A year after Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, assumed the helm of the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, promising to be bridge builder, he is facing a leadership challenge unprecedented in the history of the organization – or of most Jewish organizations.
In elections that are now taking place by electronic and mail ballot, the slate of officers now serving with him is being challenged by a slate of rabbis calling for “a stronger voice and greater clarity on the important issues facing the Orthodox, greater Jewish and non-Jewish communities.”
Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., is heading the opposition slate. He is running for the post of first vice president; if he wins he will be in line to succeed Goldin next year.
Goldin is not being challenged directly.
In the words (and capitalization) of a website put up by members of the challenging slate, “The Rabbinical Council of America is holding an historic election that will Determine the Future Course of Modern Orthodoxy in North America!”
“Though it has not been openly stated by the opposition board, they have in the past indicated a concern from what they perceive as a left wing drift – that we do not admit to,” Goldin said.
“Our position has been placing the RCA in the position it needs to be in the community as a whole, neither to the left nor the right, but taking a position on each issue as it arises and not having an agenda on either side.
“Some of the people running in the opposition slate are much more agenda-driven, and I think that will have deleterious effects on the organization,” he said.
Members of the opposition slate did not reply to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
The leadership challenge comes as Orthodoxy’s left wing has become louder and more self-assured in recent years. This has been seen in the founding and growth of the Yeshivat Chovevi Torah rabbinical school; the founding of “partnership” minyanim, where women are given expanded liturgical roles; the ordaining of a woman, though without the title of rabbi, by Rabbi Avi Weiss; and the public call by one liberal Orthodox rabbi to stop reciting the prayer thanking God “for not making me a woman.”
This has sparked reciprocal calls by some conservative members of the RCA for the organization to draw lines that would exclude some current members.
In their platform, the challengers call for the RCA “to lead in defining the acceptable boundaries of our vision of Orthodoxy. Specifically, we need to be a defining voice on the role of women and their involvement in liturgical and leadership roles, on the limits of acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle and of individuals drawn to it, on interfaith dialogue and services, on relations with non-Orthodox denominations, on reacting to ‘partnership’ and ‘egalitarian’ services, on various proposed changes in the liturgy.
“As the premier Orthodox rabbinic organization in North America, it is our sacred burden to provide definition and clarity.
“On so many critical issues, from the right of Jews to settle anywhere in the land of Israel, to the President of the United States embracing same-sex marriage, to the ongoing legal and societal challenges to the free practice of religion in this country, to Jerusalem remaining the unified capital of the Jewish state to Jonathan Pollard, the RCA has been too silent or too slow in responding publicly. We need to create mechanisms for the values and concerns of the Torah and the Orthodox community to be expressed broadly and publicly in the immediate aftermath of events and issues as they arise.”
For his part, Goldin cites an RCA statement on homosexuality last year as an example of the organization taking policy stands.
The statement reiterated opposition to “the practice of homosexuality” and same-sex unions.
It explicitly stated no position on the question of “reparative therapy” ““ the idea that people can be “cured” of same-sex attraction.
It was a consensus document, in effect an effort to find common ground between two dueling statements on homosexuality issued by different groups of modern Orthodox rabbis.
A conservative statement from some members of the RCA, some members of the charedi organization Agudath Israel of America, and many rabbis connected to Chabad-Lubavitch insisted that “We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire.”
In other words, “Change is possible and mandated by the Torah.”
This garnered the signature of one of the challengers, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck.
This contrasted with a more liberal statement, drafted by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom congregation and the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical seminary. This statement, while rejecting “practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood,” noted that “most of the mental health community, many rabbis, and most people with a homosexual orientation feel that some of these therapies are either ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically for many patients.
“We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”
Golden is among the rabbis who signed the liberal letter; he is the only member of the RCA’s current leadership to have done so. So did Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s newly appointed executive director.
A fourth statement was posted in December 2011, after Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who got smicha from Yeshiva University and still considers himself Orthodox, performed what he described as a same-sex Orthodox wedding.
“We strongly object to this desecration of Torah values and to the subsequent misleading reportage,” this statement said. “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.”
It was signed by only one member of the current RCA leadership, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, the Southeast vice president, and almost all of the slate of challengers signed it.
As a group, the challengers have a higher internet profile than do the incumbents they would replace.