A tradition-based ‘No’ to Orthodox female rabbis

As  I mentioned a few days ago, the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents “modern Orthodox” rabbis, has been holding its annual meeting at Young Israel of Scarsdale (which is actually in New Rochelle, for what that’s worth).

The big issue for many was what the RCA would say about the role of women in the Orthodox community. Some have spoken out for female rabbis, others for lesser but significant roles for women in Orthodox life.

In a statement, the RCA describes the process of looking at the issue like this:

*****

Rather than delineating a specific menu or roadmap of appropriate or inappropriate roles and positions, the resolution sought to articulate the broad dimensions and values that, from an Orthodox perspective, should inform and shape the discussion and implementation of this defining issue in months and years to come. These include the importance of appropriate sensitivity to tradition, communal sensitivities, as well as the desire of both men and women to enhance Torah and mitzvoth, personally and communally. So too, is the need for a thorough foundation in appropriate halachic and communal precedent and process.

*****

In the end, the RCA passed a resolution, without dissent, that continues the movement’s ban on female rabbis while encouraging, in the most general terms, “appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women.”

Here is the resolution:

*****

1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.

2) We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness – halakhah, hashkafah, tradition and historical memory.

3) In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

4) Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education. As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of talmud Torah, yir’at Shamayim, and dikduk be-mitzvot.

*****

What else did the RCA do in Scarsdale/New Rochelle?

Topics discussed included “Israel, Iran, US-Israel relations, conversion issues, rabbinic boundaries, Orthodox teens, counseling, dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease, death and burial, family conflict, and others…”

Orthodox rabbis to discuss role of women, US/Israel relations at local conference

Hundreds of Orthodox rabbis will gather at Young Israel of Scarsdale synagogue on Sunday for a three-day conference that will tackle some high-profile issues.

The occasion will be the national conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents rabbis who come from the world of what’s known as “modern Orthodox” Judaism. The RCA is sort of the rabbinical wing of the Orthodox Union.

tjndc5-5jkqaekps2a10xpg7gda_layoutIt is certain to be a bittersweet gathering in many ways, since Young Israel’s late leader, Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, was a former president of the RCA. Rubenstein, a prominent figure in the modern Orthodox community, and his wife, Deborah, died in a house fire in 2008.

According to the Jewish Week, the rabbis are expected to adopt some sort of statement on the role of women in modern Orthodox congregations.

Orthodox Judaism does not currently ordain female rabbis, although some would like to see this tradition change. It’s not going to.

But more than 1,000 people have signed a petition calling on the RCA to “enable women in positions of communal religious leadership.” There could be some change in this area, but many traditionalists would prefer for things to stay as they are — with synagogue life run by men.

“I believe there is a reservoir of goodwill among our members, and people will be pleasantly impressed with the outcome,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, N.J., who is expected to be re-elected first vice president, tells the JW.

A recent RCA statement about the role of women included this:

*****

The RCA reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community. We strongly maintain that any innovations that impact the community as a whole should be done only with the broad support of the Orthodox rabbinate and a firm grounding in the eternal mesorah of the Jewish people.

*****

MHsmallIn addition, at a time when many Jews are concerned about President Obama’s tougher than usual stance with Israel on housing/settlement issues, the conference’s featured speaker will be Malcolm Hoenlein, the longtime head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He will speak about “Israel and America: The Defining Challenges, and the Role of the Orthodox Rabbinate.”

Another recent RCA statement included this:

*****

But none of that can explain the disproportionate, extraordinary, and unwarranted response by some spokesmen of the Obama administration in excoriating, condemning, and publicly lashing out at the duly elected representatives of the sovereign State of Israel.

There is no justification, neither on moral nor on diplomatic grounds, for escalating this policy disagreement into what some in the administration have called (to quote just one such phrase) “an affront to America.”

Influential ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Monsey caught in sex scandal

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community likes to keep to itself, but you may hear a very loud sigh coming from Monsey and NYC these days.

An ugly scandal is unfolding regarding one Rabbi Leib Tropper, a Monsey-based fellow who has headed a prominent group called the Eternal Jewish Family. The EJF’s mission has been to oversee the conversion of non-Jews married to Jewish spouses — according to the most strict standards for Jewish conversion.

leibBut Tropper has resigned in recent days over a Tigger Woods-ish scandal.

Apparently, he was taped speaking to a woman seeking conversion about highly un-rabbinic things.

The blog FailedMessiah.com, which chronicles the failings of the Orthodox Jewish community, spoke to the woman and reported this:

*****
The woman told FailedMessiah.com Tropper was “holding things over me.” Tropper can be heard on one of the tapes asking the woman to have sex or phone sex with other men. She said Tropper would tell her, “If you fulfill my needs, I’ll fulfill yours – and you need a conversion.”

Tropper can be heard on the tapes saying, “I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to…you own your body, I don’t own your body.”

The woman says Tropper asked her to role play certain sexual scenarios with these men, either capturing the encounter on tape or describing the encounter in detail to him afterward, but she refused. “He likes to see women raped,” the woman said. While sometimes Tropper suggested men for her to have encounters with, he encouraged her to find men on her own and then report back to him. “He wanted someone who would be very rough.”

She says other women were also recruited by Tropper to fulfill these fantasies.

*****

Howsa.

Tropper is no minor figure in the Orthodox world. One Orthodox blogger writes that he gained the support of many ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. and Israel by focusing on an issue they care about: conversion standards.

He writes:

*****

One of the biggest problems with EJF’s founder long before this sex scandal broke is that he somehow managed to commandeer and virtually control one of the most important aspects of Judaism: The ability of any sincere human being to convert and join the people of Israel.

Leib Tropper is not a stupid man. He managed to connive and cajole leading rabbinic figures both here and in Israel to come on board and endorse what he was doing. International meetings were held and attended by very prominent rabbinic figures or their representatives – traveling from all over the world to attend – as the above list from their website shows.

The names of those involved with EJF is mind boggling in its depth and Hashkafic scope. The above photo of some of them sitting on an EJF dais was taken from their website and is but a small sampling of those who attended and who supported Tropper and his EJF.

*****

Even before this sex scandal broke, Tropper and the EJF were criticized — by some — for bring ultra-Orthodox conversion standards to the wider Jewish world and for using their clout to hurt people.

Jewcy.com wrote last year:

*****

Times have changed. That’s because haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews like Leib Tropper, founder and director of Eternal Jewish Family—an organization dedicated to converting non-Jewish spouses of intermarried Jews—represent the most rapidly growing demographic in Judaism. Tropper also founded and runs a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, and travels regularly to Israel, where he frequents the halls of haredi power and hobnobs with its leaders. People like him are the Jewish future. They’re at the center of a seemingly irrevocable schism between Orthodoxy and every other denomination of Judaism. They’re determined to restrict and to monitor all Orthodox conversions as part of their spiritual war against non-haredi Judaism, and they want nothing less than ultimately to define who is a Jew.

*****

Now the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents “modern” Orthodox rabbis but has increasingly tightened its conversion standards to comply with ultra-Orthodox dictates, has issued a statement on the scandal:

*****

Dec 22, 2009 — We are deeply appalled, saddened and pained by reports that have reached us concerning alleged inappropriate behavior on the part of the chairman of the rabbinic committee of the Eternal Jewish Family, Rabbi Leib Tropper. We need to wait for more complete information before we can react fully.

Nonetheless, at this time, we would make the following points clear:

1. What we have heard, if true, violates the fundamental elements of all that Judaism holds sacred.

2. We urge anyone who might have been victimized to seek appropriate counseling and we, at the Rabbinical Council of America, remain ready to refer anyone who needs such assistance to the appropriate professionals.

3. Anyone who may have any questions of Jewish Law regarding conversions should feel free to contact our Geirut administrator, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, at 212-807-9000 ext. 3.

Jewish community now grappling with money-laundering headlines

Days after the news broke of the Syrian Jewish community’s alleged involvement in the New Jersey Corruption Sweep to end New Jersey Corruption Sweeps (for now), Jewish voices are addressing the ugliness of it all.

On Aish.com, an Orthodox site, Rabbi Yitz Greenman writes about the power of greed. He writes, in part:

*****

We live in America and the law of the land states that one is innocent until proven guilty. Let us not assume guilt. But, if in the unfortunate event that the news turns out to be true and some of these people are proven guilty, many will ask: How can this be?

Not to sound callous, jaded, crude or insensitive, but the answer to me is that such a situation is not so difficult to imagine. It’s all a function of greed and jealousy. In fact, maybe we should ask the question differently: How come it’s such a rarity? Why doesn’t this happen more often?

We live in a very materialistic society, comprised of have and have-nots. No matter what a person has in our day and age, it is literally impossible for someone to “have it all.” Coupled with the most dazzling ads that Madison Avenue inundates us with daily, everyone is trained from early childhood to see themselves as “have-nots.” I don’t have this, that and the other thing. This creates an environment of lack and dependency on things.

*****

The Rabbinical  Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, released this statement today:

*****

The Rabbinical Council of America expresses its deep dismay over the recent charges brought by the United States Attorney General against numerous individuals, including several prominent rabbis. We are appalled at the allegations which, if true, violate the letter and the spirit of Jewish law, decency, good citizenship, and the norms of our great society.

Jewish Law has always emphasized the importance of observing and respecting the laws of the land. They are essential for our shared wellbeing. No individual stands above the law. If a citizen violates the law then he must be subject to the penalties imposed by the legal system of our great country. Nonetheless, we must all keep in mind that those accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence and due process.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox Community have been particularly affected by these allegations, and the stereotypes that have arisen as a result in recent days.The RCA wishes to extend its support to the Syrian Jewish community and its rabbis. They are an honorable, pious, and charitable community, led by many distinguished rabbis. The alleged misdeeds of the few should not be used against the innocent many. We join with our brethren in the Syrian community and with our fellow Jews in praying that the community find the strength to weather this storm, and that they restore themselves to function as the great community they have always been.

We are committed as rabbinic leaders for ourselves and our communities to serve as positive role models for all of our fellow Americans. We pledge to do our best in the days ahead so that the entire Jewish community can continue to be a model for all of our fellow Americans as law-abiding and ethically responsible citizens, striving to live in accordance with the highest religious and civic standards of justice and morality.

*****

And the Jewish Week has extensive coverage of the whole affair, including anger in the Orthodox community at the Jewish informant whose cooperation was key to authorities bringing down the alleged money-laundering scheme.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network and an Orthodox Jew, writes a column in which he offers harsh criticisms of some within his own community: “Is it possible that there is something in the Orthodox community in general and the haredi community in particular that creates fertile ground for this type of fraud? I’ve too often witnessed, here and in Israel, a perverse notion that we few who feel bound by the laws of God are free to flout the laws of man. That the seriousness with which we hold halacha (Jewish law) forces us to view state law as trite, flawed — unimportant at best, a nuisance at worst.”

Harsh.

And Jewish Week boss Gary Rosenblatt writes about what the news means for relations within the Jewish world. He says, in part:

*****

Many Orthodox Jews refuse to acknowledge that their less observant brethren can be serious about their religious and spiritual lives, and see them more as a threat to continuity than as sharing the path to a Jewish future. Better not to associate with them, some rabbis say, for fear of appearing to legitimize their beliefs. And there is a distinct element of schadenfreude among Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews on reading of financial and sexual abuses within the haredi community, a sense of satisfaction in seeing those alleged holier-than-thou Jews brought low, shown to be as flawed as the rest of us.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around, and the front-page photos of bearded rabbis being led away in handcuffs represents a chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name, for us all.

Is ‘witness’ different than ‘proselytism?’

I posted something recently about the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issuing a statement to clarify the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people — primarily to note the ongoing Catholic responsibility to witness to the truth of the faith.

The bishops issued the statement because of concerns that a paper issued by Catholic and Jewish leaders in 2002 had left the impression that the Catholic Church, by recognizing the ongoing Jewish covenant with God, had resigned its role to witness to the Jewish people.

Yesterday, the Bishops Conference released a fascinating statement about a June 25 meeting in NYC between Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, part of an ongoing dialogue.

The statement, a press release actually, was very blunt about Orthodox Jewish unhappiness with the bishops’ clarifying statement.

Granted, this stuff may be too “inside baseball” for many. But some (including me) are fascinated by interreligious dialogue and the very nuanced challenges that often arise.

Here is a key hunk of the Bishops Conference statement:

*****

At the June 25 meeting, David Berger, Ph.D., head of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College, New York City, cited “grave” concerns of some in the Jewish community about the Note, which was prepared by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Orthodox Jews can tolerate any Christian view on the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as savior of all, but they cannot agree to participate in an interfaith dialogue that is a cover for proselytism, Berger said.

The Note affirmed that interreligious dialogue involves “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts,” but also asserted that giving witness to the following of Christ is implicit in every faithful encounter with persons of other religious convictions.

Berger and the other Jewish participants asked if the “implicit witnessing to Christ” means, in effect, a subtle attempt to convert Jews to Christianity, which would render interreligious dialogue with Catholics illegitimate and “dangerous” from an Orthodox Jewish standpoint. “We take apostasy very seriously,” he said, referring to the abandonment of Judaism for another religion.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB, assured participants that interreligious dialogue for the Catholic bishops is never about proselytism or any coercive methods that would lead a person to abandon his or her religious convictions.

“The important term in this discussion is ‘witness,’” Father Massa said. “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”

*****

I haven’t seen any statements from either of the two Orthodox Jewish groups that participated.

This could be a good time to read John Allen’s recent column, “Hard Truths About Jews and Catholics,” which raises a lot of interesting issues about the state of Catholic-Jewish relations (and how to move on from here).

Have a great 4th (whether that means today, tomorrow or both).

Two religious views on draft stem cell guidelines hit my email at once

At exactly 2:40 p.m., I received two statements about the new draft guidelines for embryonic stem cell research that were put forth Friday by the National Institutes of Health.

One statement came from Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The other came from the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis.

The timing was a coincidence.

First, here’s the lead from AP’s story Friday:

*****

WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Barack Obama eased limits on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, the big question became how far scientists could go. Friday, the government answered: They must use cells culled from fertility clinic embryos that otherwise would be thrown away.

Draft guidelines released by the National Institutes of Health reflect rules with broad congressional support, excluding more controversial sources such as cells derived from embryos created just for experiments.

“We think this will be a huge boost for the science,” said Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. “This was the right policy for the agency at this point in time.”

*****

Rigali isn’t happy. His statement, says, in part:

*****

Despite supporters’ constant claim that this agenda involves only embryos that “would otherwise be discarded,” the guidelines provide that the option of donating embryonic children for destructive research will be offered to parents alongside all other options, including those allowing the embryos to live. For the first time, federal tax dollars will be used to encourage destruction of living embryonic human beings for stem cell research – including human beings who otherwise would have survived and been born.

*****

The Orthodox rabbis group, meanwhile, is satisfied. Their statement (addressed to Obama):

*****

We write to you on behalf of this nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish rabbinical organization to congratulate you on the decision you have taken to remove barriers to federal funding of responsible scientific research involving human stem cells.

We reaffirm the position we took in 2001 following consultations with rabbinic authorities in our community and with scientists cognizant of and sensitive to traditional Jewish values, in expressing our firm support for embryonic stem cell research conducted with appropriate scientific guidelines and careful ethical oversight. That position, as subsequently reconfirmed by the RCA on October 22 2004, can be seen at http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=100553.

At the same time we emphasize that vigilance must be taken to protect against the erosion of the value that American society affords to human life, including potential human life, in the execution of such research.

We admire your courage in taking a difficult decision on an issue which divides loyal Americans with different legitimate perspectives and we wish you the continued paramount blessing for political leaders that the Jewish tradition offers – wisdom.

After raid, new ethical guide coming for kosher food plants

In light of the much-publicized immigration raid a few months back at a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, the Rabbinical Council of America has appointed a task force to produce a guide to “Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines” for industry.

The guide will apply in particular to the kosher food industry, according to the RCA, which represents Orthodox rabbis.

061213_immigration_hmed_7ahmedium.jpgAccording to a statement from the RCA, the purpose of the guide will be:

1. It will require that a condition of kosher food certification be an agreement to adhere to all relevant civil laws and regulations as formulated, monitored and enforced by existing government regulatory and enforcement agencies, in whichever country they occur. Violations of such laws will be viewed by kosher agencies with utmost seriousness.
2. It will formulate and clarify relevant principles of Jewish law and ethics governing business conduct. Companies interested in conforming to the highest standards of Jewish ethics will be encouraged to adopt these principles voluntarily wherever possible, as a matter of corporate social responsibility.

Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, president of the RCA, says: “Ethics and social responsibility are central to the Torah and the rabbinic tradition, in business no less than in the home, the synagogue and the school. We are fully aware of the realities of a competitive marketplace spread all over the globe, and the need to provide affordable kosher food. In taking this step, the RCA seeks as a practical matter to reinforce ethical values and corporate policies, while ensuring a reliable and affordable supply of food products for the kosher consumer.”

Prominent rabbi wins in court, but debate will go on

For several years, much of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York and beyond has been riveted by accusations against Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, a prominent rabbi from Monsey who comes from a very prominent line of rabbis.

In 2005, the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, expelled Tendler because of accusations of womanizing. It was a shocking stand from an organization that does not generally make waves.

Tendler’s congregation, Kehillat New Hempstead, also let him go.

tendler_mordecai2.jpegTendler denied that he did anything wrong. But the charges against him have been hashed out — passionately — on Orthodox websites and blogs by both supporters and critics of the rabbi. At one point, Tendler asked a California court to force Google to identity four anonymous blog writers.

One woman who accused Tendler of using his authority to seduce her into a 3-year affair filed a civil lawsuit against her former spiritual leader. But New York’s top appeals court dismissed her case yesterday, ruling that the woman could not make a legal claim based on seduction (whether she was seduced or not).

The majority ruled that “no cause of action can be maintained for an extended voluntary affair between consenting adults.”

Tendler’s lawyers are saying that he is vindicated. Clearly, not everyone will see it that way. The court said that Tender’s accuser could not sue him on “seduction” grounds. The court did not say that an affair did not happen.

Disagreement over what really happened will go on.

Conversion popular — but not always easy

Americans love to switch faiths.

The new Pew Forum study shows that 28% have left the faith of their childhood (and if you count switching brands of Protestantism, the percentage soars to 44).

But for the small numbers who convert to Judaism, well, things sure get complicated.

The different branches of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards for conversion. Who acknowledges whose conversions has long been a tricky question.

The question periodically becomes quite serious because of the reluctance of the Jewish establishment in Israel — which is uniformly Orthodox — to recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

But even within the world of Orthodoxy, where there are multiple religious gradations between “ultra Orthodox” and “modern Orthodox,” there are disagreements over the standards for conversion (and who can oversee conversions).

In recent years, the Israeli rabbinic establishment has sometimes looked askew at conversions overseen by Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.

A few days ago, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbis group in the U.S., announced that it was establishing a network of rabbinical courts to oversee conversions. The statement said:

The network, established with the enthusiastic agreement of the RCA membership at large, creates uniform standards of Orthodox conversion. The network will benefit genuine converts and their offspring, by facilitating their acceptance in Jewish communities around the world.

In other words, in Israel.

The new Jewish Week reports that there is a bit of discord of whether the RCA capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate in Israel by adopting conversion standards that require ultra-Orthodox observance on the part of would-be converts.

The report says:

basil-herring-pic_medium.jpgThe newly unified conversion standards may be most demanding for those who are adopting a child and want him or her converted under Orthodox auspices. They will be required to have their family be completely observant of the commandments — for example, living within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue so that they can attend on the Sabbath without driving, and must commit to having their child educated for 12 years in an Orthodox Jewish day school.

But what if the child needs to leave the day school because it is not meeting his educational needs or because the family can no longer afford tuition?

“If there was clear indication that the commitment was a real one, not just posturing to fool the court, but that subsequently they were unable to follow through for whatever reason, that does not undo the conversion,� said (RCA Executive Vice President) Rabbi (Basil) Herring. “Everything here is in the details.�

The overall goal, said Rabbi Herring (pictured), “is to give converts a measure of assurance that when they go beyond the system they will not be doubted, alienated and hurt� by questions about their legitimacy as Jews.

(Picture: RCA)