I wasn’t raised in an observant home, I never attended a Jewish day school and no one else in my family has ever been observant. Despite that, I found myself drawn, starting at age ten, to Orthodox Judaism. Over the course of my journey, I have experienced the many gifts of the diverse faces of the Jewish People, all of which have impacted significantly upon me, from Chabad to Renewal, from Reform to Yeshivish, from Modern Orthodox to Post-denominational.
It is my fervent belief that we, the Jewish People, are an organism whose limbs must learn to work together in harmony. Just as every individual within each family and community is a mirror and a teacher for others in the unit, so our communities must learn to respectfully share with each other, to listen to each other and to help each other grow. It is not an exaggeration to say that the healthy functioning – indeed, the survival – of our organism, depends on it.
I discovered Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2009, and since then I have been deeply proud to be associated with it. In the two years I have so far spent at YCT’s Riverdale campus, I have been challenged to grow profoundly in my learning, my observance, my understanding and my love of Torah. But just as importantly, I have been challenged to give. I was offered opportunity after opportunity to visit those in need, to be present with people to whom it made a difference, to share my learning, to teach, to advise, and to listen. Sometimes these opportunities were the result of student initiatives, sometimes they were offered by YCT’s placement staff, sometimes they emerged from a conversation with one of our teachers or mentors. These opportunities presented themselves constantly and from every direction because the culture of YCT is built on one foundation: That we are here to serve.
This ethos of service, and the passion for Torah that YCT promotes, is clearly visible in the work of those who have received YCT ordination. Eighty-three of our eighty-six Musmachim are currently serving the Jewish community. Thirty-four are pulpit rabbis in Orthodox synagogues, twenty-two teach in day schools, another ten work with college students in Hillels. Seven are chaplains and the remainder work in many other educational and communal institutions that change the lives of tens of thousands of Jewish families in the US and all over the world. These organizations include Birthright NEXT, the Wexner Foundation, Kevah and the Bronfman Youth Fellowship.
Why does all this matter? It matters because actions speak louder than words. Recently, there have been many, many words written about YCT, including from those seeking to exclude YCT and the Open Orthodox community from Orthodoxy. Of course, in every generation, there are those who seek to define our tradition as excluding any innovation that appears challenging to their sector of the community. This is one easily recognizable way that a relationship with Torah expresses itself in human behavior. But it is not the only way, and it would be very much to the detriment of Torah and the Jewish People if it were. Because of this impulse towards conservatism amongst observant Jews, this game of cherem, literally excommunication, which delegitimizes anything innovative is sometimes played in situations where it would have been best avoided.
Consider some of those put in Cherem in the past: Rambam, Rav Kook, the Baal Shem Tov, the list goes on to include so many unquestionable greats whose contributions to the world of Torah have come to be not only accepted, but actually essential to it. And of course, as Jonathan Sarna has recently reminded us, the Agudath Harabonim meted out similar treatment in the 1930’s to the RCA and RIETS. Where would the world of Torah be today without Rambam’s teachings? What would American Orthodoxy look like without RIETS?
Despite the clamor of those playing the “Cherem Game”, the reality is that the leaders of YCT and Open Orthodoxy are widely acknowledged as leaders and scholars: Talmidei Chachamim, Ohavei Yisrael and Ba’alei Masora. They have studied closely and extensively with many of the great Jewish minds of our time at yeshivas including Yeshivat Har Etzion, Satmar, RIETS/YU, Novaradok, Gruss, Brisk and Netzach Yisrael. To claim that their teachings do not reflect Orthodoxy is a telling example of how unchallenged conservatism can distort the tradition it purports to protect.
Perhaps the “Cherem Game” is an inevitable part of the evolution of our tradition, but it is sad that we still go these divisive rituals, which waste our energy and corrode our integrity. The “Cherem Game” has no winners. A strong, healthy, and vibrant Jewish world must be defined not by negative words, but by positive actions, unifying all Jews by focusing on our many shared values and goals. In service of this vision, we invite all those who value Torah to dialogue with us about any and every subject, and to work together with us to strengthen Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
Daniel Raphael Silverstein is a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, currently studying at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa in Israel. He is a spoken word artist and creative educator who has performed and facilitated for Jewish and other communities around the world.