Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

As a Modern and Open Orthodox Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah embraces the classical view of Torah MiSinai and Torah Min Hashamayim in the way the multitude of accepted commentaries and thinkers of our Mesoret have passed down to us through the ages. We also teach our Torah in a way which allows our talmidim to speak freely and openly, without fear, as they seek to grasp in their own ways the very basic theological foundations of Judaism.

In the article below, written by our esteemed Ram and head of the Talmud department, Rav Ysoscher Katz, the Yeshiva presents a glimpse into the way we teach our holy and divine Torah – in a way designed to continue the passing of the Mesorah – and second, a view of how our talmidim are thriving in our open, non-judgmental approach, to be the future rabbonim who will carry on our tradition.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean


Guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך: שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך

It happened again. For several years now the Chareidi newspaper Yated Ne’eman has attacked our Yeshivah, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, on average once every couple of months.  This time the attack came from another quarter.  R. Avrohom Gordimer, identifying himself as a member of the executive committee of the RCA, in a recent CrossCurrents posting, wrote a scathing critique of one of our graduates, R.  Zev Farber. The common denominator in these attacks is the shared format: after a brief, often skewed review of some recent activity by one of our Rebbeim or graduates, we are inevitably tagged with some synonym for apikores: heretics, Reformers, neo-Reformers, etc.

Like R. Akiva in the story told in Makot (24B), I find myself reacting differently than my colleagues and students. While many of them are disturbed and hurt by these critiques, I find myself smiling and feeling reassured. If we are being critiqued so harshly and so often it is a sign that we are doing something important and having an impact.

In the yeshivot I studied in my youth I was repeatedly told that R. Kook Z”l was an apikores. I, of course, was horrified at the time. Only later did I realize that, frequently, calling someone a heretic is an easy way to avoid confronting the serious issues they are raising. (It is hard not to make a comparison with what is currently happening in the elections for the Israeli Rabbinate where some of the participants refuse to engage the opposition on the issues and instead simply label their opponents Rasha or Amalek).

We are engaged in a serious debate about the future of klal Yisrael.  As in the times of Rav Kook, we too are at a crucial juncture. Our students, congregants, and followers are turning to us less for help in halakhic matters. Increasingly they look to us for guidance on questions of faith, ethics and social mores.  They are struggling with doubt and confusion that is an inevitable consequence of living in the modern world. The experience at the shul where I daven is pretty typical. Inevitably, at least once a month, and often more, a fellow congregant pulls me aside to share with me his or her doubts about the efficacy of prayer, accepting the traditional view of Torah min ha’shemayim, or conventional approaches to theodicy.

Doubts about the fundamental tenets of our Tradition however are not unique to the Modern Orthodox community. I cannot speak for the specifics of R. Gordimer’s community, but I do have first-hand experience with the average Yated reader. (I grew up in Williamsburg and studied in Satmar and Brisk Yeshivot.) Their community, in Israel and abroad, is having serious difficulties, trying to stem the high level of attrition they are currently experiencing. A significant number of those who leave that community do so because they are confronted with serious questions and debilitating doubts about Judaism. Ideological confusion is a universal-across the denominations-crisis.

Let it be clear.  YCT believes in Torah miSinai as it has been traditionally understood.  At the same time, we see that it is our responsibility to graduate rabbis who can engage our community’s doubts, and to do so by opening up, rather than closing down, conversation.

As a member of the YCT admissions committee I meet each and every student before they are accepted to the Yeshivah.  While אהבת תורה and יראת שמים are prerequisites for someone to be accepted to our semicha program, we also have an additional requirement, one of equal importance. A Chovevei student needs to be someone who is willing to grapple with the fundamental challenges modernity presents to the contemporary Jewish believer.

Grappling is the key point.  There is a segment in the observant community for whom אמונה פשוטה, simple faith, works. They are, however, not the majority.  Large numbers of our community struggle with questions of faith, belief, authority, autonomy, ethics, morality and the like. The old methods of response are insufficient; they do not provide the solutions contemporary men and women are looking for. Often times they are counter-productive, feeling trite and superficial. They end up turning people away from our tradition, exacerbating the situation. A successful rabbinic leader is one who is able to honor the struggle and engage these questions seriously. Along with his piety and commitment to the teachings of the Sages, he also must have the courage and intellectual ability to be innovative and creative in these matters.

Creatively addressing these difficult questions takes time, energy and deliberation. We at YCT are committed to helping guide our audience through these murky waters.  In this endeavor, we recognize the possibility that, on occasion, a graduate might entertain a non-conventional answer, not in keeping with our shared Orthodox beliefs. We believe that ultimately they will end up in the right place, embracing a modernity that is deeply steeped in the Tradition. Our confidence is based on the fact that each and every one of our graduates leaves the Yeshivah after four years infused with Yirat shamayim, ahavat Torah, emunat chachamim, and a deep-seated commitment to avodat Ha’shem.

YCT is a yeshivah like any other yeshivah. Like any other serious semicha programs, we too teach punctiliousness in Jewish law, optimal observance of Mitzvot, and a commitment to learning Torah. There is one key difference though.  Training towards expertise in Psak halakhah, built on a foundation of punctilious observance, is not the only thing we teach our graduates. We expect them to grow in areas of Jewish thought as well.

There are spiritual risks in such an approach, but given the challenges our generation faces, we do not have an alternative. We owe it to klal Yisrael to guide them in these precarious religious times. (As does Yated and R. Gordimer owe it to their respective communities. It is just a matter of time before they will no longer be able to avoid this reality in their own backyard).

To properly serve our generation, today’s rabbis need to be able to model how an observant Jew wrestles with doubt and uncertainty. That is what we try to do at our yeshivah. In that sense, our critics are right; we indeed expose our student to a cacophony of voices. We want them to hear them, engage with them, and, most importantly struggle with them-regardless of how extreme those views are. Our belief is this: If the general community is exposed to those opinions in university, in the larger society, then our graduates need to be exposed to them as well. This will enable them to engage those questions in an honest and sophisticated way. Exposing our students to the larger world of ideas, no matter how extreme they are, is the modern manifestation of David Ha’melech’s adage: ידי מלוכלכת בדם שפיר ושליא כדי להתיר אשה לבעלה (Berachot 4A).

The Gemara says (Niddah 73A) הליכות עולם לו, אל תיקרי הליכות אלא הלכות. By conflating Halakhah (observance) with halicha, (walking) the Rabbis convey an important lesson. Observance is a journey. We strive to grow and ultimately arrive at an ideal set of behaviors and beliefs. Nevertheless, the divine encounter that halakhah tries to mediate happens during the journey as well, not just after one has arrived at one’s ultimate destination.

When blessing the new month, we implore God to give us a life of אהבת תורה ויראת שמים. We do not, however, ask for ideological certainty. That is a goal but its attainability is incredibly difficult.  R. Chaim Brisker famously explained that faith begins where logic ends. If a set of beliefs makes sense, it is no longer a belief, it is a conviction. Faith requires one to transcend logic and accept dogma. Such a requirement is a hard-sell for our generation. We try to prepare our YCT graduates to confront that challenge. And we are aware that in the process they are likely to experience their own periods of uncertainty as they continue to sort out the content of their own beliefs.

Our willingness to grapple and confront the challenges faced by the majority of klal Yisrael has clearly rattled some in the Orthodox world. They, in turn, have critiqued us, oftentimes harshly and unfairly.  We pray that we, nevertheless, listen to those critiques and when appropriate acknowledge our mistakes. We are traversing a less travelled path; there will inevitably be bumps in the road. While we strive to improve, we intend, however, to stay the course. We will continue to graduate students who make us proud in their mesiras nefesh for klal Yisrael and in their willingness to model genuine, modest, and honest grappling in the attempt to serve Ha’shem.

Religious wrestling is in our DNA. That is what our forbearer Yakov did (Genesis 32) and we carry on that torch. Yakov was scarred by his encounter with the angel and we sometimes get scarred as well. We will not, however, let these scars prevent us from responding to our calling to serve God and His people.   Ultimately our goal is to reach the day when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים (Isaiah 11:9; Maimonides Kings 12).

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair, Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School 

18 Responses to Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

  1. Yirmiyah Chegall says:

    R’ Katz: A bit too platitudinous and vague. Show us, please, what R’ Farber said and how it’s supported by Chazal and the Rishonim. Rav Gordimer was able to show the opposite. Eagerly awaiting your response.

  2. ST says:

    This argument would make sense if R’ Farber spoke about doubts. However, rather doing so, he spoke of numerous certainties (to him) – that Matan Torah did not occur, that Yetziat Mitzraim did not occur, that Avraham and Sarah did not exist, that any argument for unitary argument of chumash is intellectually dishonest, and so on. Doubts are legitimate, but it seems R’ Farber is past the stage of doubting, and simply doesn’t believe.

  3. Lisa says:

    Denying Matan Torah is not “struggling”. It’s kefirah, plain and simple. Saying that Avraham Avinu never existed, that the tribes of Israel were not descendants of Israel, that the Exodus never happened… this is kefirah. Not struggling. It doesn’t require “emunah peshutah” to refrain from kefirah. Particularly when the kofer in question is a leader in your movement.

    That you are defending him and not cutting him loose makes it clear that his views are considered acceptable in your movement. Please have the honesty to stop calling yourselves Orthodox. I’d say you aren’t fooling anyone, but if that were the case, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. You *are* fooling very many Jews, and the term choteh u-machti et ha-rabbim is not too strong.

    Not that I imagine you’ll allow this post to go through. I know your feelings about being criticized.

  4. jonathan says:

    I honestly have to agree with Lisa. I am a YU grad including part time RIETS but i wished i chose YCT for my semicha studies.

    As much as I support questions and struggles, bottom line is that all the collective writings of RZF have painted him as a heretic if normative orthodoxy is our guidepost.

  5. shmuel says:

    R’ Katz, I am sympathetic to the approach you outlined above. But I was shocked by the writings of your graduate. Can you please be explicit about the application of what you wrote to his specific writings and ideas? Direct answers to the following would be helpful in educating me and others in the community about YCT’s approach.

    Are you implying that when R. Farber wrote that the Torah has multiple authors, he was merely reaching out to or trying to educate a certain segment of Jewry in keeping with the training you gave him, but that he doesn’t actually believe such a thing?

    If the answer to the first question above is “no,” was R’ Farber “grappling” when he wrote that the Torah has multiple authors? If so, is it appropriate for a rabbi to make such grapplings public (by public I mean on the internet for all to see forever, not to share with certain individuals or groups in certain settings)?

    Is there a goal that after “grappling,” Jews (the rabbis you train and laypersons alike) reach certain beliefs? Or is grappling itself enough and what you are striving for?

    When you said that your path meets bumps in the road, did you mean that R’ Farber went too far, but that is an unfortunate result of the good work you do getting people to “grapple?” If not, what were you referring to?

    Do you think that R’ Farber’s views as stated in his article on multiple authorship and devarim are acceptable? Would you (or YCT) teach them OTHER than as a means of preparing rabbis for people’s questions?

    • Lisa says:

      His actual beliefs are there to see in his own words. For example:

      “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.”

      On Pesach, we read about the Rasha, who does nothing more than say “lecha”, rather than “li”. And yet we say that because he has removed himself from the community, he is a kofer.

      How can the above words (and the link is there, lest I be accused of taking him out of context) be seen as anything but far more severe than what the Rasha says?

      From the same essay:

      “I was once asked by a friend how I can go on being an Orthodox Jew when I believe that virtually all of the stories in the Torah are ahistorical.”

      And let’s please remember that he is not merely a graduate of YCT. He is the sole recipient of yadin yadin smicha from YCT. When he says something like this and YCT does not condemn him, they are supporting his position, whether they want to admit it or not.

      YCT can, if it so chooses, announce that while it is open to intellectual inquiry, and takes a pluralistic stance, there are nevertheless certain boundaries beyond which Orthodox Jews may not go. They can say, “We respect R’ Farber as we respect members of the Conservative and Reform movements, but like members of those movements, R’ Farber has placed himself outside of Orthodox Judaism. YCT does not accept his non-traditional views as being consonant with Orthodox Judaism.”

      But they won’t say that. Why? Because it wouldn’t be true.

  6. Asher Oser says:

    The example of Rav Kook is terribly flawed. Rav Kook had real and sometimes vicious opponents who were truly ba’alei mesorah. However, he also had countless genuine talmidei chachamim of the highest caliber who supported him. From the Imrey Eemes to Reb Chaim Ozer, Rav Kook was held by many in the highest esteem. True, like Rav Kook, YCT has real and sometimes vicious opponents who are truly ba’alei mesorah. The difference is that I see is that talmidei chachamim of the highest caliber have not rallied around YCT. The point about struggling with faith is correct and admirable.

    Asher Oser

  7. David Steicher says:

    “I find myself reacting differently than my colleagues and students. While many of them are disturbed and hurt by these critiques, I find myself smiling and feeling reassured. If we are being critiqued so harshly and so often it is a sign that we are doing something important and having an impact.”

    The early Reform expressed that exact same sentiment when the great Rabbis, the Chasam Sofer and others, attacked them viciously and consistently.

  8. Baruch Dov says:

    I join the previous commenters in expressing disappointment over this piece.

    YCT, please, tell us plainly and clearly: do you maintain that the Rambam’s 13 ikkarim are the parameters of Jewish faith or not? If you do, then you need to either express public disapproval of Rabbi Farber’s writings, or explain why his comments do not contradict the fundamentals of faith. And if you do not consider the 13 ikkarim the binding boundaries of Jewish dogma, then please come out clearly and say so.

    This article about the importance of grappling with the difficult philosophical issues is hiding behind the real question. We don’t disagree with the need to grapple. But you owe the Orthodox community a clear statement as to whether you subscribe the 13 ikkarim or not.

    • micha says:

      Even if they don’t…. Let’s say they agree with the argument made by R Melekh / Dr Marc Shapiro on The Limits of Orthodox Theology, and further believe that it has halachic import with regard to how we should rule today… Still, according to that opinion, the criterion is who is Shabbos observance, and what beliefs are necessary to logically justify that observance.

      A system of thought that starts with the idea that derashos are after-the-fact weak apologetics, and nothing to do with the Author’s Intent when writing the text, has no reason for me to believe that G-d indeed made a distinction between separating the seeds from the fruit or the other way around.

  9. Reb Yid says:

    They’re circling the wagons. They’re embarrassed by Farber but they can’t call him out on it because he’s their last great hope.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Judaism is all about the struggle. But when you put pen to paper, or type something on a blog- it becomes much more definite and the element of doubt and struggle is oftentimes lost on the reader. We must walk these paths with humility and as Rav Salanter put it, not everything that is thought should be written, and not everything written should be published for general consumption.

    • Avraham says:

      I must confess that I was deeply saddened by this letter of Rabbi Katz reflecting the response of the hanhala of YCT. Chazal tell us that one the three attributes that define our character as Jews is that we are “byshanim” meaning that we express appropriate humility. Unfortunately, this letter reflects the opposite mida as it smacks of arrogance.

      Do only the students at YCT grapple with difficult issues? What a insulting implication to the countless individuals who wrestle daily with the same challenges but retain their faith. Are there no other klei kadosh who have these discussions with their congregants and students other than your graduates?

      More profoundly, why is it that each time students or graduates of YCT struggle with an issue the “winner” is never Torah/Orthodoxy. The traditional viewpoint must accommodate Biblical Criticism, Homosexuality, Partnership Minyanim (all of which has been publicly argued by Rabbi Farber); is there ever a value that does not trump classic halacha?

      While I personally was excited about the initial creation of YCT each exposure I have to its students, teachers and famous graduates have left me convinced that the direction of the institution is away from Orthodoxy. When intense criticism is leveled from all quarters humility, and intellectual honesty, dictates intense introspection – not unbridled confidence.

      Finally, after penning an article depicting the courageous struggle of YCT’s administration and students, the least Rabbi Katz and his colleagues could do is to answer the questions posted on this site.

  11. […] the just-published article Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School , Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, head of the YCT Talmud […]

  12. LL says:

    Was once told that too much wordiness sounds like you are dodging something. Probably would have been better to simply say:

    “We do not agree with Rabbi Farber’s positon. We hold of Torah min Hashamayim”

    That would have done it!

  13. […] Ysoscher Katz wrote about the YCT educational philosophy at Rabbi Katz is Chair of Talmud at […]

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