Ordination Confiscation

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

semicha-certby Zev Eleff

In June 1970, Rabbi Alex Weisfogel published a pithy rebuke of the American Orthodox rabbinate. A graduate of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland, Weisfogel gained a foothold in the United States as a rabbi in Springfield, MA. Still, he was a proud European extract. To Weisfogel, it was a quality that separated him from his younger colleagues who had studied in American yeshivot. In fact, he held this new rabbinic breed in contempt and blamed inferior American-trained rabbis for the “crisis of leadership” that to Weisfogel was so evident within the Orthodox camp at that time:

What does a frantic new rabbi in the field do when a sh’eylah comes his way? A wag once quipped that stamped on the back of every American yeshivah semichah certificate is Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s telephone number for just such emergencies. [1]Alex Weisfogel, “Y.U.: American Phenomenon,” Jewish Life 37 (May-June 1970): 49.

Though he was the dean of halakhic decision-making in America, Rav Moshe was not the only one approached with queries; for those within the Yeshiva University orbit there was, of course, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik who commuted regularly to New York from his home in Massachusetts. Accordingly, Weisfogel continued that “perhaps for Y.U. musmachim it is a Boston number.”

Last month, Yeshiva University reminded its rabbinical students that its phone lines were still open and on occasion mandatory for those seeking to “make decisions about complex halakhic issues.” [2]“Statement from YU and RIETS,” YUNews (February 27, 2014). This set off a number of criticisms. [3]See, for example, see Steven Bayme, “Modern Orthodoxy at a Crossroads,” The Jewish Week (March 4, 2014). Several commentators recoiled at the threat of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary to refuse ordination to a student who supported a controversial religious service that is at odds with the mainstream. These writers pointed out the impropriety of withdrawing ordination from a student previously in good academic standing, even as he failed to accept a position agreed upon by the “entire rabbinic faculty of RIETS.”

At the core of their concerns, Orthodox Jews have asked: why is this fair? I, too, considered all of this, but through a slightly different lens: when did the threat of ordination withdrawal become fair? Ultimately, though, the most apt question is: when did revoking rabbinic ordination become unfair?

Rabbinical policing was a common anti-reform strategy in the nineteenth century for those who cautiously guarded their versions of Orthodox Judaism. In Frankfurt, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch routinely called into question the “orthodox” bona fides of Rabbi Zacharias Frankel and his students at the rabbinical seminary in Breslau. Hirsch did this because he was nervous about the changes that Frankel’s students might issue in traditional German synagogues. In his monthly journal, Hirsch charged that Frankel’s beliefs were beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism. At least one reader questioned the basis for Hirsch’s harsh ruling. A young Hermann Cohen testified that he observed Frankel “standing in the synagogue with the prayer shawl over his head” and “singing songs” at Sabbath and holiday meals. [4]Hermann Cohen, “Briefkasten der Red.,“ Jeschurun 7 (February 1861): 297. Hirsch dismissed any and all testimonies on behalf of Frankel’s punctiliousness. For Hirsch, Frankel’s observance of Halakhah meant little if he could not back it up with more “pious” views of the Talmud and the events at Sinai.

Hirsch also took aim at ordination certificates. He did his best to monitor the German rabbinate and wrote discouraging letters to congregations rumored to be considering Breslau graduates. When asked for his opinion, the much more modern Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer voiced similar concerns about Frankel and his students, even if he did not fully agree with Hirsch’s vilification. To gain Hildesheimer’s approval, a Breslau graduate was required to sever his connections to Frankel and his colleague, Dr. Heinrich Graetz. Ordination at Hildesheimer’s Berlin seminary was conditional, as well. Any student found to issue a ruling that contradicted one of Hildesheimer’s core positions was excommunicated. In a sense, Hildesheimer’s seminary produced missionaries equipped with his sophisticated brand of Judaism. Simply put: anyone who tampered with Hildesheimer’s gospel was a threat to his life’s work. [5]See David H. Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990), 81-82.

The situation in America hardly differed. In response to the publication of a slightly revised prayer book, traditionalist Rabbi Bernard Illowy wrote that any rabbi who used it could not be “considered a Jew.” [6]“Albany,” The Asmonean (July 26, 1850): 108. Ordinations were annulled in the New World, too. In the early twentieth century, RIETS graduates received their diplomas with a stipulation: President Bernard Revel reserved the right to revoke ordination of anyone who refused to leave a congregation that featured mixed pews. Revel’s biographer recorded an instance when a young rabbi refused to depart his post. In 1933, Revel published a letter that formally stripped the rabbi of his ordination and declared him unfit to answer “inquiries of Jewish Law.” [7]See Aaron Rothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972), 165-66.

Revel’s stance was not solely motivated by his reading of Jewish law. Like Hildesheimer before him, Revel viewed RIETS products as missionaries for his orthodox cause. His crusade to reposition Orthodox Judaism in America far outweighed any thought of manufacturing rabbinic scholars capable of deciding Halakhah on their own. Revel’s students who flouted his positions were therefore harmful to Yeshiva’s goals. Rescinding ordination was a last resort for Revel, and a drastic one at that. Yet, he sometimes felt it was a necessary means to an Orthodox end.

Of course, Orthodoxy hardly held a monopoly on this sort of practice. While I am unaware of any action taken against a graduate’s ordination, there is ample evidence of non-Orthodox seminaries going to considerable lengths to guard the values of their institutions. In 1907, President Kaufman Kohler fired three faculty members of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. By all accounts, all three teachers were satisfactory scholars and educators. According to one of Kohler’s closest friends, the HUC president called for the faculty members’ resignations because “they were unsympathetic with the standpoint of the institution.” [8]See David Philipson, My Life as an American Jew (Cincinnati: John G. Kidd and Sons, 1941), 190.

Likewise, leading members of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1945 felt it well within their power to delegitimize Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Though the faculty of the Conservative school did not agree with the more militant opposition to Kaplan and his new radical prayer book, they did insist that Kaplan was detrimental to the goals of JTS. [9]See Zachary Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” American Jewish Archives Journal 62 (2010): 34-35.

At some point, however, revocations were no longer in vogue. In all likelihood, “modern sensibilities” had a part in moving the trend in another direction. But perhaps, this had also to do with Rabbi Soloveitchik and his hallowed telephone number. At RIETS, the Rav’s presence loomed large and his positions became doctrine for many of his students and followers. Take, for example, the Rav’s staunch opposition to interfaith dialogue on theological matters. In 1967, the Jewish Community Council of Boston asked Rabbi Emanuel Forman of the Young Israel of Brookline if his congregation would participate in a panel on “Jewish-Catholic Relations.” Forman declined, explaining that “the major Orthodox groups are following the policy of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.” [10]Minutes of the Jewish Community Council Meeting, April 6, 1967, I-123, Box 7, Folder 1, American Jewish Historical Society, New England Archives. On many other issues, however, the Rav was less insistent. He offered his learned suggestions but left the final decisions to local rabbis. [11]See Saul J. Berman, “The Approach of the Rav to P’sak and Public Policy,” in Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Zev Eleff (Jersey City: Ktav, 2008), 61-66.

No doubt, the Rav’s flexibility with his students poses a difficult challenge to his halakhic legacy. Moreover, it also possibly confused matters in his time. To my knowledge, the Rav never excommunicated any of his students, though, as one disciple testified in the late 1960s, the Rav “naturally would disassociate himself from many proposals and policies advocated by some of his ‘followers.’” [12]Walter S. Wurzburger, “The ‘Radicals,’” Jewish Advocate (May 4, 1967): A3. The closest he came was probably in 1975 when the Rav denounced Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s halakhic formula to solve the agunah crisis. Speaking before the Rabbinical Council of America, the Rav described Rackman’s plan as a threat to Orthodox Judaism. “Do you expect to survive as Orthodox rabbis?” asked the Rav to those considering Rackman’s proposal. [13]See David Singer, “Emanuel Rackman: Gadfly of Modern Orthodoxy,” Modern Judaism 28 (May 2008): 140. Yet, that the Rav prefaced his remarks by stating how he “never criticized anybody” indicates just how rare an occasion the Rackman affair was for him. [14]It is also important to point out that Rackman was just a few years younger than the Rav and never formally his student.

On the whole, the Rav departed sharply from the viewpoint of Hildesheimer and Revel. Unlike those leaders who often spoke about the condition of their denomination in drastic tone, the Rav early on rebuffed the “erroneous feeling that the present generation of Orthodox is probably the last one.” [15]“Honor Rabbi Soloveitchik at Reception,” Jewish Advocate (November 15, 1935): 1. Unwilling to furnish the firmest of boundaries for Orthodoxy in America, the Rav had little need to police his students or hold their ordinations hostage. Instead, he confidently trusted that the best and brightest pupils would steer Orthodoxy on its most correct course.

The trend against ordination confiscation continued long after the Rav retired in 1984. For example, one member of the RIETS faculty called for the revocation of one YU ordainee’s credentials in 1999. The rabbinical graduate publicly announced that he was gay and subsequently called for a “deeper understanding” of homosexuality in the Orthodox community. [16]Aaron Klein, “RIETS Musmach Announces his Homosexuality,” The Commentator (May 18, 1999): 18. Nevertheless, RIETS refused to take action against the “miscreant” rabbi.

The two sides of this story collided late last month. Ordination repeals and broad rabbinic interference hold an important legacy in the annals of Judaism. For more than a hundred years, Orthodox Jews turned to this tactic in their noble battles. Still, it is undeniable that this extreme measure was one impelled by a sense of panic. That was certainly not the prevailing mood of the Rav’s Orthodox Judaism.
——–

Endnotes

Endnotes
1Alex Weisfogel, “Y.U.: American Phenomenon,” Jewish Life 37 (May-June 1970): 49.
2“Statement from YU and RIETS,” YUNews (February 27, 2014).
3See, for example, see Steven Bayme, “Modern Orthodoxy at a Crossroads,” The Jewish Week (March 4, 2014).
4Hermann Cohen, “Briefkasten der Red.,“ Jeschurun 7 (February 1861): 297.
5See David H. Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990), 81-82.
6“Albany,” The Asmonean (July 26, 1850): 108.
7See Aaron Rothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972), 165-66.
8See David Philipson, My Life as an American Jew (Cincinnati: John G. Kidd and Sons, 1941), 190.
9See Zachary Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” American Jewish Archives Journal 62 (2010): 34-35.
10Minutes of the Jewish Community Council Meeting, April 6, 1967, I-123, Box 7, Folder 1, American Jewish Historical Society, New England Archives.
11See Saul J. Berman, “The Approach of the Rav to P’sak and Public Policy,” in Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Zev Eleff (Jersey City: Ktav, 2008), 61-66.
12Walter S. Wurzburger, “The ‘Radicals,’” Jewish Advocate (May 4, 1967): A3.
13See David Singer, “Emanuel Rackman: Gadfly of Modern Orthodoxy,” Modern Judaism 28 (May 2008): 140.
14It is also important to point out that Rackman was just a few years younger than the Rav and never formally his student.
15“Honor Rabbi Soloveitchik at Reception,” Jewish Advocate (November 15, 1935): 1.
16Aaron Klein, “RIETS Musmach Announces his Homosexuality,” The Commentator (May 18, 1999): 18.

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).

8 comments

  1. What does revoke a smicha mean? Once someone got smicha he can simply decline to recognize any purported revocation and continue his pastoral and rabbinical services unhindered continuing to call himself rabbi.

  2. I have a personal story; I hope someone older than I can confirm it:

    My father was ordained by RIETS in 1961. (The Chag HaSemicha was in 1963, I think.) He taught at Ramaz for ten years after that before going into a secular field of work.

    Around the year 2000 or so, he and I were on the way to shul when we bumped into an old classmate of his, who had gotten semikha at about the same time but had never been a klei kodesh. “By the way, did YU ever revoke your semikha?” he asked my father. My father had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained: Apparently, after the infamous nursing home scandal of the late 1970’s which involved someone with semikha (I’m not sure if it was from YU) and called himself “rabbi,” YU sent letters to all ordinees from years past who weren’t working in a “rabbinic” role saying that they were not allowed to use the title any more.

    My father and I figure that maybe because he had been a day school rebbe for a decade, he was “still on the books” at YU as needing the title, and so he never got such a letter. Or maybe they didn’t have his address then, who knows.

    Anyway, it’s not at all revoking the ordination, and I imagine YU/RIETS has no real power to even force anyone not to use the title, but can anyone back the story up? Did this really happen? Does it still happen? (I know the percentage of RIETS ordinees who go into Jewish fields is now much higher than it was then- about 80%.)

    Incidentally, my father states that even in 1961, the Rav told the new rabbanim that they weren’t ready to pasken and gave them his phone number, I think literally on the back of their ordination letters (not the klaf, of course). Now there’s an email service.

    • I think you are referring to Bernard Bergman who was convicted of political influence peddling, Medicaid fraud and improperly running a chain of nursing homes (see his obituary at http://www.nytimes.com/1984/06/22/obituaries/bernard-bergman-nursing-home-figure-is-dead.html).
      As to attaching attaching a gadol’s “phone number to a smikhah klaf”…. I can’t speak for others but I can speak for myself in saying that I never felt any pressure to call the Rav, zt”l, or Rav Moshe, zt”l, for my day to day questions; in fact, it was never even mentioned that I should call them with every question. But, yes, there were questions that I felt were “above my pay scale.” And similarly, my rebbe, shlit”a, too, had such questions. And so we (and countless others) would contact the Rav when we had such a question. We’d express the problem, how we viewed a possible halakhic resolution, and the Rav would critique it for us. So tell me how is this different from any staff member who has a problem–doesn’t s/he contact his/her supervisor for advice, direction and resolution?

      • I was referring to him, but didn’t want to mention his name- I pass no judgment on his guilt or innocence, but apparently there was a feeling that the risk of hillul hashem was there.

        I now see he got his semikha at Chevron Yeshiva. No YU connection, but, again, perhaps YU wanted to nip it in the bud.

        I don’t disagree with your ideas on asking questions, of course- it just may have been stated aloud at some point.

        • To follow up on my earlier post: I read with interest some comments by others on the subject on numerous web sites. The recurrent theme seemed to be, “My smkihah klaf does not say that, yes, I have the right to paskin but I first have to check with the people back at YU.” I don’t understand how anyone can say that. We all know the limits of our abilities and the extent to which we may paskin, but except for very few, there is a point beyond which we in the field cannot paskin on our own. Call it consulting, call it partnership, but there is a limit to what most rabbanim in the field can do. But as I said in my earlier post, doctors consult, lawyers consult, engineers, academics, etc. all consult which brings about the best possible resolution.

  3. to build on r’bt, “revoking” will likely only mean something to the revokers (which well may be worthwhile). In a recent conversation, an acquaintance mentioned that r’hs’s partnership minyan tshuva is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. he may well be correct, and we can discuss tone and the particulars of the case , but the drawing of lines is necessary in certain cases (as r’ybs did with the agunah solution)
    KT

  4. This article strikes me as conflating three different things:
    (1) rabbis of one institution casting aspersions on the graduates of another institution
    (2) an institution “revoking” the ordination of its own students for violating some core element of that institution’s position/brand
    (3) statements that a rabbi has lost his legitimacy.

    I see only one example of (2), calling into question the premise of the post that it was once normal. Most of the beginning of the post is about (1), and the stories about the Rav and R. Rackman seem to fall into (3) – not the threat of some formal “revocation” (whatever that would even mean) but the loss of legitimacy or credibility within the community and its leadership.

    Overall an interesting read but few useful analogs to the recent kerfuffle.

  5. “Frankel’s observance of Halakhah meant little if he could not back it up with more “pious” views of the Talmud and the events at Sinai.”

    For the sake of clarity I would emphasize that RSRH’s (and R G Fischer, whose writings he published) argued that the problem with Frankel was that despite his beautiful praise of the Anshei K’nesses Hagedola and the baa’lei mesorah- and his ‘pious’ declarations of their piety- at bottom his views boiled down that of a tzedduki; with the only exception that instead of derisively calling Chazal Pharisees, he talked about their great holiness.

    C Judaism realizes this as well. This is from their official “STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES OF CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM” pg 9 http://masortiworld.org/sites/default/files/Emet%20V%27Emunah%20Statement%20of%20Principles%20of%20Conservative%20Judaism_0.pdf

    “The centennial of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America celebrated in 1986-87 has focused attention on the first hundred years of the history of Conservative Judaism on this continent. Actually the movement had its inception in Germany a half century earlier. In 1845 a meeting of modern rabbis convened in Frankfurt. On the third day Rabbi Zechariah Frankel left the meeting in protest against a proposed resolution that declared that the Hebrew language was not “objectively necessary” for Jewish worship, but should be retained “in deference to the older generation”. When in 1857 the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first modern institution for the training of rabbis, was founded in Breslau, Frankel was appointed its Rector. Within a few years the institution became the dominant intellectual force in the religious life of central and western European Jewry and beyond. Basically, the movement which Frankel founded was a reaction against Reform on the one hand, and Orthodoxy on the other. The Breslau Seminary was the inspiration and model for similar institutions founded in Vienna, Budapest, London and Berlin, as well as overseas on the American continent.”

    “Frankel himself called his outlook “positive-historical Judaism”. By this term he meant that Judaism is the result of a historical process and that its adherents are called upon to take a positive attitude toward the product of this development as we encounter it today.”

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter


The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

Archives

Categories

%d bloggers like this: