The Maharat Moment

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The Maharat Moment: Gauging Its Historical Importance

On May 12, 1969, Yeshiva University’s director of Rabbinic Placement penned an intriguing letter to the president of the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. At that time, YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminary and the so-called “Skokie Yeshiva” maintained a most apprehensive relationship. Several years earlier, Ahron Soloveichik—whose influence on the New York school’s student body was described at that time as “unprecedented”—departed RIETS for a more prominent position at the Chicago institution.[1. “Rumored Exit,” The Commentator (November 4, 1965): 2.] The two Orthodox seminaries, of course, also competed for pulpit posts. RIETS usually captured the available position along both sides of America’s coastline while Skokie placed most of their ordainees in midwestern synagogues. But sometimes there was no competition at all. By the close of the 1960s, YU officials refused to place their rabbis in congregations that sat male and female worshippers together in the sanctuary without a barrier of separation. In limited cases, RIETS did agree to place its men at “mixed-seating-traditional” synagogues on condition that the congregations separate their pews within a year or two. If time elapsed and no changes were made, the RIETS-trained rabbi would (usually) resign. By contrast, Skokie Yeshiva at that historical moment did not label those “mixed” synagogues as off limits. Consequently, battles for the pulpit rarely took place.

YU’s head of Rabbinic Placement understood all of this as he sent off his forthright letter to Chicago. A year prior, RIETS successfully installed one of its more promising graduates in a congregation toward the outskirts of St. Louis. “The rabbi has done outstanding work in providing leadership for the congregation during the course of the year,” reported the Yeshiva official, “but has not yet been able to achieve his goal which was to implement the new regular mechitza in the new building being contemplated.” Therefore, continued the YU administrator:

If the rabbi does not achieve his goal, he will leave the community and Yeshiva University will not send any candidates to this pulpit. It is conceivable that the congregation will contact the Hebrew Theological College of Skokie, Illinois, for candidates immediately after the rabbi advises them that he will leave, or perhaps even now, before he has officially told them … I am therefore asking that the Hebrew Theological College decline recommendation of any candidates to this position either now or in the future, until such time as the mechitza is properly installed in this congregation. By our holding the line together, there is a good chance that this sacred goal may be achieved.[2. Herbert C. Dobrinsky to Simon Kramer, May 12, 1969. Rabbinic Placement Records—Communities, Box 15, Folder “Skokie, IL,” Yeshiva University Archives, New York, NY.]

Despite the halachic tension caused so often by synagogue seating… Yeshiva continued to work alongside the Chicago school.

I recount this story for three reasons. First, to illustrate that YU continued to consider Skokie an “Orthodox” institution. Despite the halachic tension caused so often by synagogue seating and the ample opportunity to denounce the Chicago seminary for its frequent flouting of traditional Jewish law, RIETS asked HTC to “hold the line together.” Although Skokie did not listen and did in fact submit applicants to that Missouri pulpit, Yeshiva continued to work alongside the Chicago school. My second purpose is to offer some caution to those who argue that one episode or action can splinter a religious movement. Finally, I rehash this account to identify that rabbi who, despite the laypeople’s opposition, was still doing “outstanding work” for Midwest Orthodoxy. It was Avi Weiss.

Moshe Averick recently offered many observations in a lengthy article entitled “American Jewry at a Crossroads.”[3. Moshe Averick, “American Jewry at the Crossroads: Isaac Mayer Wise, Solomon Schechter, and now … Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz,” The Algemeiner (July 18, 2013). Available here: link (accessed on August 6, 2013).] His focus, I think, was to compare three crucial moments in American Judaism: The graduation banquet honoring the first four ordainees of Hebrew Union College in 1883; Solomon Schechter’s appointment as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902; and Avi Weiss’s decision to ordain Sara Hurwitz as a “Rabba” in 2010. The author contended that all three events instantly and irrevocably ripped a new Jewish movement away from American Orthodoxy. It may well be true that all three moments, perhaps, figure prominently in the division of American Jewish movements. However, each of these incidents is undoubtedly a stark reminder that religious movements do not just break apart in a moment. Rather, they pull away slowly, and with much friction and vacillation.

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Isaac Mayer Wise founded the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1875. He had hoped to establish a rabbinical seminary long before then; his protracted struggle surely made the inaugural commencement celebration that much more gratifying.[4. See Sefton D. Temkin, Creating American Reform Judaism: The Life and Times of Isaac Mayer Wise (Oxford: Littman, 1998), 125-30.] Instead, however, reports from those in attendance at Cincinnati’s Highland House on July 11, 1883 ruined Wise’s celebration. The waiters at the “Trefa Banquet” served a lavish meal that included littleneck clams, soft-shelled crabs, shrimp salad, potatoes in lobster bisque sauce and frog legs in cream sauce.[5. The best description of the event is in Lance J. Sussman, “The Myth of the Trefa Banquet: American Culinary Culture and the Radicalization of Food Policy in American Reform Judaism,” American Jewish Archives Journal 57 (2005): 29-52.] Several traditional Jews walked out of the dinner reception and immediately returned home. Yet, it is unlikely that there was indeed much commotion that night at the Highland House. Benjamin Szold, the much respected and traditional Baltimore rabbi stayed in Cincinnati after the affair and kept his obligation to offer the opening address at the commencement exercises.[6. See Benjamin Szold, “Opening Address at the First Commencement of the H.U.C.,” American Israelite (July 20, 1883): 2.] Moreover, in the midst of it all Wise claimed his innocence, blaming a “wool-dyed Jewish cook who was directed to “place before the guests a kosher meal.”[7. “A Great Misfortune,” American Israelite (August 3, 1883): 4.] Some accepted his excuse while others remained incredulous. Still, only a small minority of the traditional Jews of America refused to give Wise another chance.

The parting of traditional and liberal branches of American Judaism was a far more complex saga than banquet menus

Truth to tell, Wise is a difficult figure to label. Early in his career he wrote that “I consider myself an orthodox Jew.”[8. “Reply,” The Israelite (March 30, 1855); 301.] Still, nearly thirty years later Wise likely ate the non-kosher food that evening in Cincinnati like so many of the other reformers who were present. But Wise also kept a kosher home at that time. Apparently, he also kept kosher company. For example, Bernard Illowy, one of the most staunchly traditional rabbis in nineteenth century America, always valued his connection with Wise. They were, according to Illowy’s son, “on intimate terms, almost from the time of (Illowy’s) arrival in this country, and later on, when we resided in Cincinnati, they met frequently in the friendliest intercourse.”[9. Henry Illowy, The Controversial Letters and the Casuistic Decisions of the Late Rabbi Bernard Illowy, Ph.D. (Berlin: M. Poppelauer, 1914), 28-29.] Illowy passed away in 1871 and therefore was not around to decide whether or not to alienate his friend in 1883. One individual who was forced to choose whether it was safe to associate with Wise was the well-known Orthodox preacher, Zvi Hirsch Masliansky. More than a decade after the Trefa Banquet affair, Masliansky delivered a Hebrew lecture at the Cincinnati seminary and held no compunction about subsequently visiting and dining in Wise’s home.[10. Zvi Hirsch Masliansky, Memoirs: An Account of My Life and Travels, trans. Isaac Schwartz and Zviah Nardi (Jerusalem: Ariel, 2009), 275-77. I thank Dr. Jonathan Sarna for bringing this source to my attention.] Despite that Wise openly and routinely violated Jewish law and beliefs, he was no schism starter. His was a mantra that preached “union.” Although he was not always successful he grieved over religious divisiveness.[11. See Zev Eleff, “Isaac Mayer Wise, Pluralism, and his “Declaration of Independence,” WexnerLEADS (July 2, 2013). Available online here: link (accessed September 3, 2013).] The parting of traditional and liberal branches of American Judaism was a far more complex saga than banquet menus. The divide began long before the HUC graduation festivities and continued to widen afterward.

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Solomon Schechter arrived in New York to lead the reconstituted Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902.[12. On the politics surrounding Schechter’s appointment, see Abraham J. Karp, “Solomon Schechter Comes to America,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 53 (September 1963): 44-62.] Two years later, the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim placed a ban on Seminary graduates and faculty members “who call themselves rabbis” but openly disregarded Orthodox creed as dictated by “the law of the Scriptures and the Talmud.”[13. “A Dangerous Situation,” American Hebrew (June 17, 1904): 130-31.] One insider keenly observed who stood in the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim’s crosshairs: “You cannot blame the rabbis for their action, since Professor Schechter and (Louis) Ginzburg, the leaders of that institution, are expounders of High Criticism, which is anything but Orthodoxy.”[14. J.D. Eisenstein, “The Orthodox Rabbis and the Seminary,” American Hebrew (July 1, 1904): 180. On Schechter’s encounter with biblical criticism, see David Benjamin Starr, “Catholic Israel: Solomon Schechter, a Study of Unity and Fragmentation in Modern Jewish History” (PhD diss.: Columbia University, 2003), 109.]

The Agudath Ha-Rabbonim’s denouncement bothered Schechter, who by all accounts generally observed the Orthodox version of Halachah. Accordingly, at a “well-attended meeting” at JTS in 1905, Schechter announced: “It is not necessary to emphasize that this is an orthodox seminary; it is a Jewish seminary. Of course it is orthodox also. I never knew that I am orthodox till I came to this country. In my father’s home we used to speak more of Judaism than of orthodoxy.”[15. “Jewish Theological Seminary,” Yiddisches Tageblatt (April 4, 1905): 8.] Others were equally puzzled how the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim could condemn Schechter. The Yiddish press quoted Henry Pereira Mendes (whose commitment to Orthodoxy was never called into question) who was baffled by this situation.[16. See Eugene Markovitz, “Henry Pereira Mendes (1877-1920)” (PhD diss.: Yeshiva University, 1961), 115] “It seems strange that the seminary is not supported by the part of the community most interested in its success,” remarked Mendes. “The down-town Jews, those usually called ultra-orthodox, display no interest in our efforts. They don’t come to us, we must, therefore, go to them and show them that the future of traditional Judaism in America lies in this institution.”[17. Ibid.]

The Agudath Ha-Rabbonim’s efforts notwithstanding, difficulties in pointing out what was truly “Conservative” about the Seminary and its graduates persisted long after Schechter died in 1915. Neither the established traditionalist rabbinate nor the American congregations they served made it easy for this emerging group of religious leaders. For example, Edward Browne found it immensely difficult to identify his denomination at a congressional hearing. When a member of the House of Representatives asked the elderly rabbi to identify his denomination, Browne responded that he belonged “to the conservative portion of the Jews.” Puzzled by the rabbi’s awkward response, the congressman asked for clarification: “Are you orthodox?” Yet, Browne refused to be so rigidly labeled. “I am a conservative orthodox. Yes, sir,” was all that he could say with any degree of definitiveness.[18. See Janice Rothschild Blumberg, Prophet in a Time of Priests: Rabbi “Alphabet” Browne, 1845-1929 (Baltimore: Apprentice House, 2012), 320.]

Congregations were just as unwilling to take denominational stands. In 1928, a synagogue in New Jersey preferred to bill itself as a either “conservative or modern orthodox.”[19. “Hoboken Jewish Center,” United Synagogue Recorder (February 1928): 25.] In fact, this hybrid nomenclature reflected the educational decisions of many of those synagogues’ religious leaders. At mid-century, about thirty percent of JTS rabbinical students had previously graduated from Yeshiva College.[20. See Jeffrey S. Gurock, “Yeshiva Students at the Jewish Theological Seminary,” in Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, vol. 1, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1997), 473-513.] One Orthodox rabbi did his best to identify the major difference between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism when he offered that “the main differentiae seem to be that Conservative synagogues permit men and women to sit together.”[21. David de Sola Pool, “Judaism and the Synagogue,” in The American Jew: A Composite Portrait, ed. Oscar Janowsky (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942), 50. I thank Dr. Jeffrey Gurock for first identifying this source.] And even that marker, as we have seen, was by no means definitive. Historians differ on when to date the earnest emergence of a Conservative brand of American Judaism.[22. See Moshe Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1963); Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement (Glencoe: Free Press, 1955); Jeffrey S. Gurock, “From Fluidity to Rigidity: The Religious Worlds of Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Twentieth Century America,” in American Jewish Identity Politics, ed. Deborah Dash Moore (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 159-206; and Michael R. Cohen, The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).] All agree, though, that Conservative Judaism came about due to a variety of factors. Scholars are also in concert that none of those reasons was the arrival of Solomon Schechter.

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In 1985, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Hershel Schachter felt compelled to speak out against more progressive elements within the traditional Jewish camp. “We sometimes hear of Orthodox rabbis espousing anti-Torah views even though these rabbis learned in yeshivos,” he wrote. “The mere earning of smicha from a recognized Yeshiva does not mean that a person is qualified to pass judgment on a question of law.”[23. Hershel Schachter, “Where to Place the Menorah,” Bein Kotlei Ha-Yeshiva 3 (Kislev 1986): 26.] That this leading figure published his remarks in a student-led publication seemed “objectionable” to at least one rabbinical student. “At first I was offended, and then simply saddened,” wrote Yosef Kanefsky in a letter to the RIETS student newspaper. “While it is true that many of the students of YP (Yeshiva Program) and RIETS are aware of the sharp differences that have arisen between various prominent members of the Orthodox Rabbinate, including, unfortunately, some of our current Roshei Yeshiva, our student Torah publications must not be abused as platforms for their rhetoric.”[24. Yosef Kanefsky, “Political Publication,” Hamevaser (December 1985): 2. Kanefsky’s closing comments offered an amusing pun at the expense of the publication in which the article in question was published: Grave accusations of the espousal of ‘anti-Torah views’ levelled (sic) against unspecified Yeshiva-trained Orthodox Rabbis, have no place in a publication of our Yeshiva’s divrei Torah … The proper place for this article is chutz mikotlei haYeshiva.”]

Kanefsky was correct about at least one point: Yeshiva’s students as well as many others within the Orthodox community felt the uncomfortable squeeze of rabbinic controversy, particularly over women’s issues. Neither writer in 1985 identified that theme but there is little doubt of its centrality at that time. Traditional Judaism over the course of the 1980s was punctuated by that critical topic.[25. For Orthodox Jews, the period was more or less bookended by two controversial books on this subject. See Moshe Meiselman, Jewish Women in Jewish Law (New York: Ktav, 1978) and Avraham Weiss, Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups (Hoboken: Ktav, 1990).] The Jewish Theological Seminary began accepting female students in 1984.[26. Pamela S. Nadell, Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985 (Boston: Beacon, 1998), 170-214. The first women rabbi was ordained at the Seminary in 1985.] In Orthodox circles, women’s prayer groups gained greater popularity, and as a result, members of the RIETS faculty published a responsum in disapproval.[27. On women’s prayer groups in Orthodox communities, see Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodox Jews in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 274-76. On the RIETS responsum, see Rachel Adler, “Innovation and Authority: A Feminist Reading of the ‘Women’s Minyan’ Responsum,” in Gender Issues in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa, eds. Walter Jacobs and Moshe Zemer (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001), 3-32.]

Avi Weiss’ students are consistently in the running for vacant Orthodox pulpits

Since then, the Orthodox community has not reached a consensus on where to draw lines and when to permit leadership roles for women. Progressives—the so-called “Open Orthodox”—have yet to see their positions realized in the mainstream.[28. See Yehuda Turetsky and Chaim I. Waxman, “Sliding to the Left? Contemporary American Modern Orthodoxy,” Modern Judaism 31 (May 2011): 119-41. On “Open Orthodoxy,” see Avraham Weiss, “Open Orthodoxy!: A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed,” Judaism (Fall 1997): 409-21.] On the other hand, conservative exponents have been equally unproductive in pushing their opponents outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy.[29. See Zev Eleff, “Psychohistory and the Imaginary Couch: Diagnosing Historical and Biblical Figures,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80 (March 2012): 108-25.] The excitement over recent events—notably those involving Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz—have apparently forced the Orthodox community to forget that the matters of women’s leadership and synagogue roles are not new. The more patient among us recognize that the impact of religious controversies is difficult to gauge and even harder to predict. Consider the relatively recent remarks offered by Norman Lamm:

So my answer, when I was asked by a reporter about what I think about women rabbis, was, basically: “It’s going too fast.” I did not say it was wrong, I did not say it was right. It just has not paced itself properly. I was criticized, of course. People asked, “You mean that al pi din they’re allowed to become rabbis?” My response: “I don’t know—are you sure they’re not allowed to?”[30. Yoni Lipshitz, “An Interview with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm,” The Commentator (February 12, 2010): 8.]

Whether or not Weiss has gone beyond the bounds of Orthodox Judaism is not my business here.[31. For some discussion on this, see Sarah Breger, “Do 1 Rabba + 2+ Rabbis + 1 Yeshiva = A New Denomination?,” Moment 35 (December 2010): 39-42, 60-63.] I might point out, however, that because his students are consistently in the running for vacant Orthodox pulpits leads one to believe—and here I draw an important distinction between social reality and theological beliefs—that they are still a part of the Orthodox community.[32. See, for example, Penny Schwartz, “A New York Yeshiva with a Distinct Boston Accent,” Jewish Advocate (September 18, 2012): 18.] My point is that if in the end Weiss and his circle do depart from the Orthodox Jewish camp to form something new, it will certainly not be due to one particular moment. Religious history simply does not work that way.
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About Zev Eleff

Rabbi Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL. He was ordained at Yeshiva University. His most recent books are Who Rules the Synagogue? (Oxford, 2016) and Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (JPS, 2016).

6 comments

  1. You might be interested in what was going on at “Conservative” JTS when I was growing up. Far different from today. See http://www.academia.edu/attachments/31040032/download_file

  2. r’zev,
    But in retrospect can one look at particular decisions and say that the point of no return had reasonably been passed? Perhaps not but I wonder if for the Conservative movement whether the car on Shabbat tshuva or the tora min hashamayim issue were such points, or did the laity just move so far away that there was no point in defining the movement as orthodox. I tend to believe the latter. I also wonder how sociological the question is (e.g. the original Chassidic movement’s status and meshichists today)-is there a materiality corridor within which the mainstream allows deviation in hope they will come back, or is it just orthodoxy is whatever amcha says it is (the dance between the rabbis and the people I posited a while back)?

  3. Sorry, Zev, I must disagree with your point that YU stopped referring candidates to mixed seated positions by 1960s. Throughout my connection to the placement office, there were two types of candidates: US and THEM. If DCS (as the Department of Communal Services was called in the 1970s) liked you, then you were US and they would bend heaven and earth to find a mehizah position for you. If they didn’t like you, then you were one of THEM and they would send you to everything left over, including mixed seated “temples”.

    I was one of THEM. Alas, I had to deal with them towards the end of my student days at the yeshiva (+/- 1978, 79, 80). The placement director sent me to a mixed seated position in North Carolina. I was liked enough by that community that I felt comfortable enough to say I would take the position if they agreed to set up a mehizah for their Shabbat morning t’filot. The opposition was led by a member whose wife was non-Jewish and who had never gone through any conversion process. He won the vote against my candidacy and so the question became moot.

    When I got back to the yeshiva, I literally was yelled at by the (supposedly Orthodox) placement director for asking the community to institute a mehizah (“WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?”)! The question of why YU sent an Orthodox rabbi to a non-mehizah synagogue and did not support that Orthodox rabbi in instituting an “Orthodox practice” did not enter the discussion.

    I was once in the placement director’s office when the phone rang. He took the phone call, hung up, looked at me and said (I paraphrase), “another non-mehizah synagogue that wants an Orthodox rabbi. But none of the musmakhim will take a non-mehizah position.” If (and this is a big if) YU stopped placing musmakhim in non-mehizah positions in the 1980s or later, it was not because of any policy but rather because of the lack of men willing to minister those positions.

    • I too have to disagree. There are many dozens of rabbis who YU sent to mixed seating synagogues in the early to mid 1970’s, even those who labeled themselves Conservative. There was little to no pressure to install a mechitza. My father was one of them. What he and his classmates did not realize at the time is that this would ostracize them forever and they would be labeled Conservative and be an “acher” in the Orthodox community. They would never fit in with the establishment or be able to get positions again in mainstream Orthodox synagogues, perpetuating the perception they had moved away from Orthodoxy when it was YU itself who doomed them.

  4. When R Ahron Soloveichik came to “Skokie” in the mid to late 60s, he personally instituted a policy that smicha candidates must sign an agreement that they would NOT take a position in any congregation that did not have a mechitzah. Any student who declined to sign was not granted smicha by R Soloveichik. It was this policy that caused him much strife with the Chicago rabbinic establishment many of whom had such “Traditional” synagogues.

  5. Micah Segelman

    From a sociological perspective there is segment of the Orthodox community who maintain an inclusive posture towards YCT. It’s important to note that some of these same people / institutions would not draw the line at denying Torah MiSinai. I’m familiar with a MO run lecture series that in addition to primarily Orthodox speakers also recently invited a Conservative Rabbi to deliver a lecture. Others would accept mixed dancing as was common practice in Orthodox synagogues not long ago.

    This sociological reality is very close to or perhaps the same as “Conservadoxy.” There are people (and institutions run by these people) who don’t draw firm halachic / hashkafic lines – but who have an affinity for what they perceive to be traditional Judaism. The bar of acceptance of questionable ideology / practice for this portion of the community is very low.

    But sociology shouldn’t be our moral compass. None of these facts on the ground legitimize deviant practices or beliefs in the eyes of those who do in fact draw firm halachic / hashkafic lines. While “moments” of change may not be decisive in sociology they are in halacha.

    In any case, from a sociological perspective the discussion here is too simplistic. There is not one Orthodoxy. Many segments of the community wrote off YTC as chutz lemachaneh on a theoretical and practical level – even before the emergence of issues such as women Rabbis, denying Torah MiSinai, etc. And after those issues, these segments have grown.

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