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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.