Rabbi Nathaniel Nethaniel Helfgot
, Chair of Departments of Bible and Jewish Thought at YCT, responded
to the recent Yated article
that addressed issues with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. This is not the first time that Rabbi Helfgot has responded to criticism of YCT.Here are my responses to Rabbi Helfgot:Rabbi Helfgot:
"R. Linzer’s quote about struggling with difficult mitzvot that challenge our ethical notions and our conception of a just God (a conception that emerges from many parts of the Torah) is a badge of honor...Gedolei olam from time and immemorial struggled with difficult mitzvot such as the commandment to obliterate Amalek."Response:
There is a difference between a person's internal struggles and making public statements which give the perception that Hashem is unjust. Rabbi Linzer's public "challenging" statements open the door to disregarding those "difficult" laws. Stating that Rabbi Linzer's statements are a "badge of honor" is shocking. Rabbi Linzer is not one of the "Gedolei olam". Rabbi Linzer is the Rosh Yeshiva of a liberal institution whose clear agenda is the liberalization of Orthodox Judaism. For YCT's general audience, are Rabbi Linzer's statements geared to strengthen someone's emunah or weaken it?Rabbi Helfgot:
YCT has never claimed it follows in the footsteps of the Rav zt”l as Hasidim follow a rebbe.Response:
YCT takes inspiration from the teachings of the entire panoply of great rabbinic figures of previous generations as well as the current generation.
We now see that YCT professes that it does not follow RYBS and that it follows whichever Gadol for which it can find support for a practice or custom-despite the absence of any evidence that the Gedolim cited had any knowledge or familiarity with the American Jewish community after WW2. (from a quote by Steve Brizel)Rabbi Helfgot:
First, let us get some facts down correctly, irrespective of reports on blogs or newspapers. As far as I understand, The World Jewish Congress asked YCT (as well as Yeshiva University) to host a visit of prominent Catholic cardinals who also wanted to see how a beit medrash functions and what hevruta learning is. Response:
...Yeshiva University-Stern College for Women hosted the Cardinals the very next day and they also learned Gemara be-hevruta with some of the women in the Stern Graduate Talmud program as I recall it was reported in the YU-Stern College Observer.
Here are some very interesting comments from someone called member of stern Grad Program
...the cardinals were not invited to study b'chavrutah with the Stern women- they were merely observing. Some cardinals did ask questions of the women as the women studied. This is very different than organizing a joint text study. Rabbi Helfgott constantly tries to justify chovevei with what YU does but is sometimes not accurate with his facts. Also Menachem [another commenter] correctly noted that Rav H. Schachter had never given a shiur or even visited the Stern Graduate Program until the visit with the cardinals that morning.
Rabbi Helfgot introduced his defense of YCT by nobly stating,
There is something profoundly disturbing and unethical and lacking in basic derekh eretz and kevod ha-beriyot in a “Torah “newspaper not doing basic fact checking nor in engaging in the simple journalistic (and ethical) protocol of calling up the subjects of one’s reportage for comment, reaction, clarification, questions before publishing a lengthy and harsh attack.
This may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Regardless, YU never
participated in the kind of interfaith dialogue that YCT participated in. For example, here's Rabbi Avi Weiss, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical students, cardinals, and bishops dancing around the YCT bais midrash (see Interfaith pluralism: Open Orthodoxy style
Based on the verified differences between YU's and YCT's interfaith engagement, Rabbi Helfgot's attempt to make an equivalency between YU and YCT concerning interfaith dialogue is misleading, disingenuous, and reprehensible.Rabbi Helfgot:
...there is much to be gained in the areas of pastoral counseling, leadership training, speaking skills, making life-cycle events meaningful, homiletical ideas and even in selected areas of Jewish thought from non-Orthodox speakers and clergy. While the core faculty of the Yeshiva are classical talmidei hakhamim and fully Orthodox rabbanim and professionals, we appreciate and value the insights and experiences of others beyond our immediate community when they can help us train our students to be effective, compassionate and professionally trained rabbis. In that context, in addition to inviting other Orthodox rabbis and professionals to occasionally speak to our students in various areas of the curriculum we have also opened our doors to non-Orthodox rabbis and professionals in areas where they can contribute positively to the education of our students. Response:
YCT is supposed to be an Orthodox Yeshiva! YCT's curriculum is not academic, it's theological. Teachers are not teaching mathematics and English, but how to relate to congregants, hopefully from an Orthodox Torah viewpoint. Shouldn't the entire YCT faculty be Orthodox? Why not hire Orthodox professionals exclusively for pastoral educational positions? What is gained by conscientiously staffing non-Orthodox women "rabbis" in those roles? Rabbi Helfgot's attitude is mind-boggling. If someone wants to become a secular psychologist, there are many fine universities to enroll in.Rabbi Helfgot:
[Rabbi Zev Farber's] essay analyzing some of the life choices of Yaakov Avinu raised the ire of the author of the Yated essay. I do not want to address the cogency of the specific ideas of the essay or whether I would have used this or that formulation or more nuanced language. These are all issues which one can calmly debate. The issue at hand, however, is much more fundamental. Learning and teaching about the greatness, achievements, holiness and stature of our biblical heroes such as the Avot and Imahot coupled with an honest and rich understanding of the human dimension, feelings, as well as struggles, mistakes and errors of those very characters has been discussed in many forums. It is one of the dividing lines between contemporary Hareidi (and Hardal and right wing-Modern Orthodox) parshanut and classical modern-and contemporary open Orthodox parshanut.Response:
What is fascinating to me is that in this issue it is really the Hareidi position which is really "modern” as Hazal and the Rishonim were much more open to these nuances than contemporary Hareidi writers. Indeed if one reads Bereishit and Shemot Rabbah systematically one sees Hazal's deep assessment of the humanity, struggles, failings, emotions of the greatest of the great.
Rather than address the content of Rabbi Farber's dvar Torah, Rabbi Helfgot averts the discussion with the tangential issue of Avos/Imahos analysis. Rabbi Helfgot seems to imply that it is acceptable for YCT students to engage in broad psychoanalytical drash because it is in the tradition of Chazal to assess “the humanity, struggles, failings, emotions of the greatest of the great.” Are YCT musmachim the modern manifestation of Chazal? I think not.Rabbi Helfgot:
All of us are human and occasionally a young musmach can and does make a mistake in p’sak or in a d’var Torah or in dealing with a difficult text or attempting to formulate a theological concept.Response:
...sometimes, in a desire to present an idea in a meaningful and arresting way young musmachim and students do not judiciously choose careful language.
Here and there, there have also been formulations that I would consider have crossed some lines. Whether, when and how an institution should respond to such phenomena is a difficult issue touching on serious issues that include a whole panoply of considerations. One thing I am sure of, the forum for such a discussion is not a mean-spirited attack article that reflects no generosity of spirit nor understanding of the real people involved, the work and context in which they operate and the world-views and perspectives that they come from.
Rabbi Helfgot is ambiguous whether he believes Rabbi Farber's dvar Torah "crossed the line" or not. However, Rabbi Helfgot seems to have missed the reason of why Rabbi Farber was "singled-out" by Yated. Yated merely epitomized Rabbi Farber’s dvar Torah as a key example of hashkafic improprieties concerning YCT musmachim. What should Yated do? List every example? That would take an entire newspaper. The Yated also presented divrei Torah from YCT musmach Rabbi Darren Kleinberg. I find it interesting that Rabbi Helfgot did not explicitly defend Rabbi Kleinberg who certainly had much more Yated coverage than Rabbi Farber. Why is that?
Rabbi Helfgot's position and tone are defensive. What he subjectively labels as a "mean-spirited attack article" I label as a blunt public service message in the spirit of principle #6 of Open Orthodoxy, "Public Protest".Rabbi Helfgot:
The attempt to somehow tar YCT and some of its faculty with the taint of being anti-Israel is beneath contempt.Response:
Guilt by association is not an honorable tactic and in America is usually associated with the specter of McCarthyism. It is a fact that some of the faculty of YCT spoke last year at a conference on human rights abuses in the United States at the invitation of the North American Rabbis For Human Rights. The conference was to focus on the American front and not on issues related to Israel (that being the condition that the YCT faculty agreed to participate in the first place). The fact that this group is also allied with a group in Israel that has harshly critiqued the IDF and the Israeli government does not in any mean that everyone whoever has anything to do with the North American branch magically agrees with every or anything posited by the Israeli organization (That is guilt by association squared!) Furthermore, the fact that one or two students in our history participated in a left-wing rally or signed on to a petition five years ago critical of the tactics of the IDF (positions, that despite my personal opposition to them, are part of the legitimate discourse that takes place amongst committed Zionist and supporters of Israel both and in the Israel) no more means that this is the position espoused by a majority or even a significant minority of students at YCT.
The comparison of Yated to McCarthyism is offensive. Rabbi Helfgot indicted the Yated article as a "mean-spirited attack". The McCarthy label is "mean-spirited".
Rabbi Helfgot verbosely vents, but simply misses the point. The point is not whether a hundred, fifty, or even one YCT student attended a rally they shouldn’t have. The point of Yated is not to indict everyone at YCT "with the specter of McCarthyism" because a couple musmachim do any one inappropriate thing. The point is that each item Yated referenced is part of a larger tapestry and preponderance of evidence that YCT has serious hashafic problems that are rapidly precluding it from mainstream Orthodoxy.
Lastly, it is interesting that Rabbi Helfgot glossed over issues with two other YCT musmachim presented in the Yated article:
- Rabbi Darren Kleinberg
- Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow
Rabbi Farber is less controversial than those two YCT graduates. Maybe Farber was easier, or more palatable to defend?
I hope that other YCT senior faculty respond to the Yated article. They can do no better job of revealing what "Open Orthodoxy" is truly about.
Labels: divrei Torah, education, hashkafa