Rabbi Menachem Penner, the dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, did not sugarcoat the challenges that the school’s young rabbis face when he spoke at their ordination ceremony last week.
The rabbis “live in a rapidly changing world, in which the principles upon which our Torah lives are fashioned are under daily attack. In our upside-down world, morality is closed-mindedness and immorality is righteousness.”
In order to preserve the unity of the Jewish people, Penner said, he was providing the rabbis with a directive:
“You need to be open. Yes, you heard me correctly: Orthodox Judaism needs to be open,” he said at the March 23 ceremony.
But how open?
With so many hot-button issues swirling around the Orthodox Jewish world — from women wrapping tefillin to haredim serving in the Israel Defense Forces — we asked three of the newly ordained rabbis, all with ties to the Philadelphia area but all taking very different paths, to offer their thoughts.
Yonatan Frankel, 29 and a father of three, finished his last rabbinical school assignment while on a red-eye flight back from a consumer electronics fair in Las Vegas. The Bala Cynwyd resident has a startup centered on a connected home hardware device and is not planning to pursue the rabbinate as a career. (According to Yeshiva University, about 80 percent of its alumni are involved in some kind of religious or Jewish communal work.)
Daniel Sherman, 26, who grew up in Wynnewood, says he wants to become a pulpit rabbi like his grandfather, Rabbi Amiram Gabay, the spiritual leader at Beit Harambam Congregation, a Sephardic synagogue in the Northeast.
“I think he is strong and very resolute in his convictions and beliefs,” said Sherman. “And he is tolerant and understanding of people that are not like him — while not giving up on his core beliefs.”
Dovid Halpern, 25, a Bala Cynwyd native, plans to adhere to the Hippocratic Oath as well as to Jewish law. He is a first-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University. Why study at Yeshiva University — both as an undergrad and rabbinical school — before donning the white coat?
“I felt it was imperative that I ground myself in Jewish learning, and take the unique perspective I gained in Yeshiva with me throughout my medical career,” he said.
The following are excerpts from the rabbis’ responses to separate interviews, which have been edited for space and clarity:
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Orthodox Jews and/or the Jewish community at-large?
Sherman: I think the biggest question facing the Jewish community at large is the lack of a real Jewish identity. I think sometimes we’re overly focused on the more practical issues such as assimilation and support for Israel and don’t ask the overall question, do we identify with Judaism as a whole, and all that it represents?
Frankel: One issue — in some ways it’s minor in terms of the religious outlook — is tuition. Tuition is eating up a larger and larger percentage of people’s incomes and it’s very difficult for people to afford tuition to Jewish day schools.
Halpern: I think that the issue of defining itself has been one of American Jewry’s largest problems throughout American Jewish history.
What should the response be to the Women of the Wall, who have been harassed by Orthodox men and women, detained by police and arrested for their prayer services at the Kotel?
Sherman: I think that’s really an Israeli Jewish decision. I understand both sides but at the end of the day, I would allow the chief rabbi and the Israeli government to decide.
Frankel: Anytime you see confrontation among Jews, it’s not pleasant. We just all have to learn to disagree in a more agreeable fashion.
Earlier this year, SAR High School, a modern Orthodox school in New York, announced that it was allowing its female students to wrap tefillin, which is traditionally not done in the Orthodox world. What are your thoughts on women wrapping tefillin?
Halpern: Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale Jewish Center in New York gave a great talk on this, and I agree with his approach. He said that he respectfully disagrees on halachic grounds but also in no way does that mean he loses respect for the people. He said that people must consider that a position that is contrary to the values that they hold may be coming from a truly important, religious place for others.
Sherman: I’m opposed. I think that from a halachic perspective, it’s quite clear that it’s something that is frowned upon
Frankel: The question is for people much greater than myself; it’s not up to me to decide if it’s right or wrong, but practices must adhere to halachah.
What do you think about Yeshiva University recently anouncing it would withhold ordination from a fellow rabbinic student who had hosted at his home a partnership minyan in which women lead parts of the service and are called to the Torah?
Halpern: I’m pretty confident that their practices are currently not acceptable from the perspective of Jewish law. But the practice is one we need to approach with respect and understanding. We, the larger Orthodox community, need to say to those who wish to participate in partnership minyanim, I understand the values that you’re bringing to the table. And the other side should respect the values of the overall Orthodox community of fealty to the halachic process.
Sherman: I don’t think it’s a crazy request, and I think a rabbi is mistaken if he doesn’t address the issue with a certain sophistication and sensitivity. However, I still maintain that the practices of such minyans are frowned upon by Jewish law and something that should be refrained from doing.
Frankel: This is an age for innovation but at the same time, innovation has to adhere to halachah.
Israel’s Knesset recently passed a law requiring haredi Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the IDF. Your thoughts?
Frankel: It’s unfortunate that a compromise couldn’t be reached there. There are haredim that would have willingly served in the military. To kind of impose it from the top down causes bad blood everywhere.
Sherman: I think that we need them in the army, and it’s something I strongly support. On the other hand, I do think the army has to give the ultra-Orthodox an infrastructure that works for their ideals and allows them to maintain their culture and religious observance.