Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Has My Yeshiva Not Revoked Steven Greenberg's Semichah?

In his fascinating biography of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, Rabbi Aaron (then Rothkoff) Rakeffet chronicles some of the issues that challenged the newly ordained rabbis which the Yeshiva sent out to communities across the United States. Among the most vexing was the issue of mechitzah. Congregations were removing the partitions between the mens' and women's sections at an alarming pace, yet still sought out the young Orthodox rabbis that the Yeshiva was producing.
According to the book, while Dr. Revel refused to allow his graduates to take pulpits in shuls with mixed pews, he did make exceptions in cases where he felt that the rabbi might succeed in bringing the shul back "into the fold" and reintroducing a mechitzah over the course of one year.If the rabbi failed, Revel insisted that the young man leave his pulpit and seek a new shul. What if a rabbi failed to convince his shul to install a mechitzah, but nonetheless insisted on staying at his position? Rakeffet writes,
When a Yeshiva graduate refused Revel's request to leave a position which had both mixed pews and a mixed choir, his ordination was revoked. Revel wrote to a graduate on September 19, 1933: "It grieves me to inform you that since you refuse to leave Temple...where the sacred laws of traditional Judaism are violated, I urgently request that you return the conditional document of ordination that you received from the Yeshiva. The basic purpose of the Yeshiva is to guard the sanctity of Jewish Law in this land. If you will not return the document of ordination, I will be obligated to publish newspaper announcements declaring the nullification of your ordination." The rabbi did not heed Rabbi Revel's request, and the Yeshiva publicly announced the cancellation of his ordination and proclaimed that "one can no longer rely on his answers to inquiries of Jewish Law." (Bernard Revel, pp 165-166)
In light of this short historical vignette, I find myself wondering how Rabbi Steven Greenberg still has his ordination from my yeshiva, Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yizchak Elchanan. (RIETS).
I have no intention of debating the issue of homosexuality and Orthodoxy on my blog. I recently signed a petition that stated, among other things, that, "By definition, a union that is not sanctioned by Torah law is not an Orthodox wedding, and by definition a person who conducts such a ceremony is not an Orthodox rabbi." I thought that would be enough. Apparently, I thought wrong.
In a recent article in the New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Greenberg explained that while he did not officiate at a "Gay Orthodox Wedding", "I officiated at a ceremony that celebrated the decision of two men to commit to each other in love and to do so in binding fashion before family and friends." He did so using Jewish language, symbolism, rabbinic concepts and halachic principles - but admits himself that it wasn't a Jewish wedding, per se. (At least we can agree about that.) Anyone with any sense of fealty to halachah readily sees just how far his stance on homosexuality has veered from Traditional Torah Judaism.
The most upsetting part of the piece to me was the fact that he is, "a Modern Orthodox rabbi."  While that might not be true ideologically, it remains true technically, because he continues to enjoy the benefits of his RIETS ordination, which, for some reason I cannot understand, has not yet been revoked.
I am a very proud musmach of Yeshiva and the grandson of another proud musmach of Yeshiva. Both of  our semichah documents hang on the wall in my home. I find myself consistently amazed at the great work of both the Yeshiva and its graduates, who have spread Torah literally to the four corners of the earth. Yet, the documents themselves mean very little. I learned some Torah - OK, a lot of Torah, and I took some tests which I passed. But the document states that I am worthy to teach and make pronouncements on matters of halachah. Essentially, its a document that confers status. Whether I'm smart enough to pass a test is beside the point. The point of the semichah is to instill trust: my Yeshiva, having taught and nurtured me, trusts me to use my education and intuition to protect and uphold Jewish tradition. I will take what I have taught and uphold it, protect it, nurture it and help it grow.
Yet, Rabbi Greenberg has taken that trust and warped it into something vulgar. He uses his knowledge and erudition not to defend tradition, but to bastardize it. He uses his halachic familiarity to create "halachically informed" ceremonies which he knows violates all accepted halachic and Jewish norms. His actions represent the very opposite of what his Semichah intended. He is misusing it, and thereby violating not only its implied terms, but every other Semichah that my Yeshiva has conferred.
The powerful words written by Dr. Revel almost eighty years ago still resonate strongly. "The basic purpose of the Yeshiva is to guard the sanctity of Jewish Law in this land." That must be as true today as it was then, and if Yeshiva revoked a Semicha because a rabbi refused to leave a mix-pew congregation, it can and must do the same for a musmach who openly promotes values that violate very basic tenets of the Torah.
The time has come for Yeshiva to revoke Steven Greenberg's semichah, and if you agree with me, I urge you to contact Rabbi Yonah Reiss, the RIETS Dean, and tell him so.