faithful but profoundly humane and sensitive one articulated by the noted talmid hakham, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport in his volume “Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View”.

  5. I too studied at Yeshiva University, RIETS, its various kollelim and graduate schools for close to 15 years. Those years were precious and special and I feel indebted to all my rebeeim, rashei kollel, professors, administrators and peers from whom I learned and gained so much in both Torah and hokhmah. I continue to cherish Yeshiva University and donate freely of my time to various projects affiliated with YU when I am called upon whether it is the executive committee of the Orthodox Forum, the Orthodox Caucus, speaking privately to and giving advice to teachers at MTA or Central who have educational questions, or reviewing web materials for the Center for the Jewish Future. I consider, President Joel a friend, and want him and our mutual dear chaver, R. Kenny Brander, to succeed in their mission and work at YU for the greater good of the Modern-Orthodox community and the Jewish people.

  6. The offhanded, unscripted, and unexpected remarks made by the Chairman of the Board of YCT three years ago sharply critiqueing YU, it leadership and some of its rabbinic faculty were improper, overstated and a mistake. He himself has indicated some of these regrets in a number of public comments in the last few years. In fact he subsequently apologized, in person, to President Joel and to Dr. Lamm. He further apologized to the entire student body and staff of YCT at a town hall meeting at which he was critiqued by some of those in attendance. As Rabbi Weiss made clear in public remarks at the time of the incident, YCT viewed and continues to view YU as an important and vital part of the Modern-Orthodox world and sees the two institutions as complementing each other.

    I and others believe that we erred in not issuing a more forceful public statement at the time disassociating ourselves from the remarks ( I specifically mention "the remarks" and not the person who is an outstanding baal hesed, philanthropist and wonderful human being who also continues to serve on the board of YU in addition to his role at YCT. He has accomplished many great and amazing things for the Jewish people and Israel, and Hashem should grant him many many years of continued health and vision to help better the Jewish people and the world).

    At the same time, it is only fair and proper that the context in which those off-handed remarks were made be understood, not to excuse them, but to appreciate and have a full picture of what occurred. In addition, the context must inevitably raise the important question of the fairness and consistency of your singling out YCT in calling it out on this matter. And like you I write this with great pain but yosher and truth demand no less from us.

    1. In the late 1990’s Rabbi Saul Berman and Rabbi Avi Weiss were described publicly as “internal Amalek” by a prominent member of the rabbinic faculty of YU-RIETS. This was improper, overstated and a mistake. Are you ready to call out the person who made those remarks and the institution for not issuing any public rebuke?

    2. In the late 1990’s, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Saul Berman initiated a wonderful weekly fellowship of lectures and discussion on important issues for Modern-Orthodox rabbinical students called Meorot. After it was up and running, and quite successful the leadership of Yeshiva University asked to join in as co-sponsors. A while later, after internal pressure from some of its own rabbinic faculty over the inclusion of one or two “controversial” speakers in the year long program, YU abruptly pulled out, and the program was essentially put into herem by a number of these rebeeim. The program and its leadership were then continually demonized with harsh rhetoric by numerous rabbinic faculty at YU-RIETS in their public and private discussions with students. The reversal by the YU leadership under pressure almost destroyed the program and left everyone involved with a tremendous sense of betrayal. The harsh rhetoric and language was very painful and distressing. All of this this was wrong, improper and a mistake. Are you ready to………

    3. In the early years of YCT, prior to the first dinner where the chairman’s remarks were said, a young talented student at YCT was about to take a position as an intern at a highly prominent New York City synagogue. Just prior to nailing down the final details, the rabbi of the synagogue received phone calls from a leading administrator at YU pressuring him not to hire a YCT intern under any circumstance. The rabbi buckled under the pressure and no intern was hired. This was wrong, improper and a mistake. Are you ready to …..?

    4. In the early years of YCT , a number of the students , in addition to taking the semikha exams of YCT chose to the Chief Rabbinate exams for semikha (they all passed with flying colors) . Others decided to take the exam administered by a leading rabbinic figure in Israel who regularly gives semikha. The young men did fine on their exams but just prior to picking up their semikha diplomas, a prominent member of the YU-RIETS rabbinic faculty intervened and convinced this scholar that he should not sign the semikhot of any student affiliated with YCT. After long and arduous work and effort YCT to rectify this imprpoper intervention , the students received this klaf as well. The entire intervention was improper, wrong and a mistake. Are you ready….?

    5. In the last number of years a prominent rabbi in our community has taken it upon himself to insert himself into the search for a new rabbi in a number of communities with one of the main agendas on this rabbi's plate to forestall and hinder the election of a YCT graduate as the rabbi, including in cases where the young man was the strongest candidate in the field. Barukh Hashem, to the best of my knowledge these efforts were unsuccesful and the community rightly decided what was best for its specific shul without too much attention to leshon ha-rah or extreneous issues.

    Unfortunately we have witnessed too much harsh rhetoric and too many improper actions in the last decade. It is time for us to all move on and work, whether in tandem (the ideal) or in parallel tracks to solve the real crises that face us a community and a people. I return to where I began, Rome is burning and we cannot stand idly by and continue focusing on this “inside baseball” ad infinitum. There are wonderful young men in all our various and sundry institutions who are committing themselves to serving the Modern-Orthodox and general Jewish community. They need our guidance and support and encouragement, not continuing public sniping and dissension.

My best wishes to you and the family for a Hag Kasher ve-Sameach,

With Torah blessings and in friendship,