How the RCA Squandered its Own Credibility, and How it Can Earn it Back


“דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד – זו היא כל התורה כולה, ואידך – פירושה הוא, זיל גמור”

“What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” (B. Shabbat 31a)

In the aftermath of the R. Freundel voyeurism scandal, the Orthodox Jewish community has been relentless in its criticism of its current religious establishments. Some have focused their attention on the vulnerability of converts, many of which received a reprieve when the Israeli rabbinate ultimately decided to uphold R. Freundel’s conversions. Others advocated for changes in how a mikvah is operated with Rabbanit Henkin arguing for giving women keys to the mikvah and R. Seth Farber insisting on modifying Jewish conversion law to prohibit men from witnessing a female convert’s immersion. 1 Still others targeting the Rabbinic establishment, epitomized in this case by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). 2 Rabbi Marc Angel pointed to the moral deficiencies of Judaism’s gatekeepers and Dr. Erica Brown criticized the lack of rabbinic accountability. 3

Naturally, certain members in the very same Rabbinic establishment aggressively defended the status-quo in the face of media “misrepresentations” and activists “hijacking” the scandal to further their own agendas. I have no doubt others perceive the defamation of their institutions to be the result of an unfair generalization, where the entire system is disparaged due to criminal acts of one lone individual.

My concern today is not the propriety of these critical generalizations, but rather the predictability of them occuring after a major scandal. Not only have Jews long engaged in generalized delegitimizations, but this traditional rhetorical stratagem has been repeatedly employed by the current Rabbinic establishment, including, ironically enough, the RCA’s own approach to conversion.


  1. In Farber’s words, “The facts are that while we must meet halachic requirements, we also cannot allow a situation to continue where men are in the mikveh when women are immersing.” The problem however is that Jewish not only does not prohibit men from witnessing this immersion, it most likely requires it. B. Yevamot 47b describes the procedure for converting women as having women assist the convert in the water while the male witnesses stand at a safe distance outside of the mikvah waters. Rambam in Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:6 adds that the men should turn their faces away so as not to see the naked woman exiting the water, which not only is an affirmation of modesty, but reinforces the obligation for the act of immersion to be witnessed by the men. Even if argues that men need not personally observe the dunking, claiming that men must not be present requires a demonstrating that Biblical or Rabbinic Law is being violated, which necessitates citing chapter and verse of the specific violation. It is only through Rabbinic legislation that specific interpretations be mandated on the entire Jewish population or new prohibitions be innovated. See my series on The Halakhic Process for a more detailed exposition on the system of Jewish Law.
  2. Disclosure: I am currently a member of the RCA, though I hold no position on its board or any of its committees. All opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect the views of the RCA or any of its members.
  3. This is only a small sample of quotes, articles, and op-eds published in public venues. My Facebook wall was inundated with countless more comments regarding these positions and many more.

Ep. 164 Current Jewish Questions 52 – Flawed and Fallen Rabbis

כִּי אָדָם אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא
For there is no one on earth who is righteous, who does only good does not sin – Ecclesiastes 7:20

In the wake of Yet Another Rabbinic Scandal, Rabbi Yuter examines the effect of a Rabbi’s actions on his ability to be a source for teaching Torah.

Current Jewish Questions – Flawed and Fallen Rabbis Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 52 – Flawed and Fallen Rabbis

Official “Fail Rav” Image Gallery

By now anyone who would find this website should be familiar with the “Facepalm” and “FAIL” memes. The former is usually a response to a stupid or ignorant statement made with earnestness and sincerity, while the latter generally applies to all sorts of blunders. A few years ago I created a kind of portmanteau of the two, specifically for use in unproductive Jewish religious conversations online which I helpfully dubbed the “Fail Rav” or “#FailRav.” The title picture for the movie Lonely Man of Faith and the book Divrei HaRav, provided a particularly appropriate portrait of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik for this purpose:
With the help of some meme generators I stamped the requisite “FAIL” subheading and uploaded it to a now defunct image sharing site. Lest the internet lose another irreverent meme, I recreated a collection of Fail Ravs which you’re free to use as you see fit.


YUTOPIA’s “Essential” Modern Orthodox Reading List – The Fine Fifteen

A Facebook friend recently posted a “personal list of essential reading for a thinking Orthodox Jew.” These sorts of questions are fun exercises (especially for book geeks like myself) since it requires a degree of thought, introspection, and strategy. For a list to be useful to others it cannot be comprehensive; telling people to read everything is not terribly practical. 1 But there also has to be thought as to the criteria for the list. For example, there is a perpetual debate in professional sports over the Most Valuable Player award regarding whether it should it go to the “best” player or the one who contributes the most “value” to his team. Books are even more subjective in that what might be “essential” for one person might be irrelevant to someone else. In my capacity as a community Rav I was in a position where I could give targeted recommendations to individuals, accounting for their background, interests, and affinities. 2 The RCA has a reading list appropriate for prospective converts which may or may not be “good,” but they can service as decent “starting points” for future discussion.

Since this is my list I’m going to make my own rules and qualifications:

  • I’m limiting myself to 15 books. Why 15? Because that’s how many books I came up with.
  • Order does not matter.
  • All books will be in English because I’m simply more familiar with English books than those in other languages.
  • I’m ignoring “primary” works such as the Bible or Talmud on the grounds that these are too obvious for inclusion and someone interested in Judaism ought to be reading them anyway.
  • I’m assuming that readers have a more intellectual disposition which means more academic books than popular ones, though I give greater weight to books which are more accessible and “readable.”
  • My goal in compiling this list is not for basic literacy in Torah, but for understanding the Jewish religion, particularly the manifestations of Orthodox Judaism.
  • These books don’t simply represent books I like but the ones I’ve found myself citing, referencing, or recommending most often. Here I get to explain why.
  • Omissions from this list are not to be considered as a value judgement on those works.
  • All selections naturally reflect my personal biases, but I’m going to try to give a short explanation for each of my choices.

I’ll conclude the introduction by saying that if you only read these books to the exclusion of everything else, you will only be moderately less well-informed. Consider these books only as isolated moments on a lifelong journey of intellectual growth.

Now, let’s get to it…


  1. Though most enjoyable and highly recommended regardless.
  2. I had the great pleasure to do so for my pre-Aliyah “Raid the Rabbi” event where I invited fellow book geek friends to lighten my load. Compare the before and after pics. I have some wonderful friends.

Flying the Flag of Failure

After several weeks of intense fighting in Israel and Tisha B’Av fast approaching 1 celebrations will be be more subdued this year. 2 In a sense it’s kind of fitting given how eventful this past year has been for me personally. As I announced last March, I left my position as Rabbi at the Stanton Street Shul to make aliyah. 3

While friends have been very encouraging, supportive, and congratulatory regarding this significant life change, I’m not sure how many people realize that this past year for me, in many respects, was marked by some pretty significant failures. Some of these are public knowledge; I got priced out of my neighborhood, and other professional and academic pursuits did not end in success. Other failures have been more private (at least for the time being) though to be sure no less spectacular.

If there’s a difference in myself at 37 is that I no longer equate failure in specific endeavors with failure in life, nor must failure necessitate feelings of regret. At some point this past year, I realized that virtually all the times I’ve set out to do something specific, I’ve either failed or otherwise come up short. In contrast, the most amazing experiences I’ve had were more often the result of serendipity/hashgacha or otherwise things I never would have imagined, let alone intended. 4 This by no means demonstrates that my efforts were worthless, only that work with one goal in mind frequently opened up opportunities I had never considered. 5

Thus as I turn 37 I am proudly flying my flag of failure, the “דגל הבל” if you will. 6. And as I venture off into the great unknown of Israel, I look forward to the many varieties of new failures I have yet to experience, having full faith that in the end, וַיִּהְיוּ כַּטּוֹב, the ultimate results, while unintended, will be just as good. 7


  1. The “Sad Trombone” does not constitute impermissible music during the 9 days.
  2. At least I can fulfill Ecc. 7:2 and Ecc. 7:4, and you know it’s a Good Time whenever you’re following Ecclesiastes.
  3. Lots of people have been asking me the same questions so I’ll save some time: My flight leaves next Monday August 11th landing in Israel Tuesday August 12th, I’ll be staying in Arnona, Jerusalem with my parents until I find a job, at which point, I move to wherever it makes sense based on the job location and my budget. I’ll initially be looking for tech jobs as there are more positions which tend to pay better, but I’m open to all possibilities. More on that later in this post.
  4. My trip to Medellin Colombia comes to mind.
  5. דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט / Man plans, God Laughs
  6. Not a literal translation, but in addition to the rhyme, the gematria of “דגל” and “הבל” are both 37.
  7. Both “כַּטּוֹב” and “וַיִּהְיוּ” also have the gematria of 37. Incidentally, the gematria feature alone is why lazy rabbis ought to splurge for the Bar Ilan.

Ep. 163 Current Jewish Questions 51 – Valuing Lives / Self Defense

As Israel is engaged in yet another military operation, Rabbi Yuter examines to what extent Torah treats all lives as equals.

Current Jewish Questions – Valuing Lives / Self Defense Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions – Valuing Lives / Self Defense

All Good Things – My Final Sermon at The Stanton St. Shul (With Annotations)

Since I became a pulpit Rabbi I have rarely posted my sermons. In part this is because with the exception of the High Holidays I don’t write out my sermons word for word, preferring to deliver my sermons with a more conversational tone rather than a monologue. 1 However, given that this was my last Shabbat as Rav of The Stanton St. Shul, I had requests to share my final sermon to the congregation. Even when I do write out sermons in advance, I use my text less as a “published” document and more as a guideline in to ensure my focus. Consequently, the actual sermon I actually deliver occasionally deviates from the text in front of me, not in its essence or point, but in terms of word choices or spur of the moment editorials to include or exclude some material.

I hesitate to call my final sermon a “classic,” but I can say that this is fairly typical of the sermons I would give with its crucial elements being:

  1. A close read of a text, usually as in this case the Bible, but occasionally a Rabbinic teaching.
  2. A message or point based off of the text, presented as a “suggestion” or “possibility” and hopefully relevant to the congregation.
  3. Explicit and/or subtle references to outside works. 2
  4. Optional: explicit or subtle puns, usually bad.
  5. Do all of the above in 10-15 minutes.

Without further ado, the working notes from my final sermon at The Stanton Street Shul, with annotations.


  1. Although I was trained to give very formal sermons, I realized early on that not only did that style take substantially more time to prepare, but the extra effort would not have mattered to the congregation. I found the conversational style worked best in my synagogue to communicate ideas, and it allowed the freedom to adlib and respond to hecklers. For the High Holidays when I had to focus my mental energies on managing the service as well as meeting higher expectations, writing out the entire sermon was essential.
  2. I also don’t title my sermons, but if I had to for this one, I’d have used this one, taken from the series finale of ST:TNG.

Does Anti-Israel Mean Anti-Semitic? An Answer From Liberal Logic

With the current violence in Israel continuing without a clear end in sight, Israel is once again receiving support and criticism for its policies. One common refrain found among Israel’s supporters is that the inordinate amount of criticism levied against Israel is actually a form of anti-Semitism. When “anti-Israel” protesters reportedly shout “Kill the Jews” while looting Jewish businesses, it is easy to reach this conclusion. But aside from these violent outbreaks, is there any validity to the argument that the more civil rhetorical attacks against Israel are rooted in anti-Semitism? In her Remarks Before 2010 Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal offers criteria for distinction:

Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s framework for identifying when someone or a government crosses the line – when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized. These cases are not disagreements with a policy of Israel, this is anti-Semitism.[Emphasis added]

Writing for the New York Times in 2002, Thomas Friedman offered a similar contrast:

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.

There are no doubt other opinions and qualifications which answer this question, but I believe that for the Liberal Left – whose members tend to be some of Israel’s most vocal and vitriolic critics – the definitions cited above are justifiable based on how it views discrimination in other contexts, particularly regarding the US criminal justice system.

Ep. 162 The Farewell Class / A Shiur on Shimush

10448187_10203879921816460_5543220851218771374_nOn July 9th I delivered my final class at The Stanton St. Shul where I have been the rabbi for the past six years. Unfortunately, my attempts to record the video and audio both failed, so I re-recorded much of what was relevant in a preview of future “seasons” of podcasting. While I am disappointed that much of the emotion and personality from the original presentation may not have come though, part of me feels that it’s only fitting to share full emotional range in the intimate setting comprised of the community which shared the very same experiences.

The purpose of this class was primarily to explain my approach towards leading the synagogue as its Rav, why and how I came to make some of the decisions I did, based on my own skills and capacity and the state of the shul as I saw it. At the very least I hope I can provide at least a partial sample of “behind the scenes” thinking and perhaps provide possibilities, solutions, or even just inspiration for those interested in leading or managing a religious community.

Ep. 162 The Farewell Class / A Shiur on Shimush