Religious Politics and Rabbinic Recognition

Introduction: Rabbinic Identities

About a month after I started as rabbi of the Stanton St. Shul, the first internal conflict I had to resolve was over a question of rabbinic recognition. A scheduled academic speaker had been ordained by a non-Orthodox institution, and one member objected to addressing this person by the title “Rabbi” on the grounds that non-Orthodox institutions tend to disregard Jewish law.1 In the end, my psak wasn’t so much to address the speaker as “Rabbi” but to ask how she preferred to be addressed and follow whatever she said.2 Still, I felt the need to defend my position to the congregant.

The answer I gave to the congregant was something I had written about fifteen years ago when I was first starting to develop my thoughts on authority in Judaism. I applied a “Brisker” distinction between the shem or “title” of “Rabbi” and the halot or “status” of being a religious authority. Just as people might still call incompetent physicians “doctor,” they wouldn’t necessarily consult them for medical advice. I suggested the same ought to apply for the rabbinate. We could still call people by their “title” out of professional courtesy, but we would not bestow the halakhic status of consulting over religious matters or give deference to those who are unworthy.

The congregant was not impressed with my distinction, and I can understand why. The rabbinic title is supposed to imply religious authority as it has since its inception.3 While this may have been appropriate in the past, conflating the rabbinic title and status has gradually led to a religious reality is at best confusing and at worst manipulative.

This may seem like an odd critique coming from someone who has been a vocal advocate of rabbinic autonomy, particularly the authority of the local community rabbis over their congregations. However, I have been no less vocal regarding the necessity of defining the rules and boundaries of halakhah. Even accepting the emergency dispensation for hora’at sha’ah, rabbis are still obligated to operate within established rules of Jewish law. There will always be disagreements, but even pluralism has its limits.

The problem is due to the fact that rabbinic ordination is largely unregulated. Even setting aside the significant and perpetual debates over the halakhic process itself, the original chain of ordination was broken over 1,500 years ago and there are no minimal, uniform standards, expectations, or requirements for rabbinic ordination. In practice, this means an individual who has mastered vast corpora of Jewish texts — including the Bible, Talmud, commentaries, and responsa on a wide range of subjects — may hold the exact same title as a functional illiterate with a guitar.

To those who don’t know better, both of these “rabbis” are equally authentic representatives of Torah. This obfuscation is entirely by design. By appropriating an established title, anyone can vicariously lay claim to unearned legitimacy via the reputation of the rabbinic title.4 Furthermore, appropriating the title “rabbi” allows for recursive recognition to the ordaining establishments; the institutions legitimize the rabbis and these “rabbis” then legitimize the institution. In this way, communities engage in self-affirmation by appointing rabbis who will reaffirm whatever beliefs they choose while still maintaining a veneer of righteousness. After all, they are simply following their rabbis.5

There are no legal impediments to anyone starting their own rabbinical school and ordaining rabbis using whatever standards they choose. This means people must be aware of the criteria in order for the title to have any meaning. This not only includes the curriculum students are expected to study, but the admissions requirements may vary greatly as well. As Tom Nichols writes:

…credentials are a start. They carry the imprimatur of the institutions that bestow them, and they are a signal of quality, just as consumer brands tend to promote (and, hopefully, to protect) the quality of their products. Look carefully at an actual college degree, and note what most of them actually say: that the bearer has been examined by the faculty and admitted to the degree, which in turn is backed by a committee of schools in that region or a body representing a particular profession. Those faculties, and the associations who accredit their courses of study, are in effect vouching for the graduate’s knowledge of a particular subject. The name of the school or institution, no less than the degree holder, is on the line, at least as an initial affirmation of capability [Emphasis added]

The Death of Expertise, Kindle Location 568

This guideline may work if we treat “rabbi” as merely a professional degree. But when people confuse the title with the halakhic status then there is an additional religious expectation of legitimacy and authority. Because it is a trivial exercise to confer a title on someone, it is easy to see how the conflation of the rabbinic title with its presumed status is prone to abuse and manipulation.

Ordination as Activism

For a recent example, consider R. Daniel Landes’ decision to ordain Daniel Atwood, a rabbinical student who had been enrolled in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), but ultimately denied ordination. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA):

Daniel Atwood, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City since 2015, came out years ago, but only recently learned that he would not receive ordination, called semicha in Hebrew. Neither Atwood nor Rabbi Dov Linzer, the school’s president and rosh yeshiva, would comment on the specific reason ordination was denied.

But Linzer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the decision came because of something, which he did not specify, that happened in the past several months.

Six months ago, Atwood and his partner got engaged on the stage of a concert in New York City.

“He came out to us in the end of his first year and we were fully prepared to give him semicha until certain circumstances arose over a few months ago,” Linzer told JTA.

Following the narrative of this reporting, YCT did not deny Atwood ordination because he was gay since they knew of his sexual orientation, but only after he announced his engagement to his partner. This distinction is critical. Jewish law does not prohibit “being gay” but it does prohibit acting on certain impulses, even natural ones, including same-sex marriage. Again, assuming the JTA’s reporting, YCT did not deny Atwood ordination due to his sexual orientation, but for ignoring Jewish law.

R. Landes’ Opinion

Anticipating backlash for his decision, R. Landes penned an op-ed in the JTA in which he not only defends his position for the ordination and the permissibility of same-sex marriage in particular but for a “new category” of Jewish law which would permit all homosexual activity. R. Landes writes that, “the desire of sexual need is overwhelming” but “remaining in the closet or being celibate for life, are fanciful rejections of reality:”

Another popular solution has been to advocate celibacy. But “just don’t do it” is not as simple as it sounds. We do not have any support system in Judaism for such a course. Judaism is so nuclear-family oriented that being single is considered a sin, or a waste, or at best a misfortune. Our one controlled study of enforced celibacy, the Roman Catholic Church, has seen what can happen when you deny the basic human need for intimacy.

Given that conversion therapies are not an option — R. Landes calls them “quackery” and they are even banned in several states — there is an impasse.

Landes’ affirms the position of classifying homosexuals as being in the halakhic category of ‘ones, which R. Landes translates as, “duress.” In such cases, Jewish law allows certain dispensations for extenuating circumstances (Bava Kamma 28b). R. Landes invokes the principle of “nishtano hateva” that nature itself has changed, citing disregard for antiquated Talmudic medicine as a precedent. In his words, “as elusive as this explanation may be, it nonetheless affirms that certain things in the human makeup may indeed change – and that our moral vision of halacha must keep up.”

After dispensing with the halakhic prohibitions,6 R. Landes then asserts the need to ordain gay rabbis, equating individual identities of religious or sexual orientation to religious traditions

In the same way that Sephardim rely on Sephardic sages, Litvaks on their Rosh Yeshiva, Hasidim flock to their rebbe and women have begun to ask ritual purity questions to female authorities, LGBTQ Jews should be able to turn to halachic decisors who truly understand their needs and perspective.

Thus for R. Landes, there is a moral need to effectively rescind the prohibitions on homosexual activity, and there is a social need for people of a particular identity to have their own religious leaders.

The Nature of Change

There are several substantive and methodological claims in R. Landes’ opinion which require addressing, first and foremost, his assertion that we are dealing with a case of “nishtaneh hateva” – that nature itself has changed. Setting aside the halakhic merits of this line of argument, let us consider exactly what might have changed to evaluate if nishtaneh hateva is even applicable.

Landes himself does not offer any specific evidence demonstrating how nature has changed other than focusing on the now discredited “conversion therapy.” Following R. Landes’ reasoning, it would seem that the relevant Biblical and Rabbinic prohibitions can only be understood based on theories popularized in the 20th century. The “change” R. Landes suggests is the rejection of ideas for which we have no evidence in Biblical or Rabbinic literature. Thus, I do not see how discrediting conversion therapy can be plausibly understood as “change in nature” according to Jewish law.

Has the nature of homosexuality itself changed? If we assume that sexual orientation is not the result of individual choice but innate biology,7 then we would have to assume that homosexuality as an innate desire has always existed in humanity. Given how much of Rabbinic Judaism was developed under the empires of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, I find it untenable to argue that the Rabbinic Sages were unaware of homosexuality such that it ought to constitute a new and unprecedented tension with Torah.

Has our understanding of sexual desire changed? Again, the answer would appear to be no. The Rabbinic Sages were well aware of the psychology of sin, and specifically the pull of forbidden sexual relationships. We find that repeating a transgression makes it “permitted” in a person’s mind, but not as a matter of halakhah (Kiddushin 20a). People who feel the compulsion to sin are suppose to go elsewhere and sin in private and not “desecrate God’s name in public” (Moed Katan 17a, Chagigah 16a, Kiddushin 40a). This is in no way a dispensation but a recognition that people will sin and should someone feel the compulsion to sin, to minimize the exposure. The mere desire to sin, even deeply intense desires, is not exculpatory (Sanhedrin 75a).

This is not to say that there haven’t been any changes regarding homosexuality. Attitudes towards homosexuality have certainly changed with public perception gradually improving over time. Another change is our classification of homosexuality as a distinct “identity.” Neither Biblical nor Rabbinic Judaism treat sexual orientation as a unique category within Jewish law, but rather treat it as any other innate desire within a person which must be controlled in order to live in accordance with Torah.

But these sorts of changes are not of nature but society. Discussing the rules for how and when halakhah responds or changes to social realities is beyond our current scope. However, it is worth pointing out that in practice it is rarely applied with consistent logic.

As mentioned above, the Rabbinic Sages were not unaware of homosexuality, but Jewish men were not suspected of engaging in it themselves (Kiddushin 82a). This, of course, does not mean that it never happened, only that it was uncommon enough not to warrant preventative legislation. For example, while “it is forbidden to be secluded with anyone with whom the Torah forbids relations” (T. Kiddushin 5:10, Kiddushin 80b), the presumption that men would not be suspect to engage in intercourse was sufficient to exclude two men from the prohibition of seclusion.8

But if social reality has changed such that this presumption is no longer accurate, then one could easily argue that the laws of seclusion would be equally applicable to gay men since the reason for the exemption would not apply.9 A halakhic positivist would say that since no decree of seclusion on gays was issued by the Rabbinic Sages we do not have the authority to create a new one. But for those who hold that we must update halakhah when contemporary realities override Rabbinic assumptions, then there is no reason not to apply the prohibition of seclusion to gays given the fundamental change in halakhic assumptions.

Evaluating Ones

Landes further argues that the halakhic category of ones ought to apply to homosexuals. The category of ones refers to those who are forced to act against their will due to external or accidental circumstances. This can take the form of literal coercion (Bava Kamma 28b, Avoda Zara 54a), forgetfulness (Shevuot 26a), bodily functions (M. Nazir 9:4) or illness (Berakhot 22b). The general rule in Jewish law is that an ones is not responsible for one’s actions (Bava Kamma 28b), but not every definition of ones is applicable to exempt individuals from every commandment. For example, someone who forgets having made a vow may be considered an ones (Shevuot 26a), but not someone who violated Shabbat due to “lapsed awareness” (Shabbat 70b).

The exculpatory presumption of ones is that if the external factor would not apply then the individual would have acted differently. However, a notable exception for ones is sex performed by men. According to Rava, ones in inapplicable for men to engage in forbidden relations on the grounds that there is no erection without intent (Yevamot 53b).10 As soon as there is intent, the exculpatory presumption of ones is no longer valid. Of course, one could argue that this halakhic presumption has also changed, but then we revert to the same issues discussed above.

Landes mentions in his op-ed that more expansive responsa on the parameters of ones is forthcoming and I will reserve further discussion on this point until I have the opportunity to read his argument in full. The challenge R. Landes faces is demonstrating that “duress” of having a forbidden desire is sufficient to make the forbidden desire permitted. He will also have to quantify “duress” so as not to render the entire system of Torah moot.

A Conflict of Jewish Visions

While we can further discuss the merits of R. Landes’ argument, I believe that these discussions are ultimately beside the point. For R. Landes, the title and effect of “rabbi” are identical. The validity of a rabbi’s position is not dependent on a coherent hermeneutic, but on the title of the person offering it. Thus, simply by bestowing the title, R. Landes imparts automatic legitimacy.

Consider how R. Landes describes the potential contributions of gay rabbis:

Gay Orthodox rabbis will be able to ask more from their “congregants” than straight ones in all sorts of religious and communal areas, for they possess a shared experience and language – and thus credibility. A gay Orthodox rabbi presents a role model for young people who report that they are sorely alone in deciding the course of their lives. A gay Orthodox rabbi will be someone to emulate, to debate and to confide in as they mature. [Emphasis added]

This is not the first time I have seen the “role model” argument in the context of gay rabbis. In a 1992 responsum for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards for the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, R. Joel Roth also invokes the concept of role model, not as a goal but as a standard.

Leaders are role models whether they like it or not. Religious leaders are, therefore, religious role models. A religious leader in a Movement committed to halakhah serves as a role model of what that commitment means. It is important to note that the role modeling I refer to, as it pertains to homosexuality, has nothing to do with whether people learn homosexuality from role models. Rather, I refer to role modeling of what is halakhically acceptable (665). [Emphasis added]

R. Roth’s vision of a religious role model depends on the status demonstrated by a commitment to the religion.11 If observing halakhah is the goal, then it stands to reason that the “role model” people should emulate are those who actually observe halakhah. In this respect, the significance of the rabbinic title is secondary to living in accordance with the Torah.

In contrast, R. Landes views the role model primarily as a function of holding the rabbinic title with the commitment to observing Torah being secondary. As such, it is easier for R. Landes to redefine halakhah in order to preempt any cognitive dissonance between the title “rabbi” and the status of being a religious leader.

The Rabbinic Title and the Limits of Status

The Rabbinic Sages did not explicitly employ idioms of shem (title) and halot (status), though I believe they anticipated the contemporary challenges of equating title and status. Let us look at a few examples which I think illustrate this point.

First, the rabbinic title never implied absolute infallible authority. Judges can err by being mistaken in their deliberation or by contradicting explicit texts (Sanhedrin 33a) and even the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Judaism, is subject to err (Horayot 2a). Furthermore, if a member of the Sanhedrin instructs people to disobey the court’s rulings, such a person is considered a “rebellious elder” who faces capital punishment (M. Sanhedrin 11:2). The act of holding a position certainly bestowed gravitas to a rabbi’s opinions, but the rabbinic sages placed necessary limits on a rabbi’s authority and jurisdiction.

Second, the Rabbinic Sages understood that any respect or authority due a Torah scholar is entirely conditional on observance of the Torah. As a general rule, “where there is a desecration of God’s name we do not give respect to the rabbi” (Berakhot 19a, Eiruvin 64b, Sanhedrin 82a, Shevuot 30b). Unsurprisingly, rabbis who act inappropriately are supposed to be sanctioned, lest their continued behavior itself cause a desecration of God’s name (Moed Katan 17a).

The Rabbinic Sages were “role models” not only in the sense of being worthy of emulation, but their actions may even inform what the halakhah is in practice (Berakhot 31a, Berakhot 62a). Therefore, Rabbinic Sages were expected to lead by example (Bava Metzia 107b) and not hold others to stricter standards of commitment than they themselves would follow (Sotah 22a). In order for Rabbis to be treated as religious exemplars, we must have a reasonable expectation that they at least try to follow halakhah as it is and not as what people might want it to be.

Finally, the Rabbinic Sages were no less aware of how the title “rabbi” could be misused for personal gain. They specifically criticized those who “made use of the crown of Torah” (M. Avot 4:5, Nedarim 62a). According to a baraita, a person should not say, “I will study scripture to be called a Sage, I will study Mishna to be called Rabbi, I will review my studies so that I will be an elder and sit in the yeshiva” (Nedarim 62a). The function of rabbinic ordination cannot be for self-aggrandizement, including the desire for legitimacy.

Ideally we are only supposed to learn Torah from someone “who is like a ministering angel” (Chagigah 15b) and we should not teach Torah to students who behave improperly (Ta’anit 7a, Makkot 10a, Hullin 133a). The Talmud records a curious exception to this rule when R. Yehuda HaNassi ordains the son of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon despite the son’s licentious behavior. In this instance, R. Yehuda HaNassi used the title to influence R Elazar’s son to change his ways (Bava Metzia 85a). In the Rabbinic era, the expectations of holding the rabbinic title were great enough to inspire people to change their ways. Today we use the recursive recognition of the rabbinic title to change the rules in order to match our ways.

Identity vs. Integrity

I agree with R. Landes’ view that gay rabbis can provide an essential perspective, particularly regarding pastoral aspects of the rabbinate. I have seen first-hand as a congregant and congregational rabbi how a lack of pastoral empathy distances clergy from congregants; even the most well-meaning rabbis might have difficulty relating to an individual’s experiences and struggles.12 From this perspective, I agree with the need for Orthodox gay rabbis, as did YCT with its initial acceptance.

The problem here, again assuming the JTA narrative, is with knowingly ordaining someone who intentionally, and publicly, intends to violate Jewish law, and then gerrymandering the halakhic boundaries in order to justify doing so.

Torah does not expect perfection from anyone, including rabbis. After all, “there is no one on earth who is righteous who does what is right and does not sin” (Ecc. 7:20), and the Torah was not given to God’s ministering angels (Kiddushin 54a). Furthermore, we know Orthodox Judaism is selectively sanctimonious when it comes to which transgressions are more or less socially acceptable when it comes to communal rejection. Perhaps we may grant greater latitude for laity or some room for tolerance for laity or even for rabbis who can admit mistakes.

But I see three major distinctions for why R. Landes’ ordination differs from simply accepting another flawed individual into the rabbinate. First, there is a fundamental difference between falling short in one’s observance and categorically rejecting what someone does not wish to observe. I believe we have a useful parallel with the status of haver, a category of Torah scholars (Bava Batra 75a, Sanhedrin 8b) who observe stricter religious practices (Ta’anit 14b), particularly regarding the laws of purity and tithing (T. Demai 2:2). It is not obligatory to become a haver, but it does convey a distinct status. What is relevant for our discussion is that someone who wishes to attain the greater status of haver must accept everything which goes along with it without exception. Even rejecting one detail disqualifies someone from being accepted as a haver (Bekhorot 30b). I suggest that someone who categorically rejects Biblical and Rabbinic law should be similarly disqualified from ordination.

Second, while there is room to dispute Jewish law and its applications, people may not place themselves above the law. We find one example in the Rabbinic treatment of King Solomon. The Bible prohibits kings from amassing too many horses lest he send people to return to Egypt (Deut. 17:16) and prohibits kings from amassing too many wives, lest they lead his heart astray (Deut. 17:17). According to Rabbinic tradition, King Solomon argued that the reasons provided in the Bible would not apply to him so he ought to be exempt from both restrictions. Ultimately, however, he wound up violating the reasons along with the statute (I Kings 10:28-29,  I Kings 11:4).

R. Yitzchak cites this example as the reason for why the Torah did not provide more reasons for the commandments, lest others similarly conclude that the rules would not apply to them (Sanhedrin 21b). Another midrash is even more critical of King Solomon, chastising him for having “nullified part of the Torah” and for his attitude of trying to be “wiser than the Torah” and for the hubris of considering himself as “knowing the intention of Torah” (Shemot Rabbah 6:1).

I do not believe the problem here is one of exegeses, but in interpreting the texts not in accordance with halakhah. There are rules for how Torah is interpreted normatively. I suggest that those who place themselves above the legal system ought not to be in charge of defining it.

Finally, Rabbis were also expected to keep their emotional reactions to the law in check. Someone who says, “this teaching of Torah is pleasant and this teaching is not” ultimately “loses the fortune of Torah” (Eiruvin 64a). It is not for Rabbis to play personal favorites over which laws they like and which laws they do not.13 For another example from the Jewish monarchy, King Saul placed his own feelings of what God wanted over God’s actual commandment, and it cost him his kingdom (I Sam. 15:20-23).

Even if a halakhic society can tolerate those who dissent from parts of the Torah, perhaps even conscientious objectors, doing so comes at the cost of such individuals being unfit for a position of religious leadership.

Whither the Rabbinate?

Returning to my initial point, whether or not conflating the rabbinic title and status is a problem depends on one’s vision of Judaism. For those who tend towards the teleology of following the popular morals and ethics of the day, the means do not matter as much as the ends. Any tactic which pushes the Jewish community to adjust its beliefs and practices to support this vision is not only fair game, but essential to fulfilling the righteous mission.

Ordaining rabbis to provide recursive recognition is a simple and effective tactic. One doesn’t have to formulate convincing arguments or even foster relationships in order to generate achieve a consensus, one simply needs a good PR firm to spread the gospel. Someone or some group simply needs to ordain clergy, praise them with all the laudatory adjectives one can find in a thesaurus, and have them parrot back what they already believe. In this vision, the recursive recognition provided by ordination is not a bug, but a feature. If people feel the need to reconcile religious obedience with their personal moral autonomy, they simply need to redefine the religion accordingly.14 And in this model, there are no greater role-models than those who live true to their authentic selves.15

But for those whose vision of Judaism is primarily predicated on following the Torah and following the ethos of “nullifying our will to His will” (M. Avot 2:4), maintaining the integrity of Judaism is much more difficult. It is no longer feasible to rely on titles, positions, or followers for legitimacy and authority because the market for the rabbinic title is unregulated. While it may have been useful in the past to rely on titles, positions, or number of followers, in the present it is no longer useful since others may easily do the same for their own agendas.

The long history of religious exclusions in Judaism offers some precedents for dealing with the challenge of appropriated authority. One example is explicitly delegitimizing ordinations. R. Moshe Feinstein (and others) would often transliterate in Hebrew the English word “rabbis”16 when referring to Conservative and Reform, as opposed to the Hebrew word “rabbanim” (e.g. E.H. 1:135, Y.D. 1:160). Others refer to people as “Rabbi” in scare quotes to indicate fraud.1718 Another approach is institutional exclusion. For example, the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) currently does not recognize the ordination of YCT for admittance to their organization.

I’m not sure how to evaluate the effective delegitimization, but in my experience, I have found it to be limited. At best you convince people who are already on your side. Others won’t care and might even be turned off by the rudeness. Also, those who are excluded from one organization can simply form their own as YCT graduates19 did with the International Rabbinical Fellowship.20

My own preference is to focus on decoupling the title and status of “rabbi.” I recognize that rhetorical shorthands are sometimes necessary to have conversations, but they can also lead to intellectual laziness. An appeal to authority is easy since one just needs to point to a title. An appeal to expertise is far more difficult because one must explain the substance of the expertise and explain why this expertise is correct.

If the rabbinic title is to mean something other than a rubber stamp to confirm our preconceptions of religions, I suggest we need to reevaluate our relationship with the title. For example, when I served as a congregational rabbi on the Lower East Side, I could have had some expectation that maybe people in my shul would listen to me, but I had no such expectations for the other synagogues in the neighborhood. Were I to walk 15 minutes down Delancy St. and cross the Williamsburg Bridge I would likely not even be recognized as a rabbi.21

Demanding others recognize one’s religious leadership is itself a religious imposition. If I wish to maintain the right to reject others, I must accept that others have the equal right to reject me.

I am not suggesting that all rabbis are of equal caliber nor do I suggest we should not expose the charlatans and grifters. What I am suggesting is that because the rabbinic title has been watered down we need to teach people what makes a good rabbi. It’s not that we cannot criticize others, but we have to do so substantively.

I believe the Orthodox world has become too reliant on titles and positions, not unlike how it relies on the “Orthodox” label itself to convey correctness. The danger is in the ease of appropriation. When anyone can use any term, words cease to have meaning.

To be sure, there is an unfair asymmetry to overcome. It requires far less knowledge and effort to rattle off nonsense in the name of Torah, and it is far easier for the masses to consume it whereas true expertise takes time to prepare and produce. It almost means we would have to actively amplify better messages while being prepared to explain why we prefer some over others.

Consider a precedent set by R. Norman Lamm who in 1959 prefaced his critique of the so-called “Leiberman Clause” to the ketuvah as, “a debt that the Orthodox rabbinate owes to the American Jewish public.” Rather than dismissing R. Leiberman out of hand due to his affiliation with Conservative Judaism, R. Lamm recognized that denominational politics is a poor substitute for leadership. I’m not sure how many rabbis today have this same attitude of humility towards the masses in realizing that it is an obligation for rabbis to teach Torah to the best of their ability.

What I am proposing is an attitudinal shift of the rabbinate as much as anything else. I do not believe the rabbinic title means what it once did and I do not think rabbis should pretend otherwise. Genuine credibility and respect must be earned continuously. I do believe that if the rabbinate viewed their title not as a license as much as a responsibility, they may not receive the same popular recognition as those who would manipulate the masses, but they would at least be deserving of their intended status.

Cite this article as: Yuter, Joshua. "Religious Politics and Rabbinic Recognition." in YUTOPIA, June 24, 2019,


  1. Space does not permit a thorough discussion of this claim here. Briefly, neither the Reform nor Reconstructionist movements pretend to be halakhic so there would be no conflict there. In contrast, Conservative Judaism does claim to be halakhic while also being committed to change. But because both tradition and change are intrinsic to Conservative Judaism’s system, either adherence to or deviation from the Torah are both equally valid. This is not a halakhic system but a religious tautology. For another critique, see my father’s letter of resignation from the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative Judaism.
  2. I know several people who are ordained rabbis but intentionally prefer not being called “Rabbi” for professional or ideological reasons. Since I didn’t know this individual personally at the time, I figured asking first was a safer and more respectful approach.
  3. For some examples of the honor due to a rabbinic teacher, see Maimonides’ Talmud Torah Chapters 5-7.
  4. Take note when rabbis invoke their title to assert or demand legitimacy as opposed to the merits of their arguments. For example, see the proliferation of “as a rabbi” op-eds in which authors explicitly leverage their rabbinic identity for credibility and authority.
  5. As my father would say, “וסלחת לעוננו כי רב הוא.” Alternatively, see the classic joke about eating non-kosher food under rabbinic supervision.
  6. R. Landes writes that a more in-depth halakhic discussion is forthcoming. Until then I will rely on the arguments he has made thus far.
  7. I am unaware if science has conclusively determined the biological causes for homosexuality. While some studies have shown a link between prenatal hormones and sexual orientation, there may be a combination of factors including genetics. In any event, the precise details do not matter for my argument.
  8. Following Rambam Issurei Bi’ah 22:2, and Shulhan Arukh EH 24.
  9. See Berakhot 43b, Avoda Zarah 22a-b
  10. R. Landes cites Maimonides’ opinion that someone who commits a cardinal sin under compulsion is exempt from punishment (Yesodei Hatorah 5:4), but he omits that Maimonides states explicitly that this exemption of ones does not apply to men forced to engage in forbidden sexual relations due to Rava’s principle that there is no erection without intent (Issurei Bi’ah 1:9). Tosafot disagree with Maimonides’ application of Rava’s principle in cases of external coercion (Yevamot 53b s.v. Ein Ones), but there is no reason to suspect that it would not apply for homosexuality. Finally, Jewish law does not distinguish between penetrating or being penetrated when there is consensual intent (Yevamot 25a).
  11. Whether R. Roth is consistent on this point is a much longer discussion.
  12. For one example, I cite R. Landes’ own op-ed regarding single heterosexuals. R. Landes writes, “Judaism is so nuclear-family oriented that being single is considered a sin, or a waste, or at best a misfortune” and that “the desire of sexual need is overwhelming.” However, R. Landes continues, “For heterosexual Orthodox Jews, we temporarily sublimate that desire – and accept that it is best expressed only within the confines of heterosexual marriage. Thus the full force of halacha continues to apply.” For a non-trivial segment of the heterosexual Jewish population, sublimating this desire is anything but “temporary.” That halakha provides a theoretical way to fulfill sexual desire is emotionally and biologically irrelevant to those who have been unable to find a suitable or willing partner for marriage. Let us not forget that there are halakhic restrictions on heterosexual partners as well. Kohanim, especially older ones, face an increasingly dwindling dating pool because they are forbidden from marrying converts or divorcees. Mamzeirim are relatively uncommon but cannot be dismissed either. Unless R. Landes would counsel singles to marry the first willing person, disregarding emotional connection or shared values and simply to fulfill sexual needs, then the contrast between heterosexual and homosexuals regarding sublimating forbidden sexual desires may be a distinction without a difference.
  13. In the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “A judge who can’t point to a decision that’s different from how they personally feel is not a judge who’s following the rule of law.”
  14. There has been a slow but important shift in the relationship between individualism and religion. Thomas Luckmann discussed The Invisible Religion noting discrepancies between personal practices and official religious doctrines. These personal/institutional discrepancies became more pronounced and intentional over time as demonstrated in the research of Karel Dobbelaere and Robert Bellah. Charles Taylor defines this modern era as the “Age of Authenticity” in which being true to one’s personal identity, however defined, is paramount to all other concerns. This social trend explains how we can find rabbis transforming the idea of everyone “what is right in his own eyes” (Jud. 17:6, Jud. 21:25) from a Biblical criticism into the religious ideal. I have noticed that previously people faced a trade-off between the benefits of individual autonomy at the cost of group belonging, or the benefits of belonging to a group at the cost of individualism. Today people demand the benefits of both individualism and communitarianism with none of the costs by demanding the collective conform to accommodate the individuals. If this is not possible and one’s authenticity is inextricably connected to an association, it’s a trivial matter to reconcile any conflicts among aspects of authenticity by appropriating and redefining established terms.
  15. I’ve noticed that those who tend to embrace relativistic models of morality or Judaism tend to do so in order to validate their own decisions or the decisions of others of which they approve. However, when they disagree with other’s decisions, even these relativists who otherwise embrace an ever-evolving “living Torah” will cite whichever texts allow them to impugn competing conclusions.
  16. As “ראבייס
  17. I see this often on Twitter particularly directed to Reform and Conservative rabbis. Ironically, many of those who are offended by this slight against non-Orthodox rabbinic legitimacy have employed the same rabbinic scare quotes when referring to the Messianist Loren Jacobs. It appears the true objection is not civility but who gets to decide the limits of pluralism.
  18. R. Moshe Sternbuch employed both approaches by using the transliteration of “rabbi” inside scare quotes (Teshuvot VeHanhagot 2:722).
  19. Along with disaffected rabbis with other Orthodox ordinations
  20. Some may point to the Israeli Rabbinate as an exception given that they hold official state power. The religious politics of Israel are far too complicated to discuss here, but I understand ordination in Israel as only partially a religious designation and something more akin to a state professional license. This helps explain why ordinations from outside of the Israeli Rabbinate are not accepted for official religious/state functions. Furthermore, while there is no religious procedure for rescinding ordination, the state can rescind the professional rabbinic license, as they may be doing for convicted child molester Moti Elon.
  21. Or possibly even observant.

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