Since its founding in 1999, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale has carved out a space to the left of Yeshiva University’s increasingly right-leaning rabbinical school. Along the way, the seminary has championed a more “open” brand of Orthodoxy and embraced the controversial partnership minyan, in which women lead certain parts of the Shabbat service.
Now, a group of YCT alumni is protesting the practice. In a letter to The Jewish Week, the 11 signatories write that they are “deeply uncomfortable” with such services “and their place within the Orthodox community.”
Partnership minyanim seek to maximize women’s participation in the Shabbat service while still following Orthodox law. While leaders of YCT continue to support the practice, most mainstream Orthodox institutions view it as outside the pale. The 10 YCT rabbis, about 10 percent of the school’s alumni base, wrote: “We do not and would not attend a partnership minyan, nor would we sanction them within institutions where we are the legal authority. We do not believe that a consensus of poskim (halakhic authorities) currently exists to allow a departure from existing norms.”
The letter also addressed Torah miSinai (the Divine authorship of the Torah). Recently, a YCT alum wrote articles challenging a traditional approach to Torah miSinai, and a teacher in the yeshiva penned a halachic ruling in support of partnership minyanim. A torrent of protest followed, particularly from the religious right blogosphere, including accusations of heresy.
“People now think that if you went to Chovevei Torah then you must deny the divinity of Torah and you must believe that partnership minyanim is the only way to practice — that’s not who I am,” said Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum, senior rabbi at the Greenpoint Shul, a growing Modern Orthodox congregation in Brooklyn. Rabbi Appelbaum, a 2009 YCT graduate who helped initiate the letter, said he did not attend YCT “to uproot Orthodoxy or start a new movement — I thought I would also be included in the fabric of our community, and the way things are going now that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest coalition of Orthodox rabbis, does not permit YCT graduates to become members; the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a large network of more liberal-minded Orthodox clergy, was created as an alternative.
Though Rabbi Appelbaum has explored creative options to increasingly involve women in services — including having women open up the ark, something not traditionally done — he felt a partnership minyan, what he defines as women reading or being called up to the Torah, was going too far, and felt the need to go public.
“We’re tired of all YCT graduates being painted with a broad brush,” he said. “Just because a few graduates say something outside the pale doesn’t mean we’re all trying to tear down Orthodoxy as we know it.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, senior rabbi of a 400-family Modern Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore, also signed the letter. He said he “woke up and realized that if we don’t say something soon, it might be too late to overcome the attacks against us.” Though he doesn’t consider himself “Open Orthodox,” he has felt “pushed away by extension of where I studied Torah.”
YCT officials did not comment directly on the attempts to marginalize YCT graduates. But YCT Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer said the school’s success speaks for itself: Upon graduation, 100 percent of alumni receive job offers and 93 percent currently work in the rabbinate.
“While others may be busy trying to discredit YCT graduates, we and our musmachim [rabbinic alumni] are busy doing the work of meeting the Jewish people where they are,” he said. He added that the divinity of Torah is a “non-negotiable pillar of Orthodox belief.”
Regarding partnership minyanim, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of YCT, reaffirmed the school’s stance: “We at the yeshiva fully support our students davening in all halachically appropriate minyanim of their choice, including partnership minyanim.”
*Clarification: While Rabbi Appelbaum said that YCT’s alumni have the reputation of denying the divinity of the Torah and believing that partnership minyanim is the only way to practice, he does not believe that YCT teaches these principles.
Correction: This story was updated on 8/2/16 to correct the number of signatories on the letter. It was 11, not 10.