In what observers see as a challenge to Yeshiva University’s hegemony over the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, Rabbis Avi Weiss and Saul Berman are launching a new Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan.
The founders are pledging ìrespectful interactionî with all Jewish movements while ìexpanding the role of women in religious life and leadership.
Rabbi Weiss said the new tuition-free Yeshiva Chovevei Torah expects to recruit a 10-man class that will begin a four-year program next September, culminating in what he hopes will be ordination under the auspices of Israelís chief rabbinate.However, Rabbi Weiss said the actual ordination process has not been finalized.
Rabbis Berman and Weiss said they met with YU president Dr. Norman Lamm, and that he ìwishes us well,î according to Rabbi Weiss, adding that Rabbi Lamm is his ìrebbe.î Both Rabbis Weiss and Berman are on the faculty at YUís Stern College for Women.
When asked to comment on the meeting, Rabbi Lammís spokesperson issued a ìno comment.îRabbi Zevulon Charlop, dean of the YU rabbinical school, also refused to comment.
Although the more traditional wing of Orthodoxy has dozens of rabbinical schools, the Modern Orthodox community has had only one, at YU, and ìwe suffer from the consequences of that,î said Rabbi Berman.
He explained that when Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik was teaching at Yeshiva, ìthere was little thought that anything could compete with that.î But Rabbi Soloveitchik died in 1994, with a curtailed presence for years before his death.The core values of the new yeshiva include ìpromotion of Ahavat Yisrael [love of Israel] in the relationship to all Jews and of respectful interaction of all Jewish movementsî and ìrecognizing our responsibility to improve the world in which we live.
Three years ago, Rabbi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and Berman, director of Edah, a Modern Orthodox advocacy group, attracted 40 YU rabbinical students who received a stipend to study with the two in a Modern Orthodox mentoring program, Meíorot, that meets in Rabbi Weissí synagogue. ìI think we identified a need,î said Rabbi Weiss.
Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at CUNY, said that for Rabbis Weiss and Berman to be ìrelegated to teach in the womenís college is evidence of an unwillingness on the part of YU and RIETS to empower them in the rabbinic game. Theirs is an effort, I suppose, to beat the system, to jump directly to their constituency.
This is clearly posing an alternative to YU, which once represented Orthodoxyís most modernist left-wing ordaining institution,î Heilman continued. ìBut YU has been pulled to the right.
The rabbinic faculty at RIETS, for example, is opposed to womenís prayer groups and some see little value in a higher secular education.ì[The new yeshiva] is an assertion of a more open Modern Orthodoxy, and to ensure that there will continue to be rabbis sharing that point of view,î said Heilman. ìThis is not just an academic question, itís a cultural and political one.îRabbi Berman pointed out that long before this new yeshiva, Modern Orthodox synagogues have begun looking away from RIETS when searching for rabbinic talent. He cited his successor at Lincoln Square Synagogue, Rabbi Simcha Weinberg, who attended the right-wing Ner Yisroel, and Rabbi Lammís successor at the Jewish Center, Rabbi J.J. Schachter, who attended the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, ìcertainly not a paradigm of Modern Orthodoxy,î said Rabbi Berman.
Clearly, there are people today with Modern Orthodox values who are choosing to study in yeshivot other than YU,î he said.At Yeshiva Chovevei Torah ó based at Congregation Ramath Orah, on West 110th Street near Broadway ó 50 students, mostly Columbia University undergraduates, have been studying in a non-rabbincal program part-time since September under the direction of Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer, and Rabbi Dov Weiss, Rabbi Avi Weissí son.Rabbi Linzer, who will be rosh yeshiva, or dean, for the rabbinical school, said the rabbinical students, ìin addition to gaining mastery of such traditional fields as kashrut, Shabbat and family law, will study other areas, such as business and interpersonal ethics, and women in Jewish law.îThe founding board of the rabbinical school will include acting chairman Howard Jonas, chief executive office of IDT, and a member of Rabbi Weissí congregation; Stewart Harris of Miami, Fla.; Dan Katz of Milwaukee, Wis.; and Hillel Jaffe and Lewis Bernstein of Riverdale.